It was the holy war of Muslims last week in the coastal town of Beruwala.
Signs of growing divisive battles loom large in this coastal town, once a bustling port for Arab traders of yore, from whom indigenous Sri Lankan Muslims trace their origins. As police commandos, with their M16A1 rifles on the ready, patrol the area, a burnt out mosque, mangled bicycles, mud-stained walls, blood-clotted prayer rugs and crushed vegetation tell the story.
Police and Special Task Force personnel stand guard outside the damaged mosque
Divisiveness is not a new phenomenon to Beruwala. It is a microcosm of the Muslim identity in many ways. The Galle Road that hugs the coast from Colombo veers inland just ahead of the town and forms the divide. On the left of the road lies China Fort, the area where some of the wealthiest among Sri Lankans Muslims live. The palatial houses with all modern conveniences could outdo if not equal those in the Colombo 7 sector. Most of the wealthy Muslims, gem dealers, even have a home in the capital, not to mention property.
On the right side of the road, however, it is abject poverty. Every year, during the fasting month of Ramazan, the bond of brotherhood is revived. The rich provide zakath or alms to the poor. They come in the form of not only cash donations but also in kind -- like dates, rice and other essential commodities. Over the years, it had become a tradition.
One such poor village in the outskirts of the Beruwala town is Maligahena, home of Quadiriyyathul Nabaviyah or better known as the Bukhari Thakkiya or mosque. Muslims there had just ended the 130th anniversary feast. The ten-acre precincts of the mosque premises assume a festive air during this period. Traders build stalls to sell their wares to more than 100,000 devotees who come from all parts of Sri Lanka. On Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, ending religious ceremonies, they sat on mats for dinner and lunch in groups of six to share together in one Savan (or a large dish) a rice meal with mutton and other curries.
Most Muslims in Sri Lanka are Sunnis. There are a few Shia Muslims too from the relatively small trading community of Bohras. The division between the Shias and the Sunnis dates back to the death of Prophet Muhammad and stems from a question over who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunni Muslims agree with the position taken by many of the Prophet's companions, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. This is what was done, and the Prophet's close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.
Rizvi Zain: Masjidur Rahman trustee
The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet."
On the other hand, some Muslims share the belief that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself. The Shia Muslims believe that following the prophet's death, leadership should have gone directly to his son-in-law, Ali. Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Sunni Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams who they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself. The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali."
Sunni Muslims in the Kalutara district are split in two different sub groups. One group, known as the Alaviya sect, historically holds its annual feast at the Ketchimalai mosque located on the palm fringed promontory adjoining the fisheries harbour in Beruwala. It was only on a Saturday and a Sunday in June this year, they held their feast drawing over 80,000 devotes countrywide. The Quadiriya sect did so on July 23 (Thursday) at the Bukhari mosque.
The remarks of a Moulavi (cleric) who conducted Jumma prayers a day later, (on Friday), in another relatively new mosque, Masjidur Rahman, some 200 metres away, was cause for concern. In a sermon heard through loud-hailers to a good part of the village, the Moulavi had made some provocative remarks, alleged Abdul Latif, a lawyer for the organisers of the Bukhari feast. "He had branded those taking part in the feast as kafirs (or infidels)," he told The Sunday Times.
Abdul Latif: Bukhari mosque lawyer
Latiff, who is also a member of the board of management of the Bukhari mosque, said the conduct of the feast was also criticised and this had angered members of the Quadiriya sect.
That evening Naeem Cassim, a devotee of the Bukhari mosque, lodged a complaint at the Beruwala Police about the alleged inflammatory remarks of the Moulavi. When Police went to Masjidur Rahman, devotees there had assured that the Moulavi would turn up within two hours at their station. Latiff said when he did not, devotees of the Bukhari mosque had gone there to meet the Moulavi but failed. "Most of the devotees were incensed," he said.
"We have been tolerant for the past eight years. Since the Masjidur Rahman mosque was built, they have been calling us kafirs (infidels). They always criticise our tradition of feeding people in the mosque," a young man who prays at the Bukhari mosque said. The youth from Elanthagoda village which borders Mahagoda did want to be named. He said, "even churches in the United States feed people."
The Bukhari Kandhoori (or feast) seems to be the bone of contention. "As a Muslim I feel such incidents should not take place. People on both sides need proper education of Islam," said Fazlun, a worker in a small shop in Beruwala town.
