A Brief History of Muslims in Guyana

Community News
BriefHistoryofMuslimsinGuyana Imam Faizul Khan is the Imam of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area (ISWA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is an edited version of a speech he delivered at America's Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Washington DC on March 2, 2013.-- TML

In 1814 one of the most prominent planters in Trinidad, William Burnley, proposed as the best method of improving the colony, the importation of free workers from India on a large scale. 

It may be considered as an axiom, “he wrote, that without a change in the materials which the population of the island is composed, no beneficial alteration in its actual state can be affected”.  What was required, said Burnley, was a new race of men, “healthy and free, with habits and science already formed, and sufficiently numerous to stand unsupported and distinct from our present population, on its immediate arrival!”

With a limited population in with the door to African labor closed by the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Burnley turned his eyes to India.

This was the background of a new wave of immigration into the Caribbean.  Between 1838 and 1924 nearly half a million Indians entered the region, either in Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Surinam, St. Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Martinique or other locations.  The Spanish, desperately short of labor in Cuba, brought in Chinese contract workers and the Dutch introduced workers from Indonesia, principally Java.  Nine tenths of the indentured Indian immigrants were from the Ganges river basins and embarked at Calcutta; the South Indian remainder came from Madras.  One in six were Muslims while the rest were Hindus.

Guyana is a multi-ethnic republic situated on the northern coast of South America.  The Country is inhabited by 650 million  people  and are pluralistic in terms of ethnicity and religious affiliation. There are six different nationalities Guyana, Indian, African, Chinese, Portuguese, European, and Amerindians.

Amerindians are the indigenous people of Guyana.  In the seventeenth century the country became populated by waves of immigrants brought in under colonialism which introduced plantation slavery and the indenture system.  Thus the Dutch and later the British colonial mercantile interests shaped the socio-cultural environment of the country.  Guyana remained a British colony until 1966 when it achieved independence which marked the transfer of political power to the Afro-Christina population.  However, the majority are the South Asian descent and form roughly 51% of the population.  Yet, they remained disenfranchised until the 1992 general elections.  South Asians, who are mostly Hindus and Muslims, have always had a cordial relationship among themselves.  It would seem that these two groups had come to a mutual understanding of respecting each other’s faith while culturally and even linguistically identifying with each other.  In fact, Hindus and Muslims share a history of indentured labour, both having been recruited to work in the sugar cane plantations.  They came from rural districts of British India and arrived in the same ships. Furthermore, Muslims and Hindus in Guyana did not experience the bloody history of partition as did their brethren back in the subcontinent.

According to the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG), there are about 125 masjids scattered throughout Guyana.  Muslims from about 12% of the total population.  Today in Guyana there are several active Islamic groups.  Two Islamic holidays are nationally recognized in Guyana; Eid-ul-Azha or Bakra Eid and Youman Nabi or Eid-Milad-Nabi.  In mid 1998 Guyana became the 56th permanent member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).  Guyana’s neighbor to the east, Suriname, with Muslim population of 33% is also an OIC member state.

In the early days of Islamic propagation only a handful made an impact on Muslims in Guyana.  Among them are Islamic Association or British Guyana. United SADR Islamic Organization.  Ulmayideen Board, The Muslim Youth Organization, Anjuman HIFAZATUL ISLAM, Muslim League, Islamic Missionaries Guild, and Muslim Youth League. Today, there are several active groups in Guyana which includes 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.

Islam was formally reintroduced in Guyana with the arrival of South Asian Muslims in the year 1838.  Yet one cannot dismiss the fact that there was a Muslim presence in Guyana even earlier than that date.  There were Muslims among African slaves who were brought to Guyana.

Mandingo and Fulani Muslims were the first brought from West Africa to work in Guyana’s sugar plantations.  However, the cruelty of slavery neutralized the Muslims and the practice of Islam vanished until the arrival of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent in the year 1838.  However, to this day Muslims in Guyana are referred to as Fula or Fulaman,  linking them to their West African ancestry.  Micea Eilda writes that from 1835-1917, over 240,000 East Indians, mostly illiterate, Urdu-speaking villagers were brought to Guyana.  Of these 84% were Indus, but 16% were Sunni Muslims. The Muslims who migrated to Guyana came from many different areas of the Indian subcontinent, including Uttar Pradesh, Sind, the Punjab, Deccan, Kashmir and the North West Frontier (Afghan areas).  In fact, one of Guyana’s oldest Mosques, the Queenstown Jama Masijid was founded by the Afghan community which had apparently arrived in this country via India.  Afghan and Indian Muslims living in this area laid the foundations from the Masjid.  Thus according to several accounts, there were educated Muslims among these early arrivals.  One Imam reports there were two Hafizul Quran who were residing in Conbrook, East Coast Damerara, being the last name Khan.

