Arabization and the Sunnification Process

Before the 1960s, Muslim missionaries who visited Guyana came almost exclusively from the Indian subcontinent and visited frequently. This influx of missionaries and the Islamic literature they brought with them helped to promote and maintain the Sunni