Our Region

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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Between March 26 and April 7, 2010 Nazim Baksh, a Guyanese-born award-winning Canadian Journalist, accompanied Dr. Umar Faruq Abd’Allah, an American Islamic scholar and author, on a historic fact-finding trip to the Caribbean.  Their first stop was the twin-island nation state of Trinidad and Tobago where they held discussions with some of the country’s leading Muslims scholars, Imams, activists and academics.  Dr. Umar was also interviewed on Trinidad's Islamic Broadcasting Network [IBN].  The subject matter was wide ranging, the interview is presented to you in nine parts.

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - The Nur-e-Islam masjid, a sprawling green and white building running along a side street in a busy, crowded town on the outskirts of the capital, has approximately 5,000 members and is probably the biggest mosque in the country. It may not be for long.

“There are bigger ones being built,” said Nur-e-Islam Imam Sheraz Ali. Seated behind his desk, his large, commanding presence made his small office look even smaller. He didn’t seem to mind his mosque losing its size supremacy. His voice had a hint of glee.

This small island state of a little more than one million people has 126 mosques and counting, according to one of the administrators of trinimuslims.com, a web site that keeps a tally. The country’s Caribbean neighbour Guyana, with a population of a little more than 700,000, sees “two to three” new mosques a year, said a representative of the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana.

The pace of construction is evidence of the growing influence and visibility of Caribbean Muslims in recent years, a visibility that is both the cause and result of a slew of new converts from various walks of life.


Black crescent: the experience and legacy of African Muslims in the Americas

Gomez, Michael A. Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 385 pp.

This book, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of Africa Muslims in the Americas, is a "social history of the experiences of African muslims and their descendants throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean" (p. i). Michael Gomez takes on an ambitious task in relating the historical connections of Islam in the lives of people of African descent from early Africa to the western hemisphere up to the twentieth century. The book is divided into two sections with the "first discussing African Muslims in the Americas through periods of enslavement." The second part examines, "Islam's development in the United States." In doing so, the author examines the Quran and African Americans "acceptance of Muhammad" (p. ix).

In examining Muslim Africans in the Caribbean, Brazil, Latin America, and North America, Gomez explains how slavery and politics affected them. He provides evidence to show slave owners sometimes preferred Muslims to expatriates from West Africa. Despite the significance of Islam in relation to slavery, it failed to become dominant among slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil; although in earlier years, it proliferated in Trinidad. Muslims in Trinidad who identified with West Africans acquired "commercial gains, prosperity, and elevated status."

"Servants of Allah opens a new door on the African Diaspora and provides readers with even more insight into Islam, as well as enslaved Africans. Diouf's study greatly enhances current literature on the Diaspora."
--Jason Zappe, Copley News Service Dec '98

"This historical study is ground-breaking not only in its theme but also its approach, which can be described as pan-Africanist to the extent that it relates the histories of these deported Muslims to the political upheavals of medieval Africa...; forges links between the varied sites of their dispersal from the 16th to the 19th century...; and examines the issue of return to Africa and the lineage (or the absence thereof) of this first American Islam."
--Sylvie Kandé, QBR Jan/Feb '99




COOLIES: HOW BRITAIN REINVENTED SLAVERY

The slave trade was officially abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807. This documentary reveals one of Britain's darkest secrets: a form of slavery that continued well into the 20th century - the story of Indian indentured labour.

Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery tells the astonishing and controversial story of the systematic recruitment and migration of over a million Indians to all corners of the Empire. It is a chapter in colonial history that implicates figures at the very highest level of the British establishment and has defined the demographic shape of the modern world.

Combining archive footage and historical evidence the programme includes interviews with Gandhi's great-grandaughter, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, about Gandhi's campaign to end indentured labour and David Dabydeen - author and academic - whose great-grandfather was an indentured labourer in British Guyana.

Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery traces family stories through epic voyages across South America, the South Pacific and Africa, as descendants investigate their past and trace the last surviving witnesses.


Roti - Caribbean Food

Roti Everyone loves roti! It is the fast food of the Caribbean, and you can find Roti restaurants the world over.

Roti

People always think of jerk chicken when it comes to West Indian food, but Roti is one of the most popular foods in the Caribbean. Roti was brought to the islands by the East Indian contract labourers, as early as 1840. Although Roti is East Indian in origin, it has been localised as a Caribbean dish.
  Roti - Caribbean food
Roti is hugely popular in Trinidad, where just under half of the population consider themselves to be of East Indian background. Today Caribbean/East Indian dishes are quite different from traditional East Indian.

For those who don’t know, a Roti is a flour pancake or wrap, similar to, but lighter than a tortilla, and filled with various foods, including curried chicken, goat, shrimp, channa (chick-peas). West Indian roti are mainly made from wheat flour, salt, and water. Jerk and Creole sauces are alternatives to curry. The word 'roti' in the West Indies also refers to a dish of stewed or curried ingredients wrapped in a 'roti skin'. In Trinidad and Tobago various rotis are served. Popular variations include chicken, conch, beef and vegetable. There are different types of Roti including Dhalpouri, Dosti, Bus-up-shut (Paratha ) and Sada roti.

