Muslims & Islam : A Caribbean Perspective - Naballah Chi

Travel agents like to promote the Caribbean as a tropical, ideal vacation spot throbbing with calypso, carnival and steel bands but the Caribbean is also the focus of Muslim life. Home to over 500,000 Muslims, Islam has been a part of the Caribbean for quite a long time. Groundbreaking research, out of the surprisingly full records of slavery, shows that Muslims constituted a significant slice of the African populations that the European nations plucked out of Africa and transported to the Americas as part of the European slave trade. The legacy of the Muslim slaves is somewhat controversial but regardless, it is the descendents of the contract workers from India who contribute to the bulk of the Muslim presence in the Caribbean today. They were brought as contract workers, by the British, from the Indian Subcontinent to fill the role of slaves at sugar plantations when slavery was abolished. Despite, the fact that the Caribbean is visualized as an area populated by a diverse polyglot of peoples, plastered on brochures and vacation packages worldwide some still ask what and where is the Caribbean. The geographical expression called ‘the Caribbean’ is often associated with a sea and several islands. It constitutes 31 countries, which are classified linguistically into four regions including 19 English-speaking countries, 5 French-speaking countries, 4 Dutch-speaking countries and 3 Spanish-speaking countries. The reason for the Caribbean region being abbreviated into sub linguistic subsets can be found in the early pattern of colonization by several European powers. Hence, the Spanish area includes Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, to add to that Spanish is spoken by more than 60 percent of the 33 million people who inhabit the Caribbean. The French portion includes Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana. The Dutch parts include Suriname, Aruba and the five-island Netherlands Antilles constituted of (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius). The English-speaking areas collectively called the Commonwealth Caribbean includes: Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, The Bahamas, Antigua, St. Kitts-Nevis, Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, The British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla, Barbuda, the Cayman Islands, St. Maarten and the Turks and Caicos islands.  Though small concentrations of Muslims can be found all over the Caribbean basin, there are Caribbean countries with hefty Muslim populations.

Many Muslims who describe themselves as Caribbean people assert a unique identity which has its own cohering characteristics that distinguish them from others. Of all thirty one Caribbean countries, three unique countries stand out; Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Can you guess why? Well, if you haven’t got a clue by now, I’ll tell you, that these three Caribbean countries contain the largest populations of Muslims. Trinidad and Tobago’s Muslim population is around 104,000, which is 8% of the total population. Guyana’s Muslim population stands at 120,000, which is 15% of the population total population, whilst the Dutch-speaking Suriname also has 120,000 Muslims which account for 20% of the total population. In case you were beginning to wonder about Jamaica, the island has the largest population in the Caribbean where more than 2 million people live, however only 5,000 are Muslims. It is fashionable among Caribbean Muslims today to call themselves not converts but reverts, alluding to the fact that Islam is the natural religion of each person at birth, and so turning to it later in life is regarded as return as opposed to a conversion. Because Christianity was forced upon the slaves in the Caribbean, and was not a faith they ever truly accepted the memory of Islam, though vague, was never lost.

 Muslims in the various Caribbean islands and countries namely Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica and Barbados today have successfully maintained their Islamic identity and beliefs. The consolidation of the Islamic presence and preservation of the Islamic and Muslim identity and culture in the Caribbean can be seen today in various aspects. In Trinidad and Tobago over 100 mosques make up the landscape of the oil-rich island, which appears as a speck on the world map. In Guyana there are over 125 mosques scattered throughout along with several active groups including the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana, The Guyana Islamic Trust, Darul Uloom, The Guyana United Sadr Islamic Anjuman, The Muslim Youth League, Guyana Islamic Forum, The Muslim Youth Organization and the Hifazatul Islam. Muslims in the Caribbean today are very prominent in the business community. Many of them have made their way to the high echelons of society and hold high-ranking positions in the public service. Even though some countries in the Caribbean have diminutive Muslim numbers when compared to the rest of the world, Muslims in these Caribbean countries have had some influence in their countries and significant achievements not witnessed in many parts of the western world. Since gaining independence in the mid 20th century Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname have all Islamic events as national holidays. Eid-ul-Fitr is a national public holiday each year in all three countries. In Guyana, Eid-ul-Adha and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are national public holidays and in Suriname both Eids are national public holidays. No other countries in the Western hemisphere have achieved this milestone. The significance of these national public holidays means that the wider population can understand and appreciate the significance of Islamic beliefs and practices and share in the cultural expressions of Muslims at these important moments on their calendar. The highest office of Government, President, was achieved by a Muslim, (Noor Mohammed Hassanali) in Trinidad and Tobago from 1987 to 1997.  It was reported that during his tenure all alcoholic beverages were prohibited at his official functions. Muslims over the years have and continue to hold positions of Ministers, Senators and other important governmental portfolios in several Caribbean territories. In the field of business several Muslims in the Caribbean have managed successfully to establish small, medium and large scale business enterprises in a wide variety of sectors contributing in a very meaningful way to the development of the Caribbean society.  A Trinidadian Muslim businessman whose soft drink enterprise started out in Trinidad now has plants in other parts of the world including Saudi Arabia. In Barbados a unique enterprise of itinerant trading evolved from the early Muslims, and was developed into the modern day form of credit purchases.  Many prominent Barbadians today, leaders and others all champion the role of the Muslim itinerant trader who sold goods primarily to the poor in society on credits terms that allowed them to pay off over a time period suitable to their budget with just a handshake and goodwill. In education Muslims in the Caribbean have managed to set up and maintain schools, both at the primary and secondary level to cater not only to Muslims but students of all backgrounds. These schools have over the years done exceptionally well achieving above the average of most schools in the country while being a source of positive Islamic cultural influence.

