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History of Islam and Muslims in Trinidad
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Mohammed Rafeeq
 
By Mohammed Rafeeq
Published on 12/30/2009
 
This article has been extracted from Trinidad Muslim League 50th anniversary brochure.  It contains valuable historical information, however as with most historical record, it is from the experience and viewpoint of the author and often it has a polemical narrative style.

Over a hundred years ago when Negroes and Chinese had proven a failure [over 190 years of African slavery in Caribbean plantations could not be flippantly be dismissed as "failure", the enrichment of plantation owners over this period of time on the backs of African slavery, the subsequent use of the capital generated from sugar as funding of the industrialization of Britain and other European societies are sufficient proof of the successful exploitation of slave labour in Caribbean society, as Dr. Eric Williams  argued in his Capitalism and Slavery - " that the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics—rather than by altruism or humanitarianism. By extension, so was the emancipation of the slaves and the fight against the trading in slaves by other nations. As industrial capitalism and wage labor began to expand, eliminating the competition from slavery became economically advantageous." Editor] the sugar-cane-fields, Indians were imported from India under a system of indenture to save the sugar industry from ruin. Today through the indefatigable labour of these pioneers under severe and adverse conditions. Trinidad is a veritable garden and boasts of being one of the foremost and most progressive of the West Indian islands.

The first shipload of Indian immigrants arrived here by the "Fath-al Razack" in May 1845 while the last shipload was brought by the s/s "Ganges" in 1917. The total number arriving in the Colony amounted to 147,592 within a period of 72 years. They were mainly Hindus and Muslims and the history of their shock and disappointment, the pains and miseries of these poor souls under their term of semi-slavery, and the courage and fortitude with which they carried out their term of indenture will indeed make a good study for the humanist.

Out of the mass of immigrants that came 15 would be a good average of those that were literate, all of whom were men. The purpose of this article is to deal chiefly with the Muslims and henceforward; I shall confine myself to their review.

Soci-economic background
 Despite their adverse condition these people were very God-fearing and held on to their religion with inflexible faith. The spark of Islam they had brought from India was kept ever ablaze by them; deep within, their breasts their love for their religion found prominence above all other avocations. It was an age of faith and as such their beliefs were also built. They made no technical research, but followed a prescribed form of ceremonials in which they had been brought up in their homeland.

Islam as a great spiritual force clearly demonstrated itself in the lives of these people for though they had woven many strange and superstitious ideas around its non-fundamentals; they maintained the Central Doctrines with unadulterated purity. With a fanatical zeal they served their religion with loyalty and devotion and completely resigned themselves to the Will of God.

While the bulk of children were still working in the cane fields, a small percentage of privileged boys received the scanty education which was available. They were taught English through the Canadian Mission schools to which Institution, Indians should never be ungrateful; Urdu and Arabic reading of the Qur'an were privately taught by sacrificing individuals.  The girls, however, did not have an equal share in education as the boys. Their place was considered to be the home, hence no English was taught to them and those who could not spare the time to go to the Maktabs owing to pressure of house work remained unfortunate illiterates.

Among the many who kept the dim light of Islam glowing in those gloomy days, the names of the following gentlemen will ever remain shining in the dark horizon of early Islamic history in Trinidad. Sayad Abdul Aziz the foremost and by far the most important character may truthfully be said to be the father of Islamic stabilization in Trinidad. He was one of those who could have read, written and understood Urdu, besides which he was a qualified mathematician and could have solved many a technical problem. Versed in 1slamic jurisprudence he was a genius and was capable of ruling a state. He was a research scholar and was much influenced by the works of Sir Sayad Ahmad Khan. He lived at Princes Town in the south of Trinidad, but his influence was felt all over the Colony. He had a very amiable disposition and scores of boys and young men could always be seen around him imbibing the spirit of Islam at his feet.  He organised the first Islamic Society known as the "Islamic Guardian Association".

Shaikh Bahadoor Ali sent his son Yacoob Ali to India. The latter came back as a Hafiz. He had memorized the Qur'an by heart and could chant the inspiring verses in a very melodious tone. This was a great honour and it won for him the admiration of the Muslims of the island.

Among others who taught, or in one form or another assisted in Islamic duties were Zahoor Khan of Couva, Ishmile Khan of California, Meer Hassan, Elahi Baksh and Bheekam Syne of San Fernando, Fateh Ali of Iere Village and Amjad Ali Meah of Princes Town.

While the South was thus paving their way, the North was not far behind. Mr. Abdul Ghany was a seeker of knowledge; he launched into business, which resulted in a very successful career. He maintained at his own expense a maktab at St Joseph for a considerable number of years. Here Urdu and the Qur'an in Arabic taught by Bahoo Khan, an able teacher.

Yarcoob Khan of St.Joseph was another educationist and turned out many a good scholar in Arabic, Urdu and Persian. He paid much attention and laid great stress in reading the Qur'an and pronouncing the Arabic words properly.

Dean Mohammed was a pupil of Yarcoob Khan and possessed an impassioned love for Islam and education. He established a maktab at his home and personally taught scores of students from near and far without any remuneration.  He devoted much of his time in research of Islamic techniques and after the close of his daily work and his maktah a group of young men always gathered at his home until late at night discussing religious problems.

There was also Hafiz Nasir-ud-deen at Tacarigua who knew great portions of the Qur'an by heart and who also devoted himself to teaching students in his area. Among teachers of the North were also Subratee Meah of St. Joseph and Baboo Meah of San Juan.

There resided a religious gentleman in Tunapuna - Ruknuddin Meah - who in his later years performed the pilgrimage to Mecca and was afterwards known as Haji Sahib. It was after the death of Sayad Abdul Aziz that Haji Ruknuddin Meah was elected Qazi of the Muslims of Trinidad.

Over fifty mosques scattered all over the Colony stand as living monuments of their religious zeal. They identified themselves-as very thrifty in all occupations: as businessmen, tradesmen and agriculturists, while a great majority continued in their work on the fields. The first generation showed a marked intellectual progress, among them being doctors, lawyers, clerks, bookkeepers, justices of the peace, etc. Though the second generation were better equipped intellectually, yet there never dawned upon them any consciousness for racial or religious preservation. Their term was one of passive adherence, in which they did no harm. For them life was perpetual motion of unconscious improvement and unconscious discovery.

When one reflects upon the condition in which these people came here - disappointed, poor and illiterate in their serfdom - Rip Van Winkle cannot help but admire and congratulate them for having preserved their identity for over a century.

THE FIRST MISSIONARY
In 1914 there came to Trinidad a very pious gentleman who had travelled all the way from India via Fiji and Mauritius. His name was Moulvi Haji Sufi Shah Mohammed Hassan Hanfi Qadri. He claimed to be from the lineage of Sufis and indeed his Oriental garb, resembling much the attire of a Coptic Patriarch, coupled with his vigil and devotion to Islamic ceremonials won for him much respect and veneration from his followers.

He practised the system of' "Peeree Mureedee" and bound his followers by a written declaration called "Shagara". All those who accepted him as their Peer (guide) were assured of Heaven. He laid great stress upon the garb of a Muslim and almost made it a fundamental requirement. Women were to wear flowing pyjamas and long 'Koorti' while the men would wear broad Eastern pyjamas will long coats and a turban or a brimless hat of Fez or cloth. People who did not dress in this manner were hurled out of the pale of Islam. Despite his rigidity and violent anathema of Kufr, his followers kept increasing daily.

This infiltration aroused the fury of the thinking men, while "Red Beard" (for so he was known afterwards) continued to sway hundreds towards his fold. Sayad Abdul Aziz Meah of Princes Town began to explode the baseless dogmas while at a public meeting in the Mosque at Tunapuna under the Presidency of Subratee Meah and the 'fatwa of Kufr-' was passed on Peer Hassan. As soon as the old "Peer" realized that things were taking a different turn and the community was dividing itself in strife, he decided to leave for India. Peer Hassan left these shores in 1918.


THE SECOND MISSIONARY
Minor differences continued to appear and the rifts gradually widened.  A couple years later a Committee comprised of, among others, Haji Ruknuddin Meah, Abdul Ghany, Rahamut, Ameer Baksh and Emam Baksh, decided to send for a Moulvi from India. Communications were duly passed between the Committee and The Woking Mission of England, and ultimately in the latter part of 1921 there arrived a Moulvi by the name of Fazal Karim Khan Duranni, B.A.

This missionary proved to be a bitter disappointment to the committee responsible for him, for while they anticipated a Moulvi: of the Hanafi Sect, Fazal Karim Khan Duranni was an Ahmadi who accepted Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as the Promised Messiah of Islam.  He recanted in later years. He taught that Jesus was dead and denied his fatherless birth; also that the Holy Prophet's Ascension to Heaven was spiritual and not physical, etc. The committee continued to support him financially but he was opposed by Haji Ruknuddin Meah in his beliefs.

A master of the English language, Mr. Duranni proved to he a thunderbolt to Christian carpers of Islam; his reply to Rev. Forbes was a masterpiece in itself: he did much to eradicate false ideas of Islam among Christians. Among his publications in Trinidad were three pamphlets: "The Virgin Birth", "Trinity Original Sin and the Book of Genesis" and "The Promised Land".

Among his own people, however, he effected a very mild and exceedingly weak reform. A man of his ability could have achieved much in Trinidad, but his one great fault was that he sacrificed any cause, however sacred or great, to his own whims and passions. He had founded an Arabic class in the North and on account of some trifling dispute he discontinued his services and shattered what might have been the landmark of his career.

After two years of service Mr. Durrani left these shores in 1923. While he had effected a mild reform among the younger generation, his work had no permanence as he had left no foundation of organisation behind him, and as he left, his work also went into a deep sleep.

There was one youth, however, from Siparia, Ameer Ali by name, who, fired by the love of Islam, seized the opportunity extended to him by Moulvi Fazal Karim Khan to take a course in Islamic theology at the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam. Lahore. He accordingly sailed to India in 1923.


THE ANJUMAN TACKVEEYATUL ISLAM
Islam again took a downward turn and in 1926, a committee again rose up. Among them were: Sayad Abdul Aziz, Ruknuddin Meah, Abdul Ghany, Ameer Baksh, Rahim Baksh, Shaffie Mohammed, etc. They founded an association and named it the Anjuman Tackveeyatul Islam and the organisers took an oath with the Holy Qur'an in their hands, that they would never forsake the Anjuman under any circumstances.

Under its first Qazi, Sayad Abdul Aziz, the association maintained a good standard and Muslims were brought together in unity. At the death of this great man in 1928, the Qaziship passed into the hands of Ruknuddin Meah. This gentleman was a very modest ruler who was greatly handicapped by not knowing the English language which was now gaining prominence. He was, however, always willing to vacate his high office in favour of a better man. His intention found a loophole during the introduction of a Divorce Bill in Trinidad when the Qazi was mis-advised to sign a protest against the Bill. A letter appeared in the "Trinidad Guardian" written by myself, pointing out the error in protesting against divorce which was sanctioned by the Holy Qur'an. The Qazi sent in a public resignation of his office and all entreaties and begging fell on deaf ears.

One Mohammed Hosein of San Fernando then came on the scene and supported the stand of the Qazi in his action. Mr. Aziz Mohammed of Tunapuna then took up the post as President of the Anjuman.

THE AGE OF ENQUIRY
In 1930 Moulvi Ameer Ali returned from India after having graduated in Islamic theology and toured Egypt and more than half the continent of Asia. He was given a warm reception by the Anjuman and shortly after was appointed Mufti, under the presidency of Mr. Salamat Ali of Arima. Questions poured forth from all quarters to test the Moulvi's ability and grave doubts were entertained by certain sections as to whether he belonged to the Kadiani Mirzai party or to one of the Imams of the Sunnat-al-Jamaat. The Moulvi was a non-sectarian Muslim, but having spoken certain words at a meeting on December 29, 1931, at the Liberty Hall, Port of Spain relative to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad without condemning him wholesale it was deduced that he was secretly a supporter of the Mirza. Henceforth waves of opposition were instituted against the Moulvi Sahib and it was propagated in every corner of the Island that Ameer Ali was a Kadiani and his supporters Kafirs, despite the fact that denials were published from time to time by the Moulvi Sahib that he was not an Ahmadi, that he had not taken the pledge of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam of Lahore, nor had he any particular beliefs on Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, one way or another.

Moulvi Ameer Ali had already ushered in a new era of enquiry and no one cared even to believe the word of God without thorough examination. A great scholar of Islam, he possessed the advantage of knowing Arabic, English and Urdu over his adversaries who had to depend upon translations in Urdu to support their contentions. The Moulvi Sahib taught Islam in conformity with new thought and scientific discoveries. He propagated the idea that Jesus was dead, that he was not taken up to Heaven alive and therefore would not come back; that the Ascension (Miraj) of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace) was not in conformity with the Spirit of Purdah as propounded by the Holy Qur'an. He advocated that women should work side by side with men and be given equal privileges in the social development of the community.

