Living among the locals

How an Egyptian revolutionary impacted the Sri Lankan Muslim community


Ahmed Orabi, aka Orabi Pasha (1841-1911)

Colonel Ahmed Orabi Pasha was an Egyptian nationalist, revolutionary, and army leader back in 1881. 

A figure that would later on serve as an inspiration to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Orabi led a social-political movement that expressed the discontent of the Egyptian educated classes, army officials, and peasantry with foreign control. His influence and ideologies culminated in the revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of khedive Tewfik Pasha in 1879.

Threatened by Orabi’s rising popularity, khedive Tewfik asked the French and British for help, who went on to stage a naval demonstration in the bay of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Riots in these ports followed and the British fleet bombarded the area in July of 1882.

As the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, Orabi organized the resistance and proclaimed the khedive a traitor.

However, his army was defeated at Tall al-Kabīr on September 13 of that year. Shortly thereafter, Orabi was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to death.

British intervention, however, reduced the sentence to exile in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then known, from 1883 up until 1901, after which he was allowed to return to Egypt.

During the 18 years of exile in Sri Lanka, Orabi became a local hero, influencing the Sri Lankan Muslim community in various ways. This side of the island is barely known; I would have never known about it myself had it not been for my long stay in the country.

1. He introduced the Fez

When an esteemed Egyptian leader like Orabi was seen wearing the red fez, a growing number of local Muslims started mimicking his wardrobe. By the time he left Sri Lanka, the fez had already been adopted by local communities. Later in 1905, when when Muslim advocate Ibrahim Adaham Abdul Cader was asked to take the fez off before the High Court, the local Muslim community felt deeply disrespected. The ruling was eventually withdrawn to avoid ethnic conflict.

2. His house was turned into a museum and a street was named after him

Orabi’s residence in the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka‘s Uphill Country was a meeting point for the island’s Muslim intellectuals, other members of the small exiled Egyptian community in Sri Lanka, and the many foreign visitors who were keen to meet the famous Egyptian rebel.

With the encouragement of the Sri Lankan government, the Egyptian Embassy purchased the house in 1983 and turned it into the Orabi Pasha Museum and Culture Center. A few years later, the government also decided to rename a street after him, the Orabi Pasha Street in Maradana, Colombo.

3. He established the first Muslim school

At the time, formal Arabic teaching was non-existent in Sri Lanka, and local Muslims could not read the Quran, or the Holy Scripture, in its language of origin.

When leading Muslim intellectuals expressed concerns regarding this, Orabi, with no other option but to register his own children in English schools, stressed the importance of Arabic and Islamic teachings. Thus, it was under his patronage that a local philanthropist founded the first Muslim school in 1892, Zahira College in Colombo.

4. He left his daughters behind

Orabi married a Sri Lankan woman whom he had children with. While his half-Sri Lankan sons returned with him to Egypt, the girls were left behind.

According to a published interview with his family, one of his Sri Lankan descendants, Ibrahim Ansar, served as the country’s ambassador to Egypt for some time.

5. He created political unity

Orabi’s stay in Sri Lanka changed the local Muslim community in many ways.

Prior to his arrival, the local Muslims were torn between two identities: the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil.

He brought them together under one united voice.

This impacted their community on a spiritual level but also helped them in winning seats in parliament later when Sri Lanka gained independence from Great Britain.

Click here for an original version of this article

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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