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Sri Lankan Muslims

Between ethno-nationalism and the global ummah

by Dennis B. McGilvray, Nations and Nationalism, Volume 17, Issue 1, pages 45–64, January 2011

This simultaneous combination of “external” ethno-nationalist rivalries and “internal” Islamic doctrinal conflict has placed Sri Lanka's Muslims in a double bind: how to defend against Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic hegemonies while not appearing to embrace an Islamist or jihadist agenda.

PDF version at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8129.2010.00460.x/pdf

ABSTRACT. Sri Lanka's Sunni Muslims or “Moors”, who make up eight percent of the population, are the country's third largest ethnic group, after the Buddhist Sinhalese (seventy-four per cent) and the Hindu Tamils (eighteen per cent). Although the armed LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebel movement was defeated militarily by government forces in May 2009, the island's Muslims still face the long-standing external threats of ethno-linguistic Tamil nationalism and pro-Sinhala Buddhist government land and resettlement policies. In addition, during the past decade a sharp internal conflict has arisen within the Sri Lankan Muslim community between locally popular Sufi sheiks and the followers of hostile Islamic reformist movements energised by ideas and resources from the global ummah, or world community of Muslims. This simultaneous combination of “external” ethno-nationalist rivalries and “internal” Islamic doctrinal conflict has placed Sri Lanka's Muslims in a double bind: how to defend against Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic hegemonies while not appearing to embrace an Islamist or jihadist agenda. This article first traces the historical development of Sri Lankan Muslim identity in the context of twentieth-century Sri Lankan nationalism and the south Indian Dravidian movement, then examines the recent anti-Sufi violence that threatens to divide the Sri Lankan Muslim community today.

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Geography, demography and ethnic heraldry
  5. Origins and cultural affinities of the Muslims
  6. Regional networks of trade and pilgrimage
  7. Twentieth-century Muslim identity politics in Sri Lanka
  8. Twin ethno-nationalist threats: Tamil and Sinhalese
  9. Influences from the global Muslim ummah
  10. Muslim response to ethno-nationalist pressures
  11. Religious conflict: Sufi controversies in eastern Sri Lanka
  12. Alternative Sufi strategy in Akkaraipattu
  13. Muslim ethnicity and Sri Lankan nationalism
  14. Conclusion
  15. References

Introduction

In May 2009, the armed forces of the Sri Lankan government overran the last bastions of the guerrilla rebels, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), and reasserted complete military control over the north-eastern quarter of the island for the first time in twenty-five years. This region is home to a significant portion of Sri Lanka's two Tamil-speaking minority groups, the Hindu Tamils and the Tamil-speaking Muslims, the latter of whom are sometimes referred to by the colonial term “Moors” (from Portuguese mouro, or Moroccan). As a cultural anthropologist, I have conducted fieldwork among the Tamils and the Muslims in the east-coast agricultural town of Akkaraipattu for more than three decades (McGilvray 2008). The Eastern Province of the island is politically volatile, with a population that is roughly one-third Tamil Saivite Hindu, one-third Sunni Muslim and one-third Sinhalese Theravada Buddhist. The Muslims are the least-known of these three ethnic groups, yet they will play a key role in any long-term solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic turmoil.

I will first summarise how the Muslims fit into Sri Lanka's ethnic jigsaw puzzle, and how historically they have been connected by transnational networks of trade and religious pilgrimage with south India and the larger Indian Ocean world. My ultimate goal is to describe the current tensions within the Sri Lankan Muslim community, as they cope simultaneously with the potential island-wide threat of ethno-nationalist violence from the Tamils and the Sinhalese, and experience internal religious tensions from global Islamic reformist ideologies that are opposed to localised Sufi mysticism and traditional forms of devotional piety. Several recent outbreaks of violence between established Sufi groups and militant Islamic reformists have attracted media attention, exposing a theological rift within the Muslim community that could be interpreted – and exploited – as jihadism by rival Tamil or Sinhala ethno-nationalists. This conflict exposes the Muslims to critical scrutiny by the other ethnic communities and further complicates the Muslims' balancing act: they are caught between the forces of Sri Lankan ethno-nationalism and religious influences from the global pan-Islamic ummah.

Geography, demography and ethnic heraldry

Muslims are Sri Lanka's smallest significant minority: they make up eight per cent of the total population, so are overshadowed by the Tamils (eighteen per cent, including the Upcountry Tamil tea plantation workers) and by the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist majority (seventy-four per cent).1 Muslims live everywhere in the island, but their largest concentration (roughly two thirds) is in the predominantly Sinhalese urban centres of the south-western coast (Colombo, Galle and Matara) and in the Kandyan hill towns, where they are often shopkeepers and businesspeople. The remaining one-third of the Muslims live on the Tamil-speaking east coast, where they are paddy farmers and fishermen in villages and towns interspersed among the Tamil Hindus (see Figure 1). This region formed part of Tamil Eelam,2 the proposed ethnic homeland claimed by the LTTE guerrillas, even though in some coastal districts of the Eastern Province the Muslims are the largest of the three ethnic groups in the local population. The uneven distribution of the Muslim population of Sri Lanka, their contrasting (urban vs. rural) ecologies and subsistence patterns, and the resulting disparities in socioeconomic status and occupations among them, have hindered the growth of a coherent Muslim political bloc at the national level (McGilvray and Raheem 2007).

Figure 1.  Important sites of Muslim population in Sri Lanka.

