Posted on May 22nd, 2019


This essay looks at the various Islamic sects and groups operating in Sri Lanka. There are two schools of Islam in the world, Sunni and Shia and they simply hate each other. Therefore, most countries follow one or other, not both.  In Sri Lanka, as in India, the majority of the Muslims are Sunni.

 Sri Lanka followed orthodox Sunni Islam, for generations, said Izzeth Hussein. The mainstream Sri Lankan Muslim remains resolutely Sunni, he emphasized. Virtually 98 percent or so of the Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunni, agreed Michael Roberts.  All Ceylon Jamiyyatul Ulama (ACJU), the apex body of Islamic theologians in Sri Lanka, provided the religious leadership to the Sunni Muslims. It had branches in a number of Muslim dominated towns.

There is a very small community of Shias in Ottamavadi, Batticaloa, with their own mosque. They keep to themselves.  Colombo has a small business community of Shias as well,   said Faslan and Vanniasinkam.    After the Iranian revolution of 1979, there arose a devout Shia group of Sri Lanka Muslims, said Izzeth Hussein.

 Foreign Muslim movements started coming into the country, without publicity, soon after independence. Jamaath Islami” and ‘Thablighi Jamaat’, from Pakistan and India, respectively, arrived in Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Both are movements committed to the creation of a worldwide Islamic state.

Opening of Kattankudy’s 58th mosque with Saudi princes and Mr Hizbullah in attendance.

Jamaat-e-Islami was founded in 1941 in India by Abul Ala Maududi, with the objective of making   India an Islamic state. Jamaate Islami helped to create Pakistan and it is now based in Pakistan. Jamaat-e-Islami said the Islamic state would not stop at India or Pakistan, it would eventually control the whole world.

Tablighi Jamaat was founded in 1927 in India by Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi. It has been called “one of the most influential religious movements in 20th century Islam”.  It urged Muslims to return to primary Sunni Islam,  particularly in matters of ritual, dress, and personal behavior. The women in the movement observe complete hijab.

Tablighi Jamaat has branches all over the world , including Sri Lanka . Its international headquarters,  is in Delhi. The organization is estimated to have between 12 million and 150 million adherents ,mainly in South Asia, and a presence  in 150  to 200 countries, according to Wikipedia. It  operates  freely, without hindrance  in countries where activist Islamic groups cannot  do so.

Tablighi Jamaat follows an informal organizational structure, does not seek donations,  and is not funded by anyone. Since there is no formal registration process and no official membership count has ever been taken, the exact membership statistics remain unknown, said Wikipedia. It operates largely in secrecy, and its missionaries  lead austere lifestyles.

Tablighi Jamaat is  intolerant towards other religions, and is committed towards Islamizing the entire planet. Its goals include the “planned conquest of the World”. Wikipedia says that Tablighi Jamaat  can  therefore be considered a passive supporter of  jihadist movements.

Eighty percent of the Islamist extremists in France  have come from Tablighi Jamaat, said France. Fourteen suspects arrested in the 2008 bombing plot in Barcelona, Spain were members of Tablighi Jamaat. In  2016, Pakistan, banned Tablighi Jamaat as well as  others, from preaching and staying in campus hostels.

In Sri Lanka, the Thablighi Jamaat and Jamaate Islami movements have put aside their political ideology of an Islamic state and instead have adapted to the local context by focusing only on purifying Islamic practices, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam  Thablighi Jamaat and Jamaate Islami follow a very neutral line, when it came to ACJU matters and Sri Lankan issues.

 In Sri Lanka Jamaate Islami, mainly targets educated middle class Muslims. Jamaate Islami is popular among this group. Its chief activity in Sri Lanka  has been to publish an Islamic scholarly magazine in the Tamil language called Al Hasanath. It also  publishes monthly and quarterly newspapers such as Prabodaya and Engal Thesam in Sinhala and Tamil respectively. This movement also arranges religious classes for men and women separately and has a social service  organization  which carries out  activities such as disaster relief and Zakat distribution across the island.  (Zakat is the donation of a portion of one’s income to charity)

In Sri Lanka , Thablighi Jamaat,  is a leading revivalist movement with an island wide network. Its primary motive is to draw Muslims to the mosque for the five prayers. This is done by going door to door to Muslim houses. Thablighis  engage in three-day, forty-day and four-month missions preaching in far away mosques with the aim of bringing Muslims to mosques. They also have a women’s wing and conduct separate religious programs for Muslim women, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam   Thablighi Jamaat does not have a separate mosque. It preaches in any mosque that welcomes them.  Certain mosques, particularly Thawheed Jamaat mosques, do not allowed them to enter.

