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Volume 38, Number 6November/December 1987

In This Issue

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Muslims in the Caribbean

Written and photographed by Larry Luxner

Praise Be to Allah - Laylat al-Qadr [the Night of Power]," proclaims the roadside banner. It bellies in the wind along the dusty, two-lane highway leading north from Guyana's Timehri International Airport.

A special religious program, "The Voice of Islam," is playing on the ancient taxi's radio, and at the nearby Ruimveldt Jamaat Madrasa, two dozen children have just settled down for their afternoon Arabic class. It is the 27th day of Ramadan in Guyana, and at first glance, the music, the mosques and the Muslims all seem strangely out of place in this densely forested, English-speaking nation on the northern shoulder of South America.

But, as local religious leader al-Hajj Naseer Ahmad Khan points out, Islam has long played a prominent role in Guyanese history. "Today, Muslims are integrated into every profession," he says. "I think we've got a good future here."

Khan, president of the Guyana-based Islamic Missionaries Guild International, is one of nearly 400,000 Muslims scattered across the nations of the Caribbean. Mostly East Indian in origin, they live in relative prosperity on at least a dozen Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Grenada, Dominica, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jamaica.

The region's heaviest Muslim concentrations, however, are in Suriname, with an estimated 100,000 believers, in Trinidad and Tobago, also home to 100,000 Muslims, and in Guyana, with an estimated Muslim population of 120,000.

Travel agents like to promote Trinidad as a tropical Caribbean paradise, an ideal vacation spot throbbing with calypso, carnival and steel bands.

But Trinidad is also the focus of Muslim life in the Caribbean. Last August, Saudi Arabia's Prince Muhammad ibn Faysal visited to address the 24th international convention of the Islamic Missionaries Guild. The oil-rich island, smaller than Brunei or the state of Delaware, boasts the western hemisphere's highest concentration of mosques - 85 in all - a Muslim speaker of the house in veteran politician Nizam Mohammed, and even a Muslim president, Noor Mohammed Hassanali.

Last May, both men were featured speakers at Trinidad's first-ever official public celebration of 'Id al-Fitr, a joyous event marking the end of the fasting of the month of Ramadan. Nearly 4,000 Muslims turned out for the gathering, which for the first time was held at the national Jean Pierre Cultural Complex in Port-of-Spain.

"The Muslim community in Trinidad, despite being small, is very organized," said businessman Imtiaz Ali, who attended special 'Id prayers at the Jinnah Memorial Mosque, one of the country's largest.

Ali, who from 1974 to 1978 studied at the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, today manages the Muslim Credit Union Co-operative Society in Curepe, a small village near Port-of-Spain. In keeping with the laws of Islam, the credit union charges the equivalent of $1 a month in dues, while offering its 1,500 members interest-free loans (See Aramco World , May-June 1987).

In Trinidad, there presently exist two generations of Muslims: one which has become set in tradition, doing things because they were born into it. This group of people doesn't find Islam very dynamic," said Ali, who is 32. "And then you have a younger generation of Muslims who do."

Last year, he said, nearly 100 Trinidadian Muslims - many from this younger generation - made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Speaker of the House Nizam Mohammed, like Ali and most other Trinidadian Muslims, traces his ancestry to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

"My great-grandparents came as indentured servants around 1845. They were among the first arrivals in Trinidad," the Port-of-Spain attorney told Aramco World . "To lure them into coming, these people were told that Trinidad offered the best prospects for owning land. Many of them died of frustration and grief."

The indenture system, used by Trinidad's British colonial masters shortly after slavery was abolished in 1834, was a form of unpaid servitude which usually required peasants, nearly all of them Hindus or Muslims, to work the sugar plantations for a term of years in order to pay off their debts or repay the often inflated cost of their passage. Inhumane living conditions were often accompanied by efforts to impose Christianity on the newcomers, regardless of their religious beliefs.

"Because of the hardships these people faced in their early days and throughout their lives," Nizam Mohammed said, "they never left any historical information behind. Today, many of us have no idea of our heritage in India."

Mohammed, who is 46 years old and London-educated, has no way of knowing whether his great-grandparents were among the 225 passengers aboard the Fatel Razeck, which brought the first indentured servants to Trinidad on May 31,1845.

But he does know about his two grandfathers, Kallam Meah and Rajeem Meah. After serving their five-year terms of indenture - a status just one step above slavery - Kallam went into coffee and coconut farming, and Rajeem became a tailor. In later years, before the advent of the petroleum industry, Trinidad would owe much of its economic success to these early Muslim farmers and merchants.

"Muslims today are very prominent in the business community," said Mohammed. "Many of them have made their way to the top and hold senior positions in the public service. They've always been involved in politics as well."

Interestingly, Trinidad's first Muslims were not East Indians at all, but black slaves from the Mandingo tribe of West Africa, many of whose members embraced Islam in the 1740's. Today, however, East Indian Muslims outnumber their African co-religionists 20 to one.

According to Omar Hasan Kasule's report, Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago, slaves were first brought to work Trinidad's sugar plantations around 1777, and by 1802 they numbered nearly 20,000.

"In the 1830s, a community of Mandingo Muslims who had been captured from Senegal lived in Port-of-Spain," Kasule wrote. "They were literate in Arabic and organized themselves under a forceful leader named Muhammad Beth, who had purchased his freedom from slavery. They kept their Islamic identity and always yearned to go back to Africa."

But, unlike the Indian arrivals, most black slaves Had no continuing contact with their homeland and could not sustain their Islamic faith.

"Over the last 15 years, we've had a number of people from African backgrounds accepting Islam," said Mohammed. "It is part of the quest for an identity among the African community in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of them have realized that their forefathers were Muslims."

Together, Indian and African Muslims constitute only eight percent of the country's total population of 1.2 million, while 36 percent of the people classify themselves as Roman Catholics, 23 percent as Hindus and 13 percent as Protestants. Yet Muslims' influence in commerce, higher education and the media far outweighs their numbers.

Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, head of state of Trinidad and Tobago and party leader of the National Alliance for Reconstruction, alluded to this in his public 'Id al-Fitr address last May.

"Muslims have made and are continuing to make tremendous contributions to education in our country," he said. "People of all faiths can derive tremendous benefit from the lessons of Ramadan. All our citizens today can join themselves in the spirit of reconstruction."

Most Trinidadian Muslims live in and around Port-of-Spain - the nation's modern, bustling capital city - though there is no such thing as a "Muslim neighborhood" there. Mosques often share the same street with white clapboard Baptist churches and elaborate Hindu temples.

One particularly beautiful masjid is the Jinnah Memorial Mosque in St. Joseph. Built in 1954 and named after Pakistan's first president, the chocolate-and-cream structure is easily recognized by its two towering minarets. The spacious mosque was once featured on a 50-cent stamp, and can easily accommodate 1,000 worshippers. Other important mosques are located in the towns of Tunapuna, Curepe, San Fernando and Rio Claro.

Several Muslim organizations also flourish in Trinidad, the largest being the Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association, which was founded in the 1930's and represents some 80 percent of the nation's Muslims. In addition, the Trinidad Muslim League, the Islamic Trust, the Tabligh Jamaat and the Islamic Missionaries Guild of South America and the Caribbean all have significant followings.

But where Islam has made the greatest difference, argues Brinsley Samaroo, historian and Trinidad and Tobago's minister of local government, is in strengthening the moral fiber of the nation.

"The major impact of the faith lies in the input that it has undoubtedly made to the value system of Trinidad and Tobago," wrote Samaroo in the 1987 'Id al-Fitr annual. "Its appeal to believers, regardless of their race, has stood out like a beacon to guide a nation in which the ruling classes have always used race as a factor to ensure their dominance."

Islam is even making its mark on Tobago, the jewel-like sister island of Trinidad, noted for its white-sand beaches, shimmering coral reefs and slow-paced living.

The first Muslim, Rostam Mohammed, came here 50 years ago with his son Yusuf. He kept the religion alive from then to the present," says Manzoor Ali, a heavy-equipment contractor and one of the few Tobagonian Muslims who has made the pilgrimage to Makkah.

"We have a vibrant community now. We have already converted some African brothers," reports Ali, adding that the 80-member congregation is currently building a mosque at Lowlands, near the picturesque town of Scarborough.

Despite their shared British colonial past, Trinidad and Guyana today stand at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Even with the recent drop in world oil prices, Trinidadians still enjoy a per-capita income of $6,010 - fourth highest in the western hemisphere.

Guyana is another story. Left behind by the modern world, this remote, underdeveloped South American nation is only now beginning to emerge from a decade of ruinous economic policies brought on by its late socialist-inspired president, Linden Forbes Simpson Burnham.

According to recent figures, Muslims comprise nearly 15 percent of Guyana's estimated 800,000 inhabitants - not many people for a country the size of Great Britain. Hindus account for another 40 percent of the population and Christians about 30 percent. The remainder is comprised of Amerindian tribes inhabiting the country's vast jungle to the south.

In fact, until the mass suicide in 1978 of 911 American cult members at a remote jungle settlement called Jonestown, few foreigners had even heard of Guyana. It was Hamilton Green's job then to keep Jonestown off-limits to the hordes of journalists who fell on the isolated nation.

Green, who converted to Islam in the early 1960's, became prime minister of Guyana in 1985 and is now, at age 53, the country's most powerful political leader after President Hugh Desmond Hoyte. Educated at Queens College in Georgetown, Green is the author of a book on his country's colonial history called From Pain to Peace: Guyana 1953-1964 .

