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)