Islam in Trinidad
This chapter discusses the introduction of Islam to the Caribbean, beginning with the African slaves followed by the East Indian indentured immigrants.
Indian Muslims, though initially isolated from the wider society, have integrated successfully with the wider society especially during the post-independence period. Muslims have coexisted peacefully with other groups and have participated in mainstream politics, music, sports, business, as well as education. It was not until 1990 that international attention started to be focused on Trinidad Muslims, when a Muslim group attempted to remove the democratically elected government. Such an event was rather unexpected in a society known for carnival, calypso, steelpan, and its religious and ethnic harmony.
The chapter traces the evolution of the Muslim community in Trinidad, and the efforts not only to survive but to maintain a visible presence, amidst the challenges faced. The arrival of missionaries, the formation of organizations, and the subsequent fragmentation of the community based on ideological and theological differences are discussed. Data largely from secondary sources and interviews of key persons by the author provides insights into this community’s attempts to preserve its heritage. The Muslim community’s resistance to assimilation is also discussed.
International attention was focused on Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 and around 2016/2017 when it was reported that per capita Trinidad and Tobago had the highest number of persons in the Western Hemisphere being recruited to join ISIS, an alarming situation giving the wrong impression that there is much local support for terrorism.
KeywordsIslam Muslim Trinidad Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean African Indian
Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island republic situated in the Southern Caribbean only 11 Km from Venezuela. (The population of Tobago is 60,874 and that of Trinidad is 1,311,126.). It is part of the Commonwealth Caribbean, and English is the official language. The total population is estimated to be 1.3 million persons with Indo-Trinidadians 35.4%, Afro-Trinidadians 34.2%, mixed 23%, other 1.3%, and unspecified 6.2%.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2017, page 2, 26.5% of the population is Protestant, including 12% Pentecostal or evangelical, 5.7% Anglican, 4.1% Seventh-day Adventist, 2.5% Presbyterian or Congregational, 1.2% Baptist, 0.7% Methodist, and 0.3% Moravian. An additional 21.6% is Roman Catholic, 18.2% Hindu, 5% Muslim, and 1.5% Jehovah’s Witnesses. Traditional Caribbean religious groups with African roots include the Spiritual Baptists, who represent 5.7% of the population, and the Orisha, who incorporate elements of West African spiritualism and Christianity, at 0.9%. According to the census, 2.2% of the population has no religious affiliation, 11.1% does not state a religious affiliation, and 7.5% lists their affiliation as “other,” which includes a number of small Christian groups, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Buddhists, and Jews.
Compared to other Caribbean societies, Trinidad and Tobago has been a relatively prosperous country. Within recent times though, the economy has been experiencing a decline, but with its wide resource base as well as its skilled population, it is still a place of opportunity, as evidenced by the continued inward migration of persons from all over the world.
There is a functional Westminster-styled parliamentary democracy and a well-established education system with universal primary, secondary, and tertiary education. There are regional as well as national universities. Tertiary education was fully government funded until recently, but it is now partially funded and still very accessible.
In addition, there is ethnic and religious harmony although the politics of the country tends to give the impression that there is ethnic polarization, but such negative sentiments become exacerbated around election time. Generally different groups work together in various professions (law, medicine, and teaching), and there is religious harmony and interfaith dialogue. The country has come a long way since independence in 1962, and there is also legislation to address issues of discrimination.
Early Muslims in the Caribbean
Most conventional historical sources suggest that African Muslims were among the slaves brought to the Caribbean to provide labor on the plantations (Samaroo 1987; Afroz 1995). They were mostly from the Mandingo, Fulani, and Hausa nations. The experience of slavery impacted negatively on the African slaves, including their lack of community ties and weak family structures, thereby making socialization and religious and cultural continuity extremely difficult. This acculturative process took place systematically throughout slavery irreversibly changing the religious and cultural identity of Afro-Caribbean peoples generally. Creolization meant substantial acculturation and interculturation whereby a new “indigenized” Caribbean culture emerged.
As conditions of plantation slavery made the retention of African ancestral beliefs difficult, Islam as a distinct religious tradition seemed to have disappeared, but the slaves’ unswerving attachment to their ancestral ties provided a latent sensibility of their heritage. After emancipation, the suppression of African religions continued by subtle and effective means, mainly through the socialization of the Africans through the educational system, together with laws that prohibited the practice of African faiths and cultural traditions. In the years that followed, aspects of Islam exerted an influence on African-Caribbean linguistic, musical, and religious forms (Diouf, S. 1998, 184–205).
As overt traces of Islam virtually disappeared in the Caribbean, the latent, suppressed attachment to African ancestral religions resurfaced much later, and in one of the ironies of Caribbean history, many Afro-Caribbean persons later converted to Islam, centuries after most traces of this religion were destroyed by the European cultural dominance experienced by their ancestors (Kassim 2017, 2).
A significant influx of African converts began in the early 1970s, spurred by an increased black consciousness among the Afro-Caribbean community. This phenomenon was inspired by events in North America and particularly by personalities such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. While the Nation of Islam did have a small following in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and in other Caribbean territories, the majority of Africans in the Caribbean who accepted Islam joined the orthodox Muslim community (Sunni). As these new Afro-Caribbean Muslims came mainly from grassroots urban communities, they did not find initial acceptance by the middle-class leadership of the traditional Muslim community.
Though Afro-Trinidadian Muslims were warmly accommodated by some groups, they were still uncomfortable with the traditional Indian Muslim community. Afro-Trinidadian Muslims were especially concerned about the Indian cultural traditions, which they felt had no basis in Islam. While these tensions were often perceived as anti-African racism on the part of Indians, the prejudice displayed was actually based on ideological, cultural, and class differences. The experiences of slavery and indentureship impacted differently upon African and Indians, respectively, resulting in different approaches to the interpretation and the practice of Islam.
