Islam in Trinidad
KeywordsMandingo Abu Bakr Indo-Caribbean Hosay Jamaat al Muslimeen Jamaats
Islam in Trinidad is defined by two ethnic groups – Afro-Caribbeans and Indo-Caribbeans – and three major organizations: the Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association (ASJA), the Takveeatul Islamic Association (TIA), and the Trinidad Muslim League (TML). Additionally, the Jamaat al Muslimeen has been an influential Muslim organization as a result of its leader’s attempt to overtake the Trinidadian government in 1990. Eid-al-Fitr is celebrated as a national holiday on the island, and the Hosay festival is a major festival attended by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
While Islam maintains a visible presence within Trinidad – there are numerous Muslim schools and several organizations dedicated to educating the general public about Islam, at least two local Islamic television channels, and Eid-al-Fitr is a public holiday – the actual number of Muslims is only a small percentage of the larger population. The 2011 census indicates that approximately 5 % of Trinidad’s population of 1.3 million are Muslims (Mohammed 2015). Despite this small number, Islam in Trinidad encompasses a wide variety of practices because of the diversity of its followers and the range of its influences. The history of Islam in Trinidad can be divided into three interrelated phases. The first consists of the introduction of African slaves and the formation of the Mandingo community in northern Trinidad. The second focuses on the arrival of indentured laborers to the Caribbean in 1845 which brought a new wave of Muslims and different cultural practices. The final phase consists of Muslim missionaries from India and the Middle East who introduced more conservative strands of Islam onto the island.
Although many associate Islam in the Caribbean with the Indian community, the first Muslims in Trinidad were actually from West Africa. It is difficult to know exact numbers of African Muslims that arrived on the slave ships or the nature of the very early Afro-Muslim community, but there was a thriving Muslim community in Port of Spain led by Yunus (Jonas) Muhammad Bath. David Trotman and Paul Lovejoy note that while these Muslims were known as the Mandingos of Trinidad, they in fact came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Trotman and Lovejoy 2004). This community expanded when Africans, who had served in the British West Indian Regiment during the Napoleonic wars, settled in Port of Spain. Before 1807, these soldiers were recruited by the British government from the slave and free Black populations in the colonies. After 1807, most of their recruits came from rescued Africans who, for the price of liberty, were offered a military career. Trotman and Lovejoy point out that a significant minority of the soldiers in the regiments were Muslim as indicated by one sample of 745 soldiers recruited between the years 1798 and 1808 in which 24 % were Muslim (Trotman and Lovejoy 2004). While some moved to South Trinidad, most of the disbanded soldiers stayed in northeast Trinidad where they were given lands in Manzanilla. They occasionally petitioned the British government to repatriate them but were continuously denied, forcing the community to make Trinidad their permanent home.
In addition to those Muslims who arrived directly from Africa and those who served in the British West Indian Regiment, the Afro-Muslim population also included “enslaved Africans and the descendants of Africans who were transferred to Trinidad from other colonies, especially the French islands after the uprising in St. Domingue” (Trotman and Lovejoy 2004). The Mandingo community, under the guidance of Bath, also often raised money to buy the freedom of Muslim slaves, thereby allowing for the maintenance of their community. The result of this constant influx of Africans meant that there was a small, but continuous West African Muslim presence in Trinidad up until the nineteenth century.
Muslims from India
In 1845, South Asian laborers began to arrive in Trinidad, and the history of South Asian Muslims began to overshadow the early history of African Muslims and their quest for repatriation. It is important to note, however, that the relationship between these two communities was a complicated one in which African and South Asian Muslims often maintained separate communities, but were also occasionally united by their religious practices and celebrations. Later fragmentations in the Muslim community resulted from theological differences rather than ethnic animosity, although some groups, like the Jamaat al Muslimeen, continued to be dominated by one particular ethnicity over the other.