Thablighi Jamaat  holds an annual national gathering called Ijithima. Thablighi Jamaat  runs a social service unit called NIDA Foundation. Its primary objective is to help those who have newly converted to Islam, but they do not have a mission to convert non-Muslims. Thablighi Jamaat has  a dress code. The men wear white Jubbas, white thoppis, white turbans and   grow beards. The women are required to cover their faces and wear black shapeless gowns.

Faslan and  Vanniasinkam  say that Thablighi Jamaat is a harmless reformist movement which follows a nonviolent approach. It does not have a political agenda. Ameer Ali says Tabligh Jamaat in Sri Lanka is a very peaceful movement, whose mission was to convert nominal Muslims into real Muslims. That continues even today.

The next set of Islamic movements to arrive in Sri Lanka, with a bang, were from the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi ideology was developed by Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703- 1792) in the Najd region of central  Saudi Arabia. Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of Najd, picked it up, used it legitimize his rule and  to  establish the  House of Saud which rules Saudi Arabia today. From that day to this, Wahabism has been the political ideology of the Saudi state, said Middle East Institute. Wahhabism is    the official religion of Saudi Arabia. Qatar also recognizes Wahhabism. The state mosque of Qatar is named after Al- Wahhab.

Wahhabis say that Muslims should follow only the Quran and Prophet Mohammed’s teachings. To them, all other Sufi and Shia groups are not Muslim. Wahhabism is  therefore disliked by  other Muslims. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab’s teachings  have been criticized by a number of Islamic scholars. Wahhabism gave traditional warfare a high moral purpose and justification, said Middle East Institute     Ibn Wahhab  supported the classical Islamic interpretation of jihad, that of   Jihad by the Sword”  meaning holy war.

Wahhabism  was exported to other countries after World War II. Saudi Arabia exported Wahhabism because   USA asked Saudi Arabia to help counter Soviet Union influence during the Cold War of 1947-1991,” said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a confidential interview with Washington Post in 2018. 

Saudi Arabia’s western allies had urged the country to invest in mosques and madrasas overseas, to prevent Russia getting into Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia therefore built Islamic schools and mosques throughout the Muslim world.  Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars over several decades propagating the Wahhabi version of militant Islam, said analysts. Today,  funding is    done mostly by Saudi “foundations,” rather than Saudi government. 

 In Sri Lanka ,Wahhabis work through Thawheed organizations and their madrasas. With the exception of Thablighi Jamaat and the Jamaate IslamI, all the Islamic groups in Sri Lanka, today are Wahhabist groups, intent on the purification of Islam in Sri Lanka, said Faslan and Vanniasinkam in 2015.  The Wahabi movement in Sri Lanka is  supported by Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-funded Centre for Islamic Guidance was set up in 1990s. 

Faslan and Vanniasinkam say that Thawheed ideology came to Sri Lanka during the 1950s, was institutionalized as Thawheed Jamath and is now a leading Islamic revivalist movement in Sri Lanka.  According to Nuhuman (2004), the first Thawheed Jamaat in Sri Lanka   was founded in 1947 by Abdul Hameed Al Bakry in Paragahadeniya. It was called Jammiyathu Ansari Sunnathul Muhammadiya (JASM). If this date is correct, then this is the earliest foreign Islam movement to come to Sri Lanka.

JASM is one of the leading Thawheed Jamaat institutes and it is the main wing of the Thawheed Jamaat. It also functions as an Arabic college and produces Muslim scholars (Moulavis) who are called Salafis, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam.    Additionally Thowheed Jamath  also has prayer centers, observed Namini Wijedasa. They are not Jummah mosques but they are numerous and are established in ordinary buildings.

The Thawheed ideology is also propagated, through social service organizations such as Jammiyathush SHABAB (Association of Muslim Youth of Saylan) and International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO) or as Dhahwa (preaching) organizations, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam . These Dhahwa groups are institutionalized under various names. Dharus Salaf is a Thawheed Jamaat group based in Dehiwala. Many more formal and informal sub-movements exist but are difficult to access, said  Faslan and  Vanniasinkam  in 2015.

