Fighting for the Soul of Islam in Sri Lanka

Published on: May 4, 2019

Today, Sufism Has Gone Underground, Radical Wahhabis And Salafis Have Taken Over Many Of Sri Lanka’s Mosques: Fighting for the Soul of Islam in Sri Lanka

A man praying at a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Friday.CreditCreditIshara S. Kodikara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mine is a typical Muslim family: we mix with everyone in this multiethnic, multilingual country. And I wear both Western and Sri Lankan clothes, as do my mother, sister and extended family. None of us choose to wear the hijab; we believe that our faith is in our hearts rather than in our clothing.

Over the past 30-odd years, an insidious change occurred in our community. It’s hard to pinpoint when. It might have been when Sri Lanka began sending droves of housemaids to the Middle East in the early 1980s, among them many Muslim women. Many of these women had adopted the Abayah and hijab in their countries of employment and, on their return, continued wearing them in Sri Lanka. Initially, they were the most vociferous that Sri Lankan Muslims were practicing a diluted version of Islam, that their prayers were not said in the correct Arabic accent, that they should stop praising the Prophet Muhammad and saints, and that they were not dressed properly according to Islamic guidelines — especially the women.

This strict interpretation of Islam began to take hold. I noticed it the first time a Muslim man refused to shake my hand, and when Muslims began to sprinkle their conversations with religious Arabic phrases. Young Muslim men I knew from the city began going to rural areas to preach on how to practice their faith better. Muslim weddings began to be held in male-only mosques, without the presence of the bride, instead of at home or in hotels. The most visible change was that Muslim women stopped wearing their traditional sari or Shalwar Kameez in favour of the hijab, Abayah or Niqab. Muslim men soon followed suit. Robes replaced sarongs or trousers, and more of them sported beards.
Today, Sufism has gone underground, while radical Wahhabis and Salafis have taken over many of Sri Lanka’s mosques.