November 30th 2020: Barbados Muslims were given the privilege of delivering the feature address at the National Service of Thanksgiving to mark its 54th anniversary of Independence from British rule. Suleiman Bulbulia delivered the address at the Gymnasium of the Garfield Sobers Sports Complex. Suleiman delivered an oratorical gem, embracing the shared history and experience of the people of Barbados. The speech was a call to faith inspired by patriotism, imploring the assembled to caring for each other towards the national good. Symbolically, the selection of the Muslim community generally and Suleiman particularly to give this speech, acknowledges the faith communities place at the Bajan national “table”. Remarking on this Suleiman said “On behalf of the Muslim community of Barbados, we are truly honoured and humbled for this opportunity.” The solemnity of the occasion was enhanced by the passing of Suleiman’s father on Friday and funeral on Saturday November 28th.
The following extract is from the prepared text of the speech delivered by Suleiman.
“I greet you with the traditional greeting of the Prophets of God that has resonated through the ages, a greeting that Jesus, the Messiah, said to his disciples (blessings be on them)
Assalaamu Alykum – Shalom – “Peace be upon you all”.
We are gathered today at this national service of thanksgiving for our 54th Anniversary of Independence under the theme “Standing Together, Renewing Hope”.
If the last year has taught us one important lesson, it is this: even though we have to social distance, if we refuse to stand as a people united, our nation will not prosper. And although we have to wear masks, if we fail to face the future with courage, determination, faith and renewed hope, this global pandemic would have defeated us.
A Shared History
It was in the 7th Century in the dry, arid, desert region of the Arabian-peninsula that the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths was taking shape. During that time the early followers of this faith of Islam were mercilessly persecuted and humiliated, very similar to the fate of the early Christians at the hands of the Romans. Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, instructed a group of his closest followers to go and seek refuge in Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia). There, he said you will find a ruler who is fair and does not tolerate injustice, a devout Christian King who will grant you safety and security. And so it happened that some 70 to 80 Muslim men and women sought refuge in an African Kingdom under the leadership of a Christian ruler. This ruler was true to his reputation and he gave them refuge. As their oppressors discovered this, they sent envoys to convince the Ruler to send them back. These envoys used all forms of persuasion including bribery and religious differences to convince the King. The King in response granted the refugees an audience and heard their plight. The eloquence of their youthful leader moved the King. This young man spoke of their change as a result of faith, from being a barbaric people to becoming a people of honour, truthfulness and character. And he spoke to the noble position of Jesus the son of Mary in the Islamic faith. The King wept upon hearing this speech and was even more convinced to give them refuge and said not even for a mountain of gold will I allow anyone to harm you. They lived in that land for over a decade as a minority religious community freely practicing their faith.
Brothers and sisters our shared historical realities are much closer than we think, and more interwoven than we know.
When our African ancestors were herded into ships at Africa’s west coast by human traffickers, they were not separated into tribes and nations. Men, women and children of varying backgrounds, religious and cultural identities were stuffed into the bellies of slave ships, chained together as one inhuman cargo. It is estimated that over 20% of the enslaved brought to the Americas and the Caribbean were Muslim.
Our history is one of common experiences, hardship and triumphs.
Sacrifices of First Generation Bajans
I am the son of an immigrant. My father arrived at the Careenage in Bridgetown in December 1953 on a ship after travelling for several weeks from Gujarat India. He arrived as an orphan, with all that he possessed in one metal suitcase. Like other Indian immigrants before him, as documented by my very good friend and author Sabir Nakhuda, he set out on foot moving around the impoverished villages of the countryside engaging in itinerant trade. When he had made a small profit, he bought a bicycle and then a motorcycle and eventually a car. He married my mother, the daughter of an Indian immigrant in union with my grandmother, a lady from Shorey Village in St. Andrew of African and Scottish ancestry. They often spoke to us of a Barbados they love where life was a struggle. My father remembers going into homes with no running water, no electricity and only pit toilets. But he also admired the pride and hardworking character of Barbadians, their strong desire and hope to do better for themselves and their future generations. The very same desires and hopes my father had when he trekked those grueling miles across the countryside.
Their stories inspire their children and grand-children and we are motivated to build on the foundations our fore-parents left for us.
My father turned 88 a few weeks ago. I had hoped he and my mother would have been here with us this morning, but we plan and God plans, and God is the best of Planners. My father passed away on Friday while attending prayers at the Mosque and was buried, in keeping with our Islamic traditions, yesterday. May God have mercy on his soul. I dedicate my address today to his memory.
May Almighty God bless all parents for the responsibility they have accepted in raising the future generations of our country.
