Muslim markers in Sri Lanka: Changes and challenges

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from our consideration the wars that owe their origin to religious hatred, or to difference in fundamental principles, such as the struggle of democracy with autocracy, of personal liberty with feudal tyranny, there is no cause more enduring or more persistent, either in Asia or in Europe, among Christians or among Moslems, in keeping asunder people and nationalities and in involving them in disastrous and sanguinary warfare, as antipathy of race – a sentiment which casts its lurid shadow over centuries, and survives all political, social, and religious revolutions – Ameer Ali, A Short History of The Saracens, London: Kegan Paul, 2004, p. 73


The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009 marks a watershed in the island’s political development. The Government’s military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was also a victory for militant Buddhist Sinhala nationalism over militant Tamil nationalism. Yet, the twins have not yielded the promised peace dividend to the country. 

The Rajapaksa regime won the war but lost the peace. In the meantime, militant Buddhist nationalism is now targeting the island’s second minority, Muslims. There is a psychological fear amongst Buddhist nationalists that just as the Tamils, with over 60 million of their brethren in Tamil Nadu, are a perennial threat to the Sinhalese, so also are Sri Lankan Muslims, around 9% of the population, posing even a greater threat. 

The fear about Tamil Nadu has virtually disappeared after that State’s betrayal of the LTTE in the civil war. However, a psychotic fear of a potential Muslim invasion manufactured by organisations of militant Buddhists, partly to win domestic political power struggles and partly to promote the demand for total Buddhisisation of Sri Lankan polity and economy is currently in vogue. 

In this psychotic fear, the four historic markers of Muslim identity, namely, merchants, mosques, madrasas and moulavis, are facing an existential challenge in spite of notable changes. What follows is a summary of the historical development of these markers, their interrelationship, nature of the challenges facing them, and an exposition of the baselessness of the nationalists’ fear.

Muslim merchants 

Trade and commerce is by far the most representative profession of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was a trader and his Hashim clan specialised in trading; his first wife Khadija was the owner and manager of a trading enterprise and she employed him before they were married. 

Mecca was a commercial centre, and the Prophet’s close friends and relatives such as Abubucker, Umar and Uthman were all merchants. More importantly, the Quran in several places praises this profession, and in one instance it employs commerce as a metaphor to explain the successful characteristic of a pious Muslim. 

In the six volumes of the most authentic collection of the Prophet’s hadiths (sayings and deeds) by Bukhari, one volume is devoted entirely to trade. Because of the pre-eminence of trade and commerce in the origins and history of Islam, the merchant community stands at the apex of Islam’s social stratification. Thus, it was more than a historical coincidence that Islam came to Sri Lanka by way of trade and traders. 

A trade-centrist Islam not only determined the pattern of Muslim settlements in the country but also Islam’s interaction with other religious communities. While Muslim involvement in Sri Lanka’s external trade led to several coastal settlements such as Colombo, Beruwela, Galle, Matara and so on their virtual domination of internal trade sent them into the interior and enabled the development of numerous Muslim enclaves. 

Long before the appearance of permanent boutiques and shops, goods in bulk was carried across the country through Muslim peddlers and tavalams, a chain of bullock carts owned and operated mostly by Muslims, which travelled day and night throughout the length and breadth of the island. Tavalams were actually shops on mobile “equivalent to a caravan” driven by camels that criss-crossed Arabian deserts. The Quran indirectly points to this mode of conveyance when referring to the camels and says, “And they carry your heavy loads to lands that you could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed” (Quran, 16:7). 

While the caravans stayed overnight at caravanserais or closer to an oasis, tavalam merchants on long trading journeys spent their nights closer to local villages. Just as sailors look for women at ports of call these merchants, being Muslims, looked for wives. Islam prohibits prostitution, but allows men to marry more than one wife up to a maximum of four, provided the husband can treat all his wives ‘justly’ in every sense of that term (Quran, 4:3). Thus, it was from these nightspots in the interior and from marriages of necessity that a number of Muslim villages originated and multiplied over the years. 

