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Masjidul Abrar: Where storm tossed seafarers first prayed

This week we seek out Sri Lanka’s oldest mosque, built on the shores of Beruwela, where storm-tossed Arabs first landed and together prayed to Allah for bringing them

By Aisha Edris
Masjidul Abrar Mosque is situated in the coastal town of Beruwala and is considered Sri Lanka’s oldest Muslim mosque. Steeped in ,history it has a special place in the heart of every Muslim.

My first encounter with the mosque was on day my grandfather passed away, his body was placed to rest in peace at Masjidul Abrar. This was almost 10 years ago, a long time for someone my age, but I remember all the details: the edifice, the sandy road that leads to the mosque and the tall pine tree that stood at an angle near the huge pond.

Enter the Arabs
The story behind Masjidul Abrar is centuries old. The settlement of Arabs in Sri Lanka began from Beruwala. According to J.C. Vansanden’s book, Sonahar, the name Beruwala had come from the Sinhalese word ‘be-ruwala,’ which translates as ‘lowering the sail.’

The elders in the village say that the Arabs came from a caste that had fled Arabia in order to escape the wrath of their emperors.
They had sailed to countries like Malaysia, Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar) where they had business ties, but their nomadic life came to an end when their ship was destroyed near the Sri Lankan coast.

The elders also say approximately 100 Arabs, including a number of merchants as well as hakims (native Unani doctors), landed in the island around 920 AD. When they reached the shore, they had prayed to Allah and thanked him for saving them from a huge calamity. The settlers had then built a mosque at the very place they prayed.

There is an ancient burial ground adjoining the mosque where the bodies of these early settlers lie. It also contains the bodies of 40 Awliyas (saints). Even today one can see the tomb of Assheik Sihabbudeen Waliyallah, a holy man, whose final resting place is worshipped with reverence at this location.

Over the years, the mosque underwent continuous expansion and renovation to accommodate the growing number of devotees and to combat the attacks of time. In 1893 the roof was propped up by large round pillars. It was demolished in 1986 by the villagers.

Today the mosque has the capacity to accommodate 3,000 devotees for prayers. On June 8, 2003 the then government declared the mosque a cultural heritage site and a stamp was issued to commemorate the event.

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A question of faith?

By Jayashika Padmasiri
A green pond containing green coloured water. This was the first sight that my eyes met, as I entered the grounds of Masjidul Abrar mosque. I have seen such water before; my mind ran back to the time I was a student. Beira Lake, in Colombo, was situated near my school, so we were always provided with opportunities to experience the Lake, since childhood. However, unlike Beira Lake, the green water at the Masjidul Abrar mosque, glistened in the sunlight. The wind created ripples; and the small ripples soon spread over and disappeared into the water again, as we stood there, watching.

“Why is the water green, is it unclean?” I inquired from a resident standing near the pond.
“No, it has always been green, but it is very clean”, she answered.

This puzzled me. The mosque was also painted in green. I wondered what the story behind this mosque and the pond was. Maybe, their connection travels way back in time. Why are they both green? Perhaps, the residents painted the mosque green, as the water in the pond was of the same colour. I started to come up with answers for my own questions, as I stared at the water, and watched the ripples dance away to the song of the wind. The wind carried the song away soon, not even a little signature was left of the ripples. Then, suddenly, the water was very still. I felt like throwing a little rock into the pond, and make the water dance again in the bright sunlight, to whatever song it may prefer. I just wanted the ripples back, but the wind had carried them away.

The mosque was large. It had large windows, like an ancient Indian palace. We were not allowed to go inside the mosque. Prayer time was approaching, as we saw people gathering inside the mosque. A man came outside with arms and face all wet, as if he had been out in a drizzle. It was sunny, why is he wet? I wondered. “Ablution”, it was explained to me soon.

The Muslim rituals differ from Buddhist and Hindu ones, I think. But, I remembered something my grandmother, occasionally, does. Everyday, before she worships Lord Buddha, she takes a bath, combs her hair, takes the flowers, the jasmines and the Wathusudda that we pluck from our home garden, arranges them neatly on a clean old white saucer, the small flowers in the middle and the big flowers surrounding the small ones, drizzle water on the little treasures (pan puranawa), goes to the Budu Madura and stays there for hours.

Now, I always wondered what she was doing there for so long, as I never took so much time to worship. However, I remembered my grandmother, when I saw this man, this total stranger.

So, what is the difference between a mosque and a temple, when the only thing that matters is faith? My grandmother and this man are the same, though they maybe total strangers to each other. One belongs to the paddy fields in Galle, and the other, to the shores of Beruwala.

However, I can’t distinguish their difference. What is the difference between the mosque and the temple, or any other place of worship, for that matter, when faith unifies them all?

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