Sada Roti: is similar to naan and cooked on a tava. This type is very popular in Trinidad as a breakfast option.

Paratha Roti: Roti made with butter, usually ghee, also cooked on a tava. Oil is rubbed on both sides, then it is fried, giving a crisp outside. When it almost finished cooking, the chef will to mash the roti while it is on the tava, causing it to crumble. It is also called 'Buss-Up-Shut' in Trinidad because it resembles a 'burst up shirt'.

Dosti Roti: A roti where two layers are rolled out together and cooked on the tava. It is also rubbed with oil while cooking. It is called dosti roti because the word dosti means friendship in Hindi. This type of roti is eaten in Guyana with a special halva to celebrate the birth of a child.

Dhalpuri: Popular in Trinidad, this roti has a stuffing of ground yellow split peas, cumin (geera), garlic, and pepper. The split peas are boiled and ground. The cumin is toasted until black and also ground. The stuffing is pushed into the roti dough, and sealed, then rolled flat.

Bake: Bakes are similar to roti, and popular in St Lucia. Shark and bake, also a popular Trinidadian snack. Dough is rolled out and cut into shapes or rolled into small rounds. These can be baked in an oven, but they are usually fried in oil. They are sometimes called frybake. Bake are usually paired with a fryup for breakfast or dinner, or with stewed saltfish.

Roti is a great dish for any occasion, as well as being quick and healthy.

Family history sources for Indian indentured labourers in the colonial era

This Research Guide provides some very brief history and background on the system of indentured labour and sketches the type of records that are held at The National Archives. It also gives a clear picture on how much material relating to individuals can be found for the purpose of tracing back the roots of labourers from India. It is important to understand the nature of this type of emigration and the conditions faced by labourers, as well as the regions from where they were recruited and their religious affiliation. All of these help to piece together and construct family history.

The researcher should note that only the forenames of Indian labourers are recorded in many of the documents. Also note that The National Archives holds Colonial Office records received from the colonies and Foreign Office records relating to a variety of countries colonised by foreign rivals such as Dutch and French Guiana. These records were sent to the Secretary of State in order to make policy on various issues and for discussions in Parliament. Certain documents keep an account of the expenses incurred in the transport of labourers; others focus on improving their living conditions; and some monitor whether the whole system was profitable to empire. Therefore, family history information is likely to be scant.


My basic contention is that the notion of Caribbean identity does not conceptually cohere with notions of personhood for culturally diverse groups5 of people forming the socio-historical reality of the geographical region, and therefore is suspect. Further, "Caribbean identity" is in itself an internally incoherent expression, which appears to be intelligible in ordinary speech.  Its apparent intelligibility rests on a confusion of at least two types of identity, and a misconstrual in language or category mistake. In short, the notion is problematic, much more than might be suspected on a surface inspection.

To focus sharply the contention, I pose the following simple question: Is a Caribbean identity a challenge or threat to personhood? Not easily answered, the question has at least two terms of which each has an intricate meaning complex: identity and personhood. Each of them therefore requires glossing to shed light on aspects of the meaning complex relevant to the question, and
consequently to establishing plausibility for the case that an invented Caribbean identity is more a threat than a challenge. Of the two terms "personhood" is the more intricate one6. It is a cognate of the word "person" and refers to the quality of becoming a person.

The idea of Indian identity is one of the markers of the cultural unconscious in contemporary Caribbean literature. It is associated with values and conventions of thinking which the literature reflects. Together, they imply an assumption that ignores important differences in the particularities of socio-ethnic experience of groups expressing East-Indianness in the Caribbean region. The literature gives no hint that Indian identity is itself a complex and problematic idea, at least on a theoretical level, let alone the  relation between it and religion. Instead, it gives the semblance of being inclusive of differences in the East Indian population. At bottom, however, its representation is flawed and thus provides impetus for the following shikwa/complaint: The literature is misleading for those readers, whether inside or outside the lndo-Caribbean region, wanting to learn and reflect about how they become persons in affirming Indian identity with respect to their religious tradition, and about the world of the Indo-Caribbean community with its religious differences and social similarities.

 "Coolies" arrived from India at Trinidad Depot

This essay, elaborating the complaint, problematizes Indian identity in the Caribbean from two dimensions.  One of these is the meaning complex of the idea which consists in various shades that are dialectically related. But, the assumption and conventions of thinking to which the cultural unconscious in literature demonstrates obedience take Indian identity to have a single shade, or narrow meaning, one delineated in terms of a specific religious tradition. The literature, in this respect, makes hegemonic one shade in the meaning complex and thus marginalizes non-Hindus within the East Indian population. To clarify its different shades we begin by tracing preoccupation with East-Indianness and hence lay out aspects relative to the complaint.

 

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