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The Muslim narrative

By Bridget Brereton

A nation’s history is made up of many narratives, the stories of the many different groups which together constitute the national fabric. These might be ethnic groups (with different ancestral origins), or class groups, as in the labour or working-class narrative which occupies a central place in T&T and Caribbean history.
There may be regionally based narratives even in a small nation—think of the distinctive Tobago story. Or ones based on gender; men and women don’t always have the same historical experiences. Cultural and religious groups may also develop their own narratives.
In the writing of the national history, the Muslim narrative has not been well developed so far. Of course Muslims constitute a small minority, around seven per cent of the national population over the last decades. Though enslaved Africans first brought Islam to Trinidad “think of the Mandingos of the early 1800s” until recently, Muslims were mainly identified with the Indo-Trinidadian population, the great majority of whom were (and are) Hindus. So Muslims were a minority of a minority: until the 1960s or 1970s nearly all Muslims were Indian, and Indo-Trinidadians were themselves a (large) minority.
But constituting a minority, even a small one, doesn’t mean that a group and its story are unimportant to the national history. So it’s encouraging to notice the publication of Milestones in the History of Muslims in Trinidad & Tobago since 1845 by Zainol Khan. Mr Khan has been closely identified with the Muslim community and its organisations, especially ASJA, for over 60 years; at the national level, he has been active with the IRO, including serving as its President.
This book narrates the story of how Indian immigrants brought Islam from their homeland, starting with the very first shipload arriving in May 1845, and how the faith survived and put down deep roots in Trinidad over the next 150 years. Some of the information comes from the author’s personal knowledge and lived experiences, or from the memories of others he has spoken to (the oral history method).
Khan provides valuable brief biographies of Muslim notables from the late 1800s on. These include early champions of Islam like Syed Abdul Aziz (1862-1927), Ruknuddeen (1870-1963) and Abdul Gany (1867-1951); prominent missionaries who came from India or Pakistan to strengthen the faith; and Muslims who held high positions in national life after Independence, such as Noor Hassanali (1918-2006), Wahid Ali (1928-2008) and Kamaluddeen Mohammed (born 1927).
These biographies give us information not easily found anywhere else, and demonstrate that Muslims in T&T have “punched above their weight”; like Trinidadians of Chinese descent, they have contributed more to national development than their numbers might suggest. It is noticeable, though, that the 21 biographies Khan presents don’t include a single woman; women appear in the book rarely, and only as dutiful wives.
Besides the biographies, Khan narrates how and when the major Islamic bodies were founded, and tells us a little about the conflicts and in-fighting occasioned by the arrival of the unorthodox Ahmadiyyah movement spearheaded by Moulvi Ameer Ali. He gives an account of the most important issues and struggles confronting T&T Islam: legislation governing Muslim marriage and divorce, the right to share in the “ecclesiastical grant” made to religious bodies, state aid to Muslim schools, and the grant of a public holiday.
This, of course, was Eid-ul-Fitr, granted by the PNM government just before the national elections in 1966. Khan believes this decision was made without proper consultation with Islamic leaders, and would have preferred the birthday of the Prophet instead.
Khan’s account of these issues is especially valuable because he was personally involved, as a leader of ASJA, the largest Muslim body, in many of them.
As with the biographies, he provides information difficult to access elsewhere, information that has not so far been adequately integrated into our national history.
The book makes no mention of the Jamaat al Muslimeen or of the events of 1990—perhaps understandably—nor does Khan say a word about Hosay, which became the biggest “Indian” popular festival in Trinidad in the 1800s. Of course, Hosay, a Muslim Shi’ite festival brought here from India, is frowned on by orthodox Sunni Muslims, the great majority in Trinidad.

He defends the provision in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance (1935, later amended in 1964) which sets the minimum age of marriage for the female at 12. The law requires that both parties “freely consent” to the union, and Khan acknowledges that this is a fundamental principle for a valid Muslim marriage. He doesn’t consider whether a child of 12 can freely consent to her marriage, but merely asserts that any pressure to raise the minimum age, from the UN, the state or any other quarter, would amount to interference with the “religious freedom” of Muslims.
Presumably this is not a view shared by all Muslims, let alone other sectors of the national community, but Khan faithfully reflects the views of orthodox Islam in T&T. He has done his own community, and the nation, a service by providing the foundation for a Muslim narrative of our past.
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