Because of their historical experiences, Afro-Trinidadians, in addition to being mainly converts, saw Islam through the lens of their sociopolitical concerns. They viewed Islam as a complete system of life, one that advocated equality and social welfare, whereas the Indians were more sociocultural and traditional in their approach to Islam. The Indians’ emphasis was upon survival and preservation, and they held on to many practices that were viewed as Indian customs that often had no scriptural justification.
While Afro-Trinidadians generally do not subscribe to most of the Indian cultural traditions, today there is generally a cordial relationship between African and Indian Muslims, especially among the younger generations.
Predominantly Afro-Trinidadian Muslim groups started to emerge from the 1970s, inspired by the Nation of Islam as well as the Islamic Party of North America. The Jamaat al Muslimeen, an Islamic organization with a predominantly Afro-Trinidadian membership, evolved around this time. In July 1990, this group led by Yasin Abu Bakr, attempted to remove the democratically elected government. They took Prime Minister A. N. R. Robinson and other government ministers as hostages, but the coup attempt failed after 7 days.
Many of the Jamaat’s members then left to form the Islamic Resource Society (IRS). The IRS has very cordial relations with the state and has integrated well with the wider Muslim community. Afro-Trinidadian Muslims frequently worship at most of the Indian-dominated mosques, but there are at least four urban mosques that are predominantly Afro-Trinidadian in their congregation.
While some may believe that the seeds of extremism were sown since the attempted coup of 1990 or some may say through the 1979 revolution in Iran, there is no evidence to suggest that there was a link between these events and those who later supported or participated in terrorist activities locally and internationally.
Indian Muslims in the Caribbean
The abolition of slavery resulted in the need to obtain new labor for the plantations. The East Indians were introduced to fill this need. Between 1845 and 1917, approximately 143,939 Indians came to Trinidad to provide labor. Approximately 85% of these immigrants were Hindus, and 14.5% were Muslims (Singh 2013).
Though the living conditions of the Indians were difficult, they nevertheless were somewhat conducive to the survival of the immigrants’ cultural traditions. The planters were generally satisfied with the productivity, docile temperament, frugal lifestyle, and industrious work ethic of the Indian immigrants. Being in a new environment, Muslims faced numerous challenges but held tenaciously to the past, as this provided a sense of comfort. Through frequent contact with their homeland, they were more successful than their African predecessors in withstanding culture loss. Although the isolation of Indians on the estates minimized their interaction with other groups in the society, this insularity helped them to revive and reconstruct (with adaptation) their ancestral culture. They re-established joint and extended family systems, Muslim marriage and funerary rites, and congregational worship (Mahase 2012, 247).
Most of the immigrants came from the Gangetic Plain region of North India, bringing similar interpretations of Islam, had similar experiences on the ships and on the plantations, and shared similar contacts with India through the influence of the few educated ones among them such as Syed Abdul Aziz and Haji Ruknudeen (Kassim 2013; Dabydeen and Samaroo 1987). Over time in the Caribbean, however, the dialect as well as the culture of the Indians became stabilized as differences among them were reduced.
Reverend John Morton noted in his diary that mosques began to appear as early as the 1860s, as “nice little buildings with galvanized roofs.” Though their level of religious knowledge was limited, they nevertheless attempted to reconstruct their rites and rituals, as they knew it. Also, because of the need to preserve their faith in an alien and somewhat hostile environment, Indo-Trinidadian Muslims became very defensive and introverted, with an emotional attachment to their ancestral traditions. They looked toward India for inspiration as well as identity in response to the pressures of indentureship. The thought that they would return to India after the termination of their contracts, usually after 5 years, provided further impetus for cultural persistence. There were few among the Indians with religious education, who were willing to impart religious knowledge to their fellow indentured workers, the majority of whom possessed only a rudimentary religious education. They sometimes attempted to reconstruct aspects their faith as they knew it, in some cases borrowing and institutionalizing cultural traditions without textual proof. By the early twentieth century, Islam among Indians in the Caribbean therefore adopted a unique shape. For this reason, many early Indian Muslims even disagreed with some Indian missionaries arriving from as early as 1914 (such as Pir Hassan) whose ideas and practices were at variance with what had emerged in the Caribbean.
Although Indian Muslims adopted a common version of Islam, the diversity found in Indian society and in the Muslim world generally started to resurface in the Caribbean from the 1930s, starting with the return of Moulvi Ameer Ali (labeled an Ahmadi), from studies in Lahore, followed by Nazeer Ahmad Seemab who was labeled a Wahhabi. The views of the latter two scholars were at variance with the then leader Hajji Ruknudeen, a traditionalist Sunni. Up to 1926 the Muslims of Trinidad were largely united, but by the late 1940s, there were three main religious organizations, representing three different religious orientations (Samaroo 1987): the Takveeatul Islamic Association (1926); the nonsectarian organization, the ASJA (1935) (Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association); and the TML (est. 1947) ghair mukallid (nonconformist). The TML was also affiliated to the Ahmadiyya movement for a period.
