A Short History Of Islam In The Caribbean

It was early in the 18th century that Islam was first introduced in the Caribbean and the South America by African Slaves. On the abolition of Slavery, the British, Dutch and French overlords, brought indentured immigrant labourers from India, and Indonesia, Morocco, and Algeria respectively, to replace the freed slaves on their various plantations in the West Indies and Guyanas.

The first batch of Muslims from Africa belonged to the Mandingo and Fulani tribes of West Africa. They were very devout Muslims and in spite of the harsh and inhuman conditions under which they were forced to work, they practiced their religion as best as they could under the circumstances. In the face of the utmost pressure from their masters, they stoutly refused to abandon Islam. Neither could physical violence nor mental torture succeed in causing them to give up Islam in favour of the religion of their masters.

The pattern was the same in all the areas. Anti·-Islamic propaganda was not lacking in any of the slave camps in any of the countries, but the slaves who were Muslims died as true Muslims (May Allah Bless them forevermore).

It was a great tragedy, however, that in spite of their best efforts, these poor African Muslim slaves could not pass on their religion to their children. Their children were brutally taken away from their parents and given over to the custody of others who baptised them in their faith. The inhuman disintegration of the family structure of the Muslim slaves was the best weapon of the European masters in ensuring that the offspring of their slaves would be robbed of their Islamic heritage.

On May 5th 1838, the first boats with indentured East Indians on board -- SS Hesperus and SS Whitby -- arrived in Guyana. The Fatel Razak arrived in Trinidad on May 30th 1845 with the second batch of Muslims in the Caribbean. They were the indentured labourers from India, Indonesia, and French North Africa, to replace the slaves on the plantations. Their conditions were very similar to that of the slaves, and they only enjoyed a limited amount of liberty. The British and European overlords had made it a policy that only illiterate labour should have been sent to those parts, but in their greedy haste to bring quick replacements for the freed slaves, they unwittingly sent some literate and intelligent people among the illiterate labourers.

It was those few educated ones among the Muslims who, helped by Allah's grace to maintain the regular observance of their religious practices among the Muslim immigrants, ensured the preservation of Islam for the benefit of their offspring. To do this, they had to overcome the methodical and untiring efforts of other missionaries, who were given every encouragement and assistance by the estate owners in their efforts to win over the immigrants to their faith, as if it was not enough to have the missionaries harass the Muslim labourers from observing their festival occasions. To give one example, those Muslims who congregated to observe their Eid prayers at the Palmists Estate were flogged for offering their first Eid prayers in Trinidad. On another occasion, many defenceless Muslim immigrants were shot down like dogs by Captain Baker and his Platoon of armed policemen, simply because they wanted to carry out a peaceful observance of a religious occasion.

As can be well imagined, the indentured immigrants in each territory suffered many hardships and deprivations, but whether they had come from India, Indonesia, Morocco, or Algeria, they possessed one great asset in common, that is their complete faith in the truth of Islam, as the true religion extended by God for mankind, and as believers that "There is no other deity except Almighty God (Allah)," and in the divine messenger-ship of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (U.W.B.P.), they had a religion worthy to live by and to die for.

With the challenge of the other Missionaries before them, the Muslim labourers responded to the call of their leaders for solidarity, and for the preservation and propagation of Islam. It happened everywhere whether in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, or French Guiana, that these poor immigrants, after working all day in the hot sun under the direct surveillance of hard task masters, attended religious schools in the evenings, schools made with mud and covered with palm leaves. There, they diligently learned about their religious duties. Soon they built mosques in every settlement. These mosques were also built of tapia and covered with timite or board. In their humbly built mosques, they offered worship to Almighty Allah, as brethren, in their congregation. Their mosques and schools were built by voluntary labour during their hours after work and on Sundays, with their hard earned pennies, earned with blood, sweat, and tears.

On the ending of the indentured system, when they were released from their contracts, the Muslims came into their own as equal citizens in their respective new homelands. They now built mosques in every district and near to each mosque a religious instruction school. Thus they were able to preserve their religious practices and traditions for their offspring.

Today Islam is on the march in each and everyone of these countries to which our predecessors came as slaves or as indentured labourers. Many people who were formerly non­Muslims are now becoming Muslims. In Trinidad and in Guyana particularly, Muslims of Indian and African descent can be seen in many mosques standing shoulder to shoulder, offering their prayers to Almighty Allah as equal brethren. Islam belongs to people of all races. It forbids a colour or race barrier by its very principles.

The, Muslims of these Nations such as Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname have made progress in every field, even as in the religious field. Among them are found doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, chemists, businessmen, traders, agriculturists, and tradesmen, as well as members of Parliament and Ministers of Government.

The Muslims of these countries are grateful for the service rendered to them in the cause of Islam by visiting Muslim missionaries from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, as well as the U.A.E., Arabia, and Egypt, who have helped to revive the religious consciousness of the Muslims in these countries from time to time in the past hundred and thirty years. The present generation of Muslims is particularly grateful for the great contribution made to Islam in more recent years by His Exalted Eminence, the late Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, R.A., and in more recent times by his Eminence Dr. Fazlur Rahman Ansari and Maulana Noorani Siddiqui.

At the present time, local students from these countries are being sent to centres of Islamic learning in the U.A.E., Pakistan, and Arabia that they might receive training and return to their homelands as trained theologians.

Those who make the false allegation that Islam was spread by the sword should study the spread of Islam in the Caribbean where it was not even introduced by traders or missionaries as in other parts of the world, but by slaves and humble labourers. From these people have emerged today Muslims of all strata of society, whether they may be lawyers, doctors, politicians, civil servants, or businessmen, thus proving to the world that Islam is for all mankind.

Posted August 21, 2009. This article was printed in the April-June 2009 issue of "The Message," a United Islamic Association (UIA) publication, London, England. It was reproduced from the November-December 1983 issue of The Message.