What a non-Muslim Sri Lankan should know about Islam and Sri Lankan Muslims:

People will always believe what they want to believe, how they want to believe it, when they want to believe it. The events of Easter Sunday 2019 (Sunday April 21, 2019) triggered a process in Sri Lanka which has exposed the entire Sri Lankan Muslim population to this concept in a very negative sense. Questions which were discussed previously in the rarefied atmosphere of academic conferences have entered the mainstream of public consciousness. Islam or some variant of it -whether distorted, perverted, corrupted or hijacked by extremist- has become a force to reckon with, or at least has a label attached to a phenomenon with menacing personalities.

Islam is a religion of peace: the word, a verbal noun meaning submission (to God), is etymologically related to the word salaam, meaning peace. So, how is it that a religion of peace practiced by traditional Sri Lankan Muslims for thousands of years in harmony and co-existence with Buddhists, Hindus and Christians become an ideology for hatred and animosity towards other communities? Academic work done by Dr. M. A. M. Shukri (1986) and Lorna Dewaraja (1994) seminally document this fact.

In an era of sound-bites and newspaper agendas driven by tabloid headlines, the lives of peace-loving majorities are inevitably obscured by attention seeking acts of minorities. The news media acts like a distorting mirror, exaggerating the militancy of a few while minimizing the quietism or indifference of the many. This outstanding feature of modern society has been successfully exploited by extremist on all sides (minority, majority and all in between) to further their individual identity driven agendas at the expense of the common Sri Lankan National Identity.

The principle drivers of this vicious cycle are the politicians and religious clergy on all sides. It is in this context that the current revived interest in Islam and Muslims should be viewed and used as an opportunity to enlighten the Sri Lankan public on the basics of Islam and Muslims.

Defining Islam and for that matter any faith-based ideology/religion is far from simple. This must be reiterated and remembered throughout this brief monograph. (Faith is under no obligation to make sense to any one other than those who profess in it).

If we are (truly ever) going to evolve as an SRI LANKAN NATION in a DEMOCRATIC (as opposed to an ethnocratic) backdrop, we must firstly understand, appreciate and respect each other’s religious, cultural and social identity; which ought to be contributing towards a truly Sri Lankan Identity. If not, we will end up promoting Sinhalese/Buddhist nations, Sinhalese/Christian nations, Tamil/Hindu nations and Tamil/Christian nations. The term ‘Muslim’ in the Sri Lankan context which denotes a religious denomination as opposed to an ethno-cultural one has so far precluded the Sri Lankan Muslims from thinking terms of Islamic/Muslim nation.

The intention of this monograph is to contribute towards the understanding of the true Sri Lankan Identity from the global and local perspective of the religion Islam and the Muslim identity.

In understanding Islam there are three basic concepts to be aware of and addressed;

1. The concept of Islam as a faith

2. The concept of Islam as a political ideology

3. The concept of Islam as an individual/group identity

1. The Concept of Islam as a faith

Islam is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion. Historically it is believed to have originated in the early 7th century CE in Mecca, in present day Saudi Arabia, and was founded by Muhammad (570-632 CE). Islamic scriptures claim Islam to be the complete and universal version of a primordial faith that was revealed many times before to prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The primary sources of Islam are derived from,

1. The Quran – In its original Arabic form the verbatim words of God (Allah)

2. The Sunna and Haddith – Teachings and normative examples from the life of Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him)

Islam like other Abrahamic religions teaches a final judgement with the righteous rewarded with heaven and the unrighteous punished in hell. It also strongly brings forth the concept of divine will – everything, good and bad is believed to have been decreed. Its religious concepts and practices include the 5 pillars of Islam which are obligatory acts of worship and following the Islamic law (Sharia) which virtually touches every aspect of individual and collective life.

1. The profession of faith - Sahada (There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God)

2. Daily prayers - Salat

3. Alms-giving - Zakat

4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan - Saum

5. Pilgrimage to Mecca - Haj

Upon the death of the founder Islam on June 8, 632 CE, he was succeeded by 4 of his companions who became the rulers of the then Islamic ‘state’ and religious leaders of the new religion of Islam (Abu Bakar – 632 to 634 CE, Umar ibn Khattab - 634 to 644 CE, Uthman ibn Afan 644 to 656 CE and Ali ibn Abu Talib 656 to 661 CE). On the death of the last Calipha the religious differences, which had begun to emerge during the period immediately following the death of the Prophet became more formalized and led to the division of Islam as a religion in to several branches. These divisions were primarily on the grounds of theological and political interpretations of Islam. The main two branches of Islam are the Sunnis (comprising of 75-90% global Muslims today) and the Shias (comprising 10-20% of global Muslims today). The first 4 caliphs were followed by dynastic caliphates and eventually succeeded by the establishment of the Ottoman empire.

Each major branch of Islam has several sects within them (once again sub divided on their methodology of religious traditions and practice based on interpretation of Islamic law – the Sharia). A few examples of these sub sects are;

1. Within the Sunni branch of Islam (also known as Ahl as-Sunnah)- Shafie, Hanafi, Hanbali and Maliki

The vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslim belong and practice this branch of Islam.

2. Within the Shia branch of Islam - Ismaili, Ja’fari, Zaidi

A small minority of Sri Lankan Muslim belong to this branch of Islam and most of them belong to the Sub sect Ismailis who are once again sub divided in to the Musta’il sub sect and the Tayyabi sub sect to whom the Dawoodi Bohras belong. (Please note that there are many other sub sects of the Bohras in other parts of the world)

3. Other denomination – Ahamadeiya, Bektashi Alevism, Ibadi, Mahadavia, Quranists (main stream Muslims do not consider followers of these denominations to be ‘Muslims’)

To be continued


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