"We believe that the first Muslims came [to Guyana] from the west coast of Africa," he told Aramco World . "They were Fulanis, very devout and committed Muslims, who came as slaves. Both the Dutch and the British ensured that the slaves were neither allowed to practice their native religion nor speak their native tongues.

"When I was a boy, partly because of the effectiveness of British propaganda, we assumed that Islam was something that belonged to Indians alone. Being a Muslim meant being an Indian."

Asked what led him to embrace Islam, Green replied, "In the old colonial days, to gain access to public positions in the social service, and for social mobility, one had to be a Christian. In fact, many parents of today's Christian families converted as a prerequisite of acceptance.

But I saw myself as an Afro-Guyanese. I recognized that my earliest ancestors who came to Guyana and the West Indies were not Christians. I took a personal objection that I was railroaded into a religion the choice of which I had nothing to do with, and I chose the religion of my ancestors."

Besides Green, other top-ranking Muslim officials in Guyana are Attorney General Mohammed Shahabuddeen, Army Chief of Staff Norman Masud McLean and a judge of the High Court, S.Y. Mohammed.

Al-Haj Naseer Ahmad Khan is a close friend of Green's and president-general of the Islamic Missionaries Guild International. His office, decorated with religious posters from Saudi Arabia, is located above a Chinese restaurant across the street from Georgetown's crowded, noisy Stabroek fruit and vegetable market.

"One hundred and fifty years ago, Muslims came here as indentured laborers to work on the sugar estates. They were drivers and foremen in charge of the field gangs," he explained. "My greatgrandfather built the first masjid here at a place called Filadelfia on the east bank of the Demerara River."

Today, he said, 133 mosques dot the countryside. In Georgetown itself, the Muslim community's new showcase mosque is the Masjid Dar al-Salaam, whose modern concrete design contrasts sharply with the graceful wooden construction of Georgetown's older buildings.

The mosque houses the Muhammad Anwar Memorial Library and the Guyana Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha'at - a religious organization - and is only 10 blocks from historic St. George's Cathedral, the world's second-tallest wooden structure.

Other superlatives are not quite so flattering. Though Guyana's 90-percent literacy rate is among the highest in South America, yet its per-capita income of $570 makes it the third poorest nation in the western hemisphere, after Haiti and Bolivia.

Morever, tourism to Guyana is virtually nonexistent, and prices for the nation's three major exports - rice, sugar and bauxite - are at all-time lows, sparking inflation. Last year, one US dollar bought 4.25 Guyanese dollars. Today, a US dollar can fetch 20 Guyanese dollars on the open market. Guyana's gross external debt is estimated at US $1-5 billion, or nearly $1,875 per inhabitant.

"The biggest problem in Guyana now is paying our debts," Khan said. "Since the advent of the new president, though, I think we'll have a little more breathing space."

In Guyana, all religions enjoy freedom of worship, and Muslim government employees can take two hours off for Friday prayers. Mosques are generally free to conduct childrens' religious classes without government interference.

At the Ruimveldt Jamaat Madrasa outside Georgetown, for example, 13-year-old Shavrena Rashid, her nine-year-old sister Shabane and 20 other Muslim children study Arabic and religious subjects for two hours every afternoon. These classes are crucial to the growth of Islam in Guyana, for there are few local Muslims who can read, write or speak Arabic fluently.

Some differences do exist between Guyanese Muslims and their counterparts in other Caribbean countries. In Guyana, for example, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday is an official public holiday - but not 'Id al-Fitr. The reverse is true in Trinidad. And some Guyanese Muslims have been criticized for supporting former President Burnham's socialist policies.

If Guyana represents a cultural oddity wedged into the remote northern coast of South America, then neighboring Suriname is even more varied in its isolation. Often called a "little United Nations," this Dutch-speaking country a little larger than Georgia and half the area of Norway is home to Hindus, Portuguese, Chinese, Jews, Amerindians and Bush Negroes.

Of Suriname's 400,000 inhabitants, 25 percent are Muslims - the highest percentage in any country in the western hemisphere.

"In the last two decades, thanks to God, religious consciousness has been showing a pleasant growth, due to better understanding of Islam," said Dr. Isaac Jamaludin, president of the Madjlies Moeslimien Suriname, an Islamic umbrella organization in Paramaribo. "There are new mosques and educational organizations scattered all over the country."

But since mid-1986, Suriname has been embroiled in a fierce guerrilla war which could at any moment spill out of control. The war has already made travel to and from Suriname next to impossible, and is now threatening to strangle food supplies so effectively that Suriname - once counted among South America's most prosperous nations - could soon become an economic basket case.