On the Sri Lankan national flag, the Muslims are represented by a vertical green (Islamic) stripe, and the Tamils by a parallel orange (Hindu) stripe, while the Sinhalese majority (the “people of the lion”) are represented by a regal sword-wielding lion and four leaves from the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment (see Figure 2). Perhaps unintentionally, the Sri Lankan flag visually illustrates the country's underlying problem of ethnic rivalry and compartmentalisation. A royal red and gold panel spanning two thirds of the flag portrays the legendary lion ancestor (sinha) of the Sinhalese people, their distinctive religion (Theravada Buddhism) and their sword-wielding pre-colonial political sovereignty over many parts of the island. A smaller, separate bloc of space on the left side of the flag contains two bands of colour (green and orange) representing the minority Muslims and Tamils, while the Sinhalese lion brandishes his royal sword in their direction.3 Graphically, the flag design would suggest equivalence and close alignment between the Muslims and the Tamils, which is far from the political truth today despite the fact that both groups speak Tamil. In fact, the “national flag” is a virtual schematic of the island's ethnic divisions and a clear proclamation of Sinhalese Buddhist domination of the Sri Lankan state. It has no unifying pan-Lankan symbols of national identity or citizenship; only a set of three compartmentalised ethnic totems, two of which are small and religiously generic (Muslim and Hindu) and one of which is large and ethnically specific (Buddhist Sinhalese).

Figure 2. The national flag of Sri Lanka. On the right, the golden yellow Sinhalese lion emblem and leaves of the Buddhist Bo tree on a field of red. On the left, vertical bands of (Muslim) green and (Hindu) orange representing the Muslim and Tamil minorities.

Origins and cultural affinities of the Muslims

The Sri Lankan Muslims, like the coastal Muslims of south India, are mixed-race descendants of Arab and Persian sea-faring merchants who have long traversed the Indian Ocean between the Middle East and south-east Asia. With the advent of Islam in the Arabian peninsula in the first half of the seventh century, and the subsequent conquest of Persia, trade across the Indian Ocean was dominated from the eighth century onward by Arab Muslim merchants from ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf. Unlike the Persian and Turkic invasions of north India that gave rise to major states and empires, the Muslim impact upon the coasts of south India and Sri Lanka was predominantly Arabic in culture and mercantile in motivation, part of the same sea-borne trading networks that brought Islam to insular south-east Asia (Wink 1990). The medieval Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Kerala and Sri Lanka allowed Arab merchants – many of whom acquired local wives by whom they fathered Indo-Muslim progeny – to establish a dominant economic position in port settlements such as Calicut and Colombo (Arasaratnam 1964; Dale 1980; Kiribamune 1986). Not long after Vasco da Gama's 1498 naval crusade against the well-established “Moors” of Calicut, the Portuguese encountered Muslim traders in Sri Lanka who spoke Tamil and who enjoyed ongoing commercial links with the Muslims of the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of south India under the suzerainty of the local Sinhalese kings of Kotte (Ameer Ali 1980; Abeyasinghe 1986; Indrapala 1986). Commercial, cultural and even migrational links between Muslim towns in southern India and Sri Lankan Moorish settlements are attested in the historical traditions of Beruwela, Kalpitiya, Jaffna and other coastal settlements where Sri Lankan Muslims have lived for centuries (Casie Chitty 1834: 254 ff.; Denham 1912: 234; Ameer Ali 1981; Shukri 1986; McGilvray 1998; Hussein 2007).

Like the coastal Muslims of south India and the Muslims of south-east Asia, the Sri Lankan “Moors” are Sunni Muslims of the Shaf'i legal school, a shared legacy of their earliest south Arabian forefathers (Fanselow 1989; Fakhri 2008). To varying degrees, the Sri Lankan Muslims also follow matrilineal and matrilocal family patterns, the legacy of a “Kerala connection” that has shaped Tamil Hindu social structure in Sri Lanka as well. On the eastern coast of the island, the Muslims share with their Tamil neighbours a strongly rooted tradition of transmitting most family property, including houses and paddy lands, to daughters by means of dowry bestowed at marriage (Raghavan 1971: 199–217; McGilvray 1989, 2008; McGilvray and Lawrence 2010). Historic intermarriage with matrilineal Hindu Tamils seems to explain this unusual pattern, which is found in varying degrees among coastal Muslims in south India as well (McGilvray 1998). Throughout Sri Lanka, the language of the Muslim home is predominantly Tamil, although in urban areas in the south-western part of the island Sinhala is beginning to be the preferred language of some Muslim youths as well as the medium of instruction in at least one newly founded Muslim Arabic College (Tanweer Academy, in Thihariya).

Regional networks of trade and pilgrimage

The established routes of maritime trade eastward across the Indian Ocean, as well as the westward flow of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca for the Hajj, has maintained a longstanding set of links between Sri Lanka and the Arab world. The conspicuous role of migrant Muslim seyyids (patrilineal descendants of the Prophet, termed maulanas in Sri Lanka), from the Hadramawt region of Yemen in trans-Indian Ocean saintly genealogies, has been elucidated by Engseng Ho in his book The Graves of Tarim (2006) as well as by previous authors (see Freitag and Clarence-Smith 1997). The legendary origin of one local Muslim saint in the east-coast town of Akkaraipattu was that he had miraculously floated ashore ‘on a plank’ directly from Yemen, and it now appears that such stories reflect a significant Sri Lankan heritage of Islamic influence from that part of the Muslim world (McGilvray 2008). Muslim pilgrims and travellers to Adam's Peak in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, where Adam's footprint is preserved after his fall from the Garden of Eden, are widely attested by pre-colonial authors such as Ibn Battuta (Gibb 1986).

