Rise of Wahabism in Eastern Sri Lanka
Developed between the 13th and 18th centuries, Wahabism has sought to rid popular Islam of innovations and superstitions, writes PK Balachandran.
The Islamic fundamentalism found in the all-Muslim town of Kattankudy in the eastern Sri Lankan district of Batticaloa, is rooted in Wahabism, sanctioned and practiced in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
Developed between the 13th and 18th centuries, Wahabism has sought to rid popular Islam of "innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies and idolatries" and get people to adhere strictly to the Quran and the Hadis (sayings of Prophet Mohammad).
Wahabism is against music and dance, and the social mixing of the sexes. Being acutely monotheistic, it is opposed even to the display of images of humans and animals; praying at graves; and assigning divinity to the Prophet, praying to him and celebrating his birthday.
Wahabists also reject non-religious cultural practices and beliefs which are inherited or imbibed from other cultures.
Within Islam, Wahabism is virulently opposed to Sufism because Sufism does not recognise the duality between self or man, and God.
In Sufism, God has to be reached through personal experience by gaining knowledge of one self. Sufism believes that saints and wise men are necessary to guide one's search for God.
It sanctions worship through music and dance and paying obeisance to saints and teachers, both living and dead.
The Prophet is considered divine and celebrated. Inherited and imbibed non-religious cultural practices are not rejected outright. Wahabis consider such ideas heretical.
In Kattankudy, the conflict has been between two versions of Islam. On the one hand, there is the entrenched and popular version which is culturally integrated with the local Tamil environment, and which could be loosely described as Sufistic. On the other hand, there is the new entrant, Wahabism.
Prior to the entry of Wahabism in the mid 1970s, (thanks to the oil boom and the rise of Saudi Arabia) Kattankudy Muslims were praying at the graves of Auliyas or saintly men; seeking favours from God through prayer; singing songs in praise of God; and organising grand festivals and distributing food in observance of the Prophet's or a Saint's birthday; and using flowers in prayer.
Many of their social customs and rituals were of Tamil or Indian origin. Men and women mingled in religious festivities.
"In earlier times, Muslims participated in Hindu temple festivals and made vows like the Tamils. They also had regular roles to play in Hindu temple festivals," recalled KMM.Kaleel of the Federation of Mosques.
"To stop this, the Ulemas of those days encouraged Muslims to start similar festivities in their own mosques," he explained.
According to the Sufi Sunnat-ul-Jamaat leader, Maulvi A Abdur Rauf, not all of these practices can be branded as un-Islamic.
He argued that many could be justified on the basis of the Quran and the Hadis as these were matters of interpretation. In the past, there had been varying interpretations, he pointed out.
Rauff was popular. But given the changed global Islamic situation in the 1970s, the elitist Colombo-based All Ceylon Jamiat Ulema issued a fatwa against him.
He was accused of bringing in the beliefs and practices of the Hindus of Tamil Nadu, where he had studied. But resistance to Rauf at Kattankudy itself, took time to develop.
Change in thinking began to show up in the mid-1980s, when a large number of locals started going to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
"There, they were introduced to Wahabism in special preaching centres," said MBM Firdous, of the Centre for Development and Rebuilding.
Back in Kattankudy, people were coming under the influence of P Jainul Abedin alias PJ, a powerful Wahabist preacher from Tamil Nadu.
Organisations like the Saudi-funded Centre for Islamic Guidance cropped up in the early 1990s, Firdous said.
Young men from Kattankudy began to get scholarships to study in religious universities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is these young men who spearheaded Wahabism when they got back.
Coming up: Wahabi-Sufi clashes