The veil and the ‘Arabanisation’ of Lankan Muslims

1 May 2019 12:30 am - 34     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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This article was first published on February 3, 2016.

Girls too young to understand the essence of religion adorn the Nikab. Some forced due to cultural imposition, and others too young to know why. Madrasas spread across the island ignore history, art culture, literature and theology which form the core of religious education. 

Instead the focus is on rituals and taboos. Kattankudy, in the East, is but one example of cultural alienation and segregation.The effects of the alienation and archaic practices which the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka are against and don’t adhere to have to face, day in and day out. Some 36 Muslims have left to fight for the IS (Islamic State), and we wonder why?  

Following the opinion piece titled ‘Sinhaley, Muslims and Fascim’ the response from the Sri Lankan Muslims has been overwhelming. Many have written to say that their fears were exactly the same as penned down and their oppositions were no different. Many others have written in to say that they have been left helpless and are merely bystanders witnessing the usurpation of a once vibrant culture, unique to Sri Lankan Muslims.


  • The closing of the gates of ‘ Ijtihad’ (Independent Reasoning) was a period in Islamic history where the rulers, fearing revolt from the masses, imposed strict and harsh interpretations of religion
  • An Islam that is lost without art, culture or literature and in complete denial of the essence of the liberation of the soul. Instead it has been usurped by a version which has suppressed any creativity

However there has been a backlash of sorts. On the one hand for which the crux stems from the reasoning given behind the face veil, a garment alien to Sri Lankan and South East Asian culture and its practices. A symbol of the radicalism among Sri Lankan Muslims. And on the other from those who espouse their fascist ‘Sinhaley’ agenda. 

They are but two sides of the same coin. For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on the former. I am inclined to believe that the many who adorn the face veil and those who justify the wearing of such have based their reasoning on a practice that goes beyond the realms of logic and reasoning. I am aware that rationality would not prevail within their minds. The essay therefore is to provide the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka a grounding through which they could withstand any further escalation of radicalism.   I understand that the dichotomy between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremist’ when faced with an external threat, could cause division and dilution. However, I believe it is imperative that the moderates of the minority quell the extremism within first because one form of extremism is always fuel to the other.   

The fallacy of scripture 

My opposition to the face veil and the irrational religious and cultural imposition justified through scripture stems from simple logical reasoning. The Ku Klux Klan believed that scripture was what guided them, and they quoted scripture to justify their horrific actions against the blacks. The slave owners of yore were also guided by religious scripture, which they quoted freely to shut down any opposition to slavery. Today the Islamic State (IS), also quotes scripture to justify their actions, which has left thousands dead and millions destitute. The crusades are but another example. Israel’s, justification of the occupation of Palestinian land is also based on scripture. The very same scripture used by the Zionists are opposed by the Hasidic Jews. Why? They use the same scripture to say that the rule of Palestine by the Jews should not form a part of Judaism until the return of the messiah. The evangelicals who support Donald Trump, also draw inspiration from scripture.   

Madrasas spread across the island ignore history, art culture, literature and theology which form the core of religious education. Instead the focus is on rituals and taboos

So how then is it logical to seek justification from scripture? Thousands of examples could be cited of the different variants within Islam itself which use the same scripture - the Quran - to justify their beliefs and practices;one always insisting that their interpretation is superior to the other. Wars have been waged, and lives lost within the Muslim community itself based simply on different interpretations given to the exact same text. The Sunni-Shia conflict is just one example. Similarly, there is an argument going back and forth, again based on scripture, for and against the face veil.  

However, as reasoned, to argue on scripture is futile. It’s ones word against the other. Instead it is imperative that the Muslim community of Sri Lanka understands the politics behind the radicalization of a culture in Sri Lanka in which the Muslims thrived, enjoyed freedom and in which they remained an integral component of, as so strikingly illustrated by Dr. Lorna Devaraja in her work titled  ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka - one thousand years of ethnic harmony’.  