By 1865 the Indian Muslims of the Caribbean began making organized efforts to resist the hostility and oppression around them.  The first mosque built in Guyana either from mud and grass (tapia) or wood and covered with palm leaves.  It was built by Moulvie Chand Khan in Philadelphia WCD. A monument was erected in his honor.   He was my great grandfather, and the Meer Khan generation came from his legacy.

To  these mosques were added “Maktabs” to cater for the Islamic education of the youth.  Although the Muslims were not highly educated in Arabic language, Urdu language or Islamic studies, they succeed in maintaining their faith through clinging onto the rudiments of faith and congregating on the Prophet Muhammad’s (Sallallahu 'alyhi wa sallam) birthday [Note: this celebration is a cultural practice and was not observed by the Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu 'alyhi wa sallam or his companions – TML] and other festive occasions.  When the system of indentured labor was abolished in the first half of the twentieth century, they were able to build stronger Masjids in every community and gain higher education and training.  Islam, among the Africans had almost been completely wiped out by then and most people in the Caribbean thought of Islam as an Indian religion.

Today in Guyana there is much controversy as to the cultural aspects that Muslims brought from the subcontinent beginning with their migration in the year 1838.  There exist two camps in Guyana, one comprising the younger generation who prefer to get rid of the Indian heritage, and the other older generation who would like to preserve this tradition.  Some link this tradition to Hinduism and a continuous attempt is being made to purge cultural Islam of un-Islamic innovations (bida).  Van der Veer notes that these forms, brought by the indentured immigrants to the Caribbean, were heavily influenced by the cultural patters of the subcontinent.  In Guyana today the younger generation who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic  over Urdu and view South Asian traditions a un-Islamic.  In the Subcontinent Urdu helps to define a South Asian Muslim.  In fact, Urdu and Islam for South Asian Muslims define one’s cultural identities.

In Guyana today, Urdu is popular among the Indo-Guyanese who watch films and listen to music from the Bombay film industry.  Contributing to its role as the chief vehicle of Muslim Culture in South Asia is its important secular literature and poetry which is closely based on Persian models.  However, Urdu is taking a backstage in Guyana due to English language proliferation and the Muslim orthodox movement leading to a focus on Arabic.

Only one Islamic organization in Guyana today, the United Sad’r Islamic Anjuman (which is also the oldest surviving Islamic organization in Guyana), offers Urdu in its instructional program for teaching the qasida (hums that sing praises to God and the Prophet).  They regularly hold qasida competitions throughout the country and award prizes to encourage participation.  Qasida is part of the Indo legacy.  It is an attempt by the Anjuman to preserve the uniqueness of Guyana’s Muslim heritage.  However, by 1950 Urdu started fading with the introduction of Islamic tests in English and it has now almost disappeared.  According to Pat Dial, a Guyanese historian, during the early twentieth century Urdu and Arabic were taught in the madrasah annex of the Jama Masjid and the young were introduced to the Namaz.  In those early years, far more people spoke Urdu than English.

In any civilization, there is cultural synthesis. The usage of Urdu is by no means related to Hinduism.  Even though it is indigenous to the subcontinent it remains a legacy of the Muslim period.  Other aspects of this heritage include the tradition of qasidas, tazim-o-tawquir, milaad-sharief, the dua and the nikkah, all performed in Urdu.  In Guyana, as in Trinidad, as well as in the countries in the Caribbean, Muslims are saying the fatiha over food, celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (milad-un-nabi) ascension (miraj) and singing qasida, all in Urdu.  However, the debate over these very rituals has created deep frictions among Guyanese Muslims.  Similar traditions are prevalent in the subcontinent, as well as in Central Asia, the Caucasus region, Turkey, Iran and other Islamic lands.

