Mosque Tours – A Unique Interfaith Initiative to Build Bridges between Communities

Muslims in Sri Lanka have a long and colorful history of over a thousand years and have lived in different parts of the country in harmony with the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Early Muslims came to Sri Lanka as traders and won the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans. They integrated well with the local population, married Sinhala women and have contributed much to the economy, culture and traditions of our blessed nation.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims have continued to be patriotic citizens and the Muslim population in the North and East have paid a heavy price for refusing to support the quest for Eelam by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the 30-year ethnic war. Since the end of the war and the defeat of the LTTE, there has been a sustained campaign of racism against the Muslim Community by a few extremist Buddhists, mostly led by some monks.

They have created the impression that the Muslims are extremists and pose a threat to the country. The Muslim attire and halal food became a cause for conflict.  They continue to accuse Muslims of conniving with extremist elements among them inside mosques and religious seminaries.  This allegation has been easy to disseminate people of other faiths have had limited access to mosques in Sri Lanka.

In a context where there is a need to promote co-existence in Sri Lanka, a fresh approach to learning about other faiths is a priority. The ideal platform would be to invite people of different faiths to visit each other’s places of worship and create a better understanding of their religious and cultural practices. This becomes particularly important in the case of Muslims at a time when Islamophobic sentiment has impacted on communities all over the world and in Sri Lanka. Thus there is an urgent need for a fresh approach to address this situation.

The ideal platform would be inviting people over to the mosque and providing the opportunity to experience how Muslims in Sri Lanka practice their faith. Thus mosque tours become imperative not only to clear any misconceptions people of other faiths may have about Islam and Muslims but also to reach out to them and share the message of peace Islam offers humanity.

Objective of Mosque Tours

“Mosque Tours” to put it in a nutshell, is  a unique interfaith initiative where people of other faiths are invited to mosques to learn about Islam. The project undertaken by the Centre for Islamic Studies (CIS) in association with the trustees of local mosques has since its inception in 2014 seen over fifteen mosques in all parts of the country open its doors to people of other faiths. It has had over 10,000 visitors of other faiths ever since it commenced its activities. The concept has been quite revolutionary since it has also been the only occasion where any religious place of worship has been opened to the public by open invitation.

Mosque tours are basically cultural tours aimed at giving those of other faiths a better understanding of the Islamic faith and Muslims in general. Generally visitors of other faiths are keen to visit mosques and experience its rich architecture besides curiosity about what’s going on in mosques due to media publicity, making it all the more necessary for mosques to be seen as welcoming to those of other faiths.

The mosque is also well placed to explain Islamic faith and traditions since it is the centre of Muslim worship to which pious Muslims resort to five times a day to offer their prayers. Furthermore, every aspect of the mosque from its minarets to its absence of idols and prayer rows marked in its rich and ornate carpets lend itself well to explain the fundamentals of Islam such as its uncompromising Unitarianism and spiritual life expressed in daily cycles of prayer.

For example, the absence of idols explains Islamic monotheism which is compared to Biblical commandments against idolatry, the mihrab (prayer niche) explains the story of the prophets through Abraham’s building of the Kaaba. Saff (prayer rows) explains concept of brotherhood in Islam and prayer postures demonstrated then and there explains Islamic prayer including Soorah Fatiha which is likened to the Christian Lord’s Prayer and the Sujood which is compared to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Besides a tour of the mosque, participants are also given an opportunity to enjoy and experience the traditional culture and hospitality of the community as they are invariably served traditional Muslim foods, given free calligraphy of their names in beautiful Arabic script and gift packs of literature clearing misconceptions of the Islamic faith to take home.

Another unique feature of the program is its poster walkthrough which involves large colourful posters in both English and the Sinhala languages being placed side by side and forming a walkthrough which visitors are directed to shortly after the mosque tour proper. The posters which are fixed into stands are replete with colourful imagery expressing the beauty of Islamic culture all over the world together with fairly detailed text that covers everything from Shariah Law and Conditions of its Application to Religious Tolerance, Co-existence, Human Rights, Women’s Rights and Animal Rights among other topics about which little is known among people of other faiths due to prevailing misconceptions.

It is also here that many visitors began asking the especially dedicated Mosque Tour Guide (MTG) questions or concerns they have about the Islamic faith, stimulated no doubt by the rich information the posters offer to its beholders, and very often go away satisfied with the answers given. To many, the mosque tour is the first occasion when they have visited an Islamic religious place of worship as well as the first experience they have truly interacting with Muslims. The poster walkthrough gives them the added opportunity to throw any questions they have and clear their doubts or concerns about the Islamic faith.

Brief History

The CIS launched its pilot Mosque Tour program at Wekanda Jumma Mosque in Slave Island Colombo in August 2014 with the first tour group comprising of three distinguished visitors from the US embassy in Sri Lanka including its Cultural Affairs Officer, Dawn Suni and Press Officer, Joshua Shen. Since then it has taken off in a big way. In 2017 alone six such Mosque Tours were held in various parts of the island, including in Colombo, Kandy, Akurana, Anuradhapura and Pottuvil.

This included the first Open Mosque Day held at Akbar Mosque, Slave Island in March 2017, which was the first occasion in Sri Lanka where a mosque was open to the general public to visit. Another noteworthy mosque tour was that held at Kollupitiya Jumma Mosque in January 2019 when both the former President Mahinda Rajapakse and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe were given a tour of the mosque.

