Muslim and Missionaries of Trinidad

Jama Mosque, Port off Spain, Trinidad

The Caribbean has seen two waves of Muslim migration, the first wave of which was comprised of slaves from Africa.   Indentured labourers of India,  who came to the shores between 1845 and 1917, formed the second.

The estate proved to be the first place for the reconstitution of organized religion.  While men  well-versed in Islamic

Hafiz Nasiruddin

knowledge generally did not leave India, there were a few who arrived and served a full

Qazi Haji Ruknudeen Sahib

or abbreviated indentureship: Syed Abdul Aziz of Iere Village came to Trinidad in 1883 from Afghanistan; Ruknudeen Meah, a Punjabi of Tunupuna, arrived in 1893; and Hafiz Nazruddeen of Tunapuna came to Trinidad in 1913.  These were some of the indentured immigrants  who  assisted  in  the  reconstitution  of Islam.  The  unlettered  immigrants  depended upon these learned men to nurture their faith, either on the estate or in the villages.   At some estates, for instance that of Waterloo, there were mosques, or ‘bamboo sheds near to the barracks where Muslims met nightly to read their prayers and read the Qur’an (Fazal Ali, interview with ex-indentured immigrant, 26/02/1998).

As village settlements developed, circa 1870, each village or set of villages established its own mosques  with imams.  John Morton, a Presbyterian missionary, noted in his diary that mosques began to appear as early as the 1860s as ‘nice little buildings with galvanized roofs’ (Sarah Morton, John Morton of Trinidad, 1916).  Former  immigrants  and  their  descendants,  once they became prosperous, built mosques, usually  made  of  wood.  The  mosques  that sprang  up  throughout  Indo-Muslim  settlements were primarily male bastions of worship until circa 1928.  It was at that point that the females  of Peru Village (St. James)  began attending  certain  special  mosque  activities,    such as the ‘Id-ul-Fitr and ‘Id-ul-Adha prayers.  By the early 1930s, maktabs (religious classes) were held in the mosque compound.  These classes  were  taught  by  imams  or  elderly learned men of the district, imparting the rudiments of Islam to young boys and girls.  Classes included  such  subjects  as  Arabic, Urdu, prayers, and other basic Islamic knowledge.  Prior to the establishment of maktabs, young boys and girls were socialized into Islam by emulation and by the knowledge imparted by their  parents  and  grandparents.  In  some instances, this practice continued even after young girls began attending maktab.

From the early twentieth century, Muslims began forming religious  groups  that  would cater  to  their  specific  needs.  These  groups pressed for the recognition of Muslim marriages, the right to establish their own schools with  state  recognition,  encouraged  island-wide Muslim unity, and sought to improve religious knowledge and increase spiritual awareness. These religious organizations all sought state recognition, first as Friendship Societies and later as incorporated bodies.  The first among the multiple religious organizations to be formed was the Islamic Guardian Association (IGA) of Princes Town in 1906.   This group was  organized  by  Syed Abdul Aziz,  an  ex-Indentured  labourer  from  Afghanistan,  who had settled in Iere Village near a Presbyterian mission.  Aziz  was  also  instrumental  in  the establishment of the East Indian National Association (EINA), an all-Indian pressure group, in 1897.  As a believer in Muslim unity, Aziz, along with other prominent Muslims of the colony,  held a meeting at Crescent Hall, St. Joseph in 1925.  Their intention was to organize the Muslim community into one large religious body.  By the following year, the Tackveeyatul Islamia Association  (TIA, Society for the Strength of Islam) was formed, and in 1931 it became an incorporated body.  Islam was also consolidated through the intermittent arrival of missionaries from India, which began as early as 1914.   Each  of  these  missionaries  rejuvenated  the faith, aided the continuity of form or remedying discord which would allow for a revamping of Islam.

Moulvi Ameer Ali

Although missionaries were arriving, there was also a reciprocal ‘back to India’ movement.   Yacoob Ali, at age thirteen in 1888, was sent back to India by his father to acquire an Islamic education.  He returned ten years later as a hafiz  and  qari and established several maktabs.   In 1923,  another  youth,  Ameer  Ali,  left  for Lahore.  He  was  influenced  by  Moulvi  Fazal Karim Khan Durrani, a Punjabi missionary of Woking, England, who had  been invited to Trinidad by local Muslims in 1921.  Durrani left in 1923 and within a few months, Ali, by his encouragement, left for the Ahmaddiya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam Institute in Lahore.

