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Trinidad and Tobago

By:
Larry Luxner
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a religiously diverse state with a Muslim community that, though small, has nevertheless been significant in the country's history and political life. According to 2007 population estimates, 26 percent of Trinidad's 1.05 million inhabitants are Roman Catholic, 22.5 percent are Hindu, 7.8 percent are Anglican, 7.2 percent are Baptist, 6.8 percent are Pentecostal, 5.8 are percent Muslim, and 23.9 percent belong to other religions and denominations. Because of declining fertility and high emigration rates, the country at the end of the 2000s has around 65,000 Muslims, down from as many as 100,000 in the early 1990s. Most of Trinidad's Muslims are of East Indian rather than African origin, and they live mainly in and around Port of Spain. The communities are mixed; mosques often share the same street with white clapboard Baptist churches and elaborate Hindu temples.

There are about eighty-five mosques on the main island of Trinidad. One or two mosques can also be found on Trinidad's sister island Tobago, home to a few dozen African Muslims. One of the largest mosques in the country is the Jinnah Memorial Mosque in St. Joseph. Built in 1954 and named after Pakistan's first governor-general, the structure is easily recognized by its two towering minarets and can accommodate one thousand worshippers. Large mosques are also located in Tunapuna, Curepe, San Fernando, and Rio Claro.

Although Muslims make up less than 6 percent of the population of Trinidad and Tobago, their influence in this twin-island Caribbean nation extends far beyond their numbers. The country's late president, Noor Mohammed Hassanali, who served from 1987 to 1997, was Muslim, as are many members of parliament and other officials. Many businesses are Muslim-owned. In 1990 Trinidad was thrust briefly into the world spotlight when an obscure Black Muslim group attempted to overthrow its democratically elected government by force.

Historians believe Trinidad's first Muslims were not East Indians but slaves from the Mandingo tribe of West Africa, many of whose members embraced Islam in the 1740s. According to Omar Hasan Kasule's1978 report “Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago,” slaves were first brought to work Trinidad's sugar plantations around 1777, and by 1802 they numbered nearly twenty thousand. Kasule writes, “In the 1830s, a community of Mandingo Muslims who had been captured from Senegal lived in Port of Spain. They were literate in Arabic and organized themselves under a forceful leader named Muhammad Beth, who had purchased his freedom from slavery. They kept their Islamic identity and always yearned to go back to Africa.”

The Africans eventually lost contact with their homeland, unlike the later East Indian arrivals, who did maintain links with India and were thus able to sustain their Islamic beliefs. Trinidad's first East Indians came as indentured servants. On May 31, 1845 (an anniversary observed every year), the Fatel Razeck arrived in Port of Spain, carrying 225 Hindu and Muslim laborers from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The indenture system, introduced by Trinidad's British colonial masters shortly after slavery was abolished in 1834, was a form of unpaid servitude that required peasants to work the sugar plantations for a specified period—usually five years—in order to pay off their debts. Inhumane living conditions were often accompanied by efforts to impose Christianity on the newcomers, regardless of their existing religious beliefs.

For most of the nineteenth century Trinidad's economy depended heavily on sugar exports; during World War II the colony served as an important strategic asset for Great Britain. In 1962 Trinidad received its long-awaited independence, and the country's economic emphasis began to shift from sugar to petroleum. Oil exports soon made Trinidad one of the wealthiest and most industrialized nations in the Caribbean. Yet the country's relatively high standard of living has not guaranteed social equality or even stability.

On July 27, 1990, members of a radical Black Muslim group, the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), stormed the parliament building in Port of Spain, threatening to kill Prime Minister A. N. R. Robinson and other officials unless Robinson resigned and made way for a new government sympathetic to their demands. Although the prime minister survived by agreeing to the radicals’ conditions, twenty-four others died in the six-day ordeal, which was marked by widespread looting and fires that gutted downtown Port of Spain.

Most of Trinidad and Tobago's Muslims distanced themselves from the Jamaat's leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, whose activities were rumored to have been financed by the Libyan leader Muʿammar Qadhdhāfī. Yet despite public outrage, Abu Bakr and his 113 followers were never punished, because the courts later ruled that the amnesty granted to the Black Muslims was legally binding.

“Since the coup attempt, Abu Bakr and other prominent JAM members have been implicated in an array of crimes, including narcotics and arms smuggling, extortion, murder and kidnapping for ransom. JAM has also been linked to crime in the United States,” reports Chris Zambelis, an analyst from the Jamestown Foundation, noting that in early 2007, the group was implicated in a foiled plot by several Trinidadian and Guyanese Muslims to blow up New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. “Although JAM has maintained a lower profile during the last few years due to increased government pressure and a series of high-profile arrests of its members, the group has remained a vocal player in Trinidadian politics. Trinidadians, however, continue to characterize JAM as a criminal organization more than a religious or political one.”

Several Muslim organizations flourish in Trinidad, the largest being the Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Asso-ciation, which was founded in the 1930s and represents some 80 percent of the nation's Muslims. In addition, the Trinidad Muslim League, the Islamic Trust, and the Islamic Missionaries Guild of South America and the Caribbean all have significant followings.

In 2005, the local activist Inshan Ishmael launched the Islamic Broadcasting Network as Trinidad's first Muslim-themed television station, though not everyone in Trinidad supported his efforts; like Jamaat al-Muslimeen, Ishmael reportedly advocates instituting sharīʿah law for the entire country. In October 2006, the country's first local religious Web site discussion forum, www.trinimuslims.com, was established.

The Trinidadian government officially recognizes several Muslim holidays, including ʿīd al-Fiṭr, which marks the end of the fast month of Ramadan. Thousands of Muslims attend the annual government-sponsored ʿīd al-Fiṭr gathering at the national stadium in Port of Spain. Trinidad's Muslims also celebrate the Mourning of Muḥarram, known by local Shīʿah as Hosay. In addition, several hundred Trinidadian Muslims make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Bibliography

  • Cummings, Stephen. “Owner of Islamic TV Station in Trinidad Released after Being Held under Terrorism Act.”Caribbean Net News, January 26, 2007.
  • Daily Express. Trinidad Under Siege: The Muslimeen Uprising: Six Days of Terror. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, 1990.
  • Kasule, Omar Hasan. Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago. Pamphlet. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, 1978.
  • Luxner, Larry. “Muslims in the Caribbean.”Saudi Aramco World38, no. 6 (November–December 1987): 2–11.
  • Zambelis, Chris. “Jamaat al-Muslimeen on Trial in Trinidad and Tobago.”Terrorism Monitor4, no. 5 (March 9, 2006).
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