The indenture servants and the economic migrants brought with them their religious beliefs, cultural practices and way of life to their new homes. The pressure was not as great on them to give up these practices as it was on the early generation of Muslims who were slaves living at the command of their slave masters. However there still existed some strong influence on them to abide by the existing cultural and social practices dictated by the European colonial authorities.
In that atmosphere and in generally very poor conditions for both the indenture servant and economic migrant Muslims managed not only to maintain their religious identity but to also establish the foundation of Islamic principles and institutions that were easily built upon by later generations.
Muslims in the various Caribbean islands and countries that they came to, namely Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica and Barbados were able to establish masajid/mosques soon after their arrival. The establishment of a place of worship meant Muslims had a place to congregate and conduct their affairs collectively and so not be on their own in an otherwise hostile environment. The communities that sprung up around each mosque or vice versa in some cases meant the establishment of an Islamic presence in the society.
This presence was maintained, it was argued, by the several different activities conducted by these early Muslims. The congregational prayers, especially Jumma on Fridays, the gatherings to break fast in Ramadan, the gatherings on Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha, the getting together at weddings and funerals, and in Trinidad and Guyana the practice of gathering to sing praises to the Prophet Muhammad. These activities in total helped in allowing these early Muslims to maintain their Islamic identity and beliefs.
In addition to these activities allowing Muslims to maintain their beliefs and religious practices, their food, dress, languages and other cultural practices were also preserved.
As the indenture system came to end in the early 20th Century most of those in the system stayed on and never returned to their country of origin. They became very much part of the society in the Caribbean.
This act of remaining in the country meant the consolidation of the Islamic presence and preservation of the Islamic and Muslim identity and culture on the region.
Today over 100 mosques are part and parcel of the landscape on the island of Trinidad. Many in the architecture similar to mosques found on the Indian and Asian sub-continent. The story is the same in Guyana and Suriname.
The food brought by the early Muslims from India are incorporated in the cuisine of these countries with roti, curry and other Indian dishes all consider part of the national diet. “Halal meat and chicken” are very common in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname with famous international fast-food chains in these countries offering halal menus. This practice is now catching on in Barbados and other islands of the region.
Dress, music and cultural practices have also made similar impact on the wider society and today form an important part of the national identity of the State.
The early Shia Muslims in Trinidad left a practice which is still a festival there. The festival of Hosay, commemorating Ashura. While the majority main stream sunni Muslims do not identify with this festival and its practices several Trinidadians and Government institutions still promote the festival as part of its cultural heritage during the Islamic month of Muharram. Bands of people carrying brightly colored “Tadjahs” replicas of the tombs of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad take to the streets in parts of Trinidad to celebrate the occasion.
Suriname today boasts the largest percentage of Muslims in the Western hemisphere with just under 25% of its population having Islam as their faith. Trinidad and Guyana each have just about 10% of their population as Muslims while all the other countries/islands in the region have around 1% of their respective populations.
Despite these small numbers Muslims have had some influence in these countries and significant achievements not witnessed in many parts of the western world. Since gaining independence in the mid 20th century Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname have all recognized as national public holidays, Islamic festivals. In Trinidad, Eid-ul-Fitr is a national public holiday each year. In Guyana, Eid-ul-Adha and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, are national public holidays and in Suriname both Eids are national public holidays. No other countries in the Western hemisphere have achieved this milestone.
The significance of these national public holidays means that the wider population can understand and appreciate the importance of Islamic beliefs and practices and share in the cultural expressions of Muslims at these important moments on their calendar.
The part played by Muslims in politics, economic activity, education and other strategic activities in their respective countries have all helped to bring about a level of influence for the positive reinforcement of Islamic culture in the wider society.
The highest office of Government, President, was achieved by a Muslim in Trinidad and Tobago some years ago. It was reported that during his tenure all alcoholic beverages were prohibited at his official functions. Muslims over the years have and continue to hold positions of Ministers, Senators and other important governmental portfolios in several Caribbean territories.
In the field of business several Muslims have managed successfully to established small, medium and large scale business enterprises in a wide variety of sectors contributing in a very meaningful way to the development of the society. These economic activities have helped in creating employment, increasing the income of many and adding to the economic fortunes of the society as a whole. A Trinidadian Muslim businessman whose soft drink enterprise started out in Trinidad now has plants in other parts of the world including Saudi Arabia. In Barbados a unique enterprise of itinerant trading evolved from the early Muslims and developed to the modern day form of credit purchases. Many prominent Barbadians today, leaders and others all champion the role of the Muslim itinerant trader who sold goods primarily to the poor in society on credits terms that allowed them to pay off over a time period suitable to their budget with just a handshake and goodwill.
In education Muslims have managed to set up and maintain schools, both at the primary and secondary level to cater not only to Muslims but students of all backgrounds. These schools have over the years done exceptionally well achieving above the average of most schools in the country while being a source of positive Islamic cultural influence.
In recent years several governments in the Caribbean region have expanded their relationships beyond their traditional partner countries in North America and Europe and have actively pursued and set up diplomatic relations with Muslim countries. In some cases local Muslim communities or individuals have been engaged to work alongside Ministers of Government in pursuance of this objective of engaging with Muslim countries. The former Guyanese President, Bharat Jagdeo, took with him on a tour of several Muslim nations a few years ago, the President of the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana, Fazeel Ferouz.
Suriname and Guyana are full members of the Organization of Islamic Conference. While both countries benefitted from grants of the Islamic Development Bank. Caribbean governments especially at this time of a worldwide recession are very aware of establishing and maintaining ties with the oil-rich Muslim states in the Middle East. This engagement has provided opportunities for Caribbean people to have access to Arab and Islamic culture through the grant of scholarships and other avenues to study and visit the Middle East.
As Caribbean countries generally rely heavily on tourism, engagement with these countries opens new markets for tourists to come from. The Caribbean has experienced over recent years the increase in tourists from Arab and Muslim countries. Hotels have found the need to modify and cater to these ‘new’ tourists. Engaging local Muslim communities in an attempt to understand the needs of these Muslim tourists have become an established practice in the tourism sector.