These ideas and several other reforms struck the older heads like a thunderbolt from the blue. The storm of opposition can better be imagined than described for it was repetition of history, the same as when any great man introduced a new thought and suffered untold misery and martyrdom at the hands of the vulgar only to be idolized after his death. So as time went along the persecution which at first was done in the name of religion became quite a personal matter and the feeling developed that Ameer Ali must be annihilated at any cost.

In June 1935 Moulvi Ameer Ali was made Life President of the Tackveeyatu1 Islamic Association of which he was already Mufti.  A strong committee rallied around him, among them his two most ardent supporters and co-workers, Mohammed Hakim and Mohammed Rafeeq. The trio had so consolidated themselves for the sake of Islam that their names became synonymous with one another and so it could undoubtedly be stated that whatever progress was made by the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association was made by the combined efforts of these three gentlemen.

The Tackvceyatul Islamic Association was incorporated as a non-sectarian body and was the first Muslim body in Trinidad to be incorporated; the Ordinance is cited as No. 39 of 1931. It is no exaggeration to say that the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association was always actively engaged in the welfare and social development of Muslims generally, despite the stiff opposition it got from its sectarian rivals.

THE ANJUMAN SUNNAT-UL-JAMAAT
The Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association was founded mainly on account of the differences caused by the preaching and reforms of the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association. After a controversy on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Bill around the year 1933, a few members "seceded" from the T.I.A. and formed the Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association.

This association represented the Hanafi School of Thought who formed the bulk of the Muslim community and administered to the needs of their particular section. It was incorporated in 1935.

This association carried on a relentless propaganda against Moulvi Ameer Ali and opposed him in even those things which were of common interest to both associations. This attitude of opposition began to eat at the core of the Muslim Community and hampered both associations from making any appreciable progress. Slowly a gulf began to open which in a quarter of a century became so wide that there were two distinct communities in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Sunnat-ul-Jamaat sent a representative to India to select a Moulvi who could successfully bolster up the waning spirit of the Anjuman which was now growing lethargic. Moulvi Nazeer Ahmad Seemab came in the latter part of 1935. The failure of his mission and the weakness of his leadership was discerned from the very first week of his arrival, when he failed to persuade his organisation to accept an invitation of welcome for him from the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association. Instead of bridging the gulf he left it just the same or made it a little wider. He had to suppress many of his ideas which blended with those of the T.I.A. in order to appease his benefactors, but whatever of his ideas he divulged in secret bred a new section within his own community. He left for his homeland around 1937.

THE TABLIGH-UL-ISLAM ASSOCIATION
In 1939 Maulana Nazeer Ahmad Seemab B.A. returned at the bidding of some of his secret followers and established his headquarters at Arouca. He was well aware of conditions in Trinidad from his first visit, but now that he had exposed the predicament in which he was placed by his first importers, he lost favour with them and hence arose the danger of forming a third community.

He founded the Tablighul-Islam Association in 1940 which subscribed largely to the Hanafi School of Thought in religious matters. As would be seen from the name of his association he laid its foundation on Tabligh-"Propagation by Education". He was the pioneer of tangible progress in Muslim education. He maintained a regular daily elementary school at El Socorro, San Juan, with a similar curriculum in the other Denominational schools of the Colony by subscriptions solicited by his organisation. This continued for a few years but he never lived to see Government aid granted to his school. He died in 1942 and left his association like an infant babe. The president at that time was Mr. Abdul Ghany and the secretary was his son Noor M Ghany.

THE AMALGAMATION
On the death of Moulvi Nazeer Ahmad his association had a total of 233 members. This was but a drop in the ocean of the Muslim population and it was not possible for them to carry on without a leader. A committee headed by the president, Mr. Abdul Ghany made negotiations with the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association and after ironing out several differences both these associations were amalgamated on February 7, 1943. The Tabligh ul Islamic Association was dissolved and its membership absorbed by the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, Inc.

Many months had not passed before trouble began anew. Differences of opinion began to manifest themselves in partisan feelings, sectarian wrangling, modern reforms, educational policies etc, etc. The amalgamation, which had been ushered in with such high hopes, was smashed to pieces and exactly one year after in February 1944, there was a distinct split. The association was divided into two, and physical violence was avoided only by the intervention of the Law. A chain of litigation and injunctions followed which lasted for about three years.

