Guyanese Muslims should reflect on their rich heritage

East Indian Arrival: East Indian Indentured Men and Women posing in front of a canefield in Demerara, British Guiana

It’s the Indian Arrival Day (May 5th)  celebration in Guyana and recollections of the Muslims who came in 1838, jumps on memory lane. You heard about Fullaman and wondered why Muslims in this land of many waters are referred to so, sometimes derogatorily. The fact is the Indians were preceded by Africans, whose main roots were not only of the Fulla tribe but primarily Muslims. In the scheme of things, colonialism infamous divide and rule policy made the new Indian indentures the legit Muslims and the old slaves –kapar- or Non Muslims.

Having lived in India and ask any child of the Mother Land’s indentured laborers you get the distinct feel that no matter what kurta you wear and which qaseeda you sing you are an outsider. However, the continued yearning to know one’s roots never ceases, apart from Bollywood desires!

Among the first batch that arrived on the Whitby were 94 Musalman, enriched with their Mughal culture- Urdu language, Persian cuisine, art of reciting Gazals and the Holy Quran and experts artisans. Learned men among these Asian tigers appeared, even in the second batch, aboard the Hesperus, who maintained their Faith, despite the brutal policies of the Gora- white slave masters.

Interestingly, I was fortunate in my three years of roots-searching-escapades in the 80’s, during my student days, to travel in some of the areas our ancestors originated from- Lucknow, Ghazipur, Allahabad, Agra, Gorakpur, Murshidabad, Azamgarh, Mirzapur, Shahabad, Sultanpur, Faizabad, Patna and Alighar. As I started speaking Urdu, one gentleman actually commented that my accent smells of a Ghaziabad background! One friend from Guyana was lucky to have correspondence with his returned great grandfather and found them in Azamgarh. I later travelled in Ramadan to their home to break fast with cold sherbet and learn of their Shia heritage. The Two Eids were well celebrated in Guyana as well as Youuman Nabi but the Tazia ceremonies that happened until the late 60’s was evidence that the Muslims that came were from both Sunni and Shia tradition, except that division did not survive.

I must say that the diligence the mosques and madressa provided in educating the growing Muslim masses from since 150 years, have been the key of this community’s establishment. While the conversion to Christianity was no easy feat, with converts gaining the better jobs and educational opportunities, those who remain steadfast to their dharma were better off, eventually, as they too did business, went to school and travelled but with self dignity and “coolie” pride.

The first mosque stands at Vergenogen as an emblem that the Muslims built their wooden structure for prayer and while there is a monument representing that history on the West Coast of Demerara, the fulfillment of the rebuilt mosque is still to be done. As a matter of fact the next early mosque at 78 Corentyne, still stands; renovated and active, another symbol that early Muslims were accustomed to being community oriented as they had already lived that experience as a Minority in India during the British Raj.

Recently a famous gentleman (Moulvi Abbas – Muslim Welfare Centre) passed away in Pakistan whose domicile was Toronto for many years. Many heard the name Queenstown Masjid in his eulogy only because his wife’s grandfather is buried in the capital’s landmark mosque- he being an Afghan Pathan who along with others built that early structure.

It was a British sailor that remarked upon seeing the first mosque facing West that the Kabba in Arabia is positioned East from Guyana, more so Northern, and not West as the case in India. Muslims joined their counterparts of the African community as speakers of Arabic and while the return to Islam by then was slow and painful, over the years that understanding and solidarity has grown, giving obvious optics that these two communities can naturally co-exist.

With several rebellions marking the sore sojourn of Indian arrival in Guyana and fatal quest for freedom being etched on their altar of pride – the call for same was being re-echoed every where and India itself was ablaze in this self determination struggle. Maybe it was the harmony around the fire in the logies, reciting Hanoman Chalisa and Milad Akbar that made the winds of courage raged. Such has been the pride of Guyana- that Hindus and Muslims are seen as Bhai-Bhai until this hour.

Guyanese Muslims in open air prayer for Eid

According to Raymond Chickrie: Hindustani Muslims in Guyana have had a long history of resistance dating back to the 11th October 1838, when two Muslims – Jummun (Juman) and Pultun escaped the clutches of the gora sahibs (white masters). The bodies of two strange men were discovered shortly afterwards at Mahaica, in the bushes who were believed to be the two “runaway coolies” Jummun and Pultun. We also saw the Rosehall uprising of 1913 where mainly Muslims were at the forefront “battling” imperialism – Moula Bux, Jahangir Khan, Dildar Khan, Chotey Khan, Aladi, and Amirbaksh stood up to the injustices on the plantations.

Others were named in West Coast Demerara and those who joined other leaders in the forefront as workers union activists, etc. Later in politics and parliament and until today in business and all fronts of life those names re-sound, although at times the names do not necessarily denote Islam.

When you compare today migration to North America by Indians from Guyana, you see the parlance of a better life, however a reality or delusion that maybe. Calcutta in those days stood as the recruiting ports for laborers with gold and land as the prize. That a child may see an abundant opportunity of education and well being, parents leave their comfortable abodes and migrated away from Guyana. There too they have maintained a strong semblance of community and faith, while enjoying the new citizenship of giving and respect of diversity.

Maybe its time that the remittance and the reputation be held for once and the question asked- if we love foreign things so much, how about also accepting some foreign ideas of religion that will make the social life much more rewarding and the spiritual much more alluring – as much as Western Union and US TV does for those living faraway from loved ones.

Indian Arrival Day may present its issues but for once, just for once, to remember that we did not just appear from no where but our ancestors were children of a rich civilization somewhere in Asia that boasts of culture, arts, languages, armies, wealth, histories and values, today the world is so proud of.

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