Reading the Star of Islam
17 July 2019
The story of a Ceylonese press on the cusp of World War II.
Maritime trade routes passing through the ports of Sri Lanka helped spur the growth of pan-Islamic consciousness within the island’s Muslim communities. Researcher and historian Ronit Ricci marks the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 as a keystone event which eased the Hajj pilgrimage route from Southeast Asia to Mecca, with many pilgrim ships docking at ports in what was then British Ceylon. Moreover, the colonial experience of religious repression, the arrival of Arab political exiles, and the emergence of the press as a tool for religious and cultural assertion arguably intensified the appeal of pan-Islamic identity for Ceylon’s Muslims. Increasingly emphasised by Muslim-owned presses across Asia, this pan-Islamic discourse emerged in a local press that briefly engaged readers well beyond the island’s shores.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of publications by Ceylonese Muslims began to be circulated around the island. These included newspapers like Alamat Langkapuri (which was published the same year the Suez Canal was opened) and Wajah Selong (Light of Ceylon) from the Malay community, and Muslim Nesan (Muslim Friend) and The Ceylon Mohammadan by the Moor community. These distinctions among the island’s Muslim people had been shaped by ancestry, linguistic and cultural practice, and colonial state classification.
The complete archives of the Star of Islam – an English-language weekly which ran every Saturday from July 1939 to September 1940 – was rediscovered by researchers in September 2018 in the archives of the Sri Lanka Malay Association in Slave Island, Colombo. The location is not far from Glennie Street, where the paper’s press once stood. Maas Juragan Majid is the custodian of the archive, a former president of the Sri Lankan Malay Association and namesake of the Star of Islam’s founding editor, his uncle. Majid’s timeworn yet meticulously preserved collection of his uncle’s newspaper offer a unique glimpse into an era when pan-Islamic political consciousness was a rising phenomenon across Asia and Africa.
Spirituality and connected readership
The Star of Islam was founded by lawyer Maas Juragan Majid, who also edited the weekly throughout its short-lived publication, until his untimely death at the age of 33 in April 1940. He was succeeded by Enver C Ahlip, who was the editor until the weekly ceased publication. A prominent member of the Malay community, Majid had, in December 1927, led a delegation by the Kandy Malay Club and Malay Association before the Donoughmore Commission – established to set up a new constitution with universal adult franchise – to lobby for a Malay seat in the Legislative Council. Majid had argued that the Malays and the largely Tamil-speaking Moors shared the faith of Islam, but were not one race; and that the former’s smaller number would make it impossible for a Malay candidate to have a say in a combined Muslim electorate. Affirmation of the uniqueness of Malay identity continued in Majid’s weekly, though it also carried writings that promoted pan-Muslim unity in Ceylon and abroad.
The Star of Islam was distributed from over fifteen locations across Ceylon. The weekly’s readership also reached a remarkable span across the globe. International subscribers to the Star of Islam included readers from the Subcontinent, Singapore, England, France, Australia, Japan and “Africa and many Muslim lands”, as the editor describes. News of the subscription of Princess Halim from Egypt to the Star of Islam, and letters of appreciation from readers from America to Japan, were featured in the newspaper. One subscriber, L Glick (Yusuf Selim Ismail), praises the Star of Islam from a far outpost of missionary Islam, in California. He describes “the spiritual sustenance so generously served” by the translations of Khutbah sermons of the Friday Muslim congregation that brought “the spirit of great mosques” to people with no mosques. Glick goes on to compare Star of Islam to Singapore’s Genuine Islam as exceptions to the trend of intolerance and censorship in global Muslim publications.
Popular topics of discussion within the columns of the Star of Islam were spiritual life, lessons and anecdotes of saints. The impact of the Aligarh educational movement from British India was particularly significant among Muslim reformers and intellectuals in Ceylon. In September 1940, the weekly carried a three-part article titled ‘The Story of Aligarh’ authored by M Mohamed, a Ceylonese alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University. The views of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded the Aligrah movement to modernise education for Muslim men and women, were influential among Ceylonese Muslim intellectuals.
