The Afghan Muslims of Guyana and Suriname

Muslims in Guyana And Suriname

In Suriname, there are a large number of Muslims, and they constitute 20 percent of the total population of 425,000 of the country. Three distinct Muslim communities live in Surinam. The Javanese from the Indonesian Archipelago have been living in the country for more than 50 years. Indo-Pakistanis came as indentured labour over 100 years ago. Besides, there is a growing Afro-Surinamese community here.1 In Guyana the Muslim community is close to twelve percent, and is made up primarily of South Asians and a growing Afro minority. In both countries the South Asians are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School (Mazhab) of fiqh.

The Africans were the first Muslims in this region. Today with the diligent efforts of scholars and researchers, the role of Muslims as an indigenous people in this part of the world is receiving serious attention. Thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Shaykh Abdullah Hakim Quick of Toronto, Dr. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, Adib Rashad of Washington, DC, and Abdullah Bilal Omowale of Trinidad, the history of the African Muslims of the Western Hemisphere is now coming to light.2 One source points out that

Until recent years, the presence of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere during the pre-Columbian and antebellum periods was known only to the most disciplined of researchers and historians. Intellectual dishonesty and lethargy and Euro-centric conceptions of history were the primary culprits behind this conspiracy of silence that virtually erased Islam from the pages of Western formative history.

The impact of Islam on the lands of the Caribbean may have begun with West African Mandinka seafarers and adventurers landing on the tropical isles well over a century before Columbus “accidentally discovered” the New World islands. The Islamic practices of the “black” Carib Indians and the appearance of Indian women with face veils chronicled in the diaries of Columbus scream loudly that the Moors (read Muslims), so dreaded by the Spanish, had left an indelible mark before the Christianization of the West.3

The trans-Atlantic slave trade brought millions of Muslims into the Caribbean, and some came to Suriname. “The “Bush Negros” in Surinam, led by Arabi and Zam-Zam, defeated the Dutch on many occasions and were finally given a treaty and their own territory (near French Guyana) which they control until today”.4 Apart from Muslims of South Asian descent, Muslims from Java brought by the Dutch settled in Suriname. Suriname is isolated from the Caribbean because of its geography and colonial legacy. The Javanese are an integral part of Surinamese society. All ethnic groups in Suriname have maintained their space. There is also a handful of immigrants from the Middle East settled mainly from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in Suriname.

Islam was reintroduced to Suriname in 1873 when the ship Lalla Rookh arrived with 37 Hindustani Muslims. The 37 were from Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Mirzapur, Lucknow, Allahbad, Jansi, Jaunpur, Azamgargh, Gaya, Faizabad, Sewree, and Benares (Varanasi) in India. From 1873 to 1916 Muslims from the Indian provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, the Northwest Frontier and Bihar continued arriving in Suriname. These mainly Urdu speaking Muslims were from the Sunni Hanafi Mazhab, and they celebrated the Eids as well as Muhurram and Milad-un-Nabi. The strong influence of the Shia’ and the Sufis of North India could be felt in Suriname. Urdu is the functional language of the Hindustani Muslims of Suriname to this day and the community has resisted “arabization.” The Amadhiyya movement has penetrated Suriname’s Muslim community. They have built some of the finest mosques reflecting Mughal architecture.

On the other hand, the Sunnis have built one of the largest mosques in the region using a combination of arabesque and Mughal architecture. They also support one of the finest Islamic learning centres in the region for children and future Imams.

The Javanese Muslims from Indonesia began arriving in Suriname in the 1890’s. The Surinam-Javanese community are kejawen, following the syncretic practices and beliefs of Java.5 In this community the keblat (qibla) expresses a unique diasporic experience and identity. From the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) villagers were recruited from Java as contract workers for the plantations in another Dutch colonial land, Surinam. Most of them were kejawen Muslims. Kejawen Islam, which was dominant in Javanese villages, is a syncretic Islam that incorporated old Javanese beliefs, including Hindu-Buddhist elements.

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