The Towheed Jamath movement came into this country in the early 1980s, said Azath Salley. The open economy which started  after 1977, made it possible for  a large number of  Muslim  youths  from modest and simple backgrounds”,  to go to Saudi Arabia for work in the 1980s.  “There, they were introduced to Wahabism in special preaching centers. ” Through these  persons, puritanical  ultra -fundamentalist Wahhabi thinking  was introduced to Sri Lanka   in the 1980s.

Thereafter, 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, said Izzeth Hussein. The Wahhabi preachers are a motley collection of returnees, making house to house visits in flowing robes and rosaries and are visible to us all, said one observer.

The Wahhabi influence in Sri Lanka  became a powerful one in the 1980s. The change in Islamic thinking began to show in the mid-1980s, said Izzeth Hussein. It was from the 1980s that one could witness a distinct change in the Muslim male and female attire and appearance in the country and it was from that period that one could also see a proliferation of mosques and madrasas with elaborate designs and an open display of Islamic rituals, said Ameer Ali.

The black abaya and niqab for females and the long gown known as kaftan for males, inappropriate to the climate and alien to the culture of Sri Lanka, became increasingly fashionable after 1980s and added a degree of Islamicity to the wearer.

The attitude to the  Islam doctrine and  Islamic rituals also changed. Those who worked in the Middle East have gained first hand knowledge  of Islamic practices said the converts. Many non-Islamic practices were introduced to Sri  Lanka  by south Indian Muslims who have adopted practices from non-Muslims in India . Many un-Islamic practices such as feasts and the sacrifice of animal in mosques were practiced for centuries  because no one knew Islam properly, largely because of a lack of knowledge of the Arabic language, the Wahhabi  converts said .

Wahhabi converts forcibly changed  the way Muslims worshipped. Azath Salley  spoke of the changes in Kattankudy. Kattankudy was  a traditional Muslim village.  Traditional Muslims are a very peaceful people, he said. Every week there would be functions at home, there would be recitals and the entire community would share a meal. ‘When these extremists came in, they said everything we were doing was wrong – those gatherings, what we were reciting, and even the shared meal was wrong’ .

In addition, Towheed adherents started coming into our mosques. They became a nuisance to us .They have the practice of rotating their fingers disturbing all other worshippers. The way traditional Muslims pray is different. Fights have broken out as a result of this, concluded Azath Salley.

The Wahhabis replaced the traditional rituals with something much more deadly. Ameer Ali writing in   May 2019 said, that a couple of years ago he, a native of Kattankudy, attended a Friday sermon in one of the mosques there, after almost forty years.    The sermon lasted forty-five minutes. The Imam, speaking fluent Tamil, spent the entire sermon attacking Christians and Jews.  

 A fellow academic with whom Ameer Ali discussed this later,  told him that this was the case in majority of mosques in the country. These sermons were seeding hatred and the community was slowly self-alienating, while leaders were looking the other way, said Ameer Ali. 

The Thawheed movement kept splitting into newer groups. As a result  there were multiple, competing Wahhabi groups in Sri Lanka , with bases in Kattankudy, Batticaloa, Dehiwela, Dematagoda and elsewhere. However, the   groups are not  growing stronger, they are limited to small numbers of people.

There is a doubt whether the splintering and mushrooming of Islamic groups is due to theological disputes and not money, said Faslan and Vanniasinkam. The interviews they conducted showed that it was not disagreements on religious doctrines and practices, it was the ample supply of funds that contributed to the increase of Islamic groups.

Azath Salley  put it bluntly. ‘Every time money came in, distribution became a problem and they broke up into splinter groups. So you find several factions, called the SLT, CTJ, NTJ and so on altogether about ten to twelve factions,’ he said in 2019.

Each  group has its own mosque and conducted separate Friday prayers where they conveyed their message to the Muslim community said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam.  Each group has several branches in different parts of the Island, and global links as well. Each  group also engages in social and community service alongside their purification efforts among Muslims and has their own social service unit. These groups are very confrontational and very vocal, concluded Faslan and  Vanniasinkam      They are not registered with the  All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema, though all Muslim organizations come under the purview of the  ACJU.

