The miracle of an Iranian Muslim saint in Sri Lanka

By Saybhan Samat

(December 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Muslims of Sri Lanka attribute the luscious growth and beauty of natural vegetation, of our spicy land and it being immune from major permanent calamities to the presence of shrines, temples, mosques, churches and kovils. The tsunami caused only a limited damage and was short-lived. Sri Lankans generally are very religious even atheists and rationalists among them though they publicly deny religion, privately during the birth of a child, a marriage and at a death ceremony insists on recitals of prayers and seek blessings not withstanding their disbelief in spiritual matters.

As I am more aware of Islamic practices, a legendary narrative of an Iranian saint who visited our island now interned in Shiraz, Iran would underscore the spiritual blessings on Sri Lankans. The name of the saint was Abdullah ibn Khafif. Ibn Batuta in his book ‘Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354 translated and selected by H.A.R. Gibb George Rutledge & Sons Ltd pp 95-96, 256 details the miracle of this saint. It must be remembered that Ibn Batuta was a world famous traveler who recorded experiences of his travels in widely read books. Ibn Batuta says that Abdullah ibn Khafif occupies a high place among the saints and relates the following story about him.

“One day the sheik went to the mountains of Serendib (Adam’s Peak) in the land of Ceylon accompanied by about 30 darwishes. They were overcome by hunger on the way, in an uninhabited locality, and lost their bearings. They asked the sheik to allow them to seized one of the small elephants, of which there was a large number in that place and which were then going to be transported to the king of India. The sheik forbade them but their hunger got the better of them and they disobeyed him and seizing a small elephant, killed and ate it.”

“That night, as they slept, the elephants gathered from all quarters and came upon them, smelling each one of them and killing him until they made an end to them all. They smelled the sheik too but offered no violence to him; one of them lifted him with its trunk, put him on its back and brought him to the inhabited district.”

“When the people of that inhabited area saw him, they marveled at him and came out to meet him and hear his story. As it came near them, the elephant lifted him with its trunk and placed him on the ground in full view of them. I visited this island of Ceylon….”

Describing his sojourn in Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon (p256) Ibn Batuta states:” After passing the small town of Bandar Salawat (Chilaw) our way lay through rugged country intersected with streams. In this part there are many elephants, but they do no harm to pilgrims and strangers, through the blessed favour of the Sheik Abdullah Ibn Khafif who was the first to open this road for the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.
The Sinhalese people used formally to prevent Muslims from making the pilgrimage and would maltreat them, and neither eat nor trade with them, but since the adventure that happened to the Sheik, as related above, they honoured the Muslims, allowed them to enter their houses, eat with them, and had no suspicion regarding their dealings with their wives and children. The Sinhalese people have not forgotten Sheik Abdullah Ibn Khafif from Iran and to this day they continue to play the greatest veneration to this Sheik and call him, “the Great sheik” of Iran.

The affinity of the spirit of this Iranian Sheik long ago may explain why the Islamic Republic of Iran has very close relations with the Rajapakse government, President Ahamadinejad is a very close personal friend of our President Rajapakse and Iran has given huge amounts of funds for the development of the Uma Oya project, the Petroleum refinery in Sapugaskande and for rural electrification. Muslims believe the death of a saint is only a physical death the spirit or soul lives in ‘barzagh’ a temporary place till the Day of Judgment. In this state the saint with the approval of God has the power of intercession to alleviate the suffering of people who are alive. Who knows that the descendents of the people who at one time long ago was hospitable to the saint would have pleaded for intercession of the saint for relief from economic hardship which resulted in Iranian help to the Rajapakse government. Those who know about spiritual matters do not reject this possibility. However the atheist and agnostics will not believe!