The Program  reached an all time high at Hambantota’s New Mosque in February 2020. The Open Mosque Day conducted here was the biggest of its kind so far with as many as 1800 visitors of other faiths from all walks of life visiting the mosque including 750 school children. Visitors had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the mosque, which despite its name, is an over century old mosque built by the enterprising Malay community of the area. Although it was devastated by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, its oldest portion survived and was retained while building the new structure.

Some programs are limited to certain professional or academic groups. For instance one such tour held at Jawatte Jumma Mosque, Colombo in May 2018 had 150 students of the Law College participating. Smaller tours such as at Kollupitiya Jumma Mosque in early October 2020 had students of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology participating.

Selection of Mosques

The organisors are very selective about the mosques chosen for the program. Only those that have a long history or fine architectural features are selected since the tour has to be made appealing to visitors on the understanding that they are visiting not merely to learn about the Islamic faith, but also to experience the mosque’s rich architecture and be told a bit about its history as well.

For instance the first mosque chosen for the program, Wekanda Mosque was selected on account of its historical value. It was built in 1786 during the period of Dutch colonial rule by a Malay nobleman named Pandan Bali and is managed by a board of trustees who are descended from its first chaplain Sabu Latiff who arrived in the island with his father Raden Farmana from Soonan Casar in West Borneo in the late eighteenth century.

Another mosque where in fact two mosque tours have been conducted was Masjidul Akbar founded in 1859 by Talep Akbar, a prominent gentleman who resided at Kew Gardens in Slave Island.. The construction of the dome and walls are of sandstone and is still maintained in its original condition. Yet another early mosque selected was Meera Makam Mosque, which is one of the oldest mosques in Sri Lanka’s hill city Kandy. The land for the mosque was gifted to a Muslim Courtier who served the King of Kandy, Keerthi Sri Rajasinha and was completed in 1864 by a society of Muslims living in the city.

Winning Hearts

Interestingly, in its early years from 2014 to 2016, convincing the trustees of mosques was no easy task since many had wrong notions about allowing people of other faiths and women to enter mosques. However the organisers were quick to point out that in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), people of other faiths did visit the mosque, as did women. For instance one finds in the Seerah or Life Story of the Prophet, a delegation of Christians from Najran visiting the Prophet in his mosque in Medina.

On this occasion the Prophet bestowed on them a covenant guaranteeing their religious rights and even permitted them to lodge there for three days and three nights. Some narrations even speak of these Christians offering the Christian prayer service in the mosque. This was the level of tolerance the Prophet of Islam displayed and was used to convey the message to the trustees that it was time they opened up their mosques.

Also impressed on such trustees was that continued non-admittance of people of other faiths to mosques was bound to be perceived as regressive in this day and age and most likely to lead to suspicion and misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims by the larger society. This was especially so at a time when Muslims were being perceived as being intolerant and prone to terrorist activity post 9/11. Therefore it was only prudent to open up the mosques for visitors of other faiths to come and see for themselves what was really happening in mosques. This contention too convinced the trustees that it was time they opened up their mosques for others to visit.

Once the first public Open Mosque Day took place at Akbar Mosque, Slave Island in March 2017, the idea soon caught on and before long, another major event was held at the historic Meera Makam Mosque, Kandy in September that year. This proved to be a turning point, mainly due to a video produced by Knowledge Box which interviewed the visitors that day and their remarkable response to the tour with many stating that although they had passed that way it was the first occasion they visited a mosque. Others expressed how glad they were with the program and the concerns it had removed from their once suspicious minds.

The response from the trustees of other mosques was overwhelming. The organisers who had hitherto had an ‘uphill task’ convincing trustees of mosques to open up, were now pleasantly surprised to find trustees appealing to them to come conduct  tours of their mosques as well. In fact, the demand was so great that the organisers had to prioritize the mosques and were also able to pass on the cost to the mosques.

Whereas previously the entire cost except for the invitations had been borne by the CIS, they were now in a position to tell the trustees that if they wished for a mosque tour to be conducted, they would have to bear the major part of the cost including refreshments for visitors, a sizeable proportion of the literature dispensed such as the Samaja Sanwada booklet series and even the transport costs and lodging for the Mosque Tour Guides on those occasions it was held in the outstations.

The Program has also earned the support of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the apex body of religious scholars in Sri Lanka, some of whose members have been trained by CIS as Mosque Tour Guides and the Jamiah Naleemiah, the country’s leading Islamic seminary whose talented students serve as calligraphy artists, turning out beautiful specimens of visitors’ names in beautiful Arabic script.

What Visitors Say:

“It was a very enriching experience and I truly enjoyed it. I think you will find many people interested in learning about Islam and showing their support for interfaith harmony. Please keep us updated on how it is going”

– Dawn Suni

“It was an astonishing experience to get to know more about the culture and religion. Thank you for that chance to build bridges between countries and mentalities”

– Yaryna Kobryn

I see in Islam the Oneness where there is no Image of God or Idol , God Is Truth, God needs no shape. It is from Spiritual Practice you see God”  

– Vanathy  Tharshan

“The suspicions that arose in the mind have all gone away!” 

–  Nadeeshani Jayathilake

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