The history of the veil 

The Arabian peninsula of pre-Islamic times comprised harsh living conditions exposing the mostly nomadic inhabitants of each tribe to severe sandstorms, heat, and at points winters which were much harsher than what we witness in the modern day. In order to protect themselves from these severe weather conditions, as is logical, men and women of the peninsula devised garments which would protect their bodies. The face veil was used to counter the harsh conditions of an often unwelcoming desert. A basic, reading of pre- Islamic Arabia, or Persia would give anyone a clear notion about the garments worn. Tertullian, in his pre-Islamic treatise ‘Virgins of Veil’, makes reference to Pagan Arabian women who covered their faces.   

While this was the reasoning, among others, for the Nikab in the Peninsula, many ancient civilisations, pre- Islamic of course, adopted different variants of the veil for different reasons.  

The Assyrian women (upper Mesopotamia, descendants of which live spread across the continent) who lived under strict and inhumane conditions under their men, are one example. Following the conquests of the Assyrian Empire starting from before 2000 BC, the empire was flooded with labour from conquered territories. Men were used as slaves, and women as prostitutes and domestic slaves. However as time passed, distinguishing between the ‘immigrants’ and the ‘homelanders’ was problematic. Therefore as a method of distinction between the two, women who were considered ‘homelanders’ were ordered to cover their faces. The face veil thus distinguished the Assyrian women from the prostitutes and the domestic slaves and was viewed as a sign of respect, a privilege denied to the slaves and prostitutes . The logic of the devise is questionable, of course, but historical fact shows that this was a practice adopted in a cruel and backward civilization that existed over 4000 years ago. Once these territories were captured by the Muslims, and one religion was promulgated amongst the masses, the face veil evolved into a cultural phenomenon, supported of course, by the environmental and other social needs of the time. 

Islam was the first religion to have founded a state and religion in quick succession, and adhering to this cultural norm was not seen as a threat of any sort. Rather, it was the costume of the day, and it blended with the culture of the time. The repeated use of the word culture is intentional.  

Islam was the first religion to have founded a state and religion in quick succession, and adhering to this cultural norm was not seen as a threat of any sort. Rather, it was the costume of the day, and it blended with the culture of the time. The repeated use of the word culture is intentional

Accordingly the Nikab continued to be a cultural phenomenon, and a cursory glance at the Islamic conquests by the ‘first Muslims’ headed by the ‘Rashidun’ (the rightly guided ones- the four Caliphs who headed the Empire after the death of The Prophet (PBUH)), is enough evidence to negate any claim that the Nikab had anything to do with Islam. The face veil was not imposed in any of the invaded territories which included Egypt to present-day Tunisia and what is today’s Iran to the borders of Central Asia.   

The conquests by the Umayyads followed the same pattern, with the conquerors not impeding on the cultural identity of the conquered land. This is why we do not see the Nikab prevalent in Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey or Egypt, which were among the earliest territories to be conquered , except of course for the imposition of fundamentalists.  

The Nikab remained a cultural garment except, for an imposition in the 12th and 13th Centuries, again by fundamentalist, who were threatened by the crusades. Despite the imposition it largely remained a garment worn by women for environmental and now cultural reasons. That was as far as it went.  

Fast forward to the 20th Century, Islam was shaken by a similar threat from western imperialism. The free market and governance structures of the west that commenced in the 17th Century threatened the very existence of the States which were under ‘Islamic’ rule. Moreover, it had a massive economic impact on Muslim territories. It was in this backdrop that a move back to ‘fundamentalism’ akin to the one witnessed during the crusades took place.  

The Nikab evolved, from being a cultural attire to a symbol against the expanding European forces and was encouraged by religious and political authorities. Similarities could be drawn here with that of the Assyrians and their adoption of the veil. The veil was seen as an icon of resistance, again confined to Muslim held regions in the Middle East. Theologians and the states worked hand in glove to provide religious reasoning to those who resisted. A fact often overlooked is that politics played an integral role in the expansion of the Islamic empires, as oft is the case with any conquering army and state. Each time the rulers were threatened with internal revolt or external conquests, religion was used as a centre- point to garner support and conformity.   

Closing the gates of Ijthihad - Independent reasoning 

It was in the early 1920s however that the Salafist-Wahabi movements expanded territorially, with the backing of the yet to be found state of Saudi Arabia. The state, which was yet to be formed,adopted its ideologies for purely political and economic reasons. It funded the exporting of a strict and literal interpretation of religion to justify its archaic actions. If not, there seems no other plausible justification for the existence of a ‘Kingdom’ or a ‘Sultanate’ or a deviant of it, in an ‘Islamic’ country.

