Intra-community fracturing and effects

By Sarah Hannan

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka makes up only approximately 10% of the population, and one might be surprised to learn that within that little community are further subsectors. While these subgroupings were not of much interest, lately it has become a topic of public discussion following the recent terror attacks caused by an extremist fundamentalist group. It is quite clear that the lifestyle of Muslims in Sri Lanka comprises traditions inherited from their ancestors in the form of religious practices and their continuous adaption to their environments to blend in with the majority.

Yet, in recent times, Muslims have been accused of taking the teachings out of context and attempting to impose foreign ways to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, creating a visible division.

Some in the Muslim community blame the division on a lack of strong leadership which has resulted in the formation of splinter groups which have in turn misled factions of the community.

No role model

“It is quite unfortunate that there is no role model for Muslims in Sri Lanka to look up to. Many who have proclaimed to lead these subgroups are not well versed with the religion and can easily mislead a congregation by misinterpreting the teachings of Islam. It is more challenging when reforms are to be introduced to such a community,” Deshabandu Jezima Ismail informed.

Ismail is of the view that women must be given an equal chance in leadership, and that it is imperative to have women representatives at the Quazi Courts. She further noted that the Muslim community should not only look at leading at a national level but also within the community.

“The covertly ignited feeling has to be quelled and that can be done by a leader that is human and moderate in the Muslim community,” Ismail explained.

When inquired about how she feels about the new rules that are forced on to the Muslim community, Ismail stated that it is not one particular group that’s trying to impose rules and regulations, but a collective of such groups.

“For years, Muslim mothers attired themselves in saree and covered their heads with the saree fall. But the conservative interpretation of the acceptable dress code for women was based on how Middle Eastern women dressed. And the rigidity of such regulations made the intentions of these groups quite clear – they were looking to dictate to the rest of the community their hardline beliefs.”

Forced to breakaway

The Sri Lankan Muslim ideology at present is divided into two main schools of thought – Sufism and Wahhabism.

This division became more pronounced with the open economy in the 1970s, and as the Muslim scholars in Sri Lanka started travelling to other countries, their perspective on Islam changed.

These interactions triggered Sri Lankan Muslims to set aside their regional cultural practices that were impacted by centuries of co-existence with the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities. These learnings had later triggered an Islamic revival and led to the importing of theologies from Pakistan, India, and from the Middle East.

“For generations, our mothers and daughters would visit the family gravesites to recite the Yaseen and other Suras on their death anniversaries and on Eid days. But as of late, the mosque doesn’t allow women into the graveyard,” Mehar Hameed, a member of the Muslim community, stated.

Another grievance the Sufi community voices is that these reformists are forcing their way into the trustee boards of the mosques and have started to change how the mosques operate.

“We have kept our doors open to people from all faiths to walk into our mosque. People come here to make vows as they believe that the saint this mosque is dedicated to would protect them through their pregnancies, and when they give birth, they bring in the newborn to be blessed,” Dawatagaha Mosque Board of Trustees Chairman Riyaz Salley noted.

However, due to the recent unrest, they too had to request non-Muslims to stop their visits to the mosque.

He also noted that in the past, there had been a group that had visited many Sufi mosques, trying to give a different version of the Quran. Salley had urged many mosques to not accept this version.

Once again, there seems to be public outcry to reform the practices of the Sri Lankan Muslim community. In order to usher in such reforms, the community should have a group that is equally represented, so they could save the unique culture of Sri Lankan Muslims. On Thursday (11), the Muslim parliamentarians agreed that the minimum age of marriage for Muslims should be changed to 18 and that the Quazi Courts should have female Quazis. While this is just a small step towards reform, many believe it is a positive start.