Finally the party headed by Moulvi Ameer Ali again showed their magnanimity and relinquished their connection with the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association for whose development they had laboured for over fifteen years. There is nothing to stop the march of progress and truth and Islam was not to he stifled within the narrow limits of sectarian boundaries.  Moulvi Ameer Ali and his party were undaunted, and on Pakistan Day August 15, 1947 the Trinidad Muslim League was founded as a Non-Conformist (Ghair Mukallid) body.

Its foundation was laid only after a thorough survey of world Islamic conditions. The Universal Brotherhood of Islam was preserved by the proclamation that any one who accepted the Holy Kalima "La-ilaha-illallah Muhammad-ur-Rasool Allah". "There is no God but one God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God", is a Muslim. There is nothing to make one a Kafir except denial of the above formula. The authorities on religious matters were the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace). "Paradise lies at the feet of Mothers" said the Prophet, and women must be placed back on a high pedestal. The history of the Trinidad Muslim League during the brief span of six years can fill a volume. I shall not deal with that, since this will appear elsewhere in this Brochure under a separate title. This, however, I shall say, that during the past, internal wrangling were responsible for keeping alive the spark of religion among a community rising in stages from the ground. This was a necessary feature for self preservation, but today with the high standard of education and the realization of tolerance in religion there is an open avenue very wide in expanse for the younger generation, and for this reason I say that the foundation laid by the Trinidad Muslim League is not only a lesson for Muslims in Trinidad hut provides food for thought to Muslims in any part of the world.


EDUCATION DEVELOPMENT
There was a very great disadvantage in educational affairs for both Muslims and Hindus, which lasted for over a hundred years. I refer to the fact that neither the Hindu nor Muslim religions were recognized by Law as candidates for running Government assisted schools. The only religious body considered for such a privilege was the Christians.

In the early days the Canadian Mission did much for Indians in the field of education even though their central idea may have been one of proselytizing the Indians and bringing them within their own Presbyterian fold. These two communities owe much to the Canadian Mission. The Canadian Mission taught Christianity in the Hindi language at schools. This helped in preserving the Hindi language. In this respect the Muslims were handicapped but they were not backward, for they established their own Maktabs and taught Arabic and Urdu in a system best known to themselves. This assisted greatly in the preservation of their religion.

The Indians however embraced every opportunity as it came by, and from time to time proved they were none the worse in literary and educational affairs if fair opportunities were given to them. Among them were doctors, lawyers, clerks, artisans and they were forging ahead side by side with the other communities. For so long they had been learning from others, but it was now dawning upon them they also could be teachers of knowledge. The Marryat and Mayhew report recommended that the Indian community could have their own schools like the Christian denominations by forming an association for that purpose. The idea was also supported by the Lord Moyne Commission. Moulvi Ameer Ali, therefore, began to agitate in this matter and the Indian Educational Association was formed in 1938. But when an application for a school was submitted for the Governor's approval, Sir Hubert Young, the then Governor, put his heels on the application and very strongly disapproved the granting of a school on a national or racial basis and the matter was again shelved.

Moulvi Ameer Ali was made a member of the Education Board in 1936. To drive a thin wedge somewhere in the Education Department for the Indians was the Moulvi's chief aim and he never left anything undone to achieve this purpose. At one of the meetings of the Board he moved the resolution that the Hindu and Muslims religions should be eligible to receive Government aid in running schools in the Colony.

His arguments were a masterpiece, but either through fear or prejudice the vote went against him; he received only a single vote on his side and his motion was defeated.

He had fought in every quarter for schools to be run by Muslims and Hindus and had done a great deal of spadework on this important question. It was during this period that a school was being run by the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association of which Moulvi Ameer Ali was President. It was also at this period that a split in the T.I.A. occurred, and Moulvi Ameer Ali and his party showed their magnanimous qualities and surrendered the T.I.A. to Mr. Abdul Ghany and his party. The school trudged along and Mr. Noor Ghany, the secretary of the T.I.A., took up the trail. After a short while, the continued labours and persistence of Mr. Noor Ghany bore fruit when Government aid was granted in 1949 to the El Socorro Islamia School, the first non-Christian school of the Colony. Both Hindus and Muslims are now recognized as denominations fit to run schools in the Colony. To these communities it was as if stored energy was released from somewhere and in a short period more than a score of schools were opened up by Hindus and Muslims through the good graces of Mr. Roy Joseph, the Minister of Education and Social Services at that time.

With the dawn of a rising consciousness in both educational and religious fields the way is now open for the preservation of our religion and culture. This is a challenge to the younger generation. Are they bracing themselves for the task? I am sure they are.