Social life in the 1940s
The pages of Star of Islam offer an interesting insight into the social life and current affairs of Ceylonese Muslims in the inter-war period. Advertisements in particular paint a vivid picture of upper-class Muslim lifestyle in 1940s Colombo. The ads depicted men in tailored suits and watches in the Pettah bazaar, smoking Three Lions cigarettes – advertised as a first-rate swadeshi product made by hundred percent Ceylonese labour. Elite families were enticed to dine at The Blue Star café – the only Moorish café in Ceylon to run on “modern western lines” – and at Pilawoos, where “the cream of society gather”. These advertisements speak of and to an elite readership.
In contrast, social and economic issues faced by the mass of poorer Malay and Moor communities were also discussed in the pages of the weekly. Notices of mass meetings were featured and attention given to issues of poverty driving a section of Muslim children to the streets of Colombo. To the present day, Muslims in Sri Lanka are stereotyped as a wealthy trading community. While this is true of a certain section of the Muslim community, it ignores the reality of many Muslims being cultivators (notably in the Eastern Province) or part of the urban working class (notably in the city of Colombo). An article by M H Amit published in April 1940 urges the All Ceylon Malay Association and Muslim League to look beyond major towns and pay urgent attention to labour unrest, mass unemployment and the illiteracy of Muslims in the tea-estates of the hill country – particularity Malay assistants to superintendents. No response to this article is recorded in the weekly’s archives. However, the writer, Amit, would go on to represent the United National Party in the Parliament in 1989.
The Star of Islam also carried a regular column on women’s affairs, authored by Ceylonese women writers, who discussed women’s roles in society, education, etiquette and spiritual wellbeing. It also covered the activities of the Ladies Unions in Colombo, which worked largely toward developing education for girls in the city. Figures like Princess Esma, the great granddaughter of the late Sultan Abdel Kader of Algeria, who was a scholar of six languages and a student at the University of Sorbonne, France, were portrayed as inspirations to women in the Muslim world. In the pages of the Star of Islam, women were no less vocal than men in debates on education, science and spirituality.
Muslim Unity and World War II
On 2 September 1939, Just a day after Germany’s invasion of Poland and the formal outbreak of World War II, the Star of Islam carried an article titled ‘The Present International Crisis’, in which a section of Ceylonese Muslims declares their readiness to “stake everything in defence of [the British] Empire”. Ceylon’s Muslim elites connected Britain’s safety and prestige to their own and fully pledged their encouragement and support. On the war front, the Star of Islam did not carry critique or dissenting voices as in relation to the empire. Instead, regular columns on war-time ethics, the correct usage of a sword, Islamic justice and contributions to the science of war appeared in the paper during this period.
Ceylonese Muslim support for the British Empire had unique connotations for the Malay community, who were treated by colonial powers as a martial race. Published in September 1939, an article titled ‘The Ceylon Malays – A Martial Race: Descendants of Princes and Warriors’ by Z D Musafer describes the Malays of yore as dreaded pirates, whose valour was admired by ancient Sinhalese kings, as well as the colonial Dutch and British, who employed Malay regiments. The publication of the article corresponds with the day Malay representatives urged the Governor of Ceylon to re-establish a Malay regiment which had been disbanded in 1873. Musafer himself echoes this request, concluding that the realisation of this dream rests in the laps of the “Gods of Whitehall”. A March 1940 report re-printed from the All-Ceylon Malay Association concludes that although endeavors to form a regiment on the lines of a Malay Regiment did not come to pass, many members of the Malay community remaining in the military service would act: “When the bugle call for service overseas is sounded we shall in the martial spirit of our ancestors rally round the British flag”.
Support of the British Empire was also packaged with a message of pan-Muslim unity in the face of an existential threat to Muslim identity. The front page of the very same issue carried an article by Mufti Dr Jakub Szynkiewicz titled ‘Muslims in Poland – Their Conditions and Requirements’. Mufti Szynkiewicz was the first Mufti of Poland and oversaw the resettlement and legal status of Polish Muslims in the newly independent Poland in 1925. In his article, Szynkiewicz wrote of the World War I experience of Muslims in the northern parts of Poland who lost out on religious education over successive generations. Drawing connections to home, the mufti explains that despite wars and displacements for over five centuries, Polish Muslims have managed to consolidate themselves as a “Muslim island amidst the Christian Ocean”. He suggests the same be done for the survival of Ceylonese Muslims during World War II. To this end, he suggests co-operation among the Muslim fraternity.