Perhaps the most important historical factors shaping the everyday culture of the Sri Lankan Muslims are the economic and religious links between the island and the various Muslim trading centres on the adjacent Malabar and Coromandel coasts of south India: ports such as Cochin, Kayalpattinam and Kilakkarai. It is from these south Indian coastal towns that travelling Muslim missionaries revitalised the practising of Islam in nineteenth-century British colonial Ceylon, following several centuries of Portuguese and Dutch censorship and repression (Ahmed Lebbai 1963; Shu'ayb Alim 1993). Famous madrasas (Muslim seminaries) in Kilakkarai, a Muslim port near Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, continued to attract Sri Lankan Muslim students until the Tamil ethnic conflict disrupted travel to south India in recent decades. Printing presses and influential teachers in Kilakkarai helped to keep the tradition of Arabic-Tamil literature and writing alive well into the twentieth century, but the Islamic curriculum in Kilakkarai conforms to the modified north Indian derived dars-i-nizami syllabus of the major madrasa in Vellore, the Baqiyyat-i-Salihat. As Tschacher (2006) points out, this situates the contemporary madrasa curriculum in Tamil Nadu (and, by extension, in Sri Lanka as a whole) within a larger north Indian Islamic tradition.

The largest south Indian shrine attracting Sri Lankan Muslim pilgrims has always been the dargah (tomb shrine) of the Sufi saint Shahul Hameed at Nagoor on the Tamil Nadu coast, directly north of Sri Lanka. When the Muslim Marakkayar sea traders who patronised this sixteenth-century shrine opened commercial outposts in Sri Lanka, Penang and Singapore during the British era, their maritime saint of Nagoor travelled along with them. ‘Branch office’ dargahs for the Nagoor saint are still found in these locations today, including a thriving Beach Mosque shrine in the Sri Lankan east-coast settlement of Kalmunaikkudy that miraculously escaped damage in the December 2004 tsunami. This popular tradition of Sufi saint veneration constitutes a common religious substratum in many Sri Lankan Muslim communities today – as it does in neighbouring South India, where madrasas often retain historical allegiances to specific Sufi orders (More 2006; Tschacher 2006: 218–9). Tschacher also reports that the deep sectarian rifts associated with rival schools (maslaks) of Sunni Islamic teaching in north India – such as Deobandi reformism vs. Barelvi devotionalism – are scarcely recognised or understood in Tamil Muslim towns such as Kilakkarai, a condition I have found to be true in Sri Lankan Muslim communities as well.

Twentieth-century Muslim identity politics in Sri Lanka

Under the British colonial regime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Sri Lankan Muslim elites energetically constructed a “racial” identity as Arab descendants: Sonahar (in Tamil), or “Moors” (in English). This was a response to the prevailing British colonial model for categorising and representing indigenous Ceylonese by “race” in the census and on the appointed Legislative Council (Nissan and Stirrat 1990; Rogers 1995). The Moors of Ceylon could then be seen as a (Semitic) Arab racial group comparable to the (Aryan) Sinhalese, the (Dravidian) Tamils and the (European) mixed-race Burghers (McGilvray 1982, 2007). The Tamil political elite actively opposed this effort by the Moors to differentiate themselves from the Tamil community, presumably because it would lessen their prevailing subordination and clientship to the high-caste Tamils in some parts of the island. The late-nineteenth-century debate about whether the Moors were “Arabs” or actually Muslim Tamils was ignited by a scholarly article written by the leading Tamil statesman of the day, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who wished to keep the Moors within the Tamil fold (Ramanathan 1888). However, when a bloody outbreak of anti-Muslim violence by Sinhalese mobs occurred in 1915, Ramanathan conspicuously defended the Sinhalese rioters, and this was seen by the Muslims as evidence of Tamil hypocrisy about “Tamil-speaking” linguistic solidarity.

The political schism between Tamils and Moors continued to widen during the mid twentieth century, and as Sri Lanka was approaching independence in 1948 the Muslim leadership itself was divided into rival camps over the strategic question of their collective identity. Two organisations supported by rival gem-trading families, the Ceylon Moors Association and the Ceylon Muslim League, each vied for members under competing labels. Ultimately, in the post-independence period, the community strategically rebranded itself as generic “Muslims”, thus amalgamating the Moors and the tiny Malay ethnic minority under a unifying religious label that invokes the ummah, the brotherhood of all Muslims. Doubtless the spread of pan-Islamic ideology in the twentieth century encouraged and validated this move in religious terms, but its pragmatic political significance was to distance the Muslim community from the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist movement and its characteristic Dravidian linguistic chauvinism. Being identified as Muslims, rather than Moors, placed them in a religious category beyond the Sinhala–Tamil ethnic and linguistic binary; meanwhile, their political leaders remained available for political alliances with all parties, especially the Sinhala-dominated UNP and SLFP. It should also be noted that the leader of the Ceylon Muslim League, Tuan Burhanudeen Jayah, was a Sri Lankan Malay whose ethnic community had earlier been excluded from membership of some of the leading Colombo Moorish mosques.

Today the Muslims are the only Sri Lankan ethnic group bearing a religious rather than a linguistic, ethnic or racial name, as reflected also in the name of the largest Muslim political party – the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (founded in 1981).4 Yet despite this mid-century change of identity, there were Muslims who still preferred the historical and ethnic distinctiveness of being a Sonahar or a Moor. A pamphlet circulated in 1950 proclaimed: ‘A person is without self-respect if he has no pride of race … Muslims are Muslims religiously. [But] when he wants to show his race he is an Arabi, an Ajami, a Pathan, a Moplah, a Memon, a Pushti …’ (Mohammed 1950). Institutions such as the Moors' Islamic Cultural Home, founded in Colombo in 1944 and still in existence today, attest to the continuity of ethnic/racial identity among the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Although accustomed now to being called Muslims, they retain a group identity that is distinctively Sri Lankan.

