The South Asian Connection

The history of Guyanese Muslims is directly linked to the Indian subcontinent, but it is a history that has been ignored by Caribbean scholars of East Indian history. One aspect of this history that has drawn much debate among the different scholars and Islamic organizations in Guyana is the ` Indo-Iranian’ connection. When this term is used in this article it refers to the linguistic and cultural aspects that the Guyanese Muslims inherited from West and South Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia). Iran and Central Asia played a key role in the history and civilization of South Asian Muslims. The spread of Islam to India is attributed to the Central Asian Turks who adopted Persian as the official language of the Mughal Court in India. If Islam did not travel to the subcontinent it would have never had such an impact in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad. Persianized Central Asian Turks under the leadership of Muhammad Zahiruddin Babur established the Mughal dynasty and brought cultural ambassadors from Iran, Turkey and Central Asia to India.

Ruimvelt Masjid, Guyana

Today in Guyana there is much controversy as to the cultural aspects that Muslims brought from the subcontinent beginning with their migration in the year 1838. There exist two camps in Guyana, one comprising the younger generation who prefer to get rid of the `Indo-Iranian’ heritage, and the other the older generation who would like to preserve this tradition. Some link this tradition to Hinduism and a continuous attempt is being made to purge `cultural Islam’ of `un-Islamic’ innovations (bida’). Van der Veer notes that these forms, brought by the indentured immigrants to the Caribbean, were heavily influenced by the cultural patterns of the subcontinent, as opposed to those of the Middle East.(n7) Aeysha Khan quotes Samaroo: `in modern day Trinidad and Guyana, where there are substantial Muslim populations, there is much confusion, often conflict, between the two types of Islam’.(n8) In Guyana today the younger generation who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic over Urdu and view South Asian traditions as un-Islamic. In the subcontinent Urdu helps to define a South Asian Muslim. In fact, Urdu and Islam for South Asian Muslims define one’s cultural identities.

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