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Akurana's greatest scholar lived in a hamlet called Kashawatta

The need for an Arabic Institute of Higher Learning

by S. M. Haniffa

The national Meelaad-un-Nabi celebration will take place in Akurana on Sunday, October 13, 2001. It is in the fitness of things that this national event is held this year. Akurana has always been recognised as a place where men of high learning had lived and served their fellow-men. In the nineteenth century, Akurana's greatest scholar lived in a hamlet called Kashawatta. This small village became known the world over thereafter, as that sage came to be called Kashawatta Aalim Appa. His real name was Sheikh Muhammed bin Ahamed Aalim As Seylani.

Kashawatta Aalim Appa was born in 1829 as the fourth child of the renowned scholar of that time, Ahamed Lebbe Aalim, son of Sulaiman Aalim Sheikh Muhammed had two elder brothers, one elder sister and three younger sisters. The elder brothers also qualified themselves as theologians. Sheikh Muhammed proceeded to Kayalapattanam in South India at a young age and spent ten years learning Arabic and religions in all aspects.

The two well-known centres of Arabic learning in India at the time were Kayalpattana and Kilakkarai. He studied in both centres, under celebrated scholars. His contemporaries also became well-qualified and well-known scholars.

Full devotion

On returning home, he devoted himself fully to the spreading of his learning. He had travelled far and wide including places like Kahatowita and Alutgama. This was no easy task then. He met learned men and sagas in those places and placed the benefits of his learning before them.

In his native region, he had gone on foot, to most places. There is evidence of his visits to Matale, Ukuwela, Kandy, Galhinna and Kadugannawa. There was no easy mode of transport, then. He walked afar to impart the knowledge of Islamics and organised schools called Madrasas for the teaching of religion and reading the Qur'an.

In his home, he provided free board and lodging to those who were eager to learn Arabic and become Aalims (learned men in theology). This is said to be the first school for the teaching of Arabic, in this country. After he set up this school, called Arabic madrasa in the mid-1850s, other such schools were came up around two or three decades later, in Weligama and Galle.

He also served as the Chief Imam (officiating priest) of the Grand Mosque of Akurana, during his lifetime, until his last day. He passed away on the nineteenth day of the month of Ramzan, in 1893, at the age of sixty three and was buried close to the mosque in which he served.

His scholarly works written in his own hand in Arabic and Arabic-Tamil, bound and illustrated by him are still extant, held by his grandchildren's children.

Highly respected

Kashawatta Aalim Appa was highly respected among scholars of that period. When he went to Mecca, to perform the pilgrimage, he had taken part in a seminar attended by several men of great learning, from various countries. His contribution towards the success of the seminar was highly appreciated, by the others. They praised him for his meticulous attention to detail, without any books or notes. This went to show that he had read earlier, on his own, various volumes on the topics discussed long before the seminar took place, with no intention of taking part in any discussion. Those gathered conferred on him the title 'Seyyadul Ulema' (leader of scholars). The other participants were themselves highly qualified scholars and from different parts of the world.

This honour was reflected locally, when those who came to know of it referred to Akurana as 'siru makkam' (little Mecca). That was because Akurana's men were mostly scholars, highly respected.