INDIAN DIASPORA SUPPLEMENT
May 30, 2000
Pages 4, 5, 6
Muslims arrived in Trinidad on the very first voyage of indentured labourers from India. But the Muslim presence in Trinidad did not begin here. The enslaved African peoples were the first to bring Islam to the Caribbean, although, by the time of emancipation, there was no significant African Muslim presence.
Dr. Nasser Mustapha, lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Behavioural Sciences, UWI, explained that the lasting presence of the religion began with the East Indians. A point of interest, he noted, as revealed by a census taken around 1901, is that "the percentage of Muslims in Trinidad was the same as the percentage of Muslims in certain parts of North India like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, from where most of the Indians came. So, the Indian population here was a close reflection of the culture of North India."
"There is a tendency to believe," Mustapha pointed out, "that in India, all Muslims were the same. But among all Indians there was a marked diversity - in linguistics, culture and religion. Even food was prepared differently. In marriage ceremonies and family life there was also much diversity."
Of the Muslims who came, the majority were Hanafi Muslims as well as some Shi'ites. The driving force behind the Muslims, and East Indians generally, was the need to preserve. "They came into an alien environment in which they felt threatened. They never felt a sense of belonging. They maintained their ties to the homeland. This is because many of them came with the intention of returning."
Mustapha also noted that among the early immigrants there was generally a feeling of suspicion towards the culture of the wider society. Another problem they confronted was an imbalance of men and women among the early Muslim community, which resulted in an initial absence of any real family life.
"One way of preserving their identity was to hold on to their religious teachings," Mustapha explained. Among even the earliest immigrants there were some progressive minds. One of these was Syed Abdul Aziz, a scholar in religion and a pioneer who would later write to the colonial authorities championing the cause of the Muslims. However, Aziz did not confine his work to Muslims alone but was generally regarded as a leader of Indians. "He, among others, began to mobilize people to have classes. I believe the first mosque was built in Iere Village, Princes Town.
"The strength of the early Muslims in Trinidad was the fact that they established mosques, and associated with eh mosque is a jamaat (organization or religious community). So, wherever there was a significant concentration of Muslims they were able to establish jamaats. And there was no opposition really from the colonial authorities because the Indians did their work. The real opposition came when there was a fear of public gatherings, which led to the Hosay Riots."
"The main force that made inroads into the Indian population was the efforts of the Canadian missionaries. This started towards the end of the 19th century and there was some conversion, particularly in areas where there were no jamaats."
"Significant attempts to re-establish and revive Islam as they knew it, however, came through the mosque which was not just a religious institution but an educational one. Attached to the mosques were maqtabs or schools for the teaching of Urdu and Arabic and where children could learn about the tenets of Islam."
"Around this time there was a mutual cultural crossover between Hindus and Muslims because of common pressures and a common external enemy and this manifested in the first Hindu/Muslim School in the 1940s. The East Indian National Association was also formed. Syed Abdul Aziz was a pioneer in this effort."
With respect to the formal organization of Muslims, the early 20th century saw the formation of the Islamic Guardian Association. In 1926, the TIA was founded. This was the first Muslim organization that was incorporated by an Act of Parliament.
"Generally in the early 20th century, there was tremendous cultural homogeneity among Muslims. Now, certain things, which may or may not have been part of the religion, became acceptable practices."
"Between 1914-1921 missionaries came from India to teach and the local community objected. They now had developed their own version, their own interpretation, and their own adaptation. These missionaries did not gain acceptance among the local community."
"There was one missionary, however, who influenced Amir Ali of Siparia to study in Lahore, India at the Ahmaddiya Institute. On his return he was appointed as a qualified scholar and the leader of the TIA in the 1930s. Ali adopted a modernist approach to Islam and because of doctrinal differences did not gain acceptance from the orthodox Muslims."
"A rift developed between Qazi Ruknudeen (the second qazi after Syed Abdul Aziz) and Amir Ali since Ali was perceived as an Ahmaddi. Ruknudeen decided, along with his followers, to leave the TIA. So, the ASJA was established as a group that broke away from the TIA."
"Now ASJA sent for another missionary, Naseer Ahmad. He was brought to oppose Amir Ali. However, he didn’t find favour with ASJA and the orthodox Muslims either. Already, in Trinidad they had developed their own interpretation and started to see anything different as alien."
"Amir Ali decided to leave the TIA himself in 1947 and formed the Trinidad Muslim League (TML). Naseer Ahmad's group merged with the TIA. There were now three different Muslim groups with three different interpretations of Islam and not much cross collaboration."
At one point, Mustapha observed, young Muslims faced a dilemma - to follow traditional religion or to seek social mobility through education. "Initially there was a fear among East Indians of being Christianized and they showed resistance to formal education. Religion remained based on tradition and informal mechanisms for education but the Presbyterian Church and schools were making tremendous inroads. The more ambitious ones chose 'secular education'.
"It was only around 1949 that the first non-Christian denominational school was recognized - the El Socorro Islamic School. Still, most Hindus and Muslims were being educated at Presbyterian schools. Muslims felt that by having their own school, it would counteract this challenge. But this may have come too late. There was, therefore, acculturation through conversion into a non-Islamic way of life."
"In the early 70s, however, there was the formation of the Islamic Missionaries Guild which taught Islam in a way that was compatible with modern day living. At this time there was also the availability of Islamic literature in English. This was a significant factor, which started the revitalization of Islam. There was also the Tabligh Movement, a group of missionaries from India who worked among the Muslims and whose aim was to make them more aware of their religion. This led to the revival of many mosques which were by then dormant."
"1975 was a significant milestone. The Islamic Trust, which started as a bookshop and a library, as formed and many young educated Muslims and those with a Western secular education were attracted to this venture. In the 80s, missionaries from Saudi Arabia were arriving in Trinidad. In 1983, the Muslim Credit Union was established and several other service organizations cropped up: the first Funeral Services Trust in the early 80s and the first Housing Cooperative."
"Today, there are over 100 mosques in the country; 70 percent are affiliated with ASJA while the others are associated with the TIA and the TML. There are also a few independent mosques. There is some variation in the interpretation of Islam among the local Muslim community.
"In terms of social life, there are Muslim primary and secondary schools and two institutions, the Darul-uloom and ASJA which produce locally trained scholars and imams and teach Arabic language and Islamic law.
Since their arrival, Muslim Indians have braved the worst of immigration and a host of other ills. Today they have emerged as a strong and significant presence in contemporary Trinidad society, having kept bright their faith in Islam.