Since independence in 1948, Muslim leaders have used their political ethnicity as “Muslims” to reject overtures from the Tamils on behalf of pan-Dravidian nationalism. This has deeply embittered many Tamils, who accuse the Muslims of turning their backs on the heritage of their mother tongue, which is still primarily Tamil. In truth, there has always been, and still remains, a deep reservoir of Tamil literary and linguistic affinity among the Muslims, who until well into the twentieth century read newspapers and wrote literature in so-called “Arabic-Tamil” or Arwi, a system of orthography that used the Arabic alphabet to represent Tamil sentences phonetically (Uwise 1986; Tschacher 2006). In the Tamil-speaking eastern and northern regions of the island, the local tradition of Muslim writing in Tamil remains quite vibrant, and the popularity of Tamil cinema is shared by both Muslims and Tamils (Nuhman 2007).

The comparison with Muslims in twentieth-century south India is instructive. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the Tamil-speaking Muslims in Tamil Nadu were actively recruited into the pan-Dravidian campaign as fellow “non-Brahmins”, and the leader of the Self-Respect Movement, E. V. Ramasamy, even praised the conversion of Dalits (untouchable castes) to Islam (More 1997; Fakhri 2008). Although Tamil Nadu Muslims supported the creation of a national homeland for Muslims in 1947, virtually none of them migrated to Pakistan at Partition. In Tamil Nadu it is accepted that an indigenous Tamil-speaking person who follows Islam is a “Muslim Tamil”. However, in Sri Lanka this pan-Tamil linguistic identity holds only for the Hindu and Christian Tamils, not for the Tamil-speaking Muslims. This is the cumulative result of a hegemonic high caste (largely Jaffna Vellalar) Tamil political elite and a century of political rivalry and schism between the two communities.

Twin ethno-nationalist threats: Tamil and Sinhalese

The Muslim vs. Tamil divide was further enflamed in recent decades by ghastly LTTE guerrilla massacres of Muslims at prayer, and by the massive LTTE ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the northern Jaffna peninsula in 1990. The Sri Lankan government and its pro-Sinhala nationalist allies have benefited from this anti-Muslim violence, which has helped to ensure that Tamil nationalists and Muslims do not unite under a separatist banner in the north and east, where the two communities have so much in common, both culturally and economically (McGilvray 1997). The perennial challenge of Muslim politics in Sri Lanka is that two thirds of all Muslims live and work in Sinhala-majority parts of the island, where Muslim businesspeople and professionals are aware of the potential for Sinhala animosity. However, the acute locus of Tamil–Muslim tensions has been in the farming and fishing settlements of the north and east. As a colleague and I have argued in a recent assessment of Sri Lankan Muslim political trends (McGilvray and Raheem 2007), a peaceful settlement of Tamil–Muslim tensions in the north-eastern geographical zone (i.e. the erstwhile ‘Tamil Eelam’) would demand a more regionally tailored form of Muslim nationalism and ethnicity that acknowledges a common Tamil-speaking heritage, and a shared agricultural and fishing-based livelihood, in both communities.

In addition to Tamil–Muslim rivalries, there remains a thinly submerged antipathy toward Muslims on the part of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community, who in 1915 erupted in an island-wide pogrom against Muslim merchants that required military suppression by British troops (Roberts 1994). Some segments of the Buddhist clergy have played a well-documented role in the more extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalist politics (Tambiah 1986, 1992; De Votta 2004), culminating today in the Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU, or National Heritage Party) representing the most xenophobic wing of the Sri Lankan Buddhist monkhood. In their eyes, the Muslims are opportunistic, late-arriving foreigners whose Middle Eastern religion, unlike India-centric Hinduism, is totally alien to the island.5 At Daftar Jailani, a Muslim pilgrimage centre located in a Sinhalese district in the heart of the Kandyan hills, there have been efforts by the Buddhist clergy – assisted by the government Archaeology Department – to restrict the expansion of Muslim activities on the grounds that it is an ancient Buddhist heritage site (Aboosally 2002; McGilvray 2004). There continue to be intermittent anti-Muslim riots in Sinhalese towns today, and there are recent signs of governmentally approved efforts to block the expansion of Muslim farming areas and new housing settlements in the eastern coastal region (International Crisis Group 2008). Currently a court case is being fought over whether Muslim tsunami victims can be permitted to occupy a new housing colony built by a foreign NGO in the vicinity of the sacred Buddhist dagoba (stupa) at Deegavapi, in Ampara District.

Influences from the global Muslim ummah

Large numbers of Sri Lankan Muslims – both men and women – are now employed on labour contracts in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Gulf Emirates. The increased prosperity of Sri Lankan Muslims has also led to higher numbers of pilgrims making the Hajj. These factors, plus the expansion of global electronic media (including the internet, email and digital television), have given many Sri Lankan Muslims a heightened awareness of ‘Muslim issues’ around the world, from Kosovo to Kuala Lumpur, and thus a greater sense of membership in the global community of all Muslims (the ummah). A self-conscious turn toward Islamic dress (hijab), especially among younger and more urban Muslim women, is one highly visible reflection of this phenomenon; there has also been a modest growth in the adoption of male Islamic clothing, such as the Arabian-style thobe (thawb), and the cultivation of beards. Muslim girls' school uniforms are now designed to include a face covering (niqab) that can be folded down when girls are walking between home and school, while boys' Western-style school uniforms include a Muslim cap. However, among Muslim women of an older generation, and especially in traditional settings, the sari is still worn in customary Muslim fashion – with the end of the garment covering the head (and, when necessary, part of the face) in a gesture known as mukkaadu.

