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“Politics and Heresies of Spatial Publics of Sufi Shrines in Contemporary Sri Lanka”

M. Shobhana Xavier

This chapter draws on my 2021 book chapter, “Sacred Spaces and the Making of Sufism in Sri Lanka (full citation below).”

Both in its colonial periods and its post-war reality, ethno-linguistic and religious identities have played active roles in constructing the boundaries of the public sphere in Sri Lanka. As Sujit Sivasundaram outlines in Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony (2013), “[…], the public was not one but many, not colonial alone or simply dominated by English-speaking commentators and readers” (2013, 285). And though state, legal, and colonial discourses directed the construction of the Sri Lankan public sphere, the “built environments” of minority communities, like Muslims (or Moors) and even more so, Sufis, capture alternative imaginaries of publics in the Sri Lankan landscape, despite being contentious. 

Post-independent Sri Lanka (1948) has taken a varied trajectory in comparison to the post-independence outcomes in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, for instance. Still the years following 1948 cultivated the terrain in which a nearly three-decade civil war raged, and in its various iterations was concerned with sovereignty for one of the minoritized ethno-linguistic communities, Tamils. Though the fault lines were drawn by ethnic and linguistic identities, for example speaking Sinhala meant one was Sinhalese, or speaking Tamil could mean one is Tamil (but the Muslim case complicates this, as I explain below), religion played a convoluted role, in that it further accented ethno-linguistic divisions. 

Majority/Minority Complexities

Numerically, the majority status is held by the ethnic Sinhalese, who are religiously mostly Buddhist but also include some Christians. The minority communities that make-up the island are diverse and they include Tamils, who tend to be a mix of Hindus and Christians. In contrast to the former two ethnic groups who are marked by their linguistic identities, Muslims, or Ceylon Moors, in Sri Lanka are (self) identified vis-à-vis their religion. Muslims speak Tamil and at times Sinhalese, but are marked as an ethnic category via their religious identity, as a result of complex attempts to gain representative seats in legislative council (Haniffa 2008). Muslims represent about 9.3% of the island’s population (Mihlar 2019). There are smaller ethnic groups of Burghers (descendants of European settlers), Malays (descendants from the Malay Peninsula) and the indigenous peoples of Sri Lanka, known as the Veddas.

Much of the sustained emergence of ethno-linguistic nationalisms and communal strife began to emerge closer to the end of the nineteenth century when Buddhism became sutured to Sinhala identity especially as a response to colonial rule (i.e., the presence of Christian missionaries). For instance, the Sinhala-Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), who was staunchly critical of British colonial presence, looked to 5th century Buddhist poetic texts like the Mahavamsa, in an attempt to tether Sinhalese people’s identity to Buddhism (Amarsingam 2014, 207). Due to these intricate majority-minority dynamics, there has been a historical pattern of ethnic and religious communal tensions on the island. For instance, riots broke-out on May 29th, 1915, in Southwestern Ceylon during a Buddhist procession between Muslims and Sinhalese.

Still, the sustained conflict that led to a full-blown civil war slowly began to unfold as a post-independence reality and was compounded by numerous state policies that were implemented by the Sinhala political majority and their often “Sinhala Only” platforms. Overtime, these ideas developed into policies that privileged Sinhala as the official state language in university entrance exams, which then aggravated the Tamil minority, especially those in the northern province, while Buddhism was given constitutional priority as the state religion. These moments of structural and systematic marginalization by the government paved the way for the emergence of various Tamil militant organizations and resistance movements to flourish in response. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ascended as the forerunner of the separatist Tamil cause. In countries like Canada, from where the LTTE received active financial support from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, the LTTE were declared a terrorist organization.

During their rise, the LTTE established the northern province as an independent and self-sufficient state (with hospitals and schools), which of course further drew the attention of the state, culminating in a battle between these two forces. The nearly three decade protracted civil war between the LTTE, and the Sri Lankan government began in the 1980s and came to a bloody end officially on May 19th, 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE by the government, and the death of thousands of Tamil civilians. The differing stages of this war that unfolded from 1983 to 2009 was complex with various bouts of peace deals, through international intervention, all of which is beyond the scope of this discussion. But it is important to note that though the civil war hinged on ethno-linguistic nationalisms, one that was between the Tamil speaking minority and the Sinhala speaking majority, the role of religion in this conflict cannot be easily elided, as the logics of Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhism defined the state’s self-perception against which other minorities were and are constructed. At the same time, many Tamils, who were mainly Hindus and some Christians, perceived the LTTE and its militant leaders through religious paradigms. However, Muslims, as an ethnic group, held an ambivalent position as an ethnic and religious block during this plight and have since continued to embody a precarious status in the broader imagination of the nation state in the post-war context.

