The noonday sun has brought a still over Fontabelle on the northern limits of Bridgetown, the Barbados capital. Then the crackling of loudspeakers envelops the hum of passing traffic. “Allah hu akbar. (God is great.) Ash hadu Allah elaha. (There is none worthy of worship but Allah) …Haya allal salah. (Come to prayer.) Haya allus fullah. (Come to success)…!” peals a sonorous voice. The Arabic chant, each line repeated twice, is the Muslim call to prayer, one of five stipulated daily for the Islamic faithful.
They bar women from the masjid (mosque), eschew taking pictures for fear of idolatry and do not condone music in a region where music is second nature.
To many Caribbean people, most of whom were reared in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the increasingly high profile of Muslims in the region is ominous. The perception of fear is built on Western conditioning into the belief that only the Christian faith is legitimate religion; that Muslims, the historic “infidels” of the crusades, are warmongers.
The biblical Arab-Israelitish conflict, the current Palestinian-Israeli land dispute and the reporting on the tribal internecine clashes between Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese all paint a canvas of a people living for war.
Polytheism started with photography (picture paintings). You won’t see a picture of any prophet of Islam. This … leads to idolatry.
When the Jamaat al Muslimeen organisation of mainly Afro-Trinidadians laid six days of siege to try to topple the government in Port of Spain in July 1990, it did nothing for the public relations of Islam in the Caribbean, although several more reputable Muslim groups and leaders distanced themselves from Yasin Abu Bakr’s jaunt. Neither did Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that same week help the Muslim cause.
So what is this Islam (submission to the will of God), and from whence came these Muslims who would die for Allah?
Islam was presented to the world by Mohammed (570-632 AD), who claimed to be a successor to Moses, and while he did not recognise Jesus as God, he acknowledged him as a prophet. Like the early Docetist sect of the Gnostic Christians, Mohammed concluded that the entity which suffered the humiliating crucifixion could not be the Son of God.
The sacred book of Islam is the Qur’aan, said to be the most influential book in the world next to the Bible. Islamic tradition holds that it was revealed to Mohammed by God through the Angel Gabriel over 20 years. All 114 suras or chapters begin with the words “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
The Qur’ aan is written in classical Arabic and Muslims memorise much of it. The Qur’aan is said to have superseded the Gospel as Mohammed is said to have superseded Christ. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam ismonotheistic and eschews idolatry.
Philosophically Muslims could be classified as Stoics (Greek 4th century B.C. followers of Zeno): the state (or Allah) must dominate the individual completely and everyone must carry out his social duties and be willing to sacrifice everything for it; the Islamic state like that of the Stoics’ is no national one but is striving for a universal brotherhood.
The Muslim has five duties:
- Once in his life he must say with absolute conviction. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.”
- Five times a day he must pray towards Mecca.
- Alms must be given generously.
- Keeping the fast (for the healthy) during the holy month of Ramadan.
- Once in his life, he must, if he can, make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
In addition, drinking, gambling and eating pork are forbidden and circumcision is practised.
Barbadian Sabir Nakhuda explains that Islam is divided into two main streams, the orthodox Sunnites and the Shiites or Shia. But the difference is not so much doctrinal as to do with the succession of Mohammed as headof the then Islamic empire. The Shiites, originating in Persia or modern Iran, were those who thought Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, was his rightful successor and not two others who were assassinated.
Racially, the Arabs among whom the doctrine originated, like the Jews, are a Semitic people; the Israelites being (by biblical tradition) descended from Isaac the younger legitimate son of Abraham, and Arabs from Ishmael, the elder by a maidservant.
But in today’s Caribbean the majority of Muslims are not Arabic, though they do study the language of their liturgy. With the spread of Islam through Mohammed’s zeal, into the Iberian peninsula, north Africa and Asia, it is not unlikely that the earliest Mohammedan arrivants were enslaved Africans who were brought by the colonisers and slave traders. It is more definite that after the period of slavery, the vast majority of Caribbean Muslims were indentured Indians who are now in their greatest numbers in Trinidad and Guyana. Smaller pockets of Indians were deposited in Jamaica, St Lucia and Grenada [as well as the French and Dutch Caribbean].
In the 1930s, says Nakhuda, about 1,000 poor Bengalis (from whom he is descended) emigrated to Barbados and today about 1,500 of them or their descendants make up the Barbados Muslim population.
The institutionalised oppression of the Africans meant that there could have been no Islamic continuity among that sector of the population but the Indians have benefited from a somewhat more liberal approach from the states which tended to Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism as the national doctrine. Since 1962 and the independence era, an even more liberal attitude has seen Muslim freedom of religion and state recognition and even a Muslim, Noor Hassanali being appointed President of Trinidad and Tobago.
Is there then, reason to fear the adherents of this religion who take literally, Moses’ law of an eye for an eye, the severing of limbs as punishment for crimes, the veiling of women who must not sit in the mosques?