Between 1838 and 1917 when indentured labor was abolished, approximately half a million East Indians were brought to Trinidad with about 144,000 going to Trinidad alone. It is estimated that approximately 13 % of the Indian population brought to Trinidad during this time period were Muslim (Mohammed 2015). The majority of these Muslims were Sunni, of the Hanafi school of thought, with a small minority of Shiite and an even smaller number of Wahabi (Reddock 2015). Unlike the unique features of dress and language which differentiated African groups, Hindus and Muslims from India could not easily be distinguished from one another. United by their country of origin and the experience of indentureship, Muslim migrants often combined their religious practices with aspects of Hinduism (Mohammed 2015). Rhoda Reddock notes that in her interviews with elderly Muslim women who experienced Islam in the early 1900s, the women admitted to not knowing about female figures in Islamic history such as Aisha but instead referred to the Hindu figure of Sita, the goddess symbolizing purity and virtue, as the ideal model for women. In Indian villages in Trinidad, imams and Hindu priests shared responsibilities as leaders of the community and enforcers of law. Missionaries from India and the Middle East in the 1930s helped to create a separate Indo-Muslim identity in the Trinidad, but Hindus and Muslims in Trinidad would continue to be united by their ethnicity and form separate communities from that of Afro-Trinidadians, generally in South Trinidad as opposed to the North where the Mandingo community was established.
The Jamaat al Muslimeen
The Jamaat al Muslimeen is a Muslim organization in Trinidad led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, a former Trinidadian policeman who resigned in 1968, immigrated to Canada where he converted to Islam, before eventually returning to Trinidad with the intention of developing an Islamic mission among the youth. Inspired by the Black Power Movement and the Nation of Islam, Abu Bakr sought to create a Muslim community that stood apart from the larger society and empowered its members. Jeanne Baptiste writes that “From its inception, the Jamaat has been disruptive to a cohesive Trinidad and Tobago national identity, literally and symbolically embodying the contradictions of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and nation” (Baptiste 2015). If the national Trinidad narrative was one of multiculturalism and ethnic and religious unity, the Jamaat sought to dispel myths about the reality of relationships on the island and advocate for Black unity. Despite being a small group, the Muslimeen stands out in that many of its members live in openly polygamous marriages, the women often wear hijabs and several choose to completely cover in public, and its members are mostly Afro-Trinidadian although there are some Indo-Trinidadian followers.
On July 27, 1990, in Port of Spain, a group from the Jamaat al Muslimeen forced their way into parliament and took hostage A.N.R. Robinson, the prime minister of Trinidad at the time, and 15 of his colleagues. Led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, the group also took over the TV center, and Abu Bakr immediately went on air to announce the takeover, encourage a people’s revolution, and warn against looting and destruction of property. Instead of a people’s rebellion, though, many Trinidadians ignored Abu Bakr’s warning and mass looting, and arson took place in the streets of Port of Spain. Robinson refused to give into the group’s demands, and after 5 days, the Muslimeen made an agreement with the government and eventually surrendered to the soldiers. In total, 24 Trinidadians died during the coup.
The coup of 1990 was the result of a number of factors. Chris Searle writes that “Trinidad and Tobago presents a stark example of a recently decolonized nation that moved from relative underdevelopment to a form of superficial prosperity – due to the extraction and export of one particular raw material (petroleum) […] only to be plunged back into poverty and dependence when the price of that raw material fell on the world market” (Searle 1991). In addition to these financial troubles and the corruption of the government, the coup was also the result of religious turmoil. A few days before Abu Bakr and his men took over parliament, the Muslimeen had lost a legal case in which the police, after accusing the Muslimeen of illegally squatting on the land, were able to take control of some of the Muslimeen’s buildings. The governmental lands had in fact been given to the Muslimeen during the rule of Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad. Since then, the lands had increased in value and were coveted by many. The police began a heavy surveillance of the group, arguing that the Muslimeen was involved in the crime in the area, while members of the Muslimeen accused the police of harassment and linked their involvement with the death of one of its members. Abu Bakr has stated that the purpose of the coup was to clean up the drug trade which, he argued, the police and high-ranking government officials were heavily involved in, making it impossible for change to occur without taking drastic measures (Gold 2014). He cites the rise in the murders and the increase in the drug trade in recent years to the failure of the coup to produce change as well as to him no longer being in charge. Searle writes that, as a result of the perceived corruption of the government and the police, for many people “the Jamaat represented a spark of resistance and hope of a way forward during a period when the community seemed rudderless and devoid of progressive leadership” (Searle 1991). In the collective memory of Trinidadians, however, recollections of the coup combined with the group’s chosen isolation from the larger society have meant the continued association of the Muslimeen with terrorists.
