By R. Wijewardene
Rahuman Masjid Mosque in Beruwala devotees were
celebrating the annual Buhari feast/alms giving as they
had done for over 130 years. Dozens of salvers of
celebratory food including meat and vegetable dishes
were to be distributed among the community.
Shortly after the festivities began however men armed
with knives and axes stormed the mosque and attacked
those within. Yelling that all those participating in
the feast were infidels who had deviated from the path
of Islam, the attackers set upon the worshippers dousing
the mosque with petrol and eventually starting a
conflagration that would see millions of rupees worth of
damage done to the mosque.
than any financial loss however two men were killed,
brutally hacked to death in the violence. A curfew was
imposed in the area and some of the perpetrators were
arrested though it is alleged that as a result of
political connections the leaders of the attack were
able to escape.
brutal and deadly violence was allowed to mar an ancient
celebration is shocking; however what’s genuinely
startling is that in this case the conflict was not
between Muslims and non Muslims, or between different
sects of Islam, but rather Friday’s violence was driven
by differences in ideology/ two strands of thought,
within Sri Lanka’s orthodox Sunni Muslim community.
Muslims like other Muslims in South and South East Asia
have subscribed to what to outsiders appeared to be a
liberal interpretation of what is often portrayed as a
harsh and austere faith. Surrounded by Buddhists, Hindus
and Christians and isolated for hundreds of years Sri
Lankan Muslims seemed to have softened some of Islam’s
Traditionally Sri Lankan Muslim women did not wear the
veil, and Muslim places of pilgrimage such as Adams
Peak, Kataragama existed along side the holy sites of
the island’s other religions. At the Dematagoda mosque
in Colombo devotees would light lamps and rub oil on
themselves in ceremonies reminiscent of Hindu or
Buddhist rituals. And in fact the Dematagoda mosque
continues to attract devotees of every religion.
almost idyllic brand of tolerant Islam, a world a way
from the restrictive, fundamentalism now prevalent in
Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, has succeeded in coexisting
with the island’s other religions for almost a 1000
However this traditional brand of Islam – the ancient
practices of this island’s Muslim community, now finds
itself under attack. Not from adherents of other
religions but from within the Muslim community.
last decades have seen Sri Lanka’s Muslims travel widely
and migrate in great numbers to the Middle East where
they have been exposed to the Islam practiced nearer the
birth place of the religion in the Arabian Desert. Here
they discover that some Sri Lankan Muslim
practices differ from the rituals endorsed by orthodox
Middle Eastern Sunnis.
Prophet Mohamed’s birthday for example is not celebrated
in Saudi Arabia however it is a traditional festival for
a wall has been built around the Prophet’s tomb to
prevent pilgrims worshipping at the site, as strict
Sunni orthodoxy holds that only God should be an object
Lankan Muslims like Muslims in India and Indonesia have
always supplemented this pure monotheism with the
worship of saints — holy-men who in life performed great
deeds and noble acts that benefited the faith. Many Sri
Lankan Muslims believe that worshiping these saints can
help them win favours from Allah.
However devotion to/ the worship of saints is frowned on
in Saudi Arabia and as more Sri Lankan Muslims travel to
the Middle East or attend religious schools financed by
Middle Eastern countries a Saudi influenced ‘purer’ form
of Islam has gained popularity among many Sri Lankan
of the country’s Muslims now openly distance themselves
from traditional mosque feasts and the worship of
saints. And there are some within the Muslim community
who now find traditional customs prevalent among Sri
Lankan Muslims — the worship of saints, the liberal
attitude towards the veil, alcohol consumption, etc.
Organised groups like the Thawjeed who are accused of
perpetrating the Beruwala mosque attack have emerged.
These groups are violently opposed to several
traditional practices – including the worship of saints
and feasts and find support in the theology endorsed by
senior scholars in Saudi Arabia and other centers of
Thawjeed claim that the religious practices of most Sri
Lankan Muslims are impure, tinged with superstition and
mystical rituals and they are determined to make Sri
Lanka’s Muslim community conform to more orthodox
strictures and they are clearly prepared to use violence
to achieve their ends. For weeks before the Buhari
festival they had issued threats to the Rahuman mosque
urging community leaders to call off the festival.
I was young perhaps 20 or 30 years ago – you never saw
Muslim women wearing the veil. At most some women draped
their saris over their heads – certainly the black abaya
was unknown — it is completely alien to Sri Lankan
Muslims, but today more and more women are wearing not
only the veil but even the abaya,” said Faraz, a Muslim
we were younger we went to mosque feasts, the tombs of
saints and attended ceremonies at the Dematagoda mosque
but later we were told this was wrong and against Islam.
Some of my family stopped going but others still do.
Those who have stopped put pressure on those who
continue to attend feasts and visit tombs saying that
those who do attend are bad Muslims,” claimed Fathima, a
young Muslim from Colombo.
tension that is now tearing apart Muslim communities
across Sri Lanka centers on that single question who is
and who is not a ‘good Muslim.’
sense it is a purely ideological disagreement with
conflict between different points of view within the
same religion – however this is far more than a merely
academic dispute. As the attacks in Beruwala have
revealed, underlying this theological dispute is a
thinly suppressed violence. Two people died in the
mosque attack and over 40 were injured.
Tension between traditional and more fundamentalist
groups now exists in Muslim communities across the
country. Recently shrines to saints were vandalised in
Matale and violent clashes between Muslim groups were
reported in the area. According to Muslim community
leaders and groups this violence contradicts the
fundamental teachings of Islam.
Religion of peace
is a religion of peace, whatever differences these
groups have should be settled peacefully,” claimed
Chairman, Sri Lanka Muslim Council, Mr. Ameen.
if these problems stem from foreign, particularly Saudi
Arabian funding for fundamentalist groups, he answered,
“its not just money from abroad it’s a question of
learning. Young people are now studying texts and
questioning traditional practices; there’s nothing wrong
with that but using violence to convince those who don’t
agree with you is simply unacceptable.”
According to Dr. Shukri, an academic specializing in
Islamic theology, “the problem is one of interpretation.
Now that the disagreement has grown violent however it
is imperative that the Ulama — a council of Muslim
leaders, takes a stand and help the sides reconcile
Muslim government official who didn’t want to be named
added that he had visited the area and urged both sides
to reconcile their differences peacefully.
However, the fervor and intolerance evident in last
week’s attack makes compromise unlikely and ultimately
the effects of this debate between traditional and
fundamentalist Muslims is not an issue relevant only to
the country’s Muslim community.
Shifting attitudes among the Muslim population will
affect the country as a whole. With Muslims constituting
as much as 10% of the country’s population the rise of
fundamentalist Islam may radically alter the way the
country’s Muslims interact with members of other
traditional Islam practiced by Muslims in Sri Lanka,
‘impure’ as it may have been, succeeded in the community
living in relative harmony with the country’s three
other major religions for centuries. It is unlikely that
the more fundamentalist schools will coexist as
successfully with the island’s other religions; in fact
the Thawjeed doesn’t even seem to be able to coexist
peacefully with other Muslims.