Islam in the Caribbean

views updated

Islam in the Caribbean

The experiences of plantation slavery were not conducive to the continuity of most cultural traits brought from Africa. Thus within a few generations, all traces of Islam virtually disappeared in the Caribbean. Historical evidence shows that there were many Muslims among these slaves, mainly from the Mandingo, Hausa, and Fulani peoples. Evidence also shows that there was a latent, suppressed attachment to ancestral religions, including Islam.

In one of the ironies of Caribbean history, many Afro-Caribbean people converted to Islam centuries after all traces of this religion were destroyed by the European cultural dominance faced by their ancestors. This acculturative process took place systematically throughout slavery and may have varied in intensity from one Caribbean country to another as Melville Herskovits observed.

Islam was once more introduced to the Caribbean through the indentured laborers from India from 1845 to 1917. This community was largely concerned with its own survival, had limited contact with the wider society, and thus was not engaged in missionary activity. Nevertheless, a few individuals of African descent converted to Islam as early as 1940. Among these were Pir Robinson and Yusuf Mitchell, who both became leaders in what was perceived at that time as an Indian religion. Robinson was a wealthy businessman from the southern part of the island of Trinidad. He accepted Islam through his own search, eventually became a leader at his mosque, and was known to be engaged in many social welfare activities. Mitchell, a nationally known architect from north Trinidad, became a Muslim in 1950. Being influenced by religious missionaries, Mitchell initially practiced many local traditions. He was a founding member of the Islamic Missionaries Guild (c. 1969) and the Islamic Trust (c. 1975).

A significant influx of African converts began in the early 1970s, spurred by an increased black consciousness among the Afro-Caribbean community. This phenomenon was inspired by events in North America and particularly by the teachings of Malcolm X. While the Nation of Islam did have a small following in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and in other Caribbean territories, the majority of Africans in the Caribbean who accepted Islam joined the orthodox Muslim community. These new Afro-Caribbean Muslims came mainly from grassroots urban communities, and they did not find ready acceptance by the middle-class leadership of the traditional Muslim community. However, among the younger members of the Muslim community, who were generally more fundamentalist in their religious orientation, there was no significant race or class barrier.

Though Afro-Caribbean Muslims were warmly accommodated by the Islamic Missionaries Guild of the Caribbean and South America (with branches in Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad) and the Islamic Trust of Trinidad and Guyana, as a group they were still uncomfortable with the Indian Muslim community. They were especially concerned with the Indian cultural traditions, which they felt were influenced by Hinduism. In February 1977, Afro-Trinidadian Muslims in Trinidad established their own group under the influence of the Islamic Party of North America. The Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, an Islamic organization with a predominantly Afro-Trinidadian membership, evolved out of this group. In July 1990, led by Yasin Abu Bakr, the group attempted to remove the democratically elected government. They took Prime Minister A. N. R. Robinson and other government ministers hostage, but the coup attempt failed after seven days. Many of the Jamaat's members then left to form the Islamic Resource Society. This group has very cordial relations with the Indian Muslim community and belongs to the United Islamic Organizations, a coordinating body of Muslim groups in Trinidad. Afro-Trinidadian Muslims frequently worship at most of the Indian-dominated mosques in Trinidad and Tobago and in Guyana, but there are a few urban mosques that are predominantly Afro-Trinidadian in their congregation. The other Muslim communities in the Caribbean, with the exception of Barbados, are predominantly Afro-Caribbean in their membership.

Middle Eastern Influence

There were Muslims, Jews, and Christians among the early Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to the Caribbean. These groups came as traders to the Caribbean in the 1930s. Those who remained Muslims often intermingled, and sometimes intermarried, with Indian Muslims. One of the

first Muslim missionaries from the Middle East was Abdel Salaam, who came from Egypt around 1966. He taught Arabic at several centers in Trinidad. In the 1970s, nationals from Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados were awarded scholarships to pursue studies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their return provided a new turn of events for the Muslim community in the Caribbean. As might have been expected, their interpretations of Islam did not find favor with the traditional Muslims. They nevertheless found tremendous support from among the youth of the region, who were largely disenchanted with the leadership of traditional Muslims. These new and radical fundamentalist-type approaches, which emphasized a return to the original sources in the practice of Islam, provided an exciting escape from the traditionalism of the mainstream Muslim community.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further kindled the flames of fundamentalism among Caribbean Muslims. Young Muslims took pride in openly identifying with Islam. It was only around the mid-1970s that Muslim women began wearing the hijab, or veil. Prior to this, the ohrni, an Indian head covering, was worn by older women only (Niehoff and Niehoff, 1961).