The suspicion they encounter on a day-to-day basis has led members of the Muslimeen to form a fairly tight-knitted and secluded community that is cautious of visitors and outsiders. Although scholars estimated the number of the Muslimeen to be around 2,000 during the 1960s and 1970s, Baptiste’s sources during her fieldwork in 2012 claimed the Muslimeen population to be around 500 with only about 150 women (Baptiste 2015). The Muslimeen women stand out from the larger Trinidadian community in that they openly engage in polygamous marriages and often cover completely in public. While these practices have contributed to the characterization of the Muslimeen as “other” and led some Trinidadians to accuse the Muslimeen of being oppressive to women, Baptiste notes that many of the women members of the Muslimeen are “well versed in the Quran, are formally educated, own property and businesses, and negotiate tenets of Islam like polygamy and obedience differently and strategically, especially across generations and educational levels” (Baptiste 2015). While polygamous marriages are certainly present, they exist among the highest level of the Muslimeen’s social structure occupied by the imam and his advisors, and most of the Muslimeen are in monogamous marriages. Additionally, the women often remark that, far from being oppressive, the hijab and other forms of modest clothing allow them to reverse the exploitation of African bodies during colonialism and restore respectability to Black female sexuality (Baptiste 2015).
Missionaries and Fragmentation
Muslim missionaries from India to Trinidad began in 1914 with the arrival of Moulvi Haji Sufi Shah Mohammed Hassan Hanfi Qadri, also known as Lal Dhari (Kassim 2002). While Indo-Caribbean Muslim practices reflected the nineteenth century belief and practices of the indentured laborers that came to the island, since then Islam in India had undergone several changes. Upon his arrival, Lal Dahri advocated for a more conservative form of Islam that was currently practiced on the island and for more “outward manifestations of the faith.” Although Lal Dahri met with resistance in Trinidad as a result of his stern conservatism, causing him to eventually leave Trinidad in 1918, his stay on the island foreshadowed the more conservative leanings of the missionaries to come. Moulvi Fazal Karim Khan Durrani, for example, arrived in 1920 and promoted the views of the Ahmadiyyas. As a result, he is credited with causing the first spilt in the Trinidadian Muslim community (Kassim 2002). Durrani left in 1923, having little success in inspiring reform among Trinidadian youths. Moulvi Bashir Ahmad Minto, a Pakistani living in the USA who came at the invitation of the Trinidad Muslim League, also delivered lectures on the Ahmadiyyas. During his short visit, Minto was outspoken about the role of women, encouraging Muslims to allow women to go to school and attend mosques. His visit is representative of the many short visits of learned Muslims who would pass through the island on their way to other destinations, promoting various forms of Islam and delivering lectures on topics such as “What is Namaaz?” and “The Universal Brotherhood of Islam” (Kassim 2002). By the early twentieth century, largely in the response to these missions which brought a variety of theological views, Muslims began forming religious groups that differed theologically and catered to specific needs. Three main organizations were formed: the Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association (ASJA), the Takveeatul Islamic Association (TIA), and the Trinidad Muslim League (TML). Together, these groups worked for the recognition of Muslim marriages, the right to establish their own schools with state recognition, and encouraged Muslim unity (Kassim 2008).