The current fighting is surprising in light of Suriname's long history of tolerance for various religious and ethnic groups. In 1685, for example, Jewish refugees from Holland built South America's first synagogue at a settlement called Jodensavanna, south of Paramaribo. In 1873, Urdu-speaking Muslims from Hindustan began arriving as indentured servants to work the sugar plantations. Then, in 1902, Indonesian Muslims from Java arrived to cultivate Suriname's coastal rice fields, and four years later, the country's first mosque was built at Wanica. At last count, said Jamaludin, a practicing physician in Paramaribo, there were more than 150 mosques throughout Suriname.

"We have complete religious freedom, but the level of education is not optimal, due to the fact that we don't have enough qualified teachers," he reported.

Unlike wealthier Muslims in Trinidad and Guyana, Surinamese Muslims belong mostly to the low- and middle-income groups and are predominantly agricultural workers. In addition, said Jamaludin, the community lacks suitable Islamic educational material in English or Dutch.

"The Muslims [here] depend on their own, while the Christians and Hindus have the full material and moral support of their organizations in Holland, the United States and India," he said, noting that because of isolation and recent tensions, educated Muslims have already begun joining the too-familiar "brain drain" to the United States and Western Europe. Since Suriname's independence in 1975, more than 10,000 Muslims have emigrated to The Netherlands.

The indenture system, which over the years brought hundreds of thousands of East Indian Muslims to Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, is also responsible for Islam's existence today on Guadeloupe, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada and other nearby islands.

Mohammed Saied, one of 1,200 Barbadian Muslims, describes how Islam took root less than 50 years ago in Barbados, a pear-shaped island in the eastern Caribbean. "Originally, East Indian businessmen came here on their way to Latin America; they stopped off in Barbados," he explained. "Some of them found Barbados to be a nice place. When they had completed their missions in Latin America, they came back to Barbados to live."

In Puerto Rico, there are nearly 2,500 Muslims, most of them Palestinians who arrived between 1958 and 1962, according to local businessman Ibrahim Mustafa. The vast majority of Puerto Rico's Muslims live in Rio Piedras - a crowded, older suburb of San Juan - where they operate restaurants, jewelry stores and clothing outlets. A storefront mosque on Calle Padre Colon serves the entire community.

As is the case in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs of Puerto Rico are not a prominent group. Neither are about 50,000 Muslims who live in Venezuela, nearly all of them recently arrived Arab immigrants attracted by the country's oil industry, with few local religious or community ties. One of the region's strongest religious trends today is the movement toward Islam among blacks. In its initial stages it was associated mainly with black-power groups and their political motives, but this is no longer the case: today the search for their origins is a strong motivating factor for many Caribbean blacks.

It is only in the last 20 years or so, but mainly in the last decade, that Muslims have begun emerging from many of the limitations and constrictions of the past century. Indeed, there has been an increasing awareness of Islam - perhaps amounting to an awakening - in the Caribbean generally," wrote Abdul Wahid Hamid, past director of the Islamic Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, in a paper prepared for the 1978 meeting of the Islamic Council of Europe in London. "In Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Barbados and Jamaica, Islam is slowly and sometimes painfully divesting itself of its 'Indian' image [among those] mainly of African descent," Hamid wrote. "In many respects, the developments connected with this new awakening are soul-stirring and exciting, and could, with proper assistance and guidance, change the religious landscape of the Caribbean in a positive and meaningful way."

Politically, the Caribbean is already changing. The United States, through President Ronald Reagan's 1982 Caribbean Basin Initiative, is attempting to strengthen the economies of 22 area nations through special trade incentives and quota loopholes. In Guyana, despite the pronouncements of Prime Minister Hamilton Green that socialism and Islam can coexist, many Muslims long for a return to free enterprise and capitalism.

In Trinidad, Muslim life appears stronger than ever. Recently, the Trinidadian Muslim community celebrated the opening of its spacious $l-million Islamic Centre in Kelly Village, containing classrooms, a library, a bookshop and meeting rooms for important religious functions. On the social front, Islamic leaders have begun to join their Christian and Hindu brethren in calling attention to Trinidad's growing alcoholism and drug-abuse problems, and scorning what they see as an erosion of traditional values brought on by the annual pre-Lenten carnival.

"God is the fountainhead of ideas, and as such, moral values are absolute, they are not relative. We are saddened at the immorality and indecency of the major national festival in this country," said Maulana Siddique Ahamad Nasir, featured speaker at the national 'Id al-Fitr celebration in Port-of-Spain. "We need to understand that ours is a multiracial society, and thai no attempt to build a system in defiance of God will succeed."

That speech was well-received, and after the historic event, as thousands of Muslims poured out of the stadium to buy traditional holiday pastries and wish each other 'Id Mubarak" - a blessed holiday -at least one Muslim family was determined to get the message across. The bumper sticker on the family car carried one quiet suggestion: "Read Koran."

Larry Luxner, formerly a free-lance writer in the Middle East, is now a staff reporter for Caribbean Business newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the November/December 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1987 images.