The  large imposing mosques,  coming up all over the place are Wahhabi mosques. A group is formed by first building a mosque as this helps the group to get donations” The bigger the mosque, the greater the profit” said Sri  Lanka Thawfeed Jamath.  Mosques are beingopened like  boutiques ‘said traditional Muslims. Islam is sold these days – it’s a business. We are against this”

While this explains the increasing number of mosques in Sri Lanka, it also reveals the ulterior monetary motives of instituting new/sub-movements, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam . This is further encouraged by the absence of strict state regulations restricting the erection of mosques, they observed. The  lack of state regulation was gratefully mentioned by one of the interviewees.

In 2014, the Sunday Times witnessed the opening of Kattankudy’s 58th mosque in Sinna Kaburady Road. The mosque was funded by a Saudi Arabian outfit called the International Commission for Human Development. Saudi princes had come for the opening. They posed for photographs. A local speaker said: In the past, we had to collect money from villages and among ourselves to build mosques like this. Now, we get help from Saudi Arabia.”

In 2005, some members of  All Ceylon Thawheed Jamaat formed a new group called Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat (SLTJ) .The Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat (SLTJ) is a leading Islamic revivalist movement in Sri Lanka, said  Faslan and  Vanniasinkam. The SLTJ has  63 branches all over the island . The SLTJ  publishes religious books and magazines and conducts religious classes for men and women separately.

SLTJ said that their organization  preached Islam island wide,  and has done much for the uplifting of Muslims and non Muslims in Sri Lanka. They  had released the Sinhala translation and transliteration of the Quran. The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jammath Quran, has been translated into Sinhala from Tamil and  given the name “Thowheed Jamat Sinhala Quran”  . Muslim religious scholars in Sri Lanka  are objecting to this translation, saying that it is at variance with the Holy Quran.

SLTJ    is the most vocal of the Thawheed movements and has made several controversial public statements in recent years.  The SLTJ has a strong link with the Tamil Nadu Thawheed Jamaat (TNTJ) and they follow TNTJ’s leader, P.J. Jainulabdeen. This  connection is  strongly objected to by other Muslims. Jainul Abdeen  was invited by the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaat (SLTJ) for the release of the Sinhala translation of the Quran, a  few years back. The majority of Lankan Muslims opposed his visit and prevailed on the government to cancel his visa. Earlier in 2005, he was deported on the same grounds.

Azath Salley spoke at length  on this. Since 1994, it is I who have been telling the authorities about this group and its activities and also preventing their leader P. Jainulabdeen from coming into the country. When Mr. Ranaviraja was the defense secretary, I went to him with Alavi Maulana and told him that this person must not be allowed into the country. But he had already landed in Sri Lanka. The police went in the morning before the meeting at which he was scheduled to speak, put him in a jeep, took him to the airport and deported him. That would have been around 1995 or 1996.

 After that he tried to come to Sri Lanka on three occasions. I blocked it on all three occasions. Now he says he wants to come to Sri Lanka for medical treatment. But we have told him that people were going from Sri Lanka to India for medical treatment and that he should not come here.

SLTJ is totally opposed to any kind of Jihad movement, reported Faslan and  Vanniasinkam . SLTJ Secretary had  told them We can win our goals through the democratic process”. After the Easter bombings, SLTJ strenuously denied that they had anything to do with the Easter Sunday bombings. .”Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamat would like to point out that Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamat has no connection whatsoever with the bombings and has no connection with the organization suspected to have


involved in the incident,”  it said in a statement.

There are six Thawheed groups in Sri Lanka today, said Rohan Guneratne in April 2019, in an interview after the  Easter Sunday bombings . These are ‘cult groups’. The most important of these is the National Thawheed Jamaat.

National Thawheed Jamaat (NJT) which carried out the Easter Sunday bombing is a   Wahabi    organization, set up in 2011. It is a splinter group of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat. NJT has been described as a right-wing Islamic extremist outfit with a presence mainly in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. It preaches   ‘Wahabi’ Islamic teachings. It aggressively promotes Sharia law, building of mosques, and makes its women wear the burqa which hides the whole face except the eyes.

NTJ is a tiny organization with few hundred followers, said analysts. It consists almost entirely of young people, especially recent graduates of Islamic schools. The group   has no hierarchy or organizational structure and no older leaders.  The mostactive branch is the National Thawheed Jamaat in Kattankudy. NTJ   had refused to give Faslan and  Vanniasinkam an interview in 2014.

