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Muslims in the Caribbean

Muhammad Schieber

When thinking of the Caribbean, images of mosques bellowing out the call to prayer and veiled women are probably one of the last things that come to mind. Surprisingly, though, there is a long history of Muslims traveling to, trading with, and even settling in the Caribbean which some historians speculate may go back as far as the Ummayyad Dynasty. Today, there are nearly 400,000 Muslims in every Caribbean nation. In some countries there are just a few Muslims, while in others like Trinidad and Guyana, Muslims comprise significant minorities of 10-15%. It is interesting to look at how they got there.

I. History

A. Pre-Columbian history

In 1970 Dr. Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Safi, Morocco to Barbados in a boat made of papyrus, proving that crossing the Atlantic did not require sophisticated technology, or advanced navigational instruments or charts. There are a few reports of Muslim exploration which need to be mentioned:

A report in Before Columbus by Cyrus Gordon describes coins found in the southern Caribbean region: " the coast of Venezuela were discovered a hoard of Mediterranean coins with so many duplicates that it cannot well be a numismatist's collection but rather a supply of cash. Nearly, all the coins are Roman, from the reign of Augustus to the 4th century AD. Two of the coins, however, are Arabic of the 8th century AD. It is the latter that give us the terminus a quo (i.e. time after which) of the collection as a whole (which cannot be earlier than the latest coins in the collection). Roman coins continued in use as currency into the medieval times. A Moorish ship, perhaps from Spain or North Africa seems to have crossed the Atlantic around 800 AD."

In another report:

Al Sharif al Idrisi (1097-1155) the famous Arab geographer reported in his extensive work The Geography of Al Idrisi in the 12th century, on the journey of a group of North African seamen who reached the Americas. Al Idrisi wrote: "A group of seafarers sailed into the sea of Darkness and Fog (the Atlantic Ocean) from Lisbon in order to discover what was in it and to what extent were its limit. They were a party of eight and they took a boat which was loaded with supplies to last them for months. They sailed for eleven days till they reached turbulent waters with great waves and little light.

They thought that they would perish so they turned their boat southward and traveled for twenty days. They finally reached an island that had people and cultivation but they were captured and chained for three days. On the fourth day a translator came speaking the Arabic language! He translated for the King and asked them about their mission. They informed him about themselves, then they were returned to their confinement. When the westerly wind began to blow, they were put in a canoe, blindfolded and brought to land after three days' sailing. They were left on the shore with their hands tied behind their backs, when the next day came, another tribe appeared freeing them and informing them that between them and their lands was a journey of two months."

This report is significant in that it shows not only were there Muslims exploring the Caribbean, but that the journeys were so regular and frequent that ties had been established so much that translators existed when knew both Arabic and the language of the Islanders.

And finally, The most significant wave of Muslim explorers and traders came from the West African Islamic Empire of Mali. When Mansa Musa, the world renowned ruler of Mali, was en route to Mecca during his famous pilgrimage in 1324, he informed the scholars of Cairo that his predecessor had undertaken two expeditions into the Atlantic Ocean in order to discover its limits,...

Neither of these expeditions was said to have returned. Interestingly, at this same time, evidence of contact between West Africans and the societies which existed in what is now Mexico, “appears in the strata in America in an overwhelming combination of artifacts and cultural parallels.” The significance of this history though, depends on the individual. Muslims in the New World will feel empowered knowing they have this longer historical connection to the vast Islamic empires of the past. However, we will see in the next segment that any Islamic presence in the new world was obliterated in the brutality of the middle passage era.

B. The Middle Passage

“Some estimate that 10-20 percent of the slaves brought over from Africa were Muslims.” That would mean that during this 300+ year period millions of Muslims were brought and lived in the Caribbean. Yet no sign of these Muslims exists today, there is not a single mosque that was built during this period. No written documents, no evidence to teaching or schools that taught Islamic religious doctrine. There is evidence that the Muslim slaves were more difficult to handle:
"In fact, at one point during the African holocaust, importation of bondsmen from certain nations and areas of Africa that were predominantly Muslim became prohibited. According to Dr. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, some of the nations banned were the Jalofs, Biafras, Mandingos, and Hausa-Fullah. An estimated 25,000 Mandingos, 45,000 Fullah, 15,000 Hausa and 5,000 Muslims from other communities were brought to America between 1726 and 1806."

Though in the end, despite the efforts of these Muslim slaves to hold on to their identity, they were not successful in maintaining their identity or religion. "To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence of any African Muslim slave family that survived slavery and maintained Islam as a way of life."