The wholesale demolition and reconstruction of historic older-style mosques in accordance with imported models of Islamic architecture is another highly visible mark of pan-Islamic influence. For example, the new, brightly painted ‘gingerbread’ mosques with multiple minarets and ornate Arabian-inspired rooflines are quite different from the simpler whitewashed mosques with shady verandahs and dark teak-pillared prayer halls that I saw when I first started my fieldwork in Akkaraipattu in the 1970s.

Within Sri Lanka, there are a number of familiar and well-organised Islamic revitalisation movements with strong roots in the south Asian subcontinent. All-male, bearded, white-robed, door-to-door missionary teams from the Tablighi Jamaat are a familiar sight in Muslim neighbourhoods, urging lapsed Muslims to resume their daily prayers. Evening and weekend study groups organised by the Jamaat-i-Islami are aimed at a more educated middle-class Muslim audience who desire a deeper and more detailed understanding of the Quran and Hadiths.6 Increasingly, one also finds independent mosques loosely labelled ‘towheed’ (tawhid, the unity and alterity of Allah) congregations that are widely alleged to receive funding from missionary “Salafist” or “Wahhabi” organisations abroad. Today, Sri Lankan Muslims seeking to maintain their ancestral religious traditions feel obliged to identify themselves as sunnattu jamaat, meaning “customary or standard” Muslims. As the professionalisation of the Islamic clergy has increased steadily through higher levels of seminary training, the regional and national councils of the Ulama have exerted greater theological control, including the issuance of fatwas (legal interpretations) to scold or excommunicate particular heterodox Sufi sheikhs for their alleged pantheism or deviant interpretations of Islamic theology.

Muslim reformism in Sri Lanka has yet to produce an indigenous movement such as the KNM mujahid organisation in contemporary Kerala, which promotes both the conservative purification of the faith and a progressive agenda of social and educational modernisation (Osella and Osella 2008). The primary targets of Sri Lankan reformist groups are the older traditions and institutions of Sri Lankan popular Islam, such as vow-making at the tombs of historic Sufi sheikhs and Maulana seyyids, and the celebration of the annual saints' festivals (kandooris) that women and children still attend and enjoy. These festivals may feature public exhibitions of ecstatic, self-mortifying Sufi devotional practice (zikr) by Bawa faqirs of the Rifai order, unchanged in over half a century (Spittel 1933: 312–21; McGilvray 2004, 2008). When any of these events attracts an audience of non-Muslims, especially Hindus, it is taken as further evidence that something ‘non-Islamic’ must be going on.

Muslim response to ethno-nationalist pressures

Since the beginning of the armed Tamil rebellion in the 1980s, the Sri Lankan Muslims have become more regionally divided and yet also more politically mobilised. The most obvious symptom of this was the founding in 1981 of the island's first effective Muslim political party (the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, or SLMC) under pressure from east-coast Muslims seeking protection from Tamil guerrilla violence and extortion. Up until this point, the Muslim leadership was largely drawn from the Colombo and south-western urban elites, reflecting the political interests of Muslim businessmen and professional stakeholders. The post-independence strategy of Muslim politicians was to join with the two major Sinhalese ethnic parties that had dominated the government since the 1950s, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Unlike Tamil nationalist spokesmen, who were often portrayed as recalcitrant and uncooperative, some Muslim politicians were willing to join any national ticket that would have them, and occasionally they would even cross the aisle in parliament when it suited their purposes. They assiduously avoided formulating an adversarial ethnic agenda, preferring to trade political favours for government patronage that would benefit their local Muslim (and other) constituents. The overall political stance of the Muslim leadership could be described as defensive, pragmatic and accommodationist, seeking to protect their Muslim constituents from both Sinhalese and Tamil threats while at the same time forging political alliances that produced tangible patronage benefits (jobs, schools, development projects) at the local level.

Therefore, the emergence of the SLMC as a party explicitly promoting the interests of the Muslim community as a whole was a major break with the past, and one that had the potential of posing a “Muslim nationalist” threat to the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The founder of the SLMC was the late M. H. M. Ashroff, a politician with a strong voter base in the Muslim stronghold of Kalmunai in eastern Ampara District where the LTTE posed a mortal danger to many Muslim farmers and shopkeepers. Despite some successes as a nation-wide party, since Ashroff's death in 2000 the SLMC has perennially suffered schisms and opportunistic defections; it has proven nearly impossible to forge a single “Muslim agenda” that can unify a Muslim electorate spread so widely across the island, from urban centres to rural hinterlands (McGilvray and Raheem 2007). Although the original party manifesto pledged a platform based on “Islamic principles”, this phrasing was primarily intended to convey honesty and incorruptibility rather than to suggest the vision of an Islamic state. In practice, the role of religion in the SLMC has proven to be quite pragmatic and down to earth, as shown in its efforts to cultivate ties with local mosque committees to increase voter mobilisation. It is true that during SLMC election campaigns Muslim ritual invocations and prayers have tended to intensify, and in its efforts to strengthen its Islamic credentials the party has opposed certain amendments to Sri Lanka's Muslim personal law to the detriment of women's rights (Zackariya and Shanmugaratnam 1997: 40–1). However, in terms of Islamic religious issues, the SLMC's positions typically seek to preserve the status quo without demanding the radical changes that would appeal to ultra-conservative or ultra-progressive Muslims.