The Rise of Post-War Anti-Muslim Sentiments

Muslims are the only ethnic community in Sri Lanka who are identified via their religious identity, despite their linguistic identity as Tamil. This peculiarity of categorization alerts us then to the further sensitive location occupied by Muslims as an ethnic community in Sri Lanka, but also a religious and culturally diverse one too. The LTTE expected Muslims to join their cause because most Muslims spoke Tamil, but Muslims did not uniformly agree with the LTTE’s agenda, which led to further antagonism by LTTE and its supporters against their Muslim neighbors. So, Muslims were caught in between the Buddhist-Sinhala government and the Tamil LTTE. The political allegiances and responses taken by Muslims varied from region to region. However, the LTTE did not easily move past the lack of uniform Muslim support for their cause nor did they ignore the rumors that Muslims were secretly working with the state against the Tamils. Eventually, the LTTE turned on Muslims too. On August 3, 1990, 140 Muslims praying at Husseiniya mosque in Kattankudy were killed by the LTTE, and nine days later, another 122 Muslims were killed in Eravur. Shortly, thereafter, in October 1990, the LTTE forcibly expelled all Muslims from the northern province of Jaffna (around 75, 000), some were exiled into internally displaced camps across the country, where many still live to this day (Thiranagama 2011).

With the end of the civil war and the government’s defeat of the LTTE (and thus theoretically the Tamil separatist cause), a new threat has been constructed by some social, religious and national actors in their process of nation-building and it is the Muslim community who has emerged as the new scapegoat. This is most notable in extremist Sinhala-Buddhist organizations, like Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Force), who spew anti-Muslim sentiments and have encouraged violence against Muslim communities, like the attacks against Muslims and their properties in the town of Aluthgama in June 2014. Online vitriol has grown inciting communal violence against Muslim businesses, especially due to the constructed fear that Muslims are growing exponentially in size and are going to overtake the island, while in the current Covid-19 era the state enforcement of cremation practices led many to believe that it was intentionally targeting the Muslim communities who do not adhere to this practice of internment. The mandatory order to cremate those who died of Covid-19 was rescinded after international outcry in February 2021. For more, see for Muslims in Post-War Sri Lanka: Repression, Resistance & Reform edited by Shreen Abdul Saroor

Against this backdrop, Sufi shrines remain one example of a space that is imbedded and impacted by growing Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim hostility, but they are also sites implicated by the internal Muslim polemics against the theological legitimacy of saints and shrine rituals. Since 2013, I have been documenting Sufi shrines in Sri Lanka. In my fieldwork, I found that many of my Muslim interlocutors did not know the particular narratives of some entombed figures in neighborhood shrines. They often relayed to me that they are merely relics of old practices of Islam. Of course, some of the stories of entombed Sufi figures have been lost due to the disruption unleashed by the war that displaced many communities, including Muslims, from their ancestral villages and towns across Sri Lanka. While narratives of holy figures are lost in the memories of the past, these stories are also being purged in the present.

The Spatial Publics of Sufi Shrines

In bustling trade centers like Batticaloa, which is located in the eastern province of Sri Lanka, one sees an emerging tension between remnants of Sufis and their spaces against rising tendencies towards Salafi and Arab orientated approaches to Islam, which have been informed by stronger economic and labor connections between Arab gulf countries and Sri Lanka. The latter ties have meant that some Muslim communities are resonating with a global Islamic reformist tendency that encourages a return to authentic practices which requires shifting away from localized expressions of Tamil Islam and a (re)alignment with a global (Arab) umma. The latter tension is most evident (unsurprisingly) in discourses around Muslim women’s attire from saris to abayas

Another example includes the controversy over the proposed Islamic university, named after king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and has been popularly and problematically referred to as “Sharia University” in Batticaloa. The development of this university was paused after the Easter bombings. Tensions over Muslim women’s attire or Islamic university developments signal to the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric wherein Muslim belonging and inclusion in Sri Lanka is jettisoned: thus, where some Muslims do not see their belonging affirmed in the Sri Lankan nation-state, their religious identity ties them to a global community where they feel they unequivocally belong precisely because of what makes them distinct. Amidst this discourse, Sufi shrines then are constructed as localized expressions of Tamil Islam, especially the practices that are ritually directed towards saints and their shrines. More and more, such expressions are constructed as relics of an old-world localized Islam, and not orthodox and authentic Arab Islam, leading to growing anti-Sufism. A trend that is not in any way unique to Sri Lanka but is evident in many other regions.

Sufi Pilgrimage Networks

Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth century North African Muslim traveler, visited Serendib (as Ceylon was known by the Arabs) to perform a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak because Muslims believed it was the site that the Prophet Adam fell too when he was expelled from paradise, while Buddhists believe the footprint belongs to Buddha and Hindus to Shiva. In his travelogue, Ibn Battuta mentions encounters with “darwishes” during his pilgrimage up Adam’s Peak. Such narratives of Adam’s Peak further attracted many Muslim pilgrims to visit and relocate to Serendib over the years, creating an orbit of Sufi networks across the Indian Ocean. Serendib as a whole was geographically significant for Sufis in their broader cosmology and thus small networks of Sufi shrines that emerged on the island created literal and metaphysical networks of saintly constellation across the Indian Ocean, be it to the Malay world in the east or the Arab world to the west. Sufi shrines in Sri Lanka then provide alternative maps to a different topography of belonging for Muslims (Sufis) wherein Sri Lanka is the axis that links multiple realities, hagiographies, and orientations through the first prophet Adam and the saints; in this story the saints are not peripheral but central. 

