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Muslims in the Caribbean: Ethnic sojourners and citizens

MUSLIMS IN THE CARIBBEAN region represent distinctive styles of minority and diaspora experiences. While they have a clear identity in terms of faith, their actual communal identity is frequently not based primarily on their religious identity..... although there are Muslims in the Caribbean region, in the most commonly understood usage of terms, there may not be "Muslim minorities" or "Muslims diaspora" there..... there has been no "pan-Muslim" identification or activity in the region as a whole.  While some scholars might speak of a "Black Atlantic" ....... it is not possible to identify anything that might be called a "Caribbean Muslim" identity.  Similarly, while some scholars might speak of "African Islam" or "Malaysian Islam" as religiocultural traditions, it is not possible to speak of "Caribbean Islam". (John O. Voll writing in "Muslim minorities in the West: visible and invisible")
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What is it like to be a Muslim in Cuba?

There are just 4,000 people in Cuba's small, but growing Muslim community.

But how easy is it to follow the Islamic way of life in a country with no halal butchers, where alcohol and pork are popular and - crucially - with no Mosque?

One of the persons who have had a lasting impact on Muslim praxis in the Caribbean especially Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname is Maulana Ansari. Here we present a biographical sketch.   Dr Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari (ra) was an outstanding theologian & philosopher of the Muslim World. His broad knowledge of the modern sciences together with his Islamic learning and insight enabled him to expound on Islam in a manner that was inspiring to both the masses and the intellectual elite.

An Address delivered by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission, House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, Thursday, July 16, 2014.

I speak this evening, in this honourable chamber of the House of Commons, as Chairman of the Caricom Commission on Reparations.

My colleagues of the Commission are tasked with the preparation and presentation of the evidentiary basis for a contemporary truth: that the Government of Great Britain, and other European states that were the beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African peoples, the genocide of indigenous communities, and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture, have a case to answer in respect of reparatory justice.

The case of genocide is not only in respect of our decimated native community. It is also important to recognize the genocidal aspect of chattel slavery in the Caribbean.

British slave ships brought 5.5 million enslaved Africans into their Caribbean colonies over 180 years. When slavery was abolished in 1838 they were just 800,000 persons remaining. That is, a retention/survival rate of 15%. The regime of enslavement was crafted by policies and attitudes that were clearly genocidal.
Jamaica received 1.5 million Africans. Only 300,000 remained at Emancipation (20%).
Barbados received 600,000 Africans. Only 83,000 remained at Emancipation (14%).

Moroccans discovering America

Numerous evidence suggests that Moroccans arrived to the Americas at least five centuries before Columbus:


1. A Muslim historian and geographer ABUL-HASSAN ALI IBN AL-HUSSAIN AL-MASUDI (871-957 CE) wrote in his book Muruj adh-dhahab wa maadin aljawhar (The meadows of gold and quarries of jewells) that during the rule of the Muslim caliph of Spain Abdullah Ibn Mohammad(888-912 CE), a Muslim navigator, Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad, from Cortoba, Spain sailed from Delba (Palos) in 889 CE, crossed the Atlantic, reached an unknown territory(ard majhoola) and returned with fabulous treasures. In Al-Masudi's map of the world there is a large area in the ocean of darkness and fog which he referred to as the unknown territory (Americas).

2. A Muslim historian ABU BAKR IBN UMAR AL-GUTIYYA narrated that during the reign of the Muslim caliph of Spain, Hisham II (976-1009CE), another Muslim navigator, Ibn Farrukh, from Granada, sailed from Kadesh (February 999CE) into the Atlantic, landed in Gando (Great Canary islands) visiting King Guanariga, and continued westward where he saw and named two islands, Capraria and Pluitana. He arrived back in Spain in May 999 CE.

This is the text of a presentation made to the 2nd International Congress “Worlds Meeting” - The Islamic and Arabian Cultural Influence in Latin America and the Caribbean held from 12th to 14th November 2012, Santiago, Chile, by Barbados delegate Suleiman Bulbulia.


The Caribbean chain of islands form a 2400 km archipelago, the Antilles, stretching from Cuba in the north to Trinidad in the south. The Antilles and neighboring Bahamas comprise the West Indies.


The Muslim community in the post-indenture Caribbean witnessed several changes that affected the character of its practices.  As a way of institutionalizing the faith, the community had established masajid (mosques), schools and other organisations.  As these physical manifestations and legal entities were being inserted into the local space, foreign missionaries who visited imposed their brand of Islam on the local landscape. The tension which arose resulted in the splintering of the Muslim community. Each strain, Sunnism and Ahmaddiyaism, vied for supremacy – territoriality - by supporting missionary visits from India and later Pakistan, and embarking upon da’wah (invitation to...).  As these streams of Islam collided or solidified, organisations, either at the community or national levels, were established.

As part of forging the ummah (community) Muslim leaders established links with South American Islamic bodies, principally those of British Guiana and Suriname.  This development of Islamic consciousness and cooperation culminated with a regional conference in 1950 in Trinidad that involved Muslims from Trinidad, British Guiana, Suriname and Barbados. This conference was the highlight of Islamic consciousness in the Caribbean and preceded the departure of two eminent Islamic scholars, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddiqui and Dr. Fazl-ur Rahaman Ansari.