The key policy issues for the SLMC have to do with guaranteeing the livelihood and security concerns of Muslim farmers and fishermen in the north-eastern war zone (International Crisis Group 2007, 2008), while safeguarding the needs of Muslims living in close proximity to their Sinhalese majority neighbours in the dense urban areas of the island's south-west. The Muslim urban elites on the Colombo side of the island typically seek to control the party and to moderate its policies, while the threatened Muslim farmers and activist Muslim students in the east have at times been tempted to demarcate their own separate Muslim homeland or sub-provincial unit, modelled on the idea of an autonomous Tamil Eelam for the Tamil minority (McGilvray and Raheem 2007: 26–8). Following the ceasefire agreement of 2002, the SLMC tried to secure an official Muslim seat for the party at the ensuing peace talks, and when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the island in 2004 the SLMC sought to intervene on behalf of the devastated Muslim communities along the eastern and southern coasts. In both instances, the Sinhalese and the Tamil ethno-nationalists largely ignored the demands of the Muslims represented by the SLMC leadership (McGilvray 2006; McGilvray and Raheem 2007: 43–5).7

Religious conflict: Sufi controversies in eastern Sri Lanka

A completely different, and more surprising, development in recent decades has been the unexpected resilience and resurgence of popular Muslim Sufi mysticism in many different forms, ranging from the continuing public performances of the Bawa faqirs, to a variety of middle-class urban Sufi groups in Colombo and the Kandyan hill country, to the devoted followers of controversial new Sufi sheikhs in the large Muslim agricultural towns of the eastern coastal region. A possible explanation for this trend is that the polarising harshness of pan-Islamic reformist teaching that reaches Sri Lanka from the larger ummah tends to generate its own counter-reaction. By forcing Muslims to re-examine their taken-for-granted beliefs and traditional local practices, so-called “fundamentalist” preaching may lead some Muslims to deliberately pursue a mystical path and to seek the spiritual guidance of a Sufi sheikh. Whatever its sociological or theological cause, the rise of controversial charismatic Sufi sheikhs in eastern Sri Lanka has recently precipitated unprecedented religious conflict among Sri Lankan Muslims, who are otherwise quite uniform in their orthodox Sunni forms of worship. Although the beginnings of militant opposition to Sufi teachers in the eastern towns of Kattankudy and Maruthamunai can be traced back to the 1980s, the violence there has escalated sharply since 2004, resulting in the destruction and desecration of several saintly tombs and shrines, and forcing one Sufi leader to flee for his safety. A more recent 2009 clash in the south-western Muslim coastal town of Beruwala reflects similar religious tensions between a popular Sufi sheikh and a nearby towheed reformist congregation.8 Whereas popular forms of Sri Lankan Sufism had been conducted for generations without attracting much notice from the majority community or the national press, when these acts of mob violence within the Muslim community erupted so visibly it quickly became headline news and aroused public anxieties about the possibility of Islamic militancy and jihadism. Framed in the context of the global ‘war on terrorism’, and viewed against the recent history of LTTE suicide bombings, the Muslim community suddenly faced a public relations problem.

In Kattankudy, a densely populated Muslim town near Batticaloa with historic commercial ties to south India, a controversial Sufi leader named Rauf Maulavi had already established his own mosque adjacent to the ziyaram (tomb-shrine) of his father several decades previously and developed a well-funded organisation (All-Ceylon Islamic Spiritual Movement) to disseminate his books and newsletters in Tamil. Accompanied by the local businessmen who followed him, Rauf travelled to India and the Middle East – including Baghdad, where the tomb of south Asia's most widely venerated Sufi saint, Abdul Qadir Gilani, is located. Because he espoused the allegedly ‘pantheistic’ doctrines of the twelfth-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi (Wahdat ul Wujud, or ‘Unity of Being’), his teaching was condemned by fundamentalist clergy as a violation of towheed, the radical unity of God, and he was declared an apostate (murtad) in a fatwa issued by the Sri Lankan Muslim clergy (All Ceylon Jamiyatul Ulama) in 1979. Despite ostracism and periodic attacks on his property, Rauf successfully defied the fatwa for decades, backed up by his own muscular and well-financed group of local followers, and ultimately the decree was rescinded. However, he was driven from Kattankudy by mob violence in late 2006, and his location as of this writing is not certain.

The headquarters shrine of a second Sufi leader, the late Sheikh Abdullah Payilvan, was also attacked in December 2006 at the same time that Rauf was driven out in a convulsion of mob violence sparked by the burial of Payilvan's body in a private tomb at his shrine in Kattankudy. The followers of Payilvan belong to a new Sufi order he founded called Thareekatul Mufliheen, and they actively distribute a wide array of Payilvan's published books and recorded songs on their website (http://www.mufliheen.com). Payilvan, like Rauf, had been declared an apostate for his pantheistic theology, and his corpse was barred from burial within Kattankudy (a totally Muslim town) by conservative Muslims, whom the Payilvan group loosely identifies as “Wahhabis”. Rumours also circulated that Payilvan's followers had filled his tomb with honey, an idolatrous gesture anathema to Islamic reformist sensibilities. As a result, mobs said to have been encouraged by members of the local Muslim clergy, by mosque federation leaders and by the Centre for Islamic Guidance (a towheed organisation) tore down a part of the Mufliheen headquarters shrine, removed Payilvan's corpse from his tomb and took it to a hidden location, where it was reportedly burned and secretly reburied. Even Sri Lankan Muslims with no sympathy for Payilvan's Sufi doctrines have found this desecration and cremation of his body to be appalling, with its symbolic implication that Payilvan was in fact a Hindu. The website maintained by the Thareekatul Mufliheen includes an archive of over twenty years of legal appeals and diligent civil rights injunctions lodged on behalf of Payilvan, along with photos of the 2006 violence. His followers remain determined to rebuild his shrine and spread his teachings.