Muslim Education in Trinidad
Halima-Sa’adia Kassim divides the development of Muslim education in Trinidad into three phases. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the main concern of the Muslim community was preserving its religious and linguistic heritage. This included teaching Arabic, Urdu, and Hindi as well as the main tenants of Islam. From the 1950s, under pressure to compete with the quality of education in secular schools and to gain government funding, the Muslim community began to focus on the developing primary secular education. Finally in the 1960s, it began to work on establishing secondary schools.
For the early Indo-Caribbean Muslims, secular and religious education were inseparable. A minority within Trinidad, they saw education as a way to preserve their culture in a foreign land. Kassim notes that jamaats (congregations) provided religious education and functioned as a socialization agent of Islam (Kassim 2002). During jamaats, members of the community would give lectures on various topics. Lecturers would visit from neighboring districts, and masjids would provide the location for debates between Muslims and non-Muslims. In addition to these lectures, there were also maktabs, organized classes that provided linguistic and religious instruction. Maktabs were held after school as a way to combat education at Christian denominational schools which Muslims believed and worked to convert their children. Although there was no set syllabus, both boys and girls, between the ages of 6 and 13, learned the basics of Islam and read the Qur’an. Until the 1950s, girls were removed from maktabs after they reached puberty because parents were anxious about the interaction between the boys and girls (Kassim 2002).
In addition to jamaats and maktabs, which were catered to children and youths, literary and debating societies (LDS) also offered religious education for adults. LDS encouraged conversation among all East Indians – Hindu, Muslim, and Christian alike – and worked to ensure that East Indians learned to speak and write in a manner that made them competitive with whites on the island. Kassim points out that “It is significant that the East Indians chose to launch their own societies rather than seek entry into those which consisted largely of Africans and Creoles” (Kassim 2002). This demonstrated that ethnic solidarity was more important than religious differences among Indians.
During the first 10 days of the Muharram, Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed by Yazid I, the second caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. Referred to as Hosay in Trinidad, the annual event works to the connect Shiite Muslims to the suffering of Husayn. Initially, British authorities, in an effort to prevent large public gatherings, issued an ordinance preventing Hosay commemorations. Eventually though the ordinance was overturn as Indians rebelled leading to the Muharram Massacre, also known as the Hosay Riots in 1884.
During the commemoration, Muslims make elaborate mausoleums, called tadjahs, which they then parade in the streets and eventually offer into the sea. Despite the soberness of the origin of the performance and its religious ties, in recent years the increasingly elaborate tadjahs, the accompanying drums, and the participation of non-Muslim Afro- and Indo-Caribbeans have led some to liken the commemoration to Trinidad’s carnival. Frank Korom argues that through Hosay, “East Indians participate in Creole culture, but they also reassert their own Indian ethnic identity by performing a tradition that is perceived to have come to Trinidad from India as an unaltered state” (Korom 2003). Korom notes, though, that since 1994, Shiite missionaries of East Indian descent from Canada have started a campaign to reform Hosay from its more carnivalized form in Trinidad to the way it is performed in Iran and other conservative Shiite communities.
Despite its small population, Muslims in Trinidad are fairly well organized and diverse in their theological views. This diversity stems from the three waves of Muslims to the island: (1) Africans brought to the Caribbean through the transatlantic slave trade, (2) Indians that arrived as a result of indentured labor, and (3) Muslim missionaries from India and the Middle East. In general, Afro- and Indo-Caribbeans have formed united religious institutions, with fragmentations resulting from theological differences rather than ethnic animosity. Some groups, however, like the Jamaat al Muslimeen, are dominated by one particular ethnicity over the other. Additionally, Hindu and Muslim Indo-Caribbeans are often united in their fight for national recognition and tolerance for the broader Indian community. By forming religious organizations, promoting Muslim education through the creation of schools, and creating nationally recognized celebrations such as Eid-al-Fitr and the Hosay festival, Muslims have ensured that Islam continues to be a visible and vibrant presence in Trinidad.
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