15 August, 2022


Believing & Belonging: A Muslim Dilemma 

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

At a time when an entire community is unjustly called upon to account for the barbarism of a few lunatics, and, because of that, when an organised mob, backed by sections of the media, saffron-clad firebrands, racist law enforcers and power-hungry politicos, has taken upon itself to inflict collective punishment on that community, by desecrating, vandalising, burning and looting Muslim mosques, madrasas, homes and businesses, it is important to understand the fundamental issues that underlie the anti-Muslim wave that started long before the Easter infamy. Before doing that however, it is now becoming increasingly clear that it was the incompetency of men at the top to take prompt and preventive action on information received from multiple sources, including from Muslims, which led to the Easter carnage and consequent mayhem. These men stand condemned before the public. Sooner they leave the scene better for the nation. 

The following discussion, is a long neglected subject that now requires serious consideration in the interest of Muslims’ future and national harmony in Sri Lanka.      

Theoretical Backdrop

With the explosive entry of ISIS onto the world stage in 2013, and with its leader Abubucker Al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate, inviting all Muslims to migrate to his Utopian earthly paradise in which peace and prosperity was said to prevail, an old issue between Islamic faith and Muslim belonging re-emerged with disturbing consequences, especially to minority Muslims living in non-Muslim polities. Theologically and doctrinally, all followers of Islam belong to one transnational super community, the Muslim umma, a nation defined in terms of people and not territory. Since the concept of a nation-state was alien to Islamic theory and practice, Muslims, from the time of Prophet Muhammad, always had their allegiance to the community of believers and to the caliph who ruled over them. At least in three instances the Quran insists that “All Believers are one Brotherhood” (21:92, 23:52 and 49:10), and Prophet Muhammad in his farewell sermon (there are several version s of this sermon) reinforced that idea when he said that, “know for certain that every Muslim is a brother of another Muslim, and that all Muslims are Brethren. No Arab is superior to another Arab, nor a white over black”. Thus, doctrinally to a Muslim, belonging to the transnational umma takes precedence over belonging to a territorially defined nation. 

Building upon this Quranic edifice, medieval Muslim theologians viewed the world through a binary, dharul Islam (abode of peace) and dharul harb (abode of strife and conflict).  What this binary meant in practice was a division of the world into one part ruled by Muslims and another yet to be conquered and brought under Muslim rule. The theologians went a step further to encourage Muslims living in dharul harb migrate to dharul Islam, at least temporarily until the latter falls under Muslim rule. Later on when migration became difficult under territorially defined and sovereign nation-states, that binary became trinary with the inclusion of dharul sulh or dharul amana (abode where Muslims are allowed to live in peace and practice their faith). Sri Lanka falls under this last category. 

However, these divisions have become largely irrelevant today, although after September 2001, as Akbar Ahmed noted, “Muslims everywhere felt under siege. Nowhere was safe… Violence was routine. The entire world had become dar al-harb” (Akbar S. Ahmed, Islam Under Siege, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003, p. 17). Not only the binary and trinary, even the transnational umma lost its relevance and substance in the context of Muslim societies themselves becoming nation-states following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Thenceforth it was the spirit of secular nationalism and nation-states (watan) rather than that of a faith-based umma that determined the actions of governments and leaders in Muslim majority countries. Muslim minorities in classical dharul harb and dharul sulh or dharul amanah were left to fend themselves in the new secular environment. 

It was this abandonment of the faith based umma in preference to the secular nation-state system designed by the West that was challenged by ISIS, and when it tweeted the end of Sykes-Picot agreement and declared a caliphate its message to the Muslim world was clear. The caliphate signified the reunification of a Muslim’s faith (iman) and his/her belonging. ISIS caliphate became a magnet overnight pulling towards it thousands of Muslim young men and women who felt disgruntled and disgusted at the plight of Muslim nations and an umma trapped under the ruling world order. Following the example of the Prophet of Islam these youngsters embarked on a hijra (migration) to live in ISIS caliphate. To all Muslims in general and to those living as minorities in particular, belief and belonging posed a serious dilemma.