Jamiyathul Millana Ibrahim Fi Sellani (JMI) was started in 2015.  In 2015 Sri Lankan intelligence found an outpouring of support for ISIS among some Sri Lankan social media users. Soft copies of ISIS propaganda was shared mainly on chatting platforms, particularly Telegram. The users also created their own applications with secret enclosures within that space  this was how the grooming predominantly took place, intelligence sources said. This group became Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), led by a man named Umair from Colombo 10. Some JMI members  had wanted to migrate with their families to Syria.

The government issued a gazette notice on 14.5.19, proscribing the National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), Jama’athe Milla’athe Ibrahim (JMI).  In that gazette Yahapalana  also proscribed a third  organization , ‘Willayath As Seylani’which no one had heard of before. Information has now emerged about ‘Willayath As Seylani’. Willayath As Seylani’ is an ISIS creation.  ‘Wilayath’ means ‘province”. ISIS  is planning to declare the formation of  ISIS provincial groups. its formation is being discussed at the highest level in the organization, now  and its establishment is very much on the cards, said Rohan Gunaratne.

Since 2014, the ISIS has set up Wilayaths or provinces in various parts of the world. These Wilayaths are not geographical provinces but fields of ISIS operation. in South Asia  there are Wilayath Khorasan (covering Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Wilayath al Hind (covering India Kashmir as its centre). To this has been added Wilayath as Seylani.  ‘Seylan’ is the Arabic name for Sri Lanka. According to Dr.Gunaratne, Mohammad Zaharan had been wanting to set up an ISIS  Willayath in Sri Lanka. The Lankan government was probably aware of  the discussions going on at the highest levels in the ISIS Caliphate about forming Willayath As Seylani’  and has banned it in anticipation.

 Faslan and  Vanniasinkam (2015)  have listed several other Islamic  organizations.  All Ceylon Thareekathul Mufliheen  a Sufi order, was founded in the late 1980s by Sheihul Mufliheen M.S.M. Abdullah, known as Rah,” in the southeastern Sri Lanka village of Maruthamunai. It was registered as a cultural society with the civil authorities in 1989. The headquarters of Thareekathul Mufliheen was located in  Kattankudy, The order maintains branches around the island, and claims 15,000 members as at 2013..

Jamaatul Muslimeen also known as Baiyath is another new Sufi group in Sri Lanka . A majority of Baiyath followers live in Eththalai, Puttalam where the ideology emerged. it leader is Umar Ali, a leading Thawheed orator in the 1970s He formed this group in 1976 after visiting Pakistan in search of the ‘true’ Islam. He found it by divine revelation  on a poster at a bus stop in Pakistan.  (sic).

According to this group, a person is not born a Muslim and has to take oaths in front of an Imam (appointed leader) to become Muslim. Baiyath followers have taken oaths before Umar Ali and they believe that they are the ‘true’ Muslims and that all other Islamic groups are non-Muslim, as they have not taken oaths.

Another distinguishing feature of this group is that they follow some traditional practices such as not registering for identity cards or passports. At one time they did not build their houses with bricks, but lived in small tents like their Arab ancestors during the Prophet’s time. Today, however, they have reverted to normal life but do not allow their womenfolk to study and force them to cover their faces. This group interacts, but does not intermarry with other Muslim groups, said Faslan and  Vanniasinkam .

There is also Abdur Rauf, an Islamic scholar and charismatic orator who formed a new Islamic group in 1979  called the All Ceylon Theological Forum, but commonly referred to as the Abdur Rauf group. This group has a separate mosque in Kattankudy and all of its followers live in the area surrounding the mosque. Abdur Rauf is treated like a god and is called Wappa (Father) by his followers who display his photograph in their houses. the All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ulama (ACJU)  refused to recognize this group and labeled their ideology as non-Muslim in the first year of their existence.

The Abdur Rauf group is considered controversial in Kattankudy. in 2004 and 2006, members of the Abdur Rauf group were attacked and chased out of Kattankudy by members of the Thawheed movement. However, the Abdur Rauf group has managed to survive because of its good political links and the assurance that all followers will vote for whoever Wappa decides.  In the Batticaloa district in particular, certain Sunni groups such as the Abdur Rauf group are sustained by patronage of Muslim politicians who in turn  are sure of a consistent voter base, observed Faslan and  Vanniasinkam .  ( continued)

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