Past midnight Friday, events took a bad turn. Rizvi Zain, trustee of the Masjidur Rahman mosque told the Sunday Times that crowds armed with swords, knives and clubs attacked their mosque after causing an electricity blackout .They chanted slogans calling for the Moulavi to come out. Two of the devotees, he said, were beaten to death and 40 others were injured. Nine of them are still in hospital. Mohideen, a 37-year-old gem merchant and Mahir, a 30-year-old lapidarist, were killed in the violence that lasted an hour and set the mosque on fire.
Parts of the mosque were covered with black soot, glass from shattered windows had rained on the ashes of burnt wooden cupboards on the walls, broken knives and edges of swords carelessly lay on the floor, flies squatted on stains of blood which was yet to darken. Bicycles and motorcycles parked outside the prayer area were destroyed. A night curfew had to be imposed in the area after the incident.
A medical centre within the premises of the mosque was also attacked. "Equipment worth many thousands of rupees was destroyed. All the machines were either burnt or broken," Ashraf, a devotee in the Masjidur Rahman mosque, said. The healthcare wing of the mosque was built after the main building was constructed in 2002.
According to Ashraf, who described himself as a caretaker of the mosque, "affordable" healthcare services were provided to the people of Mahagoda and surrounding areas 24 hours a day.
Ashraf alleged hand grenades had been hurled at people gathered to witness the opening of the Masjidur Rahman mosque in 2002. "That's the culprits' headquarters," said Mohammed Fazli, another devotee, pointing towards the Bukhari mosque though there was a gulf in their ideological differences.
An hour after the incident, Trustee Zain claimed, the Police moved in. The Fire Brigade doused the fire. Later in the day, special units of commandos from the Police Special Task Force were deployed. Tension remains in the area.
As Muslims in Beruwala recover from one of the darkest days in their history, some serious questions are coming to the fore. Devotees of the Masjidur Rahman mosque belong to a group called Thawheed, followers of Wahhabism or a puritan form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
Until the terror attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, "Wahabism" was little known to the non-Muslim world. This is what the Oxford University Press, quoting a book on the subject of Wahabism says:
"Now most of us recognise the word as describing an austere and puritanical type of Islam, mentioned frequently in connection with Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia and often named as the inspiration behind the 9/11 attacks. The word "Wahabi" stems from the name of the founder of this system of thought, Muhammed Ibn al-Wahab (1702-1791), companion and religious advisor to Muhammed Ibn Saud, founder of the House of Saud."
Strict Wahabis believe that all those who do not practise their form of religion are heathens and enemies. There are others who say Wahabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to the Taliban as well as Osama bin Laden.
What has caused concern in intelligence and security circles is the manifestation of this new phenomenon in Beruwala. It had earlier seen its emergence in the east.
Murder in the mosque: A Masjidur Rahman devotee showing the place where one of the devotees was killed.
Intelligence officials say it is a new development where the Thawheed group had emerged in several Muslim areas. This is particularly in the east where there has been a marked growth of Wahabi followers. It was only months earlier, the Police requested these groups to surrender arms.
Mohamed Fazly, a devotee of the Thawheed group said, "We are trying to ensure Islam is followed in its proper way and in the purest form. We will deal with those who carried out the savage attacks." The remarks reflect the disturbed mood in a coastal town where there had been unity amongst Muslims within their diversities.
"This is a very unfortunate incident because Islam preaches brotherhood and peace. People must be educated on what Islam really stands for," said a Muslim intellectual very familiar with the community's workings in Beruwala. He did not wish to be identified. Scholars are afraid of the long-term consequences of such conflicts within the Muslim community, especially at a time when the Muslim identity is under siege globally.
For the State intelligence arms, this new phenomenon, will no doubt pose serious questions. They include key issues like who is channelling funds and who is trying to export religious revolution to an otherwise peaceful community according to another Islamic scholar who also did not wish to be identified.
His remarks underscored the feeling that is running high. Some of the embarrassed were already circulating SMS messages calling the Moulavi involved in the incident as "Sheikh Prabhakaran," a crude but thought provoking remark. Slogans had come up inside the mosque exhorting "Another "Jihadi Group is coming".
Those who allegedly took part in the attack, 131 of them, surrendered to the Police. They have now been remanded till August 6. The number is the largest ever arrested and remanded for a single incident in Sri Lanka's legal history. Is another form of history waiting to unfold? The Government has the unenviable task of nipping it in the bud.