Ali returned to Trinidad in 1930 as a moulvi and immediately became involved with the TIA.  He introduced a spirit of inquiry into the faith and preached Islam in conformity with new  thought  and  scientific  discoveries.  For instance, he propagated that Jesus was dead and that he was not taken up to Heaven alive and as such could not return, and that the miraj (ascension) of the Prophet Muhammad (u.w.b.p.) was not in conformity with the ethos of purdah  (veil or curtain of segregation) as expounded  by  the Qur’an.  Furthermore,  he advocated equal privileges for women in order to aid in the social development of community.  He also spoke, without condemnation, of Mirza  Ghulam  Ahmad,  nineteenth  century founder of the Ahmaddiya movement in India.    Traditionalists (Sunnis) at the time were prone to persecuting Ahmad for his claims of being a recipient of revelations, the Promised Messiah and mahdi (the One Rightfully Guided).   Much of his preaching ran counter to the beliefs and interpretations of the faith as understood by the Sunnis.

Picture taken in the year 1936. The men featured in this photograph represent the pioneers of ASJA(Standing From Left To Right ).
Aziz Mohammed, Taheeb Ali, Meharwan Mohammed, Backreedee Meah, Abbass
Hosein, Haji Rooknodeen Sahib, S.M. Hosein, Aziz Mohammed (Tunapuna),
Mohammed Ibrahim, Hausildar Meah, Nawab Ali, Sheik Hashim Muzaffar.
(Sitting From Left To Right).
1. Not Identified 2. Not Identified 3. Not Identified 4. Belbagai 5. Ishmael Ali 6. Ghulam Hosein 7. Not Identified 8. Peru Meah 9. Hassan Khan 10. Not Identified 11. Hafiz 1893; and Hafiz Nazruddeen of Tunapuna 12. Badaloo Meah 13. Not Identified 14. Not Identified 15. S.M. Mustapha 16. Not Identified 17. Khairat Ali Meah

The ideas introduced by the  moulvi met with a storm of opposition.  He was forced by his peers to declare his position as either Sunni or Ahmadi.  Ali refused to condemn Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and it was therefore assumed by the traditionalists  that  he  was  indeed  a  secret believer  of his creed.   He was  consequently accused of being a kafir (unbeliever) by the traditionalists.  By 1931, a schism developed within the TIA as a result of these varying ideological positions.    One faction remained the TIA, more  open to  the  then current  intellectual thought and scholarly trends relative to Islam; while the other camp, now known as Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association (ASJA, Propagation Group  for  the  Way of  Life  of  Prophet    Muhammad, u.w.b.p.), retained a conservative  and traditional view of Islam.

In order to consolidate their positions, these two groups engaged in dawah, that is, spreading Islam through preaching and education.  They  also  encouraged  foreign  missionaries from India to visit the island to substantiate the claims of their respective, traditionalist or modernist, positions.  Again, lectures were the medium  used  to  consolidate  the  varying stances and increase the number of followers.

From circa 1944, the TIA was again plagued by tension, litigation and injunctions resulting from disputes over the rightful claim to leadership.  This led to a split in the TIA and the subsequent  formation  of  the  Trinidad  Muslim League (TML) on August  15, 1947, the same date as the partition of India and Pakistan.  The TML, led by Moulvi Ameer Ali proclaimed a non-conformist position. That is, they did not conform  to  any  one  particular  school  of thought.  In the late 1960s, the TML became linked with the Ahmadi movement, but since 1976 they have abandoned this latter orientation and reverted to their non-conformist position.

Missionaries continued to arrive from India and Pakistan.  But simultaneously, around the late 1960s, missionaries from the Middle East began visiting Trinidad and, along with returning nationals educated at Al-Azhar University in  Cairo  and  universities  in  Saudi  Arabia, altered the practice of Islam. They attempted to purge the faith of its Indian and Western influences, hoping to make it ‘pure’.  While they encountered opposition from the traditional Muslims,  the youths  disenchanted with the seeming  apathy  and  stagnation  within  the faith were attracted to their ideas. The Tablighi movement has, in recent times, gained ground in Trinidad.  While  its  followers  constitute a minority,  their  influence  is  nonetheless  felt within some of the mosques of the island. Tablighi missionaries from the subcontinent also visit the island from time to time. Sunni Islam is prevalent, but there are small bands of Ahmadi and  Qadiani  followers.  While  Shi’ite  Islam never gained momentum, during the month of Muharram, the battle of Kerbala was celebrated with tadjahs (tomb-like structures, usually large, colourful and disposable) in some districts.  This  practice  has  continued,  but  is marked with fierce condemnation by Sunnis.  Nevertheless,  during  the  early  part  of  the month of Muharram, there are visits by Shi’ite missionaries from the United States.

The Muslim community continues to be a minority in Trinidad and Tobago. Still for the most part Sunni, other variations of Islam are present. Islam in Trinidad continues to be open to external influence, just as it was during the epoch of indentureship and post-indentureship.  Article published in International Institue for the Study of Islam Newsletter.

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