Popular saint shrines include the unique 40 feet long shrines that are scattered across coastal regions in Sri Lanka today and are believed to be tombs belonging to holy figures who are descendants of prophetic figures, who were themselves thought to be giants (hence the giant footprint said to belong to Adam on top of Adam’s Peak). For instance, the shrine in Talaimannar known as Kappal Oli Masjid and Dargah, contains two 40 feet tombs believed to belong to two saints who washed up on the nearby shores. Each religious community reputedly tried pulling the tombs onto the land, but the Muslims succeeded and so it was said that the saints were Muslim. Interestingly, however, today Tamil Catholic religious leaders serve as caretakers to this shrine that is visited by Muslims, but also by Sinhala-Buddhist tourists, who have at times have mistaken it to be Adam and Eve’s tomb. When I encounter such stories in my fieldwork in Sri Lanka and the lived reality of Sufi shrines, it provokes a stark contrast against the backdrop of a nation state that has been defined by communal, ethnic, and state violence and also intra-religious polemics. It is for this reason that I find Sufi shrines compelling sites of analysis.

Figure 1: Two long tombs at Talaimannar, known as Kappal Oli shrine. Photograph by Xavier July 2018.

Sufi shrines are accessible spaces, especially to non-Muslims and/or women. In a country where many mosques and some Hindu temples do not enable access, especially to women and those who are caste oppressed, Sufi shrines serve as exceptional sites of entry as it maintains a cosmic liminality but also social, ethnic, and religious one. Yet more and more, some of these regionalized Sufi shrines are locked up by local Muslim authorities who see them as heretical sites, while many have been destroyed either by anti-Sufis for being heretical spaces or by Buddhist nationalists for being Muslim sites (see for example the ongoing despites surrounding Dafther Jailani). When viewed through the framework of Sandria Freitag’s (2015) “public as space”, Sufi shrines, both historically and at present, offer an alternative cosmological public for Sufi Muslims, that contains possibilities, due to its enactment of ritual pluralism, gender egalitarianism, access to spiritual charisma (baraka), and deep historical legacies, but they are also sites of contestation, because Sufi shrines visibly challenge the Buddhist hegemony of Sri Lanka since they are marked as Muslim sacred space by non-Muslims. At the same time, the continued growth of anti-Sufi trends amongst some Muslims lead to their perception of such spaces as sites of heresies. 

Curiously, however, after the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka in April 2019 which was claimed by a local Muslim group that was connected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Sufi organizations, such as Supreme Council of Sufi Thareeqas in Sri Lanka, began to be deployed by state actors as representatives of “good” Muslims against the “fundamentalists” who were responsible for the Easter bombings. We have seen this binary framework and rhetoric too often in colonial construction of Sufism as a non-Islamic expression which then has defined the emergence of Sufism as a universal spiritual movement in the global west and the solution to Islamic “fundamentalism” and “Wahhabism.” These discourses are reductive and essentializing. The stories of Sufi shrines then range from being overt symbols of Muslim presence on the island and are violently targeted, like many Muslim properties are, but they are also sites of ambiguous ethnic and religious pluralism. Sufi spaces in Sri Lanka are caught between politics and heresies and have much to tell us about the political, social, and religious topography of historical and contemporary Sri Lanka. ♦

M. Shobhana Xavier is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Diaspora in the School of Religion at Queen’s University (Canada). She is the author of Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures (2018) and the co-author of Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics and Popular Culture (2017). She thinks and writes on contemporary Sufism, including in Sri Lanka.

Recommended Citation

Xavier, M. Shobhana. “Politics and Heresies of Spatial Publics of Sufi Shrines in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” Canopy Forum, March 11, 2022.


Amarasingam, Amarnath “Religion, Politics, and the Tamil Militancy in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora” in Religious Radicalization and Securitization in Canada and Beyond (2014) edited by Lorne Dawson and Paul Bramadat. Toronto: University of Toronto Press: pp. 201-228. 

Freitag, Sandria B. 2015. “Postscript: Exploring Aspects of ‘the Public’ from 1991 to 2014” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Vol. 38, No. 3, 512-523. 

Haniffa, Farzana. 2008. “Piety as Politics amongst Muslim Women in Contemporary Sri Lanka” in Modern Asian Studies. Vol. 42. Iss. 2-3. Pp. 347-375. 

Mihlar, Farah. 2019. “Religious Change in a Minority Context: Transforming Islam in Sri Lanka” in Third World Quarterly. Vol. 40. No. 12, 2153-2169. 

Sivasundaram, Sujit. 2014. Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka & the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Thiranagama, Sharika. 2011. In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 
For more please see: Xavier, Merin Shobhana. 2021. “Sacred Spaces and the Making of Sufism in Sri Lanka. Between Violence and Piety” in Routledge Handbook on Islam in Asia. New York: Routledge, 225-240.