Alternative Sufi strategy in Akkaraipattu

In contrast to the Muslim religious outbreaks in Kattankudy, my research in the town of Akkaraipattu, located only forty miles further south, has revealed relatively few signs of such anti-Sufi militancy. In fact, when I visited in June 2008, I heard quite a bit of outrage over the burning of Payilvan's body, simply on the grounds of Islamic respect for the dead. Perhaps because of a difference in spiritual leaderships styles, Sufi leaders and their ideas seem to be accepted, or at least tolerated, in contemporary Akkaraipattu as part of a more diverse and differentiated Muslim political milieu (Klem, unpublished). The example of a new Sufi leader named Makkattar Vappa (“Father Makkattar”) is a case in point.

Makkattar is a former primary school art teacher who still does some sketches and drawings himself. He tells the miraculous story of being chosen, quite unexpectedly, to succeed the leader of a Sufi order originating in Androth Island (Lakshadweep Archipelago, a Union Territory of India) off the west coast of Kerala. The previous leader (kalifa) founded the order based on the hybrid authority he possessed as a member of four distinct Sufi spiritual lineages – Qadiri, Chishti, Rifai and Naqshbandi – but Makkattar does not emphasise the branding of his particular kind of mysticism. He is related on his mother's side to a local saint of Yemeni Hadrami descent who is buried in one of the two oldest mosques in town, and this is a source of personal pride. His followers, both in Akkaraipattu and Colombo, include men, women and entire families for whom he offers a combination of pastoral advice and spontaneous philosophical wisdom, depending on the situation and the audience assembled to hear his words. A widower, he lives in his late wife's matrilocal dowry house surrounded for many hours of the day by his male followers and initiated disciples (murids), many of whom appear to be under the age of thirty. Unlike the controversial Sufi sheikhs in Kattankudy, both of whom developed large-scale organisations to propagate their teachings in the print and digital media in the face of conservative Muslim opposition, Makkattar works at a direct interpersonal level as a pastoral counsellor, impromptu philosopher and dispenser of curative amulets.

The fact that he has avoided disseminating his Sufi teachings in print (or by means of a website) has probably helped him to avoid the wrath of the Islamic reformists, whom he privately labels as “Wahhabis and Salafis”. However, he does things that hard-line fundamentalists would certainly condemn, such as privately giving amulets and protective blessings to women who seek his advice and guidance. He has also erected his own mosque (named in memory of the heretical tenth-century Persian Sufi martyr al-Hallaj, who was executed in Baghdad) as well as a seaside mausoleum and meditation centre that shelters the twin graves of his deceased wife and mother. Again, this is not something most contemporary Muslim reformists would condone. The courtyard of his house in Akkaraipattu is typically filled with a mellow group of younger male murids, and his mobile phone is in constant use. As a technological extension of traditional Muslim healing practices, he sometimes recites a curative Islamic incantation to a remote patient who presses his own phone in contact with the injured part of his body.

When I asked him about the possible threat posed by anti-Sufi groups, Makkattar reminded me that one of his former primary school students – and loyal spiritual followers – is a local member of parliament and of the prime minister's cabinet. Local-level politics has been alleged to be a motive in the Kattankudy religious violence: Sufi sheikhs have the potential to influence the behaviour of a significant bloc of voters. In Akkaraipattu, Makkattar is aligned with the popular local MP, who has delivered significant patronage to his constituents, most notably a new municipal water system. However, on a personal level Makkattar has maintained a modest level of consumption, and his lifestyle is in no way extravagant. He is fully aware of the unfortunate events in Kattankudy, and he appears content to maintain a relatively low public profile. Because he is an unobtrusively pastoral Sufi sheikh, his work and teachings have not triggered the violent, and troublingly mediagenic, reaction seen in Kattankudy.

Muslim ethnicity and Sri Lankan nationalism

Unlike the Muslims of north India and Pakistan – a region ruled for centuries by the Mughals and other Turkic/Persianate Muslim dynasties – the “Moors” of Sri Lanka have no heritage of pre-colonial dominion over any part of the island. In the contemporary era, with only eight per cent of the population, they are clearly destined to remain a small Muslim minority within a non-Muslim nation. However, the sociological term “Muslim” must be understood to function in contemporary Sri Lankan discourse as the label for a distinctive Tamil-speaking ethnic group with specific centres of population and local cultural traditions. The Sri Lankan “Muslims” are an ethnic group newly relabelled in the twentieth century, although the older ethnic-racial identities of Sonahar and Moor, as well as the small Malay community, are still acknowledged today.

For the first three decades following Ceylon's independence in 1948, Muslim political leaders had sought to emphasise a “Ceylonese or Sri Lankan” collective identity as native co-citizens of the island nation, a strategy shown by their pragmatic participation within the two Sinhala majority political parties (UNP and SLFP). Two major factors altered this pattern in the late twentieth century. The first was the polarising pressure of growing Sinhala and Tamil ethno-nationalisms, leading to a decisive Muslim break with the Tamil secessionist movements of the 1980s and 1990s and a historic distancing from Sinhala-centred politics-as-usual by the creation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party in 1981. Both developments can be traced to the impact of the LTTE guerrilla war for an independent Tamil Eelam, which further alienated the Muslims from the Tamils but also gave them a grievance against the Sinhala majority governments for failing to protect their lives and property in the north and east.