Religious Practices and Traditions
Ahle Sunnah wal Jamaah
Ahle Sunnah wal Jamaah
The “traditionalist Sunnis,” by far is the largest group in the Trinidad and Tobago today, accounting for more than 50% of the Muslim community. The older generation is more familiar with all the detailed aspects of traditional Islam, and efforts are being made to promote its transmission to younger generations. They are officially Hanafi Sunnis, indicating that they follow the school of law developed by Imam Abu Hanifa, and they adopt the Ahle Sunnah wal Jamaah approach as advocated by Ahmad Riza Khan of Barelwi in nineteenth-century India (Sanyal 1996). They subscribe to Indian cultural practices such as niyaz or fatiha, moulood and tazeem, and are wary of Muslim groups that do not support these practices. (Please see www.caribbeanmuslims.com for more details on this subject).
Among this group there have been efforts to promote the Urdu language. Though Urdu is an integral part of the Muslim legacy, some Muslims today disassociate themselves from it, due to its Indian cultural origins. Such persons consider Arabic as the only medium for religious instruction. Many traditional Muslim practices in the Caribbean make use of the Urdu language. These include moulood (singing of qasidas or Urdu songs), tazeem (prayer sending salutations to the Prophet), niyaz (prayer over food), Milad-un-Nabi (celebrating the Prophet’s birthday), and miraj (observing the Prophet’s ascension to Heaven).
The qasida (“song of praise”) evolved from the Arab and Persian traditions, and it spread from the heart of Arabia to the Islamic periphery. Arabic language impacted heavily on the vocabulary, the grammar, and the literary prose of other languages, including Turkish, Persian, and Urdu. Qasida, like poetry, became a popular form of expression among Muslims in South Asia. These renditions, largely in Urdu, were an integral part of religious functions among the early Indian Muslims in the Caribbean. Today in Trinidad, there is an attempt to revive this tradition. However, there is a lack of enthusiasm from some members of the younger generation, many of whom prefer to learn Islam from its Arabic sources rather than from Indian traditions.
Whoever brings forth an innovation into our religion which is not part of it, it is rejected,” and again, “Beware of innovative matters for every invention is an innovation and every innovation is misleading. (Hadith, Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 3, Book 49, No 861).
The visits of Maulana Ansari and Maulana Siddiqi to the Caribbean in the 1950s provided religious legitimacy for the practice of qasida, tazeem, and Milad-un-Nabi. These scholars endorsed these practices and refuted claims that these were innovations. They were able to convince many local Muslims that based on the Quran, the Hadith, and the fiqh (the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence), these traditional practices were within the parameters of Islam and are bida’h hasanah (“good innovations”).
Debates concerning these rituals have created deep rifts among Muslims in the Caribbean from the 1940s to the present. Some groups consider these practices to be bida’h (innovations) since they have not been practiced by the Prophet or his companions. In recent times, these debates have subsided somewhat as Muslims of different orientations are showing increased acceptance of each other’s differences.
Shi’ah Muslims also brought their cultural traditions to the Caribbean. They believe that the fourth Caliph Ali should have been the successor to Muhammad for the leadership of the ummah. Their most important religious personalities are Husayn and Fatima, the grandson and daughter of the Prophet, respectively. Every year they observe the martyrdom of Husayn, which occurred in 680 A.D. on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. This date continues to be a very emotional event involving mourning, the expression of grief, and the chanting of prayers as devotees conduct a street procession of taziyah or representations of the tomb of Husayn. Shi’ah Muslims also utilize this event to atone for their sins.
The “Hosay” festival, in its Indian form, was introduced into the Caribbean by early Indian immigrants. Though Shi’ah Islam was largely submerged into the wider Muslim community, Hosay as a street festival persisted in a Caribbeanized or “creolized” form. Though it largely lost its religious significance (Mansingh and Mansingh 1995), creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change in hierarchical societies whereby new cultural forms emerged.
Hosay represented a visual display of resistance by Indians, sufficient to cause fear on the part of the colonial authorities. Several historians including Ken Parmasad and Kelvin Singh have documented the importance of the 1884 Hosay Riots (also called the Muharram massacre) in Trinidad. The Hosay festival continues to attract interest as an important cultural event and has received much popular support in India and in Trinidad and Tobago. Grassroots people of various religious and cultural persuasions participate in the festival, providing additional modification of its form. However, the orthodox Muslim groups have distanced themselves from its observance.
It was the 1979 revolution in Iran that really inspired the revival of orthodox Shiite Islam. Its followers were largely of Afro-Trinidadian descent and observe Hosay annually as a true mourning event. Local persons even visited Iran in the early 1980s. Also, Iran also sent Shi’ah missionaries to the Caribbean. This orthodox Shi’ah community that resurfaced in Trinidad in the 1980s has also condemned the manner in which Hosay is currently celebrated, with its alcohol and a carnival-like atmosphere. This Shi’ah group observes the martyrdom of Husayn in what they claim is the truly Islamic manner, as a time of mourning. Shi’ah Muslims have also been strongly condemned by Wahhabi Muslims for their veneration of saints, visits to tombs and shrines, and commemoration of death anniversaries. Some of these practices associated with the Shi’ah tradition are also observed by some Sufi Muslims.
The Shiite doctrines became submerged with the religious practices of the Indian Muslims, with the exception of Hosay which became an annual event in Trinidad and Jamaica. It was a colorful display of flags and tadjahs accompanied by drumming and processions.
Sufi Muslims are also found in the Caribbean today. This popular religious movement is found throughout the Muslim world, including the Arab countries, Africa, and South Asia. It is a mystical tradition that seeks to emphasize the inner spiritual development of the individual. Sufis follow an ascetic life of simplicity, purification, denial, and detachment from the material world. Rarely addressing what they view as the mundane issues of society, they spend much of their efforts in prayer, singing, fasting, meditation, and dhikr (“remembrance of God”). Though initially having an elite following, the Sufi movement attracted persons from all levels of society. Over the years, Sufi activities came under the influence of Christian hermits, Buddhist monks, and Hindu sadhus. Many orthodox Islamic scholars have rejected the Sufi movement for its “excesses.” Wahhabi Muslims have even described it as heretical or a blasphemous deviation that compromises people’s iman (faith). Sufi Islam finds support especially among the “traditionalist” Muslims in the Caribbean, including the Hanafi Sunnis and to some extent, the Tabligh movement. Sufism has had increase support in the last two decades even among the youth who are yearning for spirituality amidst the materialism and secularism prevailing.
A major religious conflict among Muslims in Trinidad was posed by the introduction of Ahmadi doctrines in the 1930s. Toward the end of the nineteenth century in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad had laid claims to prophethood, claiming at various times to have been a reincarnation of religious personalities of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Orthodox Muslim scholars did not recognize his followers, known today as Qadiani and Ahmadi Muslims. There are no records of Ahmadi Muslims in the Caribbean until 1921 when Maulana Durrani, an Ahmadi missionary from India, arrived in Trinidad (Samaroo 1987). After being bitterly opposed by the local leaders, he soon returned to India. He was nevertheless instrumental in persuading a Trinidadian, Ameer Ali, to take up a scholarship at an Ahmadi institute in Lahore in 1923.
Moulvi Ameer Ali
Ameer Ali returned to Trinidad in 1930 after his graduation, was warmly received by the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association (TIA), and was shortly thereafter appointed Mufti (one who is authorized to make decisions in Islamic jurisprudence). Yet there was much apprehension on his return among the Muslim community in Trinidad. Because of his somewhat liberal approach, it was generally presumed that Moulvi Ameer Ali was an Ahmadi or a Qadiani, even though he sporadically published denials of the mounting rumors that he had taken the pledge of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam and that he accepted the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. His views created much concern among the “traditionalist” Muslims of Trinidad, who under the leadership of Haji Ruknudeen, felt strongly that Ahmadi teachings were now infiltrating the TIA.
Ameer Ali claimed that he was not an Ahmadi but a ghair mukallid (“nonconformist”). He adopted a “modernist” approach to Islam, encouraging the free participation of women in religious activities and criticizing some of the local institutionalized traditions. His liberal views were strongly condemned by traditional Muslim leaders. He eventually formed his own organization in 1947, the Trinidad Muslim League (TML). This organization was formally affiliated with the worldwide Ahmadi movement from 1969 to 1976 but subsequently identified itself as ghair mukallid (nonconformist).
In light of Ameer Ali’s open statements and practices, in spite of his standing as the Mufti of the TIA, in 1932, this conflict reached a climax when Haji Ruknudeen and other senior members of the TIA decided to leave the organization.
Despite their religious differences, Ameer Ali worked with Haji Ruknudeen in support of the passage of the Muslim Marriage Ordinance, which was eventually passed in 1936. Ameer Ali served as President of the Indian Educational Association, and from 1938 to 1942, he also served on the Board of Education, becoming its first non-Christian member. In 1939, he made one of his most important contributions to the Muslim community of Trinidad and to non-Christian communities in general. Ameer Ali moved that the Education Ordinance be amended to include all religious associations in the colony, and not only Christian denominations.
In 1947, Ameer Ali and his small group formed the Trinidad Muslim League (TML), which was later incorporated in 1950. He also approached Governor Hubert Rance to request state aid for Indian denominational schools, but it was refused. His plea finally came to fruition when in 1948–1949, the TIA Islamia School in San Juan was granted state aid. This was achieved with the assistance on Nazeer Ahmad Simab. A number of Muslim schools were subsequently established. Ameer Ali died on February 15, 1973.
The Ahmadis claim that Muhammad was the final Prophet but Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a reformer and the Promised Messiah. The Qadianis on the other hand believed that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a Prophet. Both groups are found in Trinidad.
Middle Eastern Influence
There were Muslims, Jews, and Christians among the early Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to the Caribbean. Those who remained Muslims often intermingled and sometimes intermarried with Indian Muslims. One of the first Muslim missionaries from the Middle East was Abdel Salaam from Egypt. In the late 1960s, he taught Arabic at several centers in Trinidad. In the 1970s, nationals from Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados were awarded scholarships to pursue studies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their return provided a new turn of events for the Muslim community in the Caribbean. As was expected, their interpretations of Islam did not find favor with the traditional Muslims locally. They nevertheless found tremendous support from the youth who were largely disenchanted with the leadership of traditional Muslims. These new approaches to the practice of Islam provided an exciting escape from the traditionalism of the mainstream Muslim community. Young Muslims started to take pride in openly identifying with Islam. It was only around the mid-1970s that Muslim women began wearing the hijab or veil. Prior to this, the ohrni, an Indian head covering, was worn by older women only (Niehoff and Niehoff 1961).
The Wahhabi movement, often called “fundamentalist” in contrast to the “traditionalist” Hanafi Sunni tradition, was introduced into the religious landscape of the Caribbean initially from India and later from Saudi Arabia. This Muslim group has grown in size over the past two decades but is by no means homogeneous. The work of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1708–1792) has inspired many of today’s revivalist movements. Abdul Wahhab’s major focus was on the removal of accretions and innovations that crept into Islam over time. He was appalled by some religious practices found in his time, including the veneration of saints and their tombs. He saw such acts as shirk (polytheism), which is considered the most serious sin in Islam. Wahhabi Muslims are usually critical of popular interpretations of Islam, especially when they condone cultural practices which were not found among the Prophet’s generation. This movement advocates a return to the “fundamentals” or original sources of Islam, namely, the Quran and the Sunnah. They reject Sufi practices and destroy all idols, icons, tombs, and shrines or anything that they believe comes between God and humanity.