In the French-speaking Islands, such as Guadeloupe, Haiti and Martinique, the Muslim community is mainly made up of African Muslim immigrants from West Africa, Senegal and Mali. The total population of Muslims in these countries is 2,600. In Martinique, there is a wealthy immigrant Palestinian community with an Islamic center and full time Imam. In the Spanish-speaking islands of Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, there are collectively over 3,500 Muslims. Islam in the Dominican Republic estimates to be 0.02 percent of the population, however Muslim students and local organizations such as the Círculo Islámico de República Dominicana (The Islamic Circle of Dominican Republic) and the Islamic Center of the Dominican Republic (located in Miami) have helped spread Islam in this country. The Círculo Islámico established the first mosque in the Dominican Republic in the center of Santo Domingo, which is open daily for Salaat and offers classes on Islamic studies for ladies and children on weekends. They also provide free medical consultation along with a free pharmacy, Consulta Al-Foutory, which is located in a separate building at the back of the mosque. In Cuba there are over 9,000 Muslims, about 0.1% of the population where 1,000 are indigenous Cubans. Cuban Muslims learned Islam through embassies of Middle Eastern countries as well as through students coming to study from Muslim and African countries. Cuba’s Muslims today usually pray in their homes since there is no mosque in Havana and the state does not allow the construction of mosques. This makes Cuba the only Latin American country without a mosque. The only prayers performed in public are the Jummah prayers conducted in the Arab House in old Havana. To date there are two Islamic groups in Cuba: the Cuban Islamic Union and the Islamic Association of Cuba, in Havana. Notable Cuban Muslims include Alí Nicolás Cossío, former foreign ministry official and Juan Carlos Gomez, professional boxer and former Cruiserweight Champion.  The Cuban town of Pilaya de Rosario is reportedly 40% Muslim. Islam and Muslims in Puerto Rico, represent about 0.10% of the population- double the percent of Palestinians who arrived between 1958 and 1962. The first mosque was established in 1981 in Rio Piedras, part of the capital San Juan, and on a walking distance from the University of Puerto Rico. It was purchased and adopted as a mosque and has the capacity of 200 males and 40 females. The mosque has a full time Imam and adhan and khutba are heard by speakers outside the mosque. The second mosque which is the biggest on the Island was built in 1992 in Vega Alta, about 30 minutes west of San Juan on the top of a hill overlooking the northern expressway 22. Puerto Rico’s ninth mosque was established in 2011 in Loiza, an eastern suburb of San Juan. It was adopted by local indigenous Muslims with a capacity of 20 people. At the time, the vast majority of Puerto Rico's Muslims lived in Caguas – a crowded suburb of San Juan – where they operated restaurants, jewelry stores and clothing outlets. For years a storefront mosque on Calle Padre Colón served the entire community. Today there are mosques and Islamic Centers in Aguadilla, San Juan, Hatillo, Ponce, Arecibo, and Río Piedras. An iconic representative of Islam in the island, Khaled Alkhatib, born in Caguas and raised by Muslim parents, has dedicated his life to giving Dawah.

Commonly, in the Caribbean countries with smaller Muslim populations, the Jummah prayers have been established every Friday either at one of the Muslim’s home or a house-turned to mosque. Whilst not all the Muslims are able to attend the Jummah prayers, the brothers and sisters who pray together have committed themselves to practicing Islam, reaching out to all Muslims and those interested in Islam. Unfortunately, the minuscule Muslim populations are sometimes ignored or marginalized; nevertheless Islam in the Caribbean is growing with a strong foundation for increasing Dawah. The preface of Islam into the assortment of Caribbean countries appears to be numerous. In some countries the Islamic presence can be traced to the Atlantic slave trade; in others it is due to the influx of refugees caused by persecutions in their ravaged homeland, seeking out promising opportunities. All things considered, they still are aspects of the onset of Muslims, both indentured servants and immigrants seeking better opportunities. Regardless of the origin of the Islamic presence in the Caribbean and the fact that some Muslims continue to experience life as minorities, it is important to note that Islam has endured for a long time and is currently growing at an express rate.