Sri Lankan Scene        

Since their arrival in the 8th century as traders, pilgrims, mystics and sailors, Muslims adopted Sri Lanka their permanent abode. The hospitality, tolerance and generosity extended to this new community by the ancient Buddhist monarchs was unparalleled in the history of Asia. Lorna Dewaraja’s meticulous study of “The Muslims of Sri Lanka: One thousand years of Ethnic Harmony 900-1915” tells only part of this happy and exemplary blending of two communities and two civilizations, Islam and Buddhism. The rest of the story is yet to be written. Even four centuries and more of colonial rule failed to disrupt that historic blend. If at all there was one instance in the entire history of pre-independence Sri Lanka when believing and belonging clashed for Muslims that was in 1915, when Buddhist nationalists targeted their attack at the exploitative economic and commercial practices of Indian Muslims or Coast Moors, who were a 19th century addition to the population. During the riots that ensued the indigenised Muslims demonstrated sympathy towards their foreign brethren in the spirit of the umma. Buddhist anger eventually turned against them too. Yet, that bitter episode was soon forgotten, old status quo quickly returned and local Muslims remained rooted in Sri Lanka in every sense of that term. To them believing and belonging posed no dilemma at all, and their syncretic Islam carried a Sri Lankan image. After independence however, there entered certain religious and cultural forces from outside that drew a wedge between believing and belonging, and the umma identity gradually tended to overshadow the identity of watan.    

Tabligh Jamaat (TJ)

The advent of TJ in the mid-1950s marked a departure from the syncretic Islam that was practiced in Sri Lanka for centuries. (On the origin and philosophy of TJ, see, Ameer Ali, “Tabligh Jama’at and Hizbul Tahrir: Divergent Paths to Convergent Goals” in Dialogue and Alliance, vol.20, no.2, 2006, pp. 51-66). TJ is a door-knocking and peaceful Muslim missionary movement that invites Muslims to “enjoin good and forbid evil”, as commanded by the Quran. It was a mission to convert not non-Muslims to Islam but rather nominal Muslims to practicing Muslims, by constantly reminding them and preaching to them to observe the obligatory ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam, devote time regularly to read the Quran (even if one didn’t understand its meaning) and Hadiths (sayings and practices) of the Prophet, follow the Prophet’s life as the exemplary model, and more importantly, to prepare oneself to succeed in the Hereafter. “One of the constant themes that comes out in the sermons and lectures of TJ leaders is the impermanency and fleeting nature of this life and the need to prepare oneself to life in the Hereafter… The leaders of TJ profess to preach a philosophy of non-detachment to this world while being noncommittal to it… However, the fine line between detachment and commitment is not always understood by the followers … and never spelled out clearly in the teachings of TJ” (Ameer Ali, ibid.). This has led to a total indifference towards and even avoidance of worldly matters by Tabligh devotees. “Going out on Tabligh” or going on gusht for days, weeks and even months has resulted in dereliction of duties by professionals, neglect of studies by students, abandonment of family-care by husbands and breadwinners, and as a Pakistani cricket coach once noted, even demoralisation of team-spirit in sports. 

Because the outlook of a Tabligh member is focussed more towards the Hereafter than this world the member’s commitment to the country in which he lives and its problems is marginal at best and zero at worst. Perhaps, it was this detachment that provoked Late Colvin R. De Silva, the LSSP minister in the 1970-77 government, to describe Muslim attachment to Sri Lanka as one between a cow and the grass. In TJ’s philosophy, a Muslim believes in Islam and belongs to the Prophet’s umma, a super community. This transnational attachment explains why Muslims feel strongly about sufferings of fellow Muslims in every part of the world. Two journalists, John Cooley (Unholy Wars, London: Pluto Press, 2000) and Ziauddin Sardar (“Watch this grass-roots group carefully”, New Statesman, 4 September 2006) in two different contexts have shown how TJ had become a recruiting ground for jihadists. Although TJ insists on spiritual jihad to purify one’s self, it does not take much convincing for a TJ devotee to take the next step to turn it into a political mission.   

TJ concentrated mainly in preaching to the men rather than women. Therefore, it had an impact on the external appearance of Muslim males, many of whom started wearing the long Indian cotton shirt or sherwani with sarong and a white cap or turban. The fez, to which the Muslim elite s fought a court battle and won in the early decades of 20th century, and the black cap went out of fashion after TJ’s influence. Some men of TJ even carried a kettle with water for ablution and a miswak stick to brush the teeth. (Use of miswak is a Saudi custom and is said to have been followed by the Prophet at a time when modern tooth paste and brush were not invented). Because of regular prostrations, the foreheads of Muslims also began showing zabeebas or dark spots prominently. By the end of 1970s Sri Lanka’s fame for TJ activities had become almost world famous and Muslim men had begun to show their religious identity more elaborately.       

1980s and the Arab Influence     

The 1980s marked a milestone in the history of the Muslim world. On the one hand, part of the Muslim Arab sector had been transformed into a financial behemoth because of the OAPEC (Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries), and on the other, a new wave of religious awakening ushered in with an outlandish ambition of creating a new Islamic World Order. There were two other epoch making events which gave strength to this ambition and euphoria. One was the success of a theocentric revolution in Iran in 1979 and the expulsion of Americans from Iranian soil, and the other was the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which heralded the beginning of the end of international communism.  Political Islam or Islamism had come to the stage after 1980. 