The question of Palestine
While the Star of Islam maintained steadfast support of the British Empire in its coverage of World War II, one point of contention was the question of Palestine, on which outspoken writers expressed views that directly challenged Britain. News of developments in Palestine were communicated to Ceylon via English-language reports from West Asian and other sources like the Cairo-based Almisri. These provide an unexpected glimpse into an area of intensifying political debate that connected students, activists and journalists from geographically separated – though spiritually connected – communities.
Many of the articles on Palestine republished by the Star of Islam emphasise Palestinian Arab loyalty to democracies and to Britain, in the context of the emerging war. This is despite the proliferation of Nazi, fascist and anti-Jewish propaganda in Palestine, to which an article in the Star of Islam attributes the rise in sporadic violent outbreaks by extremist elements. Articles by the Student Movement of Palestine, republished from IAI Ghad magazine, decry British attempts to control all democratic movements by labelling them communist, while fascist propaganda went unchecked.
Pro-British and anti-Axis feeling among Palestinian Arabs was however, accompanied by the reprinting of articles which emphasised Arab demands for an honourable solution to the ‘Palestine Problem’. Several issues of the Star of Islam carry views of writers who challenged Britain on this political question. For sources like Almisiri, granting full independence to Arabs was seen as the only equitable solution – one that the British may not be ready to deliver. While little is reported of action toward the cause of Palestine from Ceylon, the extent of coverage given to Palestine speaks of an interest – by the editor and the readership – in anti-colonial struggles, decolonisation and political representation for Muslims.
Political representation and the press
By the late 1930s, the growth of the press in Southasia had emerged as a key tool for anti-colonial dissent and articulations of national and subnational visions of self-determination. The Star of Islam seemed to recognise this current when it reprinted, from the Deccan Times, a report by the Premier of Bengal A K Fazlul Huq who urged Muslims to agitate for their political demands through a strong and vocal press. To raise fund for this end, Huq proposed a joint stock company, arguing that no amount of “Viceroy-cum-Gandhi-cum-Jinnah talks will bring salvation to the Muslim community”.
Less than a year later, in May 1940, Ceylonese Justice M T Akbar, under the auspices of the Literary Branch of the All-Ceylon Malay Association, delivered a speech titled ‘Position of Muslims Defined’, the text of which was published in the Star of Islam. In the speech Akbar claimed to speak for the Malays and Moors of Ceylon, seeking adequate representation in the State Council under the ‘Muslim’ banner. Echoing Fazlul Huq, he too raised the demand of a dedicated press to address Ceylonese Muslim affairs, such as the preservation of Muslim culture and the increase in Muslim representation in the government service. Notably, Akbar wrote a column for the weekly and he identified it as the publication that could take the goal of representation forward. Steps were being taken at this time to form a limited liability company, with moderate capital, to acquire the Star of Islam, which would additionally provide employment to educated Muslim youth.
Existing records point to the Star of Islam ceasing publication on 14 September 1940. However, a notice carried in the final volume announces that, on the request of readers, the next issue of the weekly would run in English and in Tamil separately. The story of the bilingual Star of Islam, if indeed any issues were ever published, remains to be discovered. Yet even in its short run the weekly did record debates on Muslim identity from a colonial port city at a time of imperial domination, raging world war and emerging national liberation struggles. It also chronicled the rising appeal of pan-Islamic unity, and the dissatisfaction of Ceylonese Muslim intellectuals with the state of their imagined community at home and abroad.
~Open access to digitised volumes of the Star of Islam (forthcoming) will be hosted by the South Asia Open Archive (SAOA) through a digitisation initiative between the Sri Lanka Malay Association, American Institute for Lankan Studies and SAOA.
~Ramla Wahab-Salman is the Associate Director – Programming at the American Institute for Lankan Studies. She is a researcher in the field of history with interests in urban history and Islam in Southasia.