Before the 1960’s Muslim missionaries who visited Guyana came almost exclusively from the Indian subcontinent and visited frequently.  This influx of missionaries and the Islamic literature they brought with them helped promote and maintain the Sunni Hanafi madhab.  It was not until the 1960s that Guyanese Muslims made contacts with the Arabic-speaking world.  After Guyana’s independence in  1966, the younger generation of Muslims were keen to make these contacts.  Guyana established diplomatic relations with many Arab countries.  Egypt, Iraq and Libya opened embassies in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.  Many Muslim youths went to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya to study Islamic theology and the Arabic language. Eventually Arabic-speaking Muslims began to take an interest in Guyana and many traveled there to render assistance to their Muslim brethren.

However, Guyanese Muslims returning from the Arab world to Guyana began introducing changes that irked the local Muslims.  They advocated changes that they believed were more authentic to Islam as well as to the Arab world.  The teachings of some people who studied in Arabia and returned to Guyana confused the locals as these teachings were seen as being in conflict with aspects of the Muslim culture of the subcontinent.  One scholar notes that the Guyanese have not really benefited from the scholarships granted to students to study in Arabia, India or Pakistan because only a few have returned home and even of the few who have returned home a lesser number have made positive contributions.   Some have needlessly raised juristic issues which serve only to create division and confusion in the community.

Beginning in the 1970s the Guyanese Muslims who returned from Arab educational institutions began a process of reconstructing the past.  They tried to de-emphasize their Indian cultural heritage by reconstructing or redefining their history.  Much of it was an effort to distinguish themselves from the Hindus in order to promote a separate Muslim identity.  Although the majority are descendants of South Asian indentured laborers, they presented themselves as descendants of Arabs.  While their mother tongue was Urdu, many claimed that it was Arabic.

During the mid- 1970s a powerful Arabization movement had emerged, and it become more attractive for the orthodox Muslims in Guyana to be part of this movement than to trace one’s roots in Pakistan or India.  This movement to create a purer Islamic identity was contested by to other traditionalists, especially the older generation.  Today in Guyana many Muslims are concerned with the spread of other madhahib.  The Director of Education and Dawah of the CIOG, Ahmad Hamid says, “As from 1977, Muslims in Guyana saw the introduction of the teaching of other madhahib”. These were new to the local Muslims and created some serious problems. Trustee of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Ayube Khan, is also concerned about this division and regretted  “that too much dissent has occurred because of infiltration of disruptive elements”. This same concern was raised by the Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masijid, Haji Shaheed Mohammed,  who said “with petty misunderstandings, the exuberance of the youths and the need for general guidance to see that the Jamaat remains on the Hanafi madhab, being Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masid can be a trying task.”

The shift from Urdu to Arabic and the emphasis to do away with traditional practices illustrates the attempts to emphasize cultural identity.  They link their practices to Hinduism, hence, would like to purge Islam of these innovations.  The association of Arabic with Muslims is new in Guyana and the demand for Arabic illustrates the emphasis to differentiate from the Hindus.  Muslim children are taught Arabic during the evening at Muslim schools (madrasah).  These languages are restricted to religious contexts because all Guyanese Muslims speak English.  There has been a movement recently in Guyana to introduce Hindi into the national curriculum.  If this becomes a reality Muslims will demand Arabic or Urdu as well.
Muslims in Guyana are concerned with safeguarding the interests of their own community.  They are better organized than the Hindus.  Muslim religious associations and mutual aid societies support those in the community who need help.  The mosque constitutes the focal point of the local Muslim community and Islamic teachings at the mosque and the vernacular schools aid in the adherence to Islam and its precepts.  Guyanese Muslims are an endogamous group; kinship and marriage bonds further support group solidarity.  The few inter-religious marriages that do occur are due to the openness of Guyanese society, the lack of purdah, and Muslim women’s participation in the labor market.

