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Muslims of the Caribbean

Sunday September 25, 2011 10:27:15 PM, Kaleem Kawaja

Several years ago as I was paying my bill at a restaurant in New York city, the cashier happened to be an Indian looking young woman. She had a name tag on her shirt that read, "Zainab Singh". I asked her what kind of a name it was and if she was a Muslim. She said: I do not know if I am a Muslim. She did not appreciate that her name was a mixed Muslim-Hindu name. She told me that her parents were from Caribbean and she was born in US. A year ago I met a young Indian looking woman engineer at my place of work by the name, Priscilla Mohammad. I asked her if she was a Muslim. She said that she was a Christian, her parents were from Caribbean. I asked her how she got this name. She said her parents were Muslims in Caribbean at one time and had converted to Christianity but kept their last name.

About 150 years ago India's British rulers took away a large number of very poor Muslims from various parts of India as indentured labor aboard ships to work on the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. They told the Indians that after a few years they will be able to go back to India. But it never happened as the British masters demanded hefty ship - fares to take them back to India. As these Indian laborers were paid a pittance in wages in the Caribbean they could not afford to pay hefty fares and go back. They kept postponing their return trips and then the trips did not materialize. At the same time they brought many poor Africans to Caribbean to do the same work on similar terms. They also did not go back to their countries in Africa.

The sugar cane plantations were like plantations in the southern states of US. Conditions of living and working were near slave like, though they were called laborers, not slaves. Most of the Indian laborers were either Muslim or Hindu. But living in those awful conditions and without enough knowledge of their respective religions, and no places of worship of their own they soon became irreligious. Also the British missionaries arrived from England to prosletize them, preach Christianity and convert the Muslims and Hindus into Christians. Having the upper hand and the support of the rulers they were successful in converting a large number of the Indian laborers into Christianity. But many instead of converting to Christianity became irreligious.

Among the Muslim and Hindu Indians in the Caribbean, and among the Indians and Africans, marriages took place and the offspring came up with mixed Muslim-Hindu-Christian names, without knowing what it meant. As the older generations passed away and there was no contact with the mother country or the outside world, the succeeding generations of Indians really did not know what was their religion, how they were to worship God etc. From a religious perspective it was a confused society.

It was only in the mid 1960s when US immigration laws were relaxed to allow colored people to immigrate to US that many Indian-Caribbean migrated to US. The influx was mostly to the big cities on the East coast of US in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami etc. About the same time a few small groups of Muslim preachers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh arrived in the Caribbean countries and tried to tell the Indian-Caribbean there that the ancestors of many of them were Muslims and that they must revert back to Islam. Utilizing the vastly changed social scene in the Caribbean they also built a few mosques that slowly helped some of the local population revert to Islam and practice Islam.

About five years ago I met a hijab wearing Indian-Caribbean Muslim woman in Washington DC who told me that until age 30 she did not know what was her religion and that only then she learned that her ancestors could have been Muslim, so she converted to Islam and is now learning Islam, reading Quran etc and is teaching the same to her young children. It made me happy to learn that she was now quite a devout practicing Muslim.

As much better educated immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh arrived in US in the 1970s and acquired good jobs in US, instead of befriending the less educated and poorer Indian-Caribbean Muslims and mixing with them socially, they kept away from them. Most of the Indian-Caribbean people speak a Creole language that is a derivative of English mixed in with Caribbean origin words. For sure they do not know how to speak, read or write in Urdu or Punjabi or Bangla. That became another barrier in the social mixing of Caribbean Muslims with Southasian Muslims in US. At the same time the Caribbean-Indian Muslims are very keen to regain the Indian-Muslim identity and language and culture of their ancestors. They want to know if their ancestors came from Punjab or UP/Bihar or Bengal or Gujarat or South India. So today in the big cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, mosques built by the Caribbean Muslims are coming up. These mosques serve not only as mosques but also as venues of social mixing for the Caribbean Muslims.

Yet most of the Caribbean Indians whose ancestors were Muslims in India are not Muslims. They are either Christians or irreligious or mixed Muslim-Hindu. There is a big need for learned and dedicated Muslim scholars from South Asia to go to the Caribbean and preach Islam and convert these Caribbean Indian adults back into Islam, and teach them Quran, Hadith, Islamic history. What is needed is a sustained effort not just flying visits and conventions.


The writer is a Washington based activist.




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