This paper, therefore, takes a look at the above issues and rethinks them in the context of interconnected networks and sometimes, through the lens of the local-global nexus.  It views it as a noble attempt by the Muslims to assert the ummah beyond national boundaries and a forerunner to other efforts in the later twentieth century.   

The 11th International conference of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth was recently in Jakarta, Indonesia. the Caribbean region, was represented by delegates from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Barbados.

Between the early 1500s and the 1860s. West African Muslims from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria were shipped to the New World. They probably represented from 10 to 15 per cent of the 12 to 15 million Africans swept away by the transatlantic slave trade. In the United States, their proportion may have been higher since, in contrast to the rest of the Americas, people from the Senegambia area - heavily Muslim - were the second largest group deported to the North American shores. Thus, from one to two million practitioners of Islam were forced to make their life all over the Americas and the Caribbean.

"The history of Islam and Muslim people in the Caribbean stretches back over one thousand years, predating  European contact by over six centuries. New researches are revealing evidence leading to the presence of Muslims in the ancient Americas long before the voyages of Columbus in the fifteenth century. Muslims were probably one of the most important contact people between the two worlds with the exchange of knowledge, agricultural products, livestock and other commercial items. A number of sculptures, oral traditions, eyewitness reports, artifacts, and inscriptions have been sighted to confirm this.

A report in “Before Columbus by Cyrus Gordan describes coins found in the southern Caribbean region off the coast of Venezuela. Two of these coins are Arabic of the eighth century AD. The author infers that a Moorish ship perhaps from Spain or North Africa seems to have crossed the Atlantic around 800 AD. In his book Mutirj, az-Zahab, in the year 956 AD, wrote about a young man of Cordoba in Spain named Kashkash lbne Aswad who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and returned in the year 889 AD.

A narration by Aboo Bakr b’Umar al Qutiyya relates the story of lbne Farrukh who landed in February 999 AD in Gando (Great Canary), visited King Guanariga and continued his journey westwards till he found islands he called Capraria and Phitana ash-Shareef al-Idreesi (1097-1155 AD) the famous Arab geographer reported in his extensive work “The geography of al ldreesi”, in the twelfth century, on the journey of a group of North African seaman who reached the Americas. al-ldreesi recorded that after captivity for three days a translator came speaking the Arabic language and translated for the King and questioned them about their mission. ‘This astonishing historical report clearly confirms the fact that the contact between the two worlds had been so involved that the native people could speak Arabic!

In October 1929, a map in parchment was discovered in the library of Serallo in the city of Istanbul made in Muharram 919 AH (March 1513 AD). This map represented the western zone of the world. It comprised the Atlantic Ocean with America and the western rim of the world. The other parts of the world, which undoubtedly the map also included, have been lost.

Despite the numerous voyages taken by the Muslims of Spain and North Africa, their contact remained limited and fairly secretive. The most significant wave of Muslim explorers and traders came from the West African Islamic Empire of Mali. When Mansa Moosaa, the world-renowned ruler of Mali, was enroute to Makkah during his famous pilgrimage in 1324 AD, he informed the scholars of Cairo (Egypt) that his predecessor had undertaken two expeditions (the first with two hundred ships and the second with two thousand ships) into the Atlantic Ocean in order to discover its limits. This is reported by al’Umari in his “Masaalikul? Absaar Mamaalikul-Amsaar”.

The renowned American historian and linguist, Leo Weiner of Harvard University in 1920 wrote a controversial but well documented work entitled, “Africa and the Discovery of America”. He proved in it that Columbus was well aware of the Mandinka presence and that the West Indian Muslims had not only spread throughout the Caribbean, Central South America, but they reached Canada and were trading and intermarrying with the Iroquois and Algonquin Indian nations!

Numerous cultural evidences of Mandinka presence has been established in Brazil, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Mississippi, and Arizona. In the Daily Clarion of Belize on November 5, 1946, P. V. Ramos in an article entitled, “History of the Caribs” wrote,

“When Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies around the year 1493 AD he found there a race of white people (i.e. half breeds) with woolly hair whom he called ‘Caribs’. They were seafaring hunters and tillers of soil, peaceful and united. They hated aggression. Their religion was Mohammedanism (Islam) and their language Arabic.” This reveals another part of the pre-Columbian African hereditary legacy left with the ‘Carib’ people from whose name we derive the word ‘Caribbean’."  taken from here.

Mainstream Islam has deep roots in the African-American experience, roots that reach back to the history of slavery and early 20th-century black Sunni communities in the United States.  How has the issue of race in the United States affected the practices and the community experiences of black Sunni Muslims who traditionally see Islam as a color and race-blind religion?

Malcolm X’s Hajj in 1964 and Warith Deen Mohammed’s [picture] transformation of the Nation of Islam into an orthodox community in 1975 are two of the more recent visible signs of the importance of mainstream Islam in the African-American experience.  African Americans comprise about 42% of the Muslim population in the United States, which conservatively is somewhere between four to six million; and Sunni African-American Muslims are the predominant community in the United States today.  Yet, the involvement of black Americans with mainstream Islam is not a recent phenomenon.

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