Our success as a nation rests on the shoulders of our ancestors collectively. It is their sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears that gives us our freedom and our hope. I make it a point to remind us all to visit in humble reverence the Newton enslaved burial ground, not too far from here, where men, women and children who were forcibly brought to this island as enslaved persons, are interred, and to pray for their souls and thank them for their courage and their struggle for freedom.
As people of faith we recognize that humanity shares one common father and mother.
God created us with diversity
God reveals in the Quran that He created us with different colours, languages and made us into nations and tribes so that we may come to know each other….li ta ‘arafu …in Arabic…to be mutually supportive of each other by becoming deeply acquainted with each other. This acquaintance brings us together as one people and it shapes our humanity, our character and our commitment to civility. Standing together means that we know who we are standing shoulder to shoulder with. This goes well beyond tolerance to a place of deep appreciation.
Last year just over 300 Barbadians, mainly young men and women of different faiths traditions gathered in Bridgetown and walked from the mosque in Sobers Lane, to the Jewish Synagogue, then to the St. Michaels Cathedral, and finally to Queens Park where we were greeted by members of the Rastafarian community. The late Ras Iral (Carl Talma), who we remember today as we give thanks, led us in a beautiful service. That walk, the first of its kind in this country, exemplified the spirit of love and humanity among our faith communities. It signalled the continuation of a journey that brings us all together as one family.
This is who we are.
Impact of Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has dragged us all into unprecedented times. Too many are facing great hardships, uncertainties and anxieties. Families are desperately trying to make ends meet, using up their meagre resources and life savings. This virus does not differentiate between rich or poor, black or white, ruler or ruled, it attacks all in its path. And once again our belief in the Almighty is being tested.
Brothers and sisters, we are a people of faith and we put our trust in God. That is the legacy left to us by the noble Prophets – Abraham, Solomon, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad – leaders who walked this earth in humble obedience to God’s commands but who left for us life lessons that will last an eternity.
We hold on to our faith in times of plenty and in times of need. We are promised that with every hardship comes ease. In a chapter of the Quran titled “The Expansion” God reveals: fa inna ma’al ‘usri yusra, inna ma’al ‘usri yusra.” For truly with hardship comes ease! Truly with hardship comes ease! And when that ease comes and by God’s promise it will, and He has guaranteed us it will, when we are relieved of whatever burden we carry, the hardship of a global pandemic and its impact on our lives, our businesses, our country, God tells us to deepen our acts of worship and obedience, and let not our desires be for the material things of this world, but rather for God alone.
The Bible also has a reminder: “For his anger is but for a moment; His favour is for a life-time: Weeping may tarry for the night, But joy cometh in the morning.”
This National candle that we lit last year as a symbol of light and hope in our Nation, is nothing but a tower of wax if it doesn’t burn. Unless the flame of this candle shines there is no value to the candle. It is the light of this candle that dispels the darkness. It is the light of this candle that allows for us to see the way.
Honouring Frontline Workers
Today we lift up those who are our brightly shining candles. Our frontline workers. They are the heroes during this pandemic, they are the manifestations of the legacy of faith and hope bequeathed to humanity by the people of faith from amongst our ancestors. The nurse that leaves his/her family at home and courageously reports to work tending to the sick renews hope in all of us. The home helpers who look after the elderly and the vulnerable in our society renews hope, the volunteers who give out food, help the needy and disadvantage renews hope. The teachers who impart knowledge and learning to our children is our hope. All our frontline workers renew hope. We pray that God will protect them, keep them safe and return them to their families and loved ones in good health.
I ask God Almighty, to heal those who are broken-hearted, those suffering from poverty and unemployment, from domestic abuse, from mental, psychological and emotional distress, comfort the homeless, our elders, the disabled, the orphans, and provide relief for those who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, NCDs and other health complications.
This morning I extend my sincerest appreciation to the members of the Clergy committee who did not object when it was suggested that I deliver this address. They dared ask why not when others asked why? They understood that regardless of faith, race or background it makes me no less of a Barbadian or better yet… a Bajan.
On behalf of the Muslim community of Barbados, we are truly honoured and humbled for this opportunity. We are also appreciative and grateful of the recent enactment of a policy that allows women and men to don their head coverings for religious reasons when taking official photographs.
Permit to close with a few verses from Maya Angelou’s poem “Continue”
Into a world which needed you
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
I pray God’s continued blessings and Guidance be upon all Barbadians here and abroad.
Happy Independence Barbados! And may God’s Mercy be upon you my father.
And in the end as in the beginning all Praise is due to God.”