Who were the tavalam merchants? Although the earliest Muslim arrivals to Sri Lanka were Arabs and Persians, who stayed mainly in coastal towns, those who came later, and particularly after the Arab loss of dominance over the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese, were mostly South Indians. The original Arab and Persian blood in the Sri Lankan Muslim community thinned out progressively even before the Portuguese arrived, as more Muslims, 500-600 each year according to a Portuguese historian, flocked to the island from neighbouring subcontinent. 

The Portuguese lumped all Muslims, irrespective of their ethnicity, as Moors. Under British rule however, they were categorised into two groups, the Ceylon Moors and Indian or Coastal Moors. Thus, the tavalam merchants were “naturalised” Ceylonese, as described by Major Davy early in the 19th century, but descendants of Tamil speaking Dravidian mothers who converted to Islam and married Arab traders, who after the seventh century came in large numbers to the Malabar Coast. 

However, professional necessity encouraged these Tamil speaking merchants to learn the language of their customers, who were mostly Sinhalese. Fluency in spoken Sinhalese also made it easier for these early traders to seek marriage partners within the Sinhalese community. Thus, Muslim merchants became bilingual and their settlements ubiquitous, a unique feature of this community until today. 

Trading opportunities for Muslims suffered under the Portuguese and Dutch mercantilist policies. In one instance, during the Portuguese period, a group of Muslims from the west coast escaped physical extermination unleashed against them by Constantine de Sa de Noronho, a Portuguese official, and sought asylum in the independent Kandyan territory ruled by the Buddhist king, Senarath. That king settled around 4,000 of them in the fertile lands of the Batticaloa District and encouraged them to engage in food production. It was that event, which transformed a section of Muslims into “the best rice growers in the country.” 

During British colonialism however, the trading and mercantile instincts of Muslims received renewed impetus. The growth of the plantation economy, construction of roads and railways, urbanisation and growth of towns, and the colonial government’s economic ideology of laissez-faire allowed Muslims to immerse themselves in trade and commerce, and become a business community par excellence. Tavalam trade of medieval Sri Lanka gradually gave way to permanent boutiques and shops owned or rented out by Muslims, and open for business from early hours of the morning until late in the evening. 

By 1901, according to census figures, the total number of tavalam men accounted for 384 of whom 264 were Indian Moors, and 10 years later those numbers dwindled dramatically to 120 and 103 respectively. Towards the last quarter of the 19th century, thriving Muslim business establishments invariably became an identifiable marker practically in every town and city in the country. According to one source, in the Pettah of Colombo alone there were 72 Muslim business establishments in the 19th century. Even when building their dwellings, Muslims allocated a separate room or hall, facing the street, to operate as shop or boutique. Thus, Muslim merchants and their families became an inseparable element in the growing urban milieu of Sri Lanka. 

After independence and for a short period during the leftist coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the business interests of the community received a new setback. Under her government’s socialist policies, various measures such as export-import controls, strict licensing rules for business ventures, stringent tax regulations, foreign exchange tightening, nationalisation of strategic economic sectors and so on discouraged private investment and expansion of private businesses. Muslim merchants in particular became a target of government scrutiny and a few of them taken to the courts on charges of unlawful commercial practices. 

It was in such an adversarial economic environment that the then Muslim Minister of Education, Badiuddin Mahmud, called a special meeting of prominent members of the community at his residence in 1972 and pleaded with them to diversify their economic and professional interests, without remaining mono-focused on trade and commerce, which, he advised, was increasingly falling under State control. Incidentally, it was after that meeting and under his leadership that the Islamic Socialist Front, the Muslim political wing of the ruling leftist coalition was born. 

In diversifying Muslim interests, Mahmud went a step further and used his ministerial portfolio to increase the number of government Muslim schools in the country and the number of Muslim teachers training colleges with the idea of providing employment opportunities to Muslim young men and women in the field of education. 

According to a leading historian, the Minister turned his Minto “a political base and a fountain of patronage, to be used to strengthen the ties between his community and the Party to which he belonged, the S.L.F.P.” In fact, to the Muslim youth who passed at least the General Certificate of Education Examination, after 10 years of schooling, his ministry became a virtual employment exchange. 