C. The Post Slavery era

In 1838 Great Britain abolished slavery. In some places in the Caribbean that made for only minor changes in their societies. But, in others where there was more land available, the slaves left the plantations to work their own farms. So the plantation owner began importing indentured labor from the East Indies and Java.

Beginning in 1838 more than 600,000 Indians migrated to the Caribbean, including approximately 238,000 to British Guyana. They went as indentured labourers, an alternative work force for the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Though their time in the West Indies was meant to be limited by the contract, Indians who had completed their obligation were allowed to commute their return passages into cash. Many were granted an allotment of land that they could cultivate in addition to their estate work.

In Trinidad, Indians eventually constituted about 45 per cent of the population, and in British Guyana they were the majority. In what is India (not Pakistan or Bangladesh where Muslims are in the majority) today Muslims make up 20 percent of the general population. So with this wave of indentured came a significant number of Muslims. It is these populations of East Indian migrants that form the vast majority of Muslims in the Caribbean today.

D. Economic Migration

In this century, a small wave of economic immigrants, mainly Lebanese and Palestinian have found their way to the Caribbean. One example is:
There is a 2,000-strong Palestinian community in Puerto Rico with two mosques. They are economically strong and able to pay for an Imam. Islamic books were sent and visited these islands. They were also put into contact with Islamic Palestinian groups in the US.

This current wave of immigration mirrors the wave of immigration to the US where university graduates instead of returning to their home countries after finishing their studies find work, settle down, and even bring other relatives to the places they studied in.

II. The Present Situation

a. Demographics

Today, in most of the Caribbean countries Muslims are listed in the “other” categories of most population statistics because there numbers are too small to be of any significance. However, in a few countries, that is not the case. Trinidad, for example boasts the largest concentration of mosques in the western hemisphere with 85. In Guyana, “according to recent figures, Muslims comprise nearly 15 percent of Guyana's estimated 800,000 inhabitants.” And, “Of Suriname's 400,000 inhabitants, 25 percent are Muslims - the highest percentage in any country in the western hemisphere.” In these communities where the concentrations of Muslims are higher than any other countries in the western hemisphere, the communities are thriving. They have established mosques, schools, butcher shops which sell halal meat and there is even a credit union in Trinidad that adheres to the Islamic prohibition on taking or paying interest.

b. Problems and Challenges

Immigrant communities resisting the pull of assimilation into the greater society is certainly nothing new or unique to any particular ethnic group. But, we find this is particularly strong among some of the South Asian communities in the Caribbean.
The general tendency of Indian families and the Indo-Guyanese community generally is to maintain a distinctive and separate identity clearly derived from their attachment to Indian culture.

In one narrative, a black Barbadian, who later converted to Islam, describes how he grew up with a mosque in his neighborhood and heard the call to prayer several times a day, but never understood its significance until he later studied Islam on his own.

I was born on an island in the Caribbean named Barbados. As a child I heard the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) every morning and evening, yet the word of Allah was never shared with us as a people. Islam was observed by the Asians of the island, and for reasons known only to themselves, we were never invited to the mosque or taught anything about Islam. So, on hearing the adhan, we as youths would laugh, thinking that this was something exclusive to the Asians alone, and thus the words were not only different, but completely incomprehensible.

So it is apparent from the young man’s narrative that he had no interaction with the Muslims (who would have been from East Indian descent) in his neighborhood at all. Though even more recently, we see this trend relaxing a bit as some members of the Afro-Caribbean community accept Islam.

"Over the last 15 years, we've had a number of people from African backgrounds accepting Islam," said Mohammed. "It is part of the quest for an identity among the African community in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of them have realized that their forefathers were Muslims."

III. Conclusion

So when we look at the chopped up history of Muslims in the Caribbean, or even the history of the Caribbean as a whole there is almost no continuity. It is almost as if the history is trying to imitate the physical geography. There is the history of the Taino and the Caribs and their trade with the western parts of the Islamic empire, then the brutality and slavery of the middle passage era, and finally with the post slavery era and finally the post colonial era, all like islands of history in the sea of time. In the case of the first two periods they were forcibly extracted from their pasts. In the case of the later periods, there is this notion of disassociating the communities from the evils of slavery and colonialism. So we are left with this feeling of historical islands where the later periods are not connected to the ones which came before, and the communities which come from those different periods remaining somewhat isolated.

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The opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not necessarily of Vibes.

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