This trend in Caribbean Islam was initially influenced by an early missionary from India, Nazeer Ahmad Simab, who came to Trinidad and Tobago in 1935. He did not find favor with the local Muslims and was ostracized for his rejection of some of their allegedly “un-Islamic” practices. He was even condemned for saying that the Prophet was a man like us. This missionary played a key role in obtaining government recognition for the first non-Christian denominational school in the West Indies.
Subsequently, several groups in the Caribbean have advocated a return to the “fundamentals” of Islam. Like the Wahhabis, these “neo-revivalists” generally show high levels of religious commitment. Originally inspired by movements in South Asia and more recently by Middle Eastern and North American contact, they often find themselves at odds with “traditionalist” Muslims over the latter’s apparent overemphasis on ancestral traditions as opposed to following the faraid (“obligatory”) acts of worship. Many neo-revivalists are actively engaged in propagating their faith among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Generally, members of this group do not follow the rulings of any one of the four recognized schools of Islamic law, and some find ijtihad (“personal judgment” in the implementation of the law) to be acceptable.
Recently, a form of Wahhabi Islam has been introduced into the Caribbean, the Salafi movement. They advocate using only original sources, strict orthodoxy, a literal “back to basics” approach to Islam, and are often criticized for making peripheral matters into central issues. This group is rather small but has grown over the past decade. It has been influenced mainly by the return of Saudi-trained scholars to the Caribbean.
Salafis are largely followers of the Hanbali school and several Saudi-trained scholars. Though a few may have gone on to support extremists, the majority do not condone violent extremism.
Moulvi Nazeer Ahmad Simab
Moulvi Nazeer Ahmad Simab arrived from India in November 12, 1935. Simab had graduated with honors in Persian, Urdu, tafsir (commentary of Quran), and Islamic studies. Simab initiated the printing of khutbahs (Friday sermons) in English on one side of the page and in Arabic and Urdu on the other, distributing copies to every mosque in the country. He was also the first person in Trinidad to introduce sermons with English translation, both at weekly Friday and Eid prayers.
Not only did Simab make a significant contribution to the Muslim community in Trinidad, but he also made a remarkable impact on the educational system of the colony. He refuted the allegations that Islam was spread by the use of the sword made in the educational textbooks, West Indian History Book 2 by Edward Daniel and The Beginner’s History by J.B. Newman. After the controversy erupted in December 1939 between Moulvi Simab and Sydney J. Hogben, the Director of Education, these books were withdrawn from the school system on the instructions of the Colonial Office and the Department of Education. In addition to this victory, Moulvi Simab was instrumental in founding the first Muslim primary school in March 2, 1942. This became the first non-Christian school in Trinidad to receive state aid in 1949. He did not live to see this important occasion for which he had so struggled. Moulvi Simab died on December 10, 1942.
The attractiveness of “Westernization” was difficult to resist, and by the 1960s, many of the younger and more educated Muslims became assimilated into the culture of the wider Caribbean society. The Islam that was being taught as a body of rituals and traditions was irreconcilable with what was being taught in the “secular” educational system. Also by this time, most of the youth, having been educated in the English language, were unable to understand and speak Urdu. Many religious sermons were still being delivered in the Urdu language, while there was very little Islamic literature available in English.
Some studies have shown integration and acculturation among Indians as the twentieth century progressed especially with regard to religion and family life. It was in the areas of religion and food that Indians remained most resilient as well as most creative. The rate of change was therefore more rapid among the urbanized and more educated and those experiencing higher rates of social mobility. On the other hand, isolated rural settlements showed greater resistance to change especially when they were living in poverty.
The subsequent arrival of learned persons who were able to teach Islam in the English language and the increasing availability of literature in English led to a reawakening of the local Muslims. This revival took place in Guyana and Trinidad simultaneously and was further strengthened by the return of qualified locals from abroad as well as contact with Muslims in North America.
Syncretisms involving Islam and magical practices were also brought to the Caribbean from India. In several communities in Trinidad today, persons perform exorcism using Arabic prayers. Sometimes Arabic phrases are inscribed on paper and given to clients to ward off evil spirits. Services such as fortune-telling, healing of ailments, and detection of thieves are also offered. In the performance of this role, many parallels can be found with the Orisha priest or “Obeah” practitioner.
Common external pressures led to greater mutual respect and acceptance between Indian Muslims and Hindus in the Caribbean. Despite marked differences in beliefs, there was a cordial relationship between these two groups. Around the time of partition of India and the formation of Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim relationships became somewhat strained. However, the relationship was long and intimate enough to lead to the borrowing and sharing of customs. This mutual transfer of cultural traits began in India and continued in the Caribbean.
According to Khan (1987), some Muslim rituals as well as culinary practices in Trinidad have resulted from Hindu contact. There were many instances where Hindu or Muslim dishes initially distinguishable but were later shared by all Indians. Therefore, Indo-Caribbean dishes are of both Hindu and Muslim origins. These include the paratha roti, with flour enriched with ghee or butter. The halwa of the Muslims of Middle Eastern origin is similar to the Hindu parsad. At Divali and Eid al-Fitr, similar types of sweets are served. The popular Trinidadian street-food “doubles” originated among Indo-Trinidadian Muslims around the Usine-St Madeline sugar factory in South Trinidad.