Under the same government, entry standards for university education were also relaxed which enabled an increase in the number of Muslims entering universities, especially to faculties such as science, medicine and engineering. In short, Badiuddin Mahmud, realising the narrowing economic opportunities to his community under a socialist regime, tried in a limited way to show them another route towards the future. 

Fortunately, for Muslim merchants the leftist government of Mrs. Bandaranaike lost the General Elections of 1977, which brought into power the United National Party under the leadership of J. R. Jayawardena, a paragon of free market capitalism. His open economy policy removed all restrictions imposed hitherto by the previous regime on free enterprise and investment. 

The commercial acumen of Muslim merchants that remained suppressed under the socialist government received renewed impetus under JR. Once again, trade, a glorified vocation in the Quran and hadiths, became the most preferred profession of the Muslim community, which earned them the sobriquet, “business community”. Even today, in spite of the great diversity of professionals amongst Muslims such as teachers, doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, agriculturists and so on, thanks to the educational privileges accorded to them under the socialist government, that description persists and sticks almost like a social stigma.

A few examples would illustrate the emergence of a class of successful business elite within this community. Among today’s leading retail establishments in textile and fashion are the Muslim owned No Limit, Fashion Bug and Cool Planet. Of the three, No Limit, with 21 different outlets and two sister brands, Glitz and Pallu, employs a multi-ethnic and gender-mixed labour force of over 1800. This establishment has been so successful that it swept the Japan Sri Lanka Technical and Cultural Association (JASTECA) 5S awards, continuously since 2014, and in 2017 won the 5S Gold award for its efficiency in management and workplace practices. 

Likewise, in gem business, Muslims held a virtual monopoly before the State Gem Corporation came into being in 1972. China Fort in Beruwala, perhaps the earliest of Muslim settlements in the country and with the oldest mosque in Kachimalai, remains until today as the chief centre of gem trade. Although firms in Colombo, such as O.L.M. Macan Markar (established in 1860) and Thaha Cassim’s Colombo Jewellery Stores (established in 1927), were famous for gems amongst foreign tourists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the 1970s, however, it was the name of Naleem Hajiar of Beruwala that became synonymous with gem trade. He was so successful in this business that even Dr. N.M. Perera, the socialist Finance Minister in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s cabinet had to seek Hajiar’s advice in establishing the State Gem Corporation. After 1977 however, with private sector allowed to compete in this business, Muslims have re-entered and among today’s leading gem merchants are a few from Beruwala. 

Another area in which Muslim entrepreneurs excel is in the restaurant industry specialising in non-vegetarian cuisines. Muslim participation in this industry originated largely to cater to the dietary needs of Muslims, many of whom being traders and peddlers on the move prevented by their religion from consuming non-halal food and drinks. During the tavalam era, Muslim traders carried with them pots and pans and other necessary condiments to prepare their own food where they rested. However, with urbanisation, growth of towns and development of modern transport, Muslim restaurants started appearing virtually in every town. Their specialised non-vegetarian cuisines soon attracted not only Muslims but also others. When buses became the cheapest mode of passenger transport after 1950s, bus drivers operating long routes invariably stopped in front of Muslim restaurants for refreshments.

Yet, Muslim peddlers have not totally disappeared from Sri Lanka’s economic scene in spite of opening permanent shops and boutiques. In the weekly village markets and bazaars in several parts of the country, and during times of religious and cultural festivals, Muslim peddlers continue to appear with wide range of goods, from cheap readymade textiles to trinkets, household utensils and plastic toys. These peddlers serve the needs of a class of customers at the lower end of the market, who enjoy striking a bargain with the peddler than paying fixed and costly prices in modern shopping centres.

After 2009 however, with the rise of militant Buddhist and Tamil nationalisms Muslim businesses are facing an existential threat. JR’s open economy allowed all communities to enter and compete in the market. In competitive retail markets particularly, success of a business depends on prices quoted, quality of goods and services offered and services rendered during and after a business deal. Rational consumers always patronise those establishments that offer the best at the cheapest price with friendliest of services. 

