Sri Lanka Table of Contents

The religion of Islam began, like Buddhism, with the experience of a single man, but the religious environment of early Islam was the Judeo-Christian world of Arabia. Many of the basic premises and beliefs of Islam are thus quite different than those of Buddhism or Hinduism and more closely resemble the systems of Judaism or Christianity. During the last 1,000 years, however, Islam has played a major part in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka. Islam in Sri Lanka has preserved the doctrines derived from Arabia, while adapting to the social environment of South Asia.

During the early seventh century A.D., Muhammad experienced a series of messages from God in the city of Mecca, a trading center in western Arabia. He became a prophet, one of the line of Biblical prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ (in Arabic, Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa), and he conveyed to the people of Mecca the last and greatest of the revelations given by God to the world. The message was simple and powerful: "submission" (Islam) to the mercy of a single, all-powerful God (Allah). God exists for eternity, but out of love he created the world and mankind, endowing both men and women with immortal souls. Human beings have only one life, and when it ends their souls go to either heaven or hell according to their behavior on earth. Correct behavior is known through the revelation of prophets inspired by God, and Muhammad is the last of these prophets. To believe in Islam, to become "one who submits" (a Muslim), one must accept the will of the one true God and the message of Muhammad, which is encapsulated in the shahada: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet." His message is immortalized in the Quran, a series of revelations conveyed by the angel Gabriel, and in the hadith, the sayings and example of the prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad described some of the most important actions necessary for a believer who wished to submit to God's love and will. In addition to commandments against lying, stealing, killing and other crimes, the moral code includes prayer five times daily, fasting, giving alms to the poor, pilgrimage to Mecca if financially possible, abstention from gambling and wine, and dietary restrictions similar to those of Judaism. The Prophet linked behavior to salvation so closely that bodies of Islamic law (sharia) grew up in order to interpret all human activity according to the spirit of the Quran. In practice, to be a Muslim requires not simply a belief in God and in Muhammad's status as the final prophet, but acceptance of the rules of Islamic law and following them in one's own life. Islam thus encompasses a rich theology and moral system, and it also includes a distinctive body of laws and customs that distinguish Muslims from followers of other faiths. Islam is theoretically a democratic union of all believers without priests, but in practice scholars (ulama) learned in Islamic law interpret the Quran according to local conditions, legal officials (qazi) regulate Muslim life according to Islamic law, and local prayer leaders coordinate group recitation of prayers in mosques (masjid, or palli).

By the fifteenth century, Arab traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Some of them settled down along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, married local women, and spoke Arabized Tamil rather than pure Arabic. Their families followed Islam and preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, while also adopting some local social customs (such as matrilineal and matrilocal families) that were not part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese took control in the sixteenth century, they persecuted the Muslim traders of the southwest coast, and many Muslims had to relocate in the Central Highlands or on the east coast. They retained their separate religious identity, but also adopted some aspects of popular religion. For example, pilgrimage sites, such as Kataragama, may be the same for Muslims as for Hindus or Buddhists, although Muslims will worship at mosques rather than reverence the Buddha or worship Hindu gods.

The growth in ethnic consciousness during the last two centuries has affected the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Muslim revivalism has included an interest in the Arabic roots of the community, increased emphasis on the study of Arabic as the basis for understanding the Quran, and an emphasis on separate schools for Muslim children. Whether there should be an independent Islamic law for Muslims, preserving the distinct moral culture passed down from Muhammad, is a continuing issue. On a number of occasions, agitation has developed over attempts by the Sri Lankan government to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance. In order to prevent further alienation of the Muslim community, in the 1980s the government handled its dealings with Muslims through a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress