A M SHERIFF of Kattankudy
The Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is the most thickly populated Muslim area in the whole Island. To these Muslims, “ILM” (knowledge) meant the study of Arabic and Tamil, which was their mother language. A few Muslims from this region also studied English and AM Sheriff was one of them. Besides mastering the Arabic and Tamil languages he also studied higher English and qualified as a Proctor of the Courts.
In 1890, Colombo was in need of Muslim lawyers and Sheriff was invited to settle in the capital and complied with the request. In 1899, the Mohammedan seat in the Legislative Council fell vacant and at that time ZH Mantara, a Malay, had been enrolled in as an Advocate. Muslims divided into three groups and supported the candidature of the above, with the third being BW Bawa, for the seat in the Legislative Councul. Bawa was the son of Ahmadu Bawa, a Galle Muslim, who qualified as a Proctor and was practicing in Kegalle and Badulla Courts. He had written a paper on the Marriage Customs iof the Moors which was sent for publication to the Royal Asiatic Society Journal. The theory of Ahmadu Bawa was that the Moors did not know whom they married until the bridegroom was led into the bridal chambers and that there was no courting or dating before marriage. The view of Moors is that they love the girl they marry, known or unknown, rather than marry the girl they love.
Ahmadu Bawa’s wife, mother of BW Bawa, was a European lady and hence there was no wholehearted support for BW Bawa. As for ZH Mantara, the argument raised against him was that he was only a young rising Proctor from a small minority Malay group within the Muslim community.
AM Sheriff was well versed in Tamil and his knowledge of Arabic was much above the regular average Arabic speaking Alims of that era. He was on par with MC Siddi Lebbe in many ways. He had access to Arabic works of eminent theologians and jurists of the Muslims of the past. He was in touch with the publications issued from Cairo, Egypt and Turkey. He made a comparative study of all the various sects in Islam. He also conducted religious classes at Sheikh Abdul Cader’s (Bakala Sahib) house at Old Moor Street in Colombo.
Sheriff’s candidature for the vacant Mohammedan seat in the Legislative Council was found acceptable and the Government nominated him. He was given a large house at Grandpass and a carriage driven by two horses and sometimes even four horses in order to attend the Council meetings and other official duties. Owing to ill health he gave up his duties in Colombo and returned to Batticaloa in 1900.