The closing of the gates of ‘ Ijtihad’ (Independent Reasoning) was a period in Islamic history where the rulers, fearing revolt from the masses, imposed strict and harsh interpretations of religion that blocked the questioning of religion and most importantly prevented questioning of the rulers and their modes of governance. Madrasas and the Ulama who were working hand in glove with the rulers facilitated this imposition. It was akin to the era of Mahinda Rajapaksa in which the entire state machinery worked hand-in-glove with the regime to promote its narrative. The difference however, was that the imposition was systemic and long drawn. The religion was the same, and therefore resistance was not as strong as when religions and races differ. The politics involved with the radical Islamic element of the 20th century was no different.   

The conquests by the Umayyads followed the same pattern, with the conquerors not impeding on the cultural identity of the conquered land. This is why we do not see the Nikab prevalent in Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey or Egypt, which were among the earliest territories to be conquered , except of course for the imposition of fundamentalists

It is the long reach of this imposition, a new wave of which began in the 1970s that we are witnessing in Sri Lanka today. The main form of exporting the fundamentalism was through migrant workers who found employment in Saudi Arabia, after which the structures were established in different parts of the world. 

Radical Islam has a political goal. The root of the message which rally’s people behind any ultra nationalist movement, which scholars draw parallels with ‘radical Islam’, is a ‘return to the forgotten past or a greater future’. This wave of radical Islam is no different. It is this political element that channels the funds and drives the masses to alienate their culture and locality and adopt alien and extreme practices.  

The spiritual Islam - beyond the radicalism 

But behind the noise and drama, there lies an Islam that is spiritual. An Islam among others that attempts to understand the true essence of the spiritual retreats and solitude The Prophet (PBUH) underwent prior to the revelations. An Islam in which religion is a personal relationship between the adherent and the creator. It is an Islam in which prayer is not simply a ritual but is meditation. Fasting is not only confined to staying hungry from dawn to dusk. Instead, it includes the fasting of the mind, from anything that could impede the minds meditative state. An Islam which gave the world some of the most modern architectural wonders and important components of Algebra, Geometry, Astrology and Medicine. An Islam which gave the world some of the most comprehensive music compositions. An Islam which produced Gibrans, Rumis and may I even dare say Tagores.   

An Islam in which Nasrudeen Shah was a sage and not a heretic. It is an Islam of ‘peace’, in which the attainment of being at peace with oneself and with the nature surrounding the individual is the essence of its teachings. An Islam that enacted some of the most modern elements of International Law, including Human Rights Law, Family Law and Contract Law. An Islam which gave the world jurisprudence unparalleled in human civilization.

A brief look at the modes adopted to trace a Hadith would amaze any modern archivist, historian or academic. An Islam in which debate and discourse was a central element in its evolution. An Islam that is lost today among the cacophony of rules and impositions. An Islam that is lost without art, culture or literature and in complete denial of the essence of the liberation of the soul. Instead it has been usurped by a version which has suppressed any creativity.   

It was in the early 1920s however that the Salafist-Wahabi movements expanded territorially, with the backing of the yet to be found state of Saudi Arabia. The state, which was yet to be formed,adopted wahabi ideologies for purely political and economic reasons

Creativity gives rise to revolt and reform. So quelling it using religious justification was the best way forward for the rulers, the effects of which we are witnessing in Sri Lanka today. 
Today Islam as espoused by these fundamentalist elements is confined to an empty shell full of taboos and rituals, of which the original meaning seems to be lost. The usurpation of a century’s, if not millennia, old culture which has evolved, that is unique to Sri Lanka and to South East Asia must be resisted, and the leadership for it must come from Muslim communities itself. It is against this usurpation that the Sri Lankan Muslims must make their stand clear. The time is now, if not before long Sri Lanka will suffer the consequences of segregation from the countries’ ethos.  

The writer is a Journalist, Attorney-at-Law, Graduate in International Relations. He is also a Fulbright scholar having studied Journalism at the New York University (NYU) 

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  Comments - 34

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  • Jerome Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:26 AM

    Wow! So much information.

    rupa monerawela Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:25 PM

    Very interesting article. We need such brains to run this government of mediocres

    Anura Nanayakkara Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:51 AM

    A good analysis of Islam and evolution of biased dogmatic ideas of religious fanatics.

