Benevolent Sultan & Sri Lankan Muslims

As the countrys first Muslim Civil servant, A.M.A.Azeez (The West Re-appraised.1964) observed: Every major event of Sultan Abdul Hamids reign was followed closely and discussed feelingly in all important gatherings, social and religious. His name was used weekly in mosques during the Friday sermons and thereby was he sentimentally associated with the Four Pious Caliphs. His picture, usually printed in Germany, adorned prominently the house of many a Muslim in nearly all the important towns. A disproportionate amount of space was devoted to the events of the Turkish Empire and incidents connected with her ruler in the pamphlets and periodicals that were in circulation among the Muslims. Wealthy merchants ignorant of the English language purchased books to acquire, through paid interpreters, knowledge of the sultans and their doings. Infants and institutions were called after the name of the Sultan. Of this Hameedia School of Colombo, which has since survived several of its contemporaries, is a good example. It commemorates the Silver Jubilee of the Sultan which was celebrated locally with great clat in towns and mosques.

M.M.M.Mahroof, another well known local Muslim historian has this to say in his contribution to the Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka (1986): One curious characteristic of the ordinary Muslim in Sri Lanka (until quite recent times) was an emotional attachment to the Sultan of Turkey. This was only a mental figuration and did not (as the ordinary Muslims were not much educated) have any reference to the actual occupant of the Topkapi. The actual diplomatic, economic and historical role of the Sultan of Turkey did not concern the ordinary Muslims at that time. What mattered to them was the existence, strictly in the minds eye, of a powerful and benevolent sultan who was a great leader. Mahroof also notes that well into the 1950s, a number of Muslim eating houses in Colombo and other places exhibited framed pictures of the Sultan and his courtiers. There also flourished from the latter part of the 19thcentury until the first half of the 20th century, the Muslim folk art of painting on glass. A favourite subject was a fauvistic delineation of warships with very large Turkish flags.

Thus we would find that the memory of the Sultan among local Muslims far outlived his lifetime and indeed of the caliphate which was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924. Indeed, the issue of the caliphate was a very sensitive issue among local Muslims and caused much distrust between them and the colonial authorities, particularly after the conclusion of World War 1 when the Turkish Empire was in danger of being dismembered by the British and French. For instance, they are known to have had a mass meeting in Colombo in January 1920 where they passed a resolution protesting against the contemplated dismemberment of the Turkish Empire.

Cultural influences

Among the hangovers from the days of the Turkish Sultans is the widespread use of the Star and Crescent symbol among local Muslims. The emblem has traditionally figured in the domes and interiors of mosques and even in Muslim eating houses. It is commonly regarded as the symbol of the Islamic faith despite the fact that it gained currency in the Muslim world only after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.

Another cultural item borrowed from Turkey is the Fez cap which was very commonly worn by Moor gentlemen in the olden days and still figures as the traditional headgear of the Moor bridegroom. The headgear is still known among the Moors as Turukki Toppi or Turkish hat and it is evident that this headgear caught on here as a result of Turkish influence. It is generally believed that it was the famous Egyptian nationalist leader Arabi Pasha who was exiled to the island by the British in 1883 who introduced the Fez. Ponnambalam Arunachalam in his Census of Ceylon 1902 states that the presence of the Egyptian militant Arabi Pasha and his fellow Egyptian exiles in Ceylon has had the effect of stirring up the Moorish community and has led to the adoption of the dress of European Turks.

What must also be borne in mind is that the Fez was the head-dress of the Turkish Sultan, which would have given it added importance in the eyes of local Muslims. This Fez had by the turn of the last century come to be considered as a symbol of Muslim identity as is suggested by the so-called Fez Controversy of 1905-1906 when a noted Moor Advocate M.C.Abdul Cader was prohibited from entering court with the Fez. This act of the colonial regime was considered an insult to the Muslims and particularly the Moors who considered this headgear as their own, and resulted in intensive agitation and massive demonstrations in Colombo and in other parts of the island. These massive protests had their desired effect, for it was not long before the British relented and removed the ban on the Fez.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.