RAOUF ZAMAN of the Guyana Islamic Trust who estimates that there could be 110,000 Muslims among the population of 800,000, reports little missionary work among the non-Muslim population.
From a base upstairs an old wooden building in a not too elegant part of Georgetown, the organisation isinvolved in Islamic teachings, charitable and socio-cultural activities.
His colleague Musa Amin is concerned about the poverty which stems from political bribery and corruption. “Poverty leads to disbelief (in God),” said zaman. “We’d like to see more religious people coming out as (political) contenders.” His organisation has no international links but the obscure Islamic Call Society is a branch of a Libyan organisation.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the leading Muslim organisation, the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association is remarkable for its religious integration. It operates as a member of the Inter-Religious Organisation alongside Roman Catholics and Hindus. This could signal a distinctively Caribbean branch of Muslims since Islam distances itself from polytheists such as Hindus.
BRIDGETOWN: It is 6:30 on a Tuesday evening in September. Bearded men mostly of East Indian extraction are in clusters around the white mosque with green trimmings where the dusk has settled. Upstairs the building large, well lit halls are carpeted in green and children in white or light blue gowns are seated on the floor in corners partitioned with chalk boards. They are huddled around bearded teachers. It would seem from the quiet that the Islamic and Arabic classes are being conducted in whispers.
Shoes line the doorway and a bespectacled teacher beckons the visitor to enter. The visitor, invited to sit, rests on what seems a bench but is gently ushered to the carpeted floor. There is warmth and civility in the teacher’s eyes and the children giggle on being left unattended but no sound seems to flow. He is proud of his religion, will answer questions about it but must not be quoted because he is not an appointed and authorised spokesman for the community.
Are there any photographs of men at prayer in the mosque or of this beautiful scenery of islands of children in the sea of green, which could accompany a story?
“Photography of living things is forbidden in Islam,” he says but explains that pictures are allowed of inanimate things.
Why? “Polytheism started with photography (picture paintings). You won’t see a picture of any prophet of Islam.” This, he says leads to idolatry.
How many Muslims are there in the region? Possibly 200,000, evenly split between Guyana and Trinidad; maybe another 1,500 in Barbados, pockets throughout the other islands. All are Sunni. If there are any Shiites they are few in number and certainly not organised.
Is there a head Muslim in the world as there is a Pope? “No.” There is someone who leads congregational prayer five times daily and he is called an Imam – meaning leader or head priest. A priest not in the Christian sense. He does not hear confessionals. The priest is generally the most knowledgable about Islam and the Qur’aan.
The Muslim population is noticeably Indian.
“Race has no place in Islam. We have our Negro brothers and sisters too,” But yes, most of the members are actually Indian migrants or first generation children of migrants.
Are women allowed in the mosque? “Women are not allowed in the mosque. They must pray also but they must pray at home.
“There is no place in Islam for this liberty (women’s liberation) at all, although the ladies have been given the full rights under Islam. They can marry who they like and can inherit the property of their husbands.”
So explain the prime ministership of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.
“Pakistan is a Muslim country but (one) cannot say it is an Islamic country. No woman can become a prime minister in Islam. No woman can be a priest in Islam.”
In this regard it would seem the doctrine does not fall far from Catholicism, except that Islam is not evolutionary; nothing has changed since Mohammed.
Do Muslims believe in life after death, heaven and hell, the day of judgment and the resurrection? Yes. Belief in life after death and eternal life is the seventh and final article of faith. Another article, the third, is belief in the four holy books of God: the Torah, the Psalms, the Bible and the Holy Qur’aan.
With this acceptance of other holy books, is there tolerance to adherents of other religions?
Yes, the Aalim (one who has completed seven years of prescribed study of the Qur’aan and the sayings – Hadith – of the Prophet Mohammed) explains. He is joined by a colleague, a Mufti – Islamic jurist with two years post Aalim studies – who says that judgment and rewards are based on good deeds but good deeds mustspring from faith and belief.
Muslims do not regard themselves as the “chosen” people of God.
What of the perception that Islam and Muslims are warlike, based on occurrences in the Middle East and talk of jihad (holy war)?
“Muslims are a peaceful people,” says the Mufti. It is the news media that portray the warring image because the fighting is not over religion but over land. “They (reporters) do not say Jordanians are fighting. They say Muslims are fighting. (In the Iran-Iraq war) they were not fighting for religion or belief but for land. They are political wars.
“In holy war not just soldiers fight but every man will have to stand up. So when the leaders say it is holy war, they are just trying to manipulate the people.”
And what of Qur’aanic law which says execute the adulterer, dismember the thief?
“Qur’aanic laws cannot be implemented in a non-Islamic state. You have to obey the law of the land. Those authorities (Qur’aanic justice) lay in the head of an Islamic state.”
It is 7:30. The children were dismissed and had filed out quietly at seven. The conversation is coming to a close. But for thousands of Caribbean people the questions will continue.
Reproduced from Journeys magazine, Sept 1992
About Mark Lee
Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.