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Security personnel patrol outside St Anthony’s Church, one of the sites bombed on Easter Sunday. Photo: EPA

The truth about ‘tawhid’: how a central tenet of Islam became a violent strain linked to the Sri Lanka bombings

  • Groups whose names reference their belief in the concept, which declares absolute monotheism, have come under scrutiny in Sri Lanka for their links to Islamic State
  • Experts say the spread of ‘tawhid’ needs to be monitored as radicals exploiting the concept seek to change how locals have traditionally practised Islam in a multi-religious society
Sri Lanka
A violent strain of Islam born from radicals exploiting a central tenet of the religion, known as tawhid, has come under the spotlight as Sri Lankan police continue to investigate the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday bombings on churches and hotels.

About 100 people have been arrested since last month’s attacks, which have been blamed on two groups – the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) and the Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). Both have been outlawed by authorities.

Not much was known about the NTJ – founded by radical preacher Zahran Hashim – until it was named by Sri Lankan authorities. Hashim, known for his tough views against Sufi Muslims, founded the group five years ago.

In Sri Lanka, rising Islamic militancy was the elephant in the room

Other groups with tawhid – sometimes spelt thowheed – in their names have also come under scrutiny, including the Ceylon Thowheed Jamaath, the India-based Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath (TNTJ), as well as the hardline Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaath (SLTJ), whose secretary was arrested in 2016 after he made insulting comments against Buddhism.

The TNTJ have disassociated themselves from Hashim and condemned the attack.

But observers of political Islam are concerned over possible links between the groups and Islamic State (Isis), which has claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Last week, Sri Lankan sources said a 24-year-old software engineer in police custody had been monitored by Indian intelligence agencies three years ago for having links with Isis. Aadhil Ameez, the sources told Reuters, was the likely link between the two groups that carried out the attacks, killing more than 250 people and injuring many more.

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Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, founder of the Islamic State Archives project and a scholar of ancient Germanic languages, has documented that Isis required its recruits to learn a textbook on tawhid belief – which declares absolute monotheism – if they were to pass their training.

The organisation’s fighters would often raise the index finger of their right hand to signify their belief in monotheism. This finger would go on to become a gang insignia of sorts, and also served as the counter to a powerful symbol of the West – the two-finger “V for victory” gesture, used as a rallying cry by the Allied powers during the second world war.

Residents of Hashim’s hometown, Kattankudy, have been quoted in news reports as saying he insisted on strictly following the practice of monotheism – a clue to the ideology behind his organisation’s name.


Dennis B. McGilvray, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has written that migration to the Middle East and subsequent prosperity were among the causes for a fundamentalist strain of Islam entering the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, who number about 2 million, or 10 per cent of the 20 million population. The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist.

“Senior Sri Lankan historians have celebrated the Muslims for their ability to assimilate unobtrusively into Sinhalese society, from late medieval and early colonial times up to the present day, but the current trend towards Middle Eastern styles of dress and architecture now draws greater attention to the Muslims as a conspicuous social ‘other’ in the public sphere,” he wrote in a 2011 paper.

McGilvray was also surprised by a Sufi resurgence in Sri Lanka, and has tracked strong anti-Sufi sentiment centred in Kattankudy, where Hashim grew up.

An image from an Islamic State press release; the man in the centre is believed to be Zahran Hashim, who was behind the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. Photo: AFP
“Although the beginnings of militant opposition to Sufi teachers in the eastern towns of Kattankudy and Maruthamunai can be traced back to the 1980s, the violence there has escalated sharply since 2004, resulting in the destruction and desecration of several saintly tombs and shrines, and forcing one Sufi leader to flee for his safety,” he wrote.

The Kattankudy-headquartered Sufi group All Ceylon Thareekathul Mufliheen has alleged that it was the target of arson by Wahabi-inspired individuals. Its meditation centre was burned to the ground in 2004, and a mob violated the body of the group’s founder after his death in 2006.

In 2009, a fundamentalist group destroyed a 150-year-old Buddhist shrine in the Sri Lankan town of Ukuwela. Violence between strict followers of the tawhid ideology and Sufi followers claimed two lives in Beruwala town later that year.

Tawhid has always meant monotheism. The difference is how strictly some groups and sects view the meaning of ‘monotheism’ and what constitutes ‘idolatry’,” said Aymenn, the scholar and founder of the Islamic State Archives project.

Sri Lankan police officers show an Isis flag recovered from an alleged hideout of militants in Eastern Sri Lanka. Photo: AP

This interpretation and practice seemed to bring about the ideological clash between the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the founder of the forerunner of Isis, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zawahiri criticised the treatment of Shia Muslims by Zarqawi’s organisation Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Group of Monotheism and Jihad), which used his narrow view of tawhid to excommunicate Shia Muslims before attacking them.


Sri Lankan-born Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said he first became aware of the rise of a fundamentalist form of tawhid preaching in his home country in 2010. He said the governments of Sri Lanka and India should take immediate steps to push back against such exclusive and extremist trends.

“Only 2 per cent of Sri Lanka’s Muslim population follow this cult movement. They seek to replace local and traditional Islam with a Middle Eastern version. We should instead promote those local traditions,” he said.

Clergymen visit the scene of a suicide bombing at St Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: AP

Gunaratna said the Indian and Sri Lankan governments should closely monitor all tawhid-preaching groups and ban them if they are found to indulge in hate speech. “Action against them should act as a deterrent to similar groups.”

Anwar Alam from the Delhi-based Policy Perspective Forum said the danger of those who strictly preach tawhid is how they “monopolise discourse and find faults with the practice of Islam among local Muslims everywhere”.

“Therefore, the local Muslims become the enemy for them,” he said.

In the south of India, the TNTJ has been running a campaign against shirk – the sin of polytheism or idolatry – by criticising the practice of Muslims visiting dargahs, or shrines.

Abdul Rahman, the vice-president of TNTJ, said his organisation had tried to convince Muslims not to visit shrines. “Who are we to say they are not Muslim? The Koran itself says such people are not,” he said.

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The TNTJ was born after the 1992 riots, where thousands of Muslims were killed as Hindu nationalists lobbied for the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque.

“There was a feeling that the organisations that represented Muslims at the time were not enough,” Rahman said. This gap saw the formation of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) in a bid to stand up for Muslim rights, only for charismatic preacher P. Jainulabdeen to leave the organisation in 2004 over its decision to enter electoral politics and form the TNTJ.

Jainulabdeen later presided over the formation of the SLTJ, though in the last decade, Sri Lankan authorities have not granted him a visa to preach in the country.

Rahman denied the TNTJ and its sister organisation, the SLTJ, had a violent strain. “When we go preaching on tawhid, many people attack us. Our activists walk away in peace and never retaliate,” he said.

Rahman also said the TNTJ had worked hard to fight the stigma in the Muslim community against donating blood. “We have been spreading the word that the Koran does not ban blood donation,” he said.

The TNTJ mobilised its volunteers to donate blood on the day of the Sri Lanka blasts, offering vehicles to ferry them, he pointed out.

“We cannot change the name of our organisation just because someone has done something bad with it,” Rahman said. “It pains us, but we also know that we have used this name for good causes, like providing relief to the victims of the cyclone in Tamil Nadu last year. We hope that will help us recover our name from such extremist associations.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: extremist cult linked to bombings