The Arrival of Islam in Guyana

Islam was formally reintroduced in Guyana with the arrival of South Asian Muslims in the year 1838.(n1) Yet one cannot dismiss the fact that there was a Muslim presence in Guyana even earlier than that date.(n2) There were Muslims among African slaves who were brought to Guyana. Mandingo and Fulani Muslims were first brought from West Africa to work in Guyana’s sugar plantations. It is also said that in the 1763 rebellion led by Guyanese national hero Cuffy, that the terms and conditions for peace that Cuffy sent to the Dutch were written in Arabic and this would indicate that there were Muslims among Cuffy’s group or that Cuffy himself might have been a Muslim.

However, the cruelty of slavery neutralized the Muslims and the practice of Islam vanished until the arrival of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent in the year 1838. However, to this day Muslims in Guyana are referred to as Fula, linking them to their West African ancestry. Mircea Elida writes that ` from 1835-1917, over 240,000 East Indians, mostly illiterate, Urdu-speaking villagers, were brought to Guyana. Of these 84% were Hindus, but 16% were Sunni Muslims.'(n3) There has also been a Shia and later an Ahmadiyya presence in Guyana. However, their numbers are minuscule and too insignificant to cause any friction.

Immigration records indicate that the majority of Muslims who migrated to Guyana and Suriname came from the urban centres of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, Agra, Fyzabad, Ghazipur, Rampur, Basti and Sultanpur. Small batches also came from Karachi in Sind, Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi in the Punjab, Hyderabad, in the Deccan, Srinagar in Kashmir, and Peshawar and Mardan in the Northwest Frontier (Afghan areas). Immigration certificates reveals major details of Muslim migrants. Their origins such as District and villages, colour, height, and caste are all indicated. Under caste Muslims are identified as Musulman, Mosulman, Musulman, Musalman, Sheik Musulman, Mahomedaan, Sheik, Jolaba, Pattian, (Pathan), and Musulman (Pathan). Religion and caste identified many Muslims. From looking at their district of origin one can tell of their ethnicity, whether they were Sindis, Biharis, Punjabi, Pathans or Kashmiri. Their physical profile on the Immigration Certificate also help in recognizing their ethnicity. There are enormous spelling mistakes on the Immigration Certificates. Musulman, the Urdu world for Muslim is spelled many different ways and sometimes Muslims were referred to as Mahomedaan. Districts, Police Depot and villages are frequently misspelled, for example Peshawar is spelled Peshaur and Nowsherra is Nachera, among many others.

The Afghan Pathan clan also were among the indentured immigrants. Immigration Certificates clearly indicate under the category of “caste” Pathans, Pattan, Pattian or “Musulman Pathan.” The fact there were Pathans settlements in northern India, explains this migration. Also as indicated by Immigration Certificates, Pathans migrated from the Northwest Frontier and Kashmir. One of Guyana’s oldest Mosques, the Queenstown Jama Masjid, was founded by the Afghan community, which had apparently arrived in this country via India. (n4) Afghan and Indian Muslims living in this area laid the foundation for the Masjid. Thus according to several accounts,(n5) there were educated Muslims among these early arrivals. One Imam reports there were two hafizul Qur’an who were `residing in Clonbrook, East Coast Damerara, bearing the last name Khan’.(n6)

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