In some Caribbean countries, organizations bringing together different Muslim traditions have been established. These "ecumenical" attempts have achieved some degree of success at the formal level, where groups of different orientations sit together to address the needs of the Muslim community. However, the more traditional Muslims show little inclination to change traditional religious practices.

In countries such as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname, the major strength of the community lies in its numerous institutions. There are Muslim cooperatives, a credit union, a housing cooperative, several primary and secondary schools, and three religious institutes. The mosques of the region have also served as important institutions over the years. As of 1998, Guyana had 154 mosques; Trinidad and Tobago, 112; Suriname, 100; Jamaica, 6; and Barbados, 4. In addition to serving as places of worship, many mosques serve as both places of worship and educational institutions, known as maktabs (literally, a place of writing) or madrasahs (literally, a place for studying). Both terms are used to refer to educational institutions. In Guyana, madrasah is preferred, while in Trinidad, maktab is preferred. In most of the smaller Muslim communities of the Caribbean, members (largely of Afro-Caribbean descent) formed a regional body, the Association of Islamic Communities of the Caribbean and Latin America (AICCLA), in 1982 to coordinate their activities. They have received some financial and other forms of assistance from outside the Caribbean.

The Muslim community in the Caribbean has successfully struggled to maintain a visible presence in the face of numerous forces that have threatened its very existence. And yet a marked diversity exists within the community, even among those who claim to have the same orientation. There are many variations in the approach to Islam. These are usually based on matters of religious practice and jurisprudence (fiqh ) and not basic beliefs. There is, however, much need for further research on the historical background and unique characteristics of Caribbean Muslims.

See also Islam in North America; Muslims in the Americas; Slave Religions


Afroz, Sultana. "Unsung Slaves: Islam in the Plantation Society." Caribbean Quarterly 41, nos. 2, 3 (1995): pp. 3044.

Caribbean Islamic Secretariat. Muslims in the Caribbean. Port of Spain: CIS Caribbean Islamic Secretariat, 1998.

De Waal Malefijt, A. "Animism and Islam among the Javanese in Surinam." In Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean, edited by Michael M. Horowitz. New York: Natural History Press, 1971.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Hadith: Sahih al Bukhari. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1980.

Hamid, A.W. "Muslims in the West Indies." Paper presented to the Muslim Minorities Seminar, Islamic Council of Europe, 1978.

Kasule, Omar Hassan. "Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago." Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, 7, no. 1 (1986): 195224.

Khan, F. "Islam as a Social Force in the Caribbean." Paper presented at the Conference of the History Teachers' Association of Trinidad and Tobago, June 1987.

Khan, N. Personal communication, September 1998.

Mansingh, A. and Mansingh, L. "Hosay and its Creolization." Caribbean Quarterly 41, no. 1 (1995): 2539.

The Muslim Standard, no. 3 (December 1975).

Niehoff, A., and J. Niehoff. "East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago." Milwaukee Public Museum Publications in Anthropology, no. 6 (1961).

Quick, A. H. Abdullah Hakim. Deeper Roots: Muslims of the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present. Nassau, Bahamas: AICCLA, 1990. Reprint, London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 1996.

Samaroo, Brinsley. "The Indian Connection: The Influence of Indian Thought and Ideas on East Indians in the Caribbean." In India in the Caribbean, edited by David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo. London: Hansib Publishing House, 1987.

Samaroo, Brinsley. "Early African and East Indian Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago." In Across the Dark Waters, edited by David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1996.

Sanyal, U. Devotional Islam and Politics in British India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Sharif, Ja'far. Islam in India, translated by G. A. Herklots. London: Humphrey Milford, 1921.

nasser mustapha (2005)