Sunday, August 12, 2012

The 1911 'battle' for Islam in British Guiana

By Raymond Chickrie and Shabnam Alli:

And yes, we won the “battle,” more than 174 years ago when British missionaries in then British Guiana tried their hardest to convert as many East Indian-Muslims to Christianity in the colony, despite the fact that they failed to do so during their reign in Hindustan.

Born in Guyana, Raymond Chickrie was a teacher in the New York City public school system and is currently teaching in the Middle East
The Muslims in Guyana ought to celebrate this year’s Eid (and every day for that matter) with much exuberance as they stood their ground in the face of much cruelty, hardship and many adversities at the hands of their plantation owners.

Had it not been for the adherence to the five pillars of Islam -- Tawheed (belief in one god), Namaz (prayers), Zakat (charity), Rozah (fasting during Ramadhan) and the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), Islam may have also suffered a slow ‘death’ in the same manner it was systematically eradicated amongst the enslaved African Muslims during the period of slavery.

The Second Missionary Conference, “On Behalf of the Mohammedan World,” was held on January 23- 28, 1911 in Lucknow, India. The Conference was called for two main reasons to: (a) address the growing fear of the colonialists that the total Muslim population had surpassed the Christians by more than 5 million in the British Empire; and (b) review the progress made, if any, and if not why not, to convert the East Indians to Christianity by the missionaries in the various colonies of the Empire. Among the reports presented during the Conference was a section on British Guiana, Dutch Guiana and the West Indies, detailing (i) the ‘rebirth’ of Islam in the region with the introduction of East Indian indentured servants following the abolition of slavery; and (ii) the impact Islam had on the freed Africans in the region, but especially in British Guiana.

At the Conference, evangelists expressed their deep concern regarding the spread of Islam, claiming that a century’s worth of missionary work in British Guiana will be wasted if drastic steps were not taken to stop the East Indian Muslims in their conversion of the Africans. They recognized the fact that the learned Muslims (like Gool Mohammed Khan) in British Guiana were “skillful debaters” who were well-versed in the Bible and were able to “shake the faith of the uneducated Christians.”

The Conference concluded that the struggle for the future in British Guiana will be a “battle between Christ and Mohammed.” The evangelists regarded the Muslims as a threat and a bad influence on “their people,” in referring to the freed Africans. They noted that in several cases African Christians had “forsaken Christ for the prophet of Mecca”, without any pressure from the East Indians, as the Africans felt a greater affinity to Islam as many of them realized it was once their religion as well.

The evangelists ‘discovered’ that Muslims on the whole resisted conversion to Christianity. Hence, in their annual assessment of Muslims in British Guiana, they labeled them as aggressive, stubborn and organized and that they were a hindrance in their (evangelical) crusade to change the religious demographic of the West Indies.

The greatest shock for the missionaries in British Guiana was the realization, as expressed by Rev. J. B. Hill, of the aggressiveness of the “docile coolie Mohammedans” in their new ‘homeland.’ Case in point, two Muslim jahagis from Bihar who came on the Hesperus in 1838 -- Jumun (age 27) and Phultun (age 28) -- were the first to rebel against the ‘slave-like’ conditions and ran away from Gladstone Estate just days after they were transplanted on the plantation.

While there were other instances of rebellion amongst the Indians, the one that many historians failed to acknowledge was the 1872 Devonshire Castle riots, where about 300 sugar workers (Muslims and Hindus alike) downed tools and confronted their white masters demanding better working conditions and wages. In the ensuing ‘battle,’ five workers were gunned down by the colonial police – two of them were Muslims – Ackloo and Maxid Ally. Then in 1913, there was the Rosehall uprising, where most of the protestors in the forefront ‘battling’ imperialism were Muslims -- Moula Bux, Jahangir Khan, Dildar Khan, Chotey Khan, Aladi, and Amirbaksh – they all stood up against the injustices they were subjected to on the plantation.

Fast forward to the 1940s, when there was an increased demand by the Muslim leadership in British Guiana for funding of Islamic and Urdu Schools. These propositions and requests were articulated in several correspondences by the president of the Sadr Anjuman, Mr R. B. Gajraj and Moulvi M. A Nasir to the British government but with little or no success, they were basically ignored. Christian schools, on the other hand, were heavily funded by the British, whereas the British government consistently “paid” only lip service to the concerns of the Muslims in British Guiana.

On August 21, 1941, the British Guiana Islamic Association (BGIA) called a Special Conference on Education to discuss a uniform system of Muslim religious education in accordance with the requirements of the Education Code of British Guiana. The main speakers on the subject were: Messrs M. A. Nasir (president) and Ayube M. Edun; also, present were K. Ali, S. Shabratee, M.L.R Naboo, and S. M. Shakoor, the Urdu secretary.

Sadly, the recommendations and resolutions that emanated from that conference and subsequent conferences fell on deaf ears – it was the British way of getting back at the “aggressive” Muslims – which ultimately contributed to the demise of the Urdu language, as the Muslims did not have the human or financial resources to fund the teaching of the language.

Muslims ‘fought’ hard to hold on to their religion and culture, despite the fact that a number of them converted to Christianity (including many Hindus). Those who converted were regarded as ‘civilized’ and rewarded with better and higher paying jobs in the public service. Many of them were also given scholarships to study in England as a bonus, while their children were admitted to the Christian schools.

The ‘battle’, however, has not ended; much of the region still needs to embrace this multicultural history. Muslims must not be seen as alien to the West Indies, nor should they be ashamed of their Islamic heritage given present day hysteria towards followers of the religion. More can be done to educate and accept the long presence of the Muslims and their role in helping to shape the socio-economic and political policies affecting the work/lives of the peoples in the region.

Today, the younger generation needs to be educated on our history in Guyana, and appreciate the [righteous] path that their ancestors blazed for them to follow. We share an Islamic history that is rich in many spheres of math, astronomy, physics, literature, architecture and culinary. In fact, many scholars agree that Islamic science and reason led to the revival of the European Renaissance, following the decline of the Roman Empire.

A blessed Eid Mubarak to all our Muslim brothers and sisters in Islam.

August 09, 2012