Conflict and Change
After the period of indentureship, most of the debates among Muslims in the Caribbean focused on cultural practices that Muslims brought from India. There have been two major “camps” on this issue, one comprising the younger generation who preferred to abandon the Indian cultural heritage, and the other comprising the older generous who desire to preserve the Indian tradition. Today, those of the younger generation who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic over Urdu and link the Indian Muslim traditions to Hinduism. A continuous attempt has therefore been made to purge “cultural Islam” of “un-Islamic” innovations. As Samaroo 1987 states, “In modern day Trinidad and Guyana, where there are substantial Muslim populations, there is much confusion, often conflict, between the two types of Islam.”
The Tabligh (literally, “preaching”) movement, based in India and found throughout the diaspora, was introduced into the Caribbean in the early 1970s. It also advocates a rigid system of adherence to the “fundamentals” of Islam and is dedicated to the propagation of Islam but only among Muslims. Although members of this group are Hanafi Sunni like the “traditionalists,” they do not follow Indian cultural practices which they consider to be bida’h (“innovations”). They refrain from polemics and adopt a fixed, literal, and cautious interpretation of Islamic texts. They seem indifferent to contemporary social and political issues and avoid conflict with established authority and controversial issues. Most of them are highly active in religious observance. Nevertheless, their rigid stance on many issues often contributes to their unpopularity among both “traditionalists” and other “fundamentalists.” Their activities revolve around the mosques and require little resources. Their missionary work follows a fixed format, which seldom involves the use of modern technology. They made it possible for a number of locals to obtain scholarships to pursue Islamic studies in India. Today, the efforts of the Tabligh movement have led to establishment the Dar-ul-Uloom Institute of Islamic Studies. The clientele of this institute comes from several Caribbean territories. Tabligh is generally apolitical and emphasizes adherence to Quran, Hadith, and Hanafi school of thought. The majority do not condone extremism.
A Word on ISIS
When scholars, journalists, and commentators discuss violent extremism, the question continues to be asked: What motivated some persons to leave Trinidad and Tobago and travel thousands of miles away into a strange unknown land? It must be something perceived as important.
There appears to be no link between the 1979 revolution in Iran, the attempted coup of 1990, and the extremist-related events of the last 5 years. Several attempts were made to analyze the attempted coup of 1990 (Ryan 1991; Deosaran 1993), but this was an isolated event that did not reflect the mood of the Muslims as well as the country then and now. Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen has his own style and has never shown any leaning toward Middle Eastern extremist groups, though he was an avid supporter of Muammar Gaddafi. Abu Bakr did indicate however that the persons who left were so disenchanted with the existing state of affairs in Trinidad and Tobago that they were willing to take the chance and be lured by the false idealism portrayed. The horror stories about the incarceration and even death of persons who joined ISIS there has made locals think twice about falling for the ISIS rhetoric.
Concerning the economic situation (used as one as the antecedent factors of both the 1970 Black Power Revolution as well as the attempted coup of 1990), this may not be a plausible reason. Compared to other Caribbean societies Trinidad and Tobago is relatively prosperous. Within recent times though, the economy has been experiencing a decline, but with its diverse resource base as well as its highly educated and skilled population, it is still a place of opportunity, as evidenced by the continued inward migration of people from all over the world such as China, the Middle East, Venezuela, and Cuba. Like other religious groups, the Muslims are relatively comfortable here.
The local Muslim community itself has come a long way and has integrated well in the society. They have access to opportunities and privileges unavailable to Muslim in most parts of the world. In fact Muslims of Trinidad have more rights and freedoms than even in most of the Muslim countries, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and respect for the rights of women (Kassim 2017).
There is the availability of halal food, time off for Juma (Friday prayer), a public holiday for the Eid al-Fitr festival, and two Muslim television stations. Since 1956 there have been Muslims in the country’s parliament and cabinet. The country also had a Muslim president from 1987 to 1997 as well as a Muslim serving as Acting Prime Minister. Currently, there are Muslim government ministers. The Islam attire (hijab) can be worn at all government schools and most denominational schools.
Therefore, the view expressed in an article by Simon Cottee (2016) quoting one ISIS fighter. Al Trinidadi (aka Shane Crawford) vociferously condemned local Muslims at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” He urged Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago “to wage jihad against their fellow citizens.” He even condemned the Jamaat al Muslimeen for not being “militant enough” (Cottee 2016, 2).
This view does not represent that of Trinidad Muslims generally. Muslims are an integral part of the mainstream society. The Muslim community is generally very conservative and supportive of the status quo and has always been consulted by both the present and past governments on issues of national importance.
Nevertheless, international attention continues to be focused on Trinidad as a recruiting ground for ISIS fighters who have gone to Syria. According to McCoy and Knight between 89 and 125 Trinidadians would have gone. As such “this would place Trinidad, with a population of 1.3 million, including 104,000 Muslims, top of the list of Western countries with the highest rates of foreign-fighter radicalization; it’s by far the largest recruitment hub in the Western Hemisphere.”
Violent extremists have received undue media publicity but have limited influence locally. They have no legitimacy or support from the scholars as well as the leadership of the community, are geographically concentrated in a few areas (Cottee 2016), have little integration with the society, and have no history of political activity. The majority have tenuous links with the Muslim community as well as the society generally. They were mostly persons with noninvolvement in mainstream society, e.g., the educational system, and they do not support voting at elections. Suspicious persons were arrested on two occasions, one in 2011 in a plot to assassinate the then Prime Minister and again in 2017 in a plot to disrupt Carnival. In both instances, they were released since the evidence was inadequate. The evidence indicates that only one individual from the time of the attempted coup of 1990 had relatives associated with ISIS. He claimed that he was unaware and had nothing to do with their involvement with ISIS (Cottee 2016).
