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Debate over who is and is not a good Muslim tearing the Muslim community apart

The clash in Beruwala brought out in to the open the simmering tension between Muslim sects and (inset) Minister Fizer Mustapha visiting an injured boy in hospital


By R. Wijewardene 

At the 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. 

Worse 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.  

That 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.


For years Sri Lanka’s 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 traditional puritanism.

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.

This 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 years.

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. 

The 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.

The Prophet Mohamed’s birthday for example is not celebrated in Saudi Arabia however it is a traditional festival for Sri Lanka’s Muslims.

Frowned upon

In fact in Saudi Arabia 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 of worship.  

Sri 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 Muslims. 

Many 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. simply abhorrent.

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 Islam.

The 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.

New trend

“When 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 from Colombo.

“When 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.

The 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.’ 

In a 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

“Islam is a religion of peace, whatever differences these groups have should be settled peacefully,” claimed Chairman, Sri Lanka Muslim Council, Mr. Ameen. 

Asked 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 their differences.

A 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 communities.

The 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.

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