None of these events had any direct impact on Sri Lanka or Sri Lankan Muslims. However, the political and economic transformation of the country after 1977, from the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy to a hybrid presidential system, and from a largely dirigistic economic model to an open market economy, set in forces that introduced Islamism into Sri Lanka through the backdoor. The political changes brought for the first time a Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) with Islamist leanings, and the economic changes open the gates for Muslim labour to flow out to Arab Middle East while allowing Arab money, tied to Arab religious and cultural values, to flow in. For a detailed treatment on this twin flow readers should refer, “From The Safest To An Insecure Sri Lanka For Muslims” (Colombo Telegraph, 6, 9 and 14 May 2018) and “Anatomy of An Islamist Infamy” (Colombo Telegraph, 5, 6 and 9 May 2019).  

The Arab influence strengthened the umma identity of Muslims and quite unintentionally, promoted a trend towards self-alienation. While TJ influenced Muslim males’ attire, the Arab link added another layer to it and brought changes to female attire also. With changes in personal appearance, with proliferation of bigger and elaborately designed mosques and madrasas, and with the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema’s (ACJU) vigorous pursuit over the halal issue, the Muslim community was set on a path of self-alienation at a critical time when the Tamil ethnic issue was ripping the country apart. The Arabization that was creeping was in total contrast to the millennial identification of Muslims with Sri Lankan culture and Sri Lankan values. In this regard, the utter failure of Muslim political and religious leadership to detect this isolationist trend and take counter measures to arrest and reverse it, allowed some observers from both inside and outside the community to raise the question about Muslims’ belief and belonging. Are these Muslims people in or citizens of Sri Lanka? While this issue was not a serious concern to the vast majority of Muslims in the country, a small but agitated minority amongst them was preparing to provide the wrong answer. What prompted this minority to take that diabolical step?

Rise of the Buddhist Far-Right  

The emergence of a political far-right is an international phenomenon in 21st century. The reasons for its emergence should be sought in the collapse of Marxist socialist and communist economic experiments at the end of the Cold War, and in the disappointing performance the highly touted liberal economic model that came to replace them and was globalised. Sri Lanka joined the liberal family with a vengeance after 1977. With that membership its inaugurator, President JR Jayewardene, dreamt of turning the country into another Singapore. All that he achieved was to push the country into a costly civil war and turn communal harmony a distant dream.             

With the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, Sri Lanka witnessed the rise of several far-right Buddhist groups, all of whom wanted to carry that momentum of military victory into an aggressive and hegemonic mission to Buddhisize the country in every respect. In the view of these groups, Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists only and therefore every other ethnic and religious community that chooses to live here should be virtually subservient to Sinhala Buddhists. Now that they had vanquished the Tamils militarily, their focus turned on the second minority, Muslims.   

Unlike the Tamil community, whose chief industry before the civil war was education, Muslims are historically known for their excellent business acumen, which earned them the sobriquet, “business community” during colonial times. Unlike the Tamils and Sinhalese, Muslims were late comers to the field of education. When the Sinhalese army burnt down the famous public library in Jaffna in 1981, it actually went to the jugular of Tamil pride. In the case of Muslims however, there is no such single iconic structure except their mosques and business establishments. It was these that became targets of attack by the far-right. By attacking Muslim businesses the far-right warriors were aiming to impoverish an entire community.  

Anti-Muslim violence did occur sporadically even before 2009 and in the 1970s, but swift action by government authorities did not allow them to escalate. After 2009 however, it became a regular feature and the authorities were not only slow to act but at times even tended to justify them. Among the notorious incidents were the riots in Alutgama in 2014, Gintota in 2017 and Ampara, Dighana and Kandy in 2018. Leading Muslim retail business premises in Colombo city and in adjacent Panadura were also attacked and burnt down on a number of occasions. What annoyed the Muslim community more than the material losses was the relative inaction by the security forces to control the rioters. The fact that some members of the Buddhist clergy were also participating in the riots demonstrated that the government was failing absolutely to provide protection to the Muslim community.

One should not forget in passing that in other parts of the world, and particularly in Europe, the far-right is enjoying a period of honeymoon at present, because the traditional parties of centre-left and centre-right realise that the only way they could come to power is in coalition with the far-right. That realisation is abundantly clear in Sri Lanka, where none of the major parties, including the President who is dreaming to be a nominee at the next presidential elections, is prepared to condemn or criticise the outrageous violence unleashed on Muslims by far-right groups like BBS, Sinha Le, Mahason Balakaya and few others. It was the President who released a convicted monk who within days started his anti-Muslim campaign.    

Belonging to Where?