Pull factors: recruitment strategy, marketing among youth, widespread use of social media, appeal to religious sentiments, appeal to rhetoric surrounding an Islam state and the caliphate, attraction to financial incentive (this was questioned by Cottee 2016)
Push factors: hatred for disbelievers’ claims of being victims of discrimination, unemployment
After hearing of horrendous condition prevailing in Syria and other ISIS strongholds, including the imprisonment of ladies with children, lack of justice, lack of respect for human life, the alleged death of ISIS fighters, and stories of human suffering, it is unlikely that persons have been joining ISIS within recent times. As Cottee stated, “I think the motives of those who went were complex and mixed. Redemption through violent self-sacrifice is a pretty big draw, but I also think a lot of those Trinis who went, truly believed that the ISIS caliphate was the real deal, a kind of Islamic utopia where they could go with their families and be spiritually saved.”
Muslims and Formal Education
Historian Carl Campbell (1992) showed that there were several attempts to establish Hindu and Muslim schools from as early as the 1920s. Muslims with resources were eager to establish institutions to cater for the educational needs of the community. In 1924, 1925, and 1927 privately funded schools were established. Also, a Hindu-Muslim school started in November 1931 with 150 students. It was located in Chaguanas, a predominantly Indian area. Hindus and Muslims in the surrounding areas withdrew their children from the Canadian Mission schools and gave their support to the Hindu-Muslim school. This school was an attempt to check Indian conversion to the Presbyterian faith. This school according to Carl Campbell was “probably the most controversial elementary school ever started in the colony.” The Hindu-Muslim school though faced with many problems was closed in 1935.
According to Hallima Kassim, a high school was started in 1936 in Sangre Grande by a convert to Islam, Abu Bakr Beaumont-Benjamin, (Kassim 2002). In addition to religious instruction, academic subjects were taught. This opening of this institution was an indication of the maturity and resourcefulness of the community, to have started a secondary school, at such a challenging era in history with so very little resources. Many social events were observed in the form of religious gatherings. The opportunities for social interaction helped in keeping the faith alive. Also, the close-knit Indian family system facilitated cultural transmission to the younger members of society. Under the new conditions, these cultural traits were inevitably adapted and modified. Several efforts were made to teach Indian-based languages. Hindi and Urdu classes were started in San Fernando in 1945 and in Marabella in 1938. The students included Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
The Marriot/Mayhew report indicated that the Indians who comprised 38.5% of the population (1932 census) should have had their own denominational schools. Subsequently, the government considered both Hindus and Muslims capable of administering schools. Within a short time several Hindu and Muslim schools were established. In 1949, there were 250 Christian schools and 50 government schools. By 1952, Hindu schools started to receive state aid and by 1962, there were 46 Hindu schools and 15 Muslim schools (Campbell 1992).
There were also several efforts to establish private schools, but due to the absence of state aid, adequate resources were not available to provide viable alternatives to the Christian schools. The leaders of both Hindus and Muslims, including Nazeer Ahmad Simab and Ameer Ali agitated for years to obtain state aid for a non-Christian school. And their efforts did bear fruit when the El Socorro Islamia School was established by the Takveeatul Islamic Association (TIA) in 1942. This institution operated as a private school for 7 years before becoming the first non-Christian school to receive state assistance from 1949.
This period of decline and assimilation was exacerbated when Muslims had the opportunity for secondary and tertiary education (most assimilation occurred among those who were more financially endowed, received more secular education, achieved more social mobility, and had more resources). A dichotomy therefore developed between the traditionalism and stagnation of religion (as taught and practiced at the time) and the excitement and dynamism of modernity. These two worlds seemed irreconcilable.
At this time, most of the youth were being educated in the English language, but religious instruction continued in Urdu which the majority could not understand. Many of the Friday sermons were still given in the Urdu language. So as a result, those children who were better educated saw the modern, scientific, and progressive approach to life as more attractive and appealing than a seemingly backward, irrelevant, traditional way of life. The situation was therefore conducive to a decline in the knowledge and practice of Islam.
New Educational Policy
At the time of achieving political independence in 1962, there were drastic changes in the educational policy in Trinidad and Tobago. Of concern here was the introduction of the Common Entrance Examination and the increased availability of secondary school places through the establishment of several government secondary schools. Of course, such a move was welcomed by the population in the face of the existing elitism in the secondary school system and the general lack of opportunities for members of the lower classes to achieve social mobility through education. Educational expansion also meant, however, a reduction in the power of the denominational boards and greater state control in education. In such a context, the Muslim schools had very little opportunity to blossom into independent institutions with their own school culture and traditions, without state interference. Even the existing church schools to a large extent lost their unique character in the face of deliberate attempts to promote a homogeneous society based on nationalistic and therefore secular ideals.
At this time the leadership of Muslim groups appeared to support the status quo and in return enjoyed some degree of privilege in accessing opportunities. They encouraged the community to support the dominant values of the wider society, and therefore their unique cultural identity was being eroded.
Increase in Muslim Schools
Within a decade after the establishment of the first school to receive state aid, the three existing Muslim organizations, the ASJA, the TIA, and the TML, established 15 primary schools: the Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association (ASJA) had seven, Takveeatul Islamic Association (TIA) had five, and the Trinidad Muslim League (TML) had three. Though, initially there was rivalry and competition among the groups, the schools helped to foster the bonds of cohesion and therefore keep the community alive. There were also instances of teacher mobility from one board to another. Over the years there developed a very cordial relationship among these groups, leading to the formation of the Muslim Coordinating Council.
