My God Is Your God:
The Muslim Sri Lankan Defending A Buddhist Shrine
At one stage, the Muslim Sri Lankans of Muthur were at risk from their Buddhist countrymen. Yet in one Muslim-majority village, a Muslim man is defending the local Buddhist shrine.
There are not too many Buddhists in this area. And in fact, in the village of Jinna Nagar, on the main road going from Trincomalee to Batticaloa, there is not a single one. However there is a Buddhist shrine, beautifully maintained and always lit up at night.
I felt very happy when I could see the shining statue in the night, under the lights.
Another strange thing about this particular shrine: There is no police security here. Many other statues of Buddha and shrines in this area are protected, in case they fall victim to attacks by extremists. But not this one in the middle of a Muslim village.
This is due to the fact that the shrine is maintained by village resident, Mohamed Ismail Maharoof, 56, a local farmer and businessman and a dedicated Muslim who was once deputy chairman at his local mosque and also a former member of the local council. Like many Muslims, he hopes to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in the Middle East one day soon.
Maharoof tells the story of how he came to be in charge of this place of worship. In 1990, most of the Muslim residents of Jinna Nagar were forced to flee their homes as the militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, took control of the area.
Maharoof and his family spent three months in a refugee camp before being told it was safe to return by the Sri Lankan army. The Tamil Tigers had looted much of the villagers’ property and in Maharoof’s case, the Sri Lankan military had taken over his home and property and were using it as a base. Because the soldiers were there for such a long time, they established a small shrine nearby, on the site of what appeared to be a more ancient stupa.
It was only over 20 years later, after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, that Maharoof and his wife and children were finally able to return to their home.
“The officer in charge gave me a date and told me to come then,” Maharoof recounts. “I was so happy because we could return – our children were born there – and the coconut trees I had planted were full of fruit. My wife and I went to get the documents and while we were there, the commanding officer told us they would also demolish the shrine because there were no Buddhists in the village anymore.”
But Maharoof says he looked at the shrine and thought about the fact that it was being removed after 25-odd years of worship.
“So, I said: Sir, don’t remove it, I will look after it,” the villager continues. “The officer didn’t like the idea at first but he could see I was serious. So he agreed to my request. The other people in the village also agreed with my decision.”
First Maharoof renovated the shrine, painting the faded colours, even before he started fixing up his own home.
“Myself and some boys from the village painted the shrine; I spent some money,” he says. “After it was painted it was very beautiful. I felt very happy when I could see the shining statue in the night, under the lights.”
Pilgrims travelling on the road started to stop and light the lamps and leave flowers. Often they bless Maharoof for his guardianship of the shrine.
“You cannot buy that kind of happiness for any amount of money,” says the satisfied custodian, who sweeps out the shrine every morning now, often accompanied by his wife.
So why does he respect this shrine so much, when it is one where sometime-foes may have worshipped, and when it doesn’t have anything to with the belief system he is a devoted member of?
Maharoof’s answer is a simple one, and pleasing. “All gods are the same really,” he answers quietly.