New elements derived from Middle Eastern culture, such as architecture of the mosque and its dome, have been introduced as part of the Islamization process.  Nevertheless, architecture is still very pronounced in the style of mosques throughout Guyana.  Another influence is the manner of greeting among Muslim men, particularly after prayers at the mosque, which involves embracing and shaking hands.  The incorporation of Arabic words and terms instead of Urdu words and terms is very evident today.  For example, instead of using the Urdu word bhai (brother) many use the Arabic term akhee.  Guyanese Muslim who can afford it do make the pilgrimage to Makkah.  Some men have started wearing the long shirts (jilbab) which they acquired after the pilgrimage and sport long beards.  Some women have started wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

There is a move toward a more literary tradition in conformity with Islam at the expense of local traditions.  In this religious discourse the interpretation provided by orthodox Muslims relying on the scriptural tradition seems to become more pre dominant creating religious authority itself.  There is stronger emphasis on the need to learn Arabic for the salat (daily worship) and on correct pronunciation, as well as the ability to recite, and understand the Qur’an.  In Guyana today the emphasis is on practicing orthodox and Sunni  Islam.  This is voiced by many imams who advocate strict adherence to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Sallallahu 'alyhi wa sallam.

Most Guyanese Muslims agree that it would be best if the opponents and proponents of the Indo tradition seek their answers from the Qur’an the Sunnah and ijma (consdensus), instead of seeking drastic changes.  Despite their shortcomings and lack of formal education, the early Muslims played a dynamic role in maintain the Islamic society and paved the way for us to enjoy the benefits.

For the younger generation everything that is different from the Arab world is wrong.  They fail to contemplate that from Albania to Zanzibar the Muslim world speaks many languages and hails from many different traditions. Here in Guyana, they tried to replace Urdu with Arabic.  Instead it would have been easier to build upon what the Guyanese Muslims had knowledge of and that is Urdu.  Where the Muslims arrived in Guyana their medium of communication was Urdu, and only a handful could read and write Arabic.  In fact for the early Muslims Urdu provided the basis for their understanding of Islam and the Qur’an.  Urdu today is a dying language in Guyana, while in India it is being held hostage by Hindu zealots.  On the other hand, Arabic has not made any significant impact among the Muslims in Guyana.

Thus, it would seem unrealistic the younger generations of Guyanese Muslims who have returned to Guyana from the Arab world to demand the cleansing of established traditions, which has caused tension in the community.  Guyanese Muslims themselves have come to Guyana from a region with a rich history in art, architecture, literature, math, science and other areas, and so they have a rich heritage of their own.  This should be recognized by the learned men.  They should strive for unity in preserving the uniqueness of Guyanese Muslim culture.  Speaking Arabic or dressing like an Arab won’t make one an Arab or a Muslim.  It only reinforces low self-esteem and erects a barrier between them and other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

As Guyana was approaching independence, Muslims were taking positions based on ideologies and aligning themselves with political parties.  Muslims were found in both the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), which were Guyana’s two main political parties.

The Caribbean East Indian connection to the subcontinent is deep-rooted.  Brinsley Samaroo observes.  There has been a marked closeness between the Muslims in this part of the world and India up to 1947, and with Pakistan since that time.  In Guyana up to the 1960s, the Muslim leadership came exclusively from Muslims of South Asian descent who had studied in either Pakistan or India.

The movement to purge Islam of Indo traditions continues unabated in Guyana today.  Friction between the younger and the older generations, or the Arab camp and the Indo camp, continue to stifle the full potential of this minority community that has done well for itself in Guyana in the past.  Yet another challenge that Guyanese Muslims face in this diverse land is to provide the bridge and reduce polarization of Muslims and non-Muslims.  At the same time a rational understanding and appreciation of Indo traditions and reconciliation with that the Arabic-speaking world needs to be reached.  The situation is complicated by the fact that a majority of Guyanese Muslims today cannot speak or write either Arabic or Urdu. Thus, the push to make radical changes stems from the lack of balanced education and informed opinion.  If Arab-ness legitimizes everything, as the orthodox movement in Guyana claims, then without knowing, they subscribe to the superiority of the Arab world.

Guyanese Muslims who are returning from educational institutions in the Arab world are also encouraging the younger generation to study in the Arabic-speaking countries instead of in Pakistan, India or Malaysia.  Many Islamic organizations Guyana today have their preferences of where they wish to send young people to study.  Some of these organizations have forged strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt.  However, Muslims still have the opportunities to study in Malaysia, Pakistan or India.  But the latter countries are not the choices of the newer generation of Muslims.  The once vibrant relationship with Pakistan and India has now withered.  The intelligentsia now looks to the Arabic-speaking world for leadership and religious guidance, and for opportunities to better present Islam to the Nation of Guyana.