It is sad to note that Dr M. A. M. Shukri, a doyen among Sri Lankan Muslim intellectuals had passed away this morning at a ripe age of 80. He remained a towering personality as a scholar par excellence, a thought provoking orator, author of manifold books, a promoter of (Tasawwuf) mysticism studies, and an academic administrator. He pioneered along with his promoter late M. Naleem Hajiar a novel Islamic educational institution, namely the Jamiah Naleemiah Institute situated in China Fort, Beruwela. Its aim is to produce new generation spiritual scholars but grounded in modern education of arts and sciences.
Born in 1940 and hailing from Matara, Shukri became an alumni of Colombo Zahira College, from where he entered Peradeniya University. He read a special degree in Arabic Studies under the erudite guidance and the sole student of renowned Professor S. A. Imam. Having obtained a First class Honours degree, he enrolled as a Commonwealth scholar at the Edinburgh University where he obtained an acclaimed Ph.D thesis supervised of the famous Oriental Islamic scholar, Montgomery Watt.
Starting his academic career as a lecturer in Arabic and later becoming the head of the department at Peradeniya University and Kelaniya University (1977-83) , Dr Shukri’s academic career took a diversion as he joined hands with Naleem Hajiar to found and lead the Naleemiah Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies where he remained as its director until his demise. While in Naleemiah, his lasting contribution was his role as a general editor of the volume on “the Muslims of Sri Lanka: Avenues to antiquity” which was but a collection of research papers presented at an international conference on Sri Lanka Muslim History (1984) by the then acclaimed scholars including Prof K.M. De Silva, C.R.de Silva, Professor K. Indrapala, Professor M, Mahroof and many others. Haji A. J. M. Zaneer was the one who coordinated the entire conference and finally its publication was taken over by Dr Shukri himself in place of Professor Kingsley de Silva who was nominated as its first editor.
Ideally Dr Shukri should have donned the accolade of a world class Professor in Arabic Studies because of his high intellect and research capability, but his association with the Naleemiah, although brought umpteen benefits to budding Islamic scholars, digressed him into the path of academic administration. As such he never could return to the academia including his university in Peradeniya as a rightful full Professor. Had this been accomplished, no doubt he would be ranked among world’s leading Muslim scholars like Al Qardavi and others.
Dr Shukri’s thought capabilities are to be gleaned in a number of books he penned in Tamil especially in regard to Mysticism Studies and Islamic philosophy. He wrote also short biography of late Naleem Hajiar in which he expounded how his ideals have coalesced with the Hajiar in developing this premier institution. Apart from this, one would have expected him to pursue much path breaking research into the origins of Sri Lankan Muslims and continue to delve more deeply and publish Sri Lankan Muslim History as his teacher Prof S. A. Imam did.
Aside from other intellectual activities, Dr Shukri’s forte was in the art of oratory, especially in Tamil. As an undergraduate student in Peradeniya, he won the first place in the campus wide Navalar memorial oratorical contest 1963which brought him to lime light among the Tamil speakers. In the 1960s and 70s and perhaps even long after that he was the most sought after speaker in the island wide Meelad meetings (Commemoration of the Prophet birthday). His audience were always kept spellbound by the power of his presentation and skill ful oratory by expounding the Prophet’s greatness. A natural linguist, Dr Shukri was equally adept in communicating in English and more importantly in Arabic. Once in the Middle east he was mistaken for an Arab because of his native fluency in Arabic. More often than not he accompanied Naleem Hajiar and became his interpreter in his many tours to the Middle east to meet scholars and raise funds for the upkeep of Naleemiah.
He had held membership in several academic bodies such as Post-graduate Institute of Archaeology, University Council of Southeastern University, National Council of UNESCO and also a member of the Federation of the Universities of Islamic World. He had made significant contributions to meeting focused in interfaith dialogue. He has attended many international conferences and participated in national conferences presenting his findings. His research articles have appeared in some world Muslim Journals such as Hamdard.
In later years physically he was rendered a little weaker due to health issues which unfortunately limited his ability in pursuing his research interest fully and publication activities. But he continued to meet and offer advice to other budding scholars. Many are those who have benefitted from his knowledge and guidance which was encyclopedic -to say the least- due to his extensive reading of Arabic texts and sources.
Many young Sri Lanka Muslim scholars hold him in high esteem and see him as a role model in their pursuit of Islamic knowledge and learning. I am astounded by the sincere feelings expressed by young people in all over the social media as if they lost their own father. For example today’s Facebook carries overwhelming appreciation from many young Muslim scholars.
Indeed Dr Shukri’s demise is going to leave a huge void in Islamic learning and scholarship for years to come. More so because the Sri Lanka community is slowly losing its coterie of a handful of truly Muslim educationists who are becoming scarcer nowadays. It is true that we have competent doctors, engineers, computer scientists and business managers and others but it is critical that our community also needs thinkers and functional intellectuals in the same wake. What we lack is original thinkers, researchers, publishers, writers to produce and disseminate knowledge
Dr Shukri will have a permanent place in the Muslim historiography of Sri Lanka. And his legacy would perpetuate for many years to come.