The success of some Muslim businesses mentioned earlier demonstrates that they excel in these characteristics. However, commercial jealousy, militant Buddhist ethno-nationalism and political and administrative corruption have joined forces to cripple Muslim businesses. A few examples may illustrate this argument. 

In 2014, Bodu Bala Sena, a militant breakaway group from the nationalist, Jathika Hela Urumaya, carried out a propaganda alleging, without a shred of evidence, that the management of Muslim owned No Limit gave “contraceptive pills in the form of sweets to Sinhala women customers … to restrict the birth of children in Sinhala families”. Following that campaign, No Limit’s largest store in Panadura in Western Sri Lanka was set on fire that engulfed almost Rs. 500 million worth of textile stock (Ibid). In May 2013 and November 2016, the Fashion Bug store in Pepiliyana near Colombo was fire bombed by a mob. Accusing that Muslim restaurateurs are mixing contraceptive powder sold to Sinhalese customers, waiters in a Muslim restaurant in Ampara in the east was set upon by an angry mob, which triggered a series of riots in the Central Province in February 2018. 

In these anti-Muslim riots, another Sinhalese Nationalist group, Mahason Balakaya or Devil Mahasona’s Brigade, appears to have played a leading role. What was shocking in all these incidents is the incompetency of the government and its security forces, which at times seem to have taken the side of the rioters by remaining just observers. 


There is no Muslim community anywhere in the world without a mosque, and mosques are distinct universal markers of Islam’s identity. When Ibn Battuta, the celebrated traveller from Marrakesh arrived in Sri Lanka in 1345 he saw in a town the mosque of Shaikh Usman of Shiraz, which must have been one among several built by the pioneer Muslims. Once Muslims moved into the interior during the Portuguese period more mosques sprang up along the tavalam routes for the traders’ “spiritual sustenance and as halting places for their limbs”. Later, with Muslim business establishments moving into towns the number of mosques increased and appeared all over the country. Towards the end of the 19th century, Muslim scholars arriving from South India prevailed upon their audience to build mosques. By 1987, there were more than 1600 of them of which 54 were in the city of Colombo. Today, according to a list obtained from the Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs, there are 2,500 mosques, an increase of around 900 in just over three decades or 30 per year. According to the Wakf Board, not all mosques in the country registered with the board. How does one explain this penchant for building mosques? 

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, of the ‘five pillars’ of Islam namely, confession of the faith, prayer (salat), fasting, charity (zakat) and pilgrimage, prayer stands pre-eminent, although the Quran in several verses couples it with charity. The rules governing Muslim prayer highly recommend praying in congregation rather than alone. The weekly midday prayer on Fridays and the two festival prayers, one at the end of the fasting month and the other during pilgrimage time, are essentially prayers performed in congregation. In addition, the optional nightly prayer during the fasting month is also mostly congregational. The sociology of congregation brings the community together and strengthens the unity of umma or the community. Hence, a spacious place to gather five times a day and on Fridays makes the mosque an inseparable element marker of any Muslim settlement. Secondly, according to a popular saying of the Prophet, “whoever builds a mosque for Allah, then Allah will build a house like it in Paradise”. This saying, often reminded by imams in their sermons, acts as a terrific inducement for believers, especially the more affluent amongst them, to be more generous in donating money to construct mosques. That saying when coupled with zakat, which also means a ‘cleanser of wealth’, becomes a powerful motivator to build mosques. Thirdly, mosques are not only prayer centres but also community centres for Muslims to meet and sort out common issues and resolve internal conflicts. Unlike the Christian churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples mosques are a highly utilised place on daily basis.