The second – and rather confounding – factor affecting the Sri Lankan Muslims in recent decades has been the religious and cultural influence of global Islamic movements and religious ideologies that have provoked contention and clashes within the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself. The shift toward stronger outward expressions of Muslim religious identity – things like the female hijab, beards, the Tablighi Jamaat missionary campaigns, the boom in new mosque construction – has made the Sri Lankan Muslims both more ‘visible’ and more ‘different’ in the eyes of the general public. Senior Sri Lankan historians have celebrated the Muslims for their ability to assimilate unobtrusively into Sinhalese society from late medieval and early colonial times up to the present day (de Silva 1986; Dewaraja 1994), but the current trend toward Middle Eastern styles of dress and architecture now draws greater attention to the Muslims as a conspicuous social ‘other’ in the public sphere.

The growth of popular Sufism over recent decades was the least anticipated result of pan-Islamic influences in Sri Lanka. While this Sufi renaissance represents an expansion and diversification of religious expression, the local religious conflicts that have arisen between heterodox Sufi groups and zealous orthodox Islamic reformers, especially in the Eastern Province town of Kattankudy, have given the Sri Lankan Muslim community practical reasons to be alarmed. A connection has even been alleged with shadowy Muslim militant groups defending against Tamil guerrilla attacks in the eastern region (International Crisis Group 2007). Whenever the media disseminate news items about “Islamic extremists” attacking Sufi mosques and shrines, there is a temptation to insert the concept of jihad (Islamic holy war) into the story. The portrayal of Sri Lankan Muslims as jihadi extremists could be publicly damaging to the community, and so the spate of religious violence is a source of obvious concern. In 2008 there was also some minor debate on Sri Lankan Muslim websites as to whether saluting the Sri Lankan flag (with its anthropomorphic representation of the lion) and singing the Sri Lankan national anthem (with its pledge to “worship” the motherland) could be interpreted as un-Islamic practices forbidden to observant Muslims. Again, because this sort of fringe theological debate could pose a threat to the island-wide image of Sri Lankan Muslims as loyal citizens, the issue quickly faded from Sri Lankan Muslim internet discussions. Some liberal Muslim pundits humourously compared it to fatwas issued in Cairo and Kuala Lumpur warning Muslims against enrolling in yoga classes.

Conclusion

The Sri Lankan Muslim community has long been caught between the forces of militant Tamil ethno-nationalism and state-sanctioned Sinhalese ethnic encroachment, but it has been careful not to respond with any alarming signs of Muslim ethno-nationalism or Islamist extremism. Today's fragmented and factionalised Muslim political establishment is testimony to how difficult it is to unite the dispersed Sri Lankan Muslims around a focused national Muslim agenda, and the recent spate of anti-Sufi militancy – encouraged (and reportedly funded) by external Islamic organisations in the global ummah– has further clouded the Muslim political horizon. Ironically, the devotional and ecumenical Sufi tradition is far more likely to elicit the sympathy of Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese than the perceived puritanical rigidities of Muslim reformism. I am thinking, for example, of the Khidr mosque and Sufi tombs at the Hindu-Buddhist Kataragama pilgrimage centre in the southern jungles of the island, where popular Bawa faqir performances attract a mixed Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese audience.

The recent anti-Sufi violence has tarnished the public image of the Muslim community, and yet there appears to be little likelihood that these or other Sufi movements will disappear. Through a combination of civil rights litigation, electronic and website mobilisation, private financial support from wealthy devotees, and personal, charismatic leadership, the Sufis in Sri Lanka are determined to persevere against their fundamentalist opponents. This internal religious friction, responding to ideologies and interests in the global ummah, will further complicate matters as the Muslim community continues to face the external political threats of Sinhalese and Tamil ethno-nationalism, especially in the north-eastern region of the island.

Notes
  1. 1 The Sri Lankan Muslims form a somewhat larger share of the population than Muslims in other Theravada Buddhist nations: Myanmar (four per cent), Thailand (five per cent) and Cambodia (five per cent).

  2. 2 The word Eelam is an older Tamil name for the island of Sri Lanka.

  3. 3 The gesture of the sword in the lion's hand could be read either as a warning or as a salute to the Muslims and Tamils, but either way it proclaims Sinhala ethnic sovereignty. Admittedly, reversing the direction of the lion and directing its raised tail toward the minorities would create even greater problems.

  4. 4 It is important to keep in mind that not all Muslims vote for the SLMC. The party commands the greatest voter loyalty in the Eastern Province, where its founder, M. H. M. Ashroff, was based. In the western and southern regions of the island, the main Sinhalese parties (UNP and SLFP) frequently nominate Muslim candidates and attract Muslim voters.

  5. 5 The Sinhala Buddhist nationalists are also hostile to Christianity, but the fact that many high-status Sinhalese and Tamils converted for practical reasons during the colonial era makes their religion seem somewhat more home-grown.

  6. 6 Unlike in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the Jamaat-i-Islami is an organised political party, in Sri Lanka it is engaged only in Islamic education and charitable works.

  7. 7 I am reliably informed that the current leader of the SLMC, a west-coast politician with family roots in Kandy and wealthy in-laws in Colombo, purchased several copies of my book about Tamil and Muslim culture on the east coast (McGilvray 2008), perhaps hoping that a grasp of local ethnography would be useful in a future election.

  8. 8 A Sri Lankan newspaper account of the Beruwala incident is available at the following website: http://sundaytimes.lk/090802/News/news_18.html.

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