It was in that environment of insecurity for Muslims, Zahran Hashim, a madrasa drop-out, leader of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) and the mastermind behind the Easter infamy, brought the question of believing and belonging once again to the fore. In one of his recorded speeches where he described Sri Lanka as dharul kufr (abode of unbelievers) for the first time, and said that it was haram (prohibited) for Muslims to live in this country, he erased at once the entire history of peaceful co-existence of the community in this island and threw his allegiance to the ISIS in the name of umma. To Zahran and his NTJ it was the umma and not watan that demands primary allegiance. For that matter, NTJ would have joined any international Islamist extremist faction to vent their anger. ISIS was the best available in the market. ISIS itself was in search of a theatre where it could unleash its terror for losing the caliphate to the so called Crusaders. On that fateful Easter Sunday, NTJ’s thirst for revenge for Muslim losses at home and ISIS’ yearning for the same for losses in Syria conflated, and what followed is all history now. 

That the trend towards Islamising Muslim politics and Arabizing Muslim culture since 1980s set the community on a collision course is a bitter pill that Muslim leadership should swallow. Similarly, that the Buddhist far-right is determined to make maximum political capital at the expense of the Muslim minority is also not in doubt. The issue that faces both the Muslim and Buddhist leaderships therefore, is how to recover the community’s golden heritage of peaceful co-existence in this blessed country. The identity of Muslim community must merge with the identity of Sri Lanka, because the community belongs to this country. Buddhist compassion that made this country a swarnabhumi must be brought back to prevail. The situation demands serious introspection and calls for creative leadership from all sides, which at the moment is sadly lacking.      

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Latest comments

  • 0

    The darkness that shows in face the which comes from the evilness inside the heart is a big contrast between the Tamils and the Muslims, even people who are living on both ends of the coastal areas can be easily distinguishable when one looks at their faces, there is a brightness in the face

    Europeans liking the dark skins to the light skin is a utter and damn lie

    Only if you know how the Europeans are in awe of the Syrians and when they see people like you they look the other way

    I guess fate have made you like this because of your inherent evilness and disrespect for the fellow human beings including your own, you all worst than animals

    The slogan is” no matter how educated you are, you will never have a land of your own because of your inherent evilness ” because you don’t deserve it

    • 3

      I have lived in the west for most of my life and most of my close friends are White Anglo Saxons or other Europeans and I know what they think. I even have Arab . Turkish and Kurdish Muslim friends. I am not a frog in the well like you,. obsessed with skin colour and a fake Arab origin. Many of these Western Asian Muslims , do not like the Sri Lankan Muslims and their aggressive behaviour and their stupid claim that they are of Arab descent. Most of them laugh derisively. I can give you two examples . Once in the Gulf a Sri Lankan Muslim was stating to his local Arab co workers that , they are of Arab descent. They listened to him politely and once he left the room started to laugh derisively and say ” what Arab all Malabari converts , may be some Arab trader may have done something naughty here and there but all converts”. This is what the Saudis stated during housemaid. Rizana’ case that Sri Lankan Muslims are not of Arab descent but are South Asian (Tamil) converts to Islam, therefore she cannot be afforded the privileges given to an Arab. My Kurdish friend in Australia told me he had dealings with many Sri Lankan Muslims and he really does not like them and their aggressive slimy ways. He recruits interpreters for the Australian government and many apply to be Tamil interpreters , however when interviewing , they say they are not Tamil but of Arab descent. He laughed and told me they all look very South Indian/South Asian but claim to be of Arab descent and not of Tamil descent but want to work and earn a living as a Tamil interpreter. He further stated I am from the middle east and I know what an Arab looks like , even the darker and negroid Arabs. These people have no Arab in them but claim to be Arab. Stop being stupid and pathetic.

      • 0

        “I have lived in the west for most of my life and most of my close friends are White Anglo Saxons or other Europeans “

        oh we have a person trying to be a coconut here.White on the inside and brown on the outside.Does not like to have close friends of our community like we do,but very loyal to our ancient customs.Action speak more than words.If he looks down on his own people and arselicks the whites how can he be so loyal to our ancient customs.he might be thinking the whites are his ‘close friends’ because he wants be a coconut,but i wonder whether those same white people think of him as their close friend.How many times has he been invited to their dinners or parties?

    • 3

      Only thing coming out of you and your comments is stupidness and evil. Go to the mirror and look at your dark face and the dark face of 95% of the island’s Thullukans. Mad man stop making a fool of yourself with your evil vindictive comments. No wonder we Thamizh hate and look down on you Arab worshipping largely low caste Dravidian converts from South India. So what if someone is dark or light skinned third rate low caste convert? If some of you have light skin it is because your low caste female ancestors were harlots and prostituted themselves with Arab/Afghan men. Happy Thullukan. Now shut up. We do not stupid comments regarding skin colour low life.

  • 0

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating

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