In 1969 two government-assisted Muslim secondary schools were opened, and in the year 2000, four additional government-assisted secondary schools were opened. It is also important to note that the student population at all these schools includes students of all religions, which reflects the religious and ethnic harmony that exists in the society generally.
According to many Muslims, there is no distinction between religious and secular education. Nevertheless, many Muslim leaders felt there was a need for specialist training institutions in religious studies; this was done by the Islamic Missionaries Guild, the Islamic Trust, ASJA, and Dar-ul-Uloom, among others.
The Islamic Trust
In mid-1975 Abdul Wahid Hamid, a Trinidad-born and British-trained historian, formed the Islamic Trust. It was a registered charity which attempted to work with all of the existing organizations. For fear of exacerbating the schisms in an already fragmented community, the Trust never identified itself as a Muslim organization but functioned as a service bureau and as a “catalyst” in the Muslim community. The Trust established a reference library and a bookshop and held classes at various venues throughout the country. It published numerous books and a monthly magazine called The Muslim Standard (from 1975 to 1983). The Trust was very vociferous on a number of social and political issues, leading the then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams, to comment that the Muslims had become aggressive in their missionary activity (Hamid 1978, 4). The Muslim Standard was eventually banned from mosques, controlled by mainstream organizations, mainly on account of its scathing criticisms of shortcomings in the traditional Muslim community.
Hamid, nevertheless, considered himself part of the mainstream Muslim community and encouraged his students to forge links with the existing organizations. The group had attracted many persons of African descent to Islam. In late 1977, Abdul Wahid returned to London and continued to write and publish several articles and books.
The Haji Ruknudeen Institute of Islamic Studies
With the aim of “providing a forum for comprehensive Islamic learning” a committee was formed by the ASJA in the mid-1970s, to explore the possibility of establishing an Islamic institute. This effort was headed by President of ASJA, Hajji Abdool Sattar, and included Dr. Nizam Mohammed, Zainul Khan, and Justice Anthony Edoo. It later included Hajji SS Hosein, Dr. Aleem Mohammed, and Hajji Hyder Ali in the mid-1980s. At this time, residential and nonresidential weekend courses were held. Funding was obtained for a new building, and the sod for this structure was turned in May 1991. In September 1995, the Hajji Ruknudeen Institute was formally launched. Maulana Dr. Waffie Mohammed was the principal. The staff included Maulana Siddiq Ahmad Nasir and Maulana M. Sulaimani. Several part-time and full-time courses were offered.
Evolving out of the influence of the Tabligh is the Dar-ul-Uloom Institute of Islamic Studies, which offers courses in Arabic and Islamic studies.
This was started in 1984 by Trinidadian Mufti Shabil Ali, a graduate of India. Its main objective was to impart a sound Islamic as well as academic education. Dar-ul-Uloom is a private institution which today includes a Boys’ College and a Girls’ College, both offering full-time as well as part-time tuition. The curriculum includes Arabic language, Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic history, as well as several academic subjects. The students write the CXC examinations, as well as those set by the institution. Both colleges include dormitory facilities, and the student population includes locals as well as citizens of other countries. The full-time enrolment at the Boys’ College (as of October 2006) is 100, including 20 foreigners, with 21 members of staff (Eid ul Fitr Brochure 1427A.H. October 2006). The Girls’ College has an enrolment of 161, with 50 students boarding. There are 18 staff members at the Girls’ College.
The institution offers a full-time secondary program, an 8-year Aalim program, a 5-year Aalim program, an associate’s degree program, a Hifz course, and several Tajweed and Qari courses. In addition, there are several part-time programs, such as Arabic language, Tajweed, Hadith studies, and tafsir. Enrolment at the part-time programs is approximately 250.
In addition to the above, very vibrant religious institutions are currently attracting much interest. These include the Madinatul Ulum in Marabella, the Markaz al Ihsaan in San Fernando led by Maulana Dr. Waffie Mohammed, and the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah Institute also in San Fernando, led by Maulana Siddiq Ahmad Nasir.
This chapter looks at Islam in Trinidad starting with the experiences of the African slaves as well as the Indian indentured immigrants. While Africans largely became assimilated in the society as a result of slavery, Indians were able to maintain their religious identity due to their isolation on the estates. The main factor that led to religious change among Indians was the efforts of the Canadian Mission started by Reverend John Morton in the 1860s.
The chapter looks not only at Muslims’ survival but the establishment of places of worship, the evolution of Muslim organizations to seek their interests, lobbying to get legislation passed to protect their interests (e.g., for Muslim marriages) and establishing Muslim schools. It also discusses the conflicts and schisms arising in the 1930s and 1940s, due to ideological differences eventually leading to the formation of three main organizations by 1947. The various orientations that were discussed include Sunni, Ahmadis, Qadianis, Shi’ahs, Sufis, and Wahhabis.
It also examines the recent trend of youth radicalization and the development of extremist tendencies leading to the migration of persons to fight for ISIS.
The final section gives an overview of the Muslim involvement in education, both religious and secular, in Trinidad and Tobago. It examines the community’s successful battle with the forces of acculturation and assimilation. The information indicates that the Muslim community has successfully struggled to maintain a visible identity, in the face of numerous challenges. Muslims have coexisted peacefully with other groups and have participated in mainstream politics, music, sports, business, as well as education. The community now has over 140 mosques, over 20 government-assisted Muslim schools, 3 theological institutes, 2 financial institutions, several charities, and 2 television stations. Within its unity of belief and practice, a marked diversity exists, reflecting the variations in the Muslim ummah worldwide.
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