There were two significant developments, one starting from mid-1950s and the other from early 1980s, which drew unusual attention from non-Muslim communities towards the mosques and its activities. In the 1950s, the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), a peaceful missionary movement and not an offshoot of Wahhabism as misconceived in some quarters, started not in Arabia but in India with the sole purpose of preaching to Muslims to be more devoted to their religion by regularising prayer and other obligatory duties, set its foot in Sri Lanka (Ameer Ali, 2006). TJ activists gathered in the mosques, and from there went house to house in small teams inviting male members of households to join them to mosques to maintain the obligatory prayers. TJ mission spread quickly to every corner of the country and mosques began to be crowded with worshippers. Increased mosque attendance, steadfastness in fasting during Ramadhan, and increasing number demanding foreign exchange from government to perform the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, surprisingly won the admiration of even non-Muslims who began to envy the religious vigilance of Muslims. Needless to say that a number of non-Muslims attracted by the simplicity, devotion and tolerance displayed by TJ converted to Islam and became outcasts in their previous religious community. These conversions created anti-Islamic tension within the Buddhist community and due to pressure from Buddhist lobby groups the government in January 2011 expelled 161 foreign TJ preachers from the island on the pretext that they misused their tourist visa. 

However, the increasing religiosity and regular attendance to mosques made existing mosques insufficient to accommodate all worshippers. Therefore, a demand arose to enlarge the existing ones or build new and larger mosques. Financial donations from local Muslim businesses and philanthropists alone could not meet the rising costs and external help became a necessity by the 1980s. It was during this time the petroleum induced economic boom in Muslim Middle East along with the new Islamic religious awakening worldwide, proved handy to look for external sources for help. Muslim expatriate employees working in Gulf countries and Arab Muslim philanthropists especially from Saudi Arabia donated generously for mosque building. The saying of the Prophet quoted earlier was a powerful motivation in this regard. The nine hundred mosques built after 1980s would not have happen if not for external assistance. 

The post-1980 fervour of mosque building and renovations created some unexpected problems that slowly built up Buddhist-Muslim tensions. Firstly, the Turko-Persian-Moghal architectural design of majority of the newly structured mosques failed to blend with the Sri Lankan national Buddhist-Hindu architectural design, and therefore in the eyes of non-Muslims the new mosques looked ostentatious but outlandish. Even in Europe, the minarets became an issue in Switzerland. Secondly, the use of loudspeaker for azan, the call for prayer, raised constant complaints from non-Muslims who lived closer to mosques. This deserves elaboration.

The tradition of using human voice to call for ritual prayers instead of bells, drums or horns originated from the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the pre-eminence of prayer amongst all Islamic rituals devout Muslims eagerly waited for the prayer call to rush to the mosque. Before the loudspeaker came to the scene, the only way to hear that unique human voice was to live as close as possible to a mosque. This was how Muslim enclaves around mosques multiplied initially in Sri Lanka. However, as urbanisation set in, and towns and cities multiplied and expanded with mix population and heavy traffic, the human voice of call became inaudible to Muslims who lived further away from a mosque. Loudspeakers offered an easy solution, and, as a result, the daily five times azan or call for prayer, which only lasted for a couple of minutes each time, became a nuisance to non-Muslims. Complaints against the practice grew louder and in certain areas, like Dehiwela in Colombo, the court intervened to ban the use of loudspeakers for azan in mosques. Furthermore, the use of loudspeakers that started in mosques soon spread to other religious places like Buddhist and Hindu temples. Recorded audio tapes of Buddhist Bana and Hindu devotional songs broadcasted over loudspeakers for hours in the mornings irritated the Muslims in turn, adding more to Muslim-Buddhist tension. 

The rapid growth of mosques with shining domes and tall minarets in the heart of several cities and towns created a false sense of fear amongst some Buddhists and anti-Muslim militants viewed it as a growing sign of Islam’s invasion. The 1980 census data on population growth rates and ethnic distribution were twisted and deliberately misinterpreted to substantiate that fear. How is it possible, they asked, that such growth happen in a country whose constitution has made Buddhism the state religion? One outcome of this fear and propaganda was to activate government’s Buddhist agencies and Buddhist pressure groups to erect statues of Buddha and build Buddhist temples on every prominent hilltop and town centres respectively. When the trustees of a mosque in Kandy decided to renovate it with additional minarets the Buddhists protested against the move on the ground that the height of the minaret will overtake that of the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Ironically, people of all faiths in Sri Lanka today are demonstrating their devotion not by internal piety and behaviour but through statues and buildings. Currently, politicians both in government and in opposition, and Buddhist and Hindu religious groups with influence, are not only making it difficult for Muslims to build mosques, but also, when opportunity arises, are remaining onlookers when anti-Muslim militants destroy them. In the recent riots rampaged in several Muslim pockets and bazaars, mosques were vandalised and burnt while security forces delayed taking preventive measures. 

Madrasas and Moulavis 

Islam was born among the Arabs; the Quran, relayed through the Archangel to Prophet Muhammad, is in the Arabic language; the Prophet in turn relayed his message to his disciples in the same language; and the hadith (sayings and deeds of the Prophet) collections are in Arabic. Therefore, to learn the Arabic script, at least to read the Quran and hadiths, became almost incumbent upon all Muslims whose mother tongue was not Arabic. It was this necessity that produced the earliest Quran schools or maktabs in Sri Lanka. In the past, there was practically no mosque in Sri Lanka without a Quran school attached to it. The same motivation that built mosques also established Quran schools. 

As Mahroof describes, “The Qur’an school was a school held, as a rule, in the premises or house attached to a mosque, but the quality of the teaching was individual to the preceptor.” It was mostly a one-man school where an alim or a moulavi or lebbe probably trained in an Indian madrasa, taught boys under 15 and girls under 11 years of age to read the Quran, without any understanding of its meaning, and memorise selected chapters and verses from it so that students could perform flawlessly the obligatory religious rituals. The school was held daily in the mornings and afternoons except on Fridays and during the fasting month of Ramadan. The teacher earned an income from this school partly through voluntary contributions from parents and partly from donations from Muslim merchants and philanthropists.

Just as the hadith that Allah will build a house in heaven for those who build a mosque, so also is another that “the best of you are those who learn the Quran and teach it” was a motivating factor in establishing and managing Quran schools.

Practically every Muslim village or town had a few such schools and the type of teaching was virtually uniform across all of them. After completing the basic learning, those students whose parents had the desire to make their children ulama (plural for alim) sent them to a madrasa, where it took seven years or more to graduate. The syllabus in these madrasas and their mode of teaching have been elaborated by Mahroof. What is to be stressed here is that such madrasas were few and far between in Sri Lanka until the second half of the last century. 

According to the list of 246 Senior Arabic Colleges, Arabic Colleges, and Preliminary Arabic Schools, provided by the Department of Muslim Affairs, there were only five madrasas in the 19th century, the oldest of them in Galle, established in 1870. Between 1900 and 1950, there were an additional five. However, because of high reputation, it was to South India that many would be ulama from families that could afford the expense went to qualify. The famous Baqiyatus Salihat, established in 1857 in Vellor attracted several students from Sri Lanka. There were also others like Dharul Ulum from Deoband. 

Even in the local madrasas, the role of Indian ulama was predominant. The eminent theologian from Kilakarai (South India), Muhammad ibn Ahmad Lebbe, popularly known as Mapillai Lebbe Alim, who arrived in 1894 was responsible in establishing not only mosques but also a couple of the earliest madrasas in the island. What should be noted in the list mentioned above is that 202 of those madrasas or 82% were established after 1980. This exponential growth in the number of madrasas went parallel with similar growth in the number of mosques. Yet, it was not a development unique to Sri Lanka but a worldwide phenomenon consequent upon the general Muslim religious awakening in the 1980s. 

Those who graduated as ulama from various madrasas were either became full time religious functionaries attached to mosques and depended for their income on the generosity of the community or went into private business and worked in the mosques as part time imams. Some of them even started their own Quran schools. However, there came a special inducement in the 1930s when the Colonial Government decided to take education to remote areas and decided to pay salaries to qualified teachers attached to places of religious worship where there were no other schools. 

In several of the Quran schools the graduate certificates of moulavis (religious teachers) were recognised by the government and under the new scheme they became salaried government employees. Later, by the Ordinance No. 26 of 1939, religious instruction in government schools was introduced as part of the school curriculum and many moulavis became permanent and pensionable state employees. With that incentive the number of madrasas increased from 10 until 1950 to 44 by 1980. How does one account for the exponential growth to 246 in 2018?

The same reasons that led to the increase in the number of mosques after 1980s namely the belief in receiving divine pleasure in the Hereafter on the one hand and availability of financial resources, locally and from abroad, on the other, in addition to the broader impact of the newly found religious awakening in Muslim world account for the increase in the number of madrasas. After 1950 madrasas were established for Muslim girls also to produce female moulavis. 

The Muslim Girls Boarding School at Kaleliya, established in 1959, was the first of its kind. Graduates from this school also became teachers in public and private schools. However, the quality of the madrasas and the type of moulavis passing out are different from those existed earlier. Once again it was the Department of Education and its willingness to include subjects like Arabic and Islamic civilisation into High School and university syllabi provided opportunities for graduates of senior madrasas to enter universities, obtain higher diplomas and compete for employment in High Schools and universities. 

Madrasa convocation ceremonies for graduates, with colourful gowns and mortarboards, have caught up with modernity and they add additional prestige to the moulavis in the community. The more erudite amongst them also have chances obtaining scholarships to study in universities in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other Muslim countries. With rising employment opportunities in Muslim Middle East at least a modicum of Arabic learning from madrasas proved handy and increased the probability of joining an elite expatriate labour-force. 

In spite of all this, to many moulavis the only option available is to become a religious functionary attached to a mosque. Thus, as the number of madrasas multiplied the number of moulavis also increased, which in turn increased the demand for mosques. It is this positive correlation that has contributed to the rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the country.

However, in the context of events surrounding the end of the Cold War, and after Washington sought refuge in conservative Islam of the Wahhabi variety to recruit mujahideen or Muslim freedom fighters to defeat the Communist Soviet, the role and reputation of madrasas in several Muslim countries in Asia fell under a cloud. In Pakistan in particular thousands of madrasas sprang up in a short space of time with money pumped in by the Saudi Government. It was from those madrasas the Taliban was born as a viciously militant Islamist force that is still causing havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is therefore natural that in Sri Lanka also the rapid increase in the number of madrasas after 1980 with students donning white uniforms akin to those worn by Arab students raised the eyebrows of many Buddhist nationalists. 

To the more extreme ethno-nationalist Buddhist movements such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Sinha Le (SL), mosques and madrasas symbolise a rising Islamic threat. This is why after 2009 and with the military victory over LTTE, these movements are targeting the Muslims. So far, there is absolutely no hard evidence that madrasas in Sri Lanka are teaching jihadism and producing jihadists. What they are producing instead is a community of religious men and women who are ignorant of the cosmopolitan outlook of Islamic civilisation and therefore is making the madrasa indoctrinated Islam an inward looking and exclusivist religion. How to make Islam cosmopolitan, inclusive and tolerant is the fundamental challenge Muslims are facing in plural societies like Sri Lanka. 

The four Muslim markers have undergone notable changes throughout history and are now facing an existential crisis in the face of rising militant Buddhist nationalism. These militants however are not committed Buddhists with compassion but pawns in the hands of politicians. Muslim journalists are also arguing that there are hidden foreign hands guiding the militants. In addition to BBS, JHU and SL among Sinhalese Buddhists there is also the Siva Sena (SS) among Hindu Tamils, which is the Sri Lankan arm of the Indian Hinduthva racist organisation attached to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and which is also demanding the Muslims to shift to Arabia.

Muslims, like the Sinhalese, have no other country to look for but to remain as committed citizens of Sri Lanka. This is where they are born and this is where they will die. With a cosmopolitan religious outlook and farsighted political leadership, the community should be able to swim through the current turbulence. 

(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)


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Disclaimer: Muslim markers in Sri Lanka: Changes and challenges - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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