    Sil Ekanayake Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:54 AM

    Warnings were provided in 2016 by a Fulbright scholar. Why didn’t anybody take these writings seriously. Well written Hafeel. Sad that it went on deaf ears.

    FUNDED BY WHOM ? Wednesday, 01 May 2019 01:07 PM

    The muslim politicians are to be also blamed. At least now, these fellows need come out and address the community and as a starter find out who and who are behind forcing even small children to wear the black cloak. Whether the so called "aalims" and others were funded in this regard

    ananda Markalanda Thursday, 02 May 2019 01:52 AM

    They were taking care of themselves for perks and privileges at the expense of the public.

    mohamed Wednesday, 01 May 2019 12:27 PM

    A brilliant article, the spiritual Muslims mentioned in the article is traditional tolerant peace loving Sunni (Sufi) Muslims, its similar Buddhism, vedanta, zen, and all other spiritual paths

    Ajja Wednesday, 01 May 2019 01:17 PM

    Smelling!! No proper ventilation from the piece of garment..

    Marvin Yass Wednesday, 01 May 2019 01:28 PM

    Very informative, thoroughly researched. Direct, verging on confrontational. Gibran was not a product of Islam, but Maronite Christianity.

    Ramaraba Wednesday, 01 May 2019 01:46 PM

    Excellent analysis.. Except that this article will be shot down by several forces who immensely benefited by benevolent donor countries

    Malcolm Wednesday, 01 May 2019 02:42 PM

    I know this writer and his family, who are a real example of how to live as Muslims. Wish there were more of these educated types in our midst. A good explanation to non Muslims.

    Shyam Wednesday, 01 May 2019 03:01 PM

    Why did Prophet fight so many battles and killed so many people to establish Islam. There is no religion where any prophet fought war for no reason and imposed own religion. Why was he not peaceful like Jesus or Buddha or Ram

    GOVT IS ANSWERABLE Wednesday, 01 May 2019 03:05 PM

    Which means these warnings not only fell into deaf years from beginning of this year and most recently in April BUT the govt took it easy from as far back as 2016.

    sumaiya.shafeek Wednesday, 01 May 2019 03:37 PM

    IsIs don't represent Islam or Muslims. These detested hooligans who form just a fraction of Muslims have totally misunderstood the peaceful , beautiful religion of Islam. Very sad. Let's pray and work together to eradicate these IsIs terrorists away from the face of the earth.

    Mubashara Noon Wednesday, 01 May 2019 05:07 PM

    Impressive. Very analytical article!

    Zainab Ozeer Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:42 PM

    I am a Moderate Muslim who does not wear the Hijab or scarf except to Mosque and this article has been very informative. I disagree with the women in India and Sri Lanka wearing the Niqab there is no reason by Faith to wear this garment since it is very daunting to the non Muslims. i was working at the Lady Ridgeway childrens hospital in the 1980,s as a Doctor and there was a Muslim Lady doctor who wore the Niqab to the ward round and this was quite scary for the little children. she would be rewferred to as a BAKAMUNA or OWL.!!

    Tuan Razikeen Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:54 PM

    Well researched and relevant to current times.

    Razaak Ghani Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:57 PM

    Happy that Hafeel came out and gave a good historical narrative on the issue. Please keep up and do more analysis. We need people like you

    julampitiye Amaraya Wednesday, 01 May 2019 08:19 PM

    In 1983 I was working in Riyadh, as I was a Buddhist, Mawulavi Mathawwaa Did not allow me to the National Guards ccompound's Jummah Mosque, but later I was there with his good wishes and we had Some good Discussion about the abuse of Islam and name of their god, Allah ( Elahu). And He told me generation ago, maybe before 1000 years earlier than Prophet Mohamed Nabi's times, The Arabiain Tribesmen were fighting and looting each others Villages and there were less women with them. As no madical facilities available and deaths rates were more. Many attacks on dwellings were done in the nights. And attakers only took materials, livestock and women as Slaves. And women were forced to wear BLACK Covering clothings to avoid the seeing by outsiders and identify in the nights after running out of the Dwellings.

    C.J.Ahmed Wednesday, 01 May 2019 08:40 PM

    This article lacks scriptural evidence and is just the opinion of the author. Ijtihad must be practiced by a knowledgeful scholar and not by any tom and dick. The Niqab although is not an obligation in Islam is a fundamental right of the muslim woman. This government is hiding its faults by giving a blanket ban on the niqab. None of the female suicide bombers wore the niqab and the government just bowed to the whims of sinhala hardline buddhists.

    ranjith silva Wednesday, 01 May 2019 09:24 PM

    Real Islam is violent, intolerant it does not have a place for non believers and they will be killed. this is the stark truth once numbers are adequate it will be only ISIS ideology which is the true islam

    Lee Wednesday, 01 May 2019 09:37 PM

    Brilliant article with actual facts

    Ibn Yousef Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:43 PM

    Today there are Muslims who are indoctrinated by liberal western ideology and just regurgitate what they are taught in the institutions thus. Their inability to think realistically and independently is stark as such. And this author is one of those individuals. A clear objective independent study will reveal that there is a worldwide Islamic revival that has taken over the entire globe and what is taking place in Sri Lanka is just part of this and also an extension of the expression of the inherent traditional conservatism that has been displayed by Muslims for centuries in this country especially amongst the women. There is no such Arabanisation but a globalised expression which has manifested itself in the veil amongst other aspects. Mind you this has nothing to do with radicalisation which must be clearly distinguished from conservatism. The radicalised are fringe elements trying to assert themselves worldwide though they have never got the allegiances of the mainstream Muslims

    Upa Shat Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:50 PM

    Does the religion respect other religions ?

    NW Thursday, 02 May 2019 12:37 AM

    Nice read! Thank you

    SMN Thursday, 02 May 2019 12:46 AM

    Sir What you written is good and comprehensive. I suggest if you write short inputs so people of all crred, caste and religion will find it easy to read your paper. And also it will give you credit. It is easy to write today long and comprehensive papers-but the common person have no time. So pls write so many will read and compse. Professor

    Gamini Vithanage Thursday, 02 May 2019 03:03 AM

    Excellent write up. Thank you Sir.

    Dumidu Thursday, 02 May 2019 05:39 AM

    wonderful article..thank you... we need more people like you to convince these guys.. to bring them out of their empty shells...!!

    Shaw Thursday, 02 May 2019 07:17 AM

    That's, like, your opinion man.

    M.L.Jamaldeen Thursday, 02 May 2019 07:55 AM

    The statement that Islam gave ...”astrology”...is inherently wrong as Islam is opposed to this practice. Perhaps the author meant “astronomy” to which science the Arabs contribution is immense.

    Chandra Thursday, 02 May 2019 07:57 AM

    Great historic truthful content written by Mr. Hafeel. The truth remains that islamic conquerors captured various part of the world using scriptural reference for thousands of years. Wether we believe the scriptures were misinterpreted or not, it is written in Quran to some extent the reason why islam should conquer. Therefore until the Quran itself is rewritten right wing Islamic scholors will continue to preach and promote conquest and this cycle of conquering mentality will continue, we have see this in our life time. I'm sadden to say but conquering mentality and we are better than you ideology is an Abrahamic religious view that will continue to prevail until we as human let go of the principle belief that our religion is real and all else is evil. Wether one conquer with sword or with preaching my god is real and your god is evil, there lie the mental blockage of spiritual growth. We must think of this Abrahamic view deeply and approach finding solutions from that space.

    Sangaralingham Thursday, 02 May 2019 09:40 AM

    Once out in the society every individual must expose the face arms hands to the public.vision and limbs help to carry dangerous injects seek and damage property maim and kill others

    Lucky Heaster UK Thursday, 02 May 2019 10:06 AM

    One of the most revealing articles I have read. Thank you..

    Faqir Hussain Friday, 03 May 2019 10:55 AM

    The thing wrong with islam is the same thing inherently wrong with almost all religions (granted all of them contain some absurdity), and that is they have no basis for their beliefs beyond an ancient book. Now there is no problem with this, if Moslems want to remain ignorant, go ahead, doesn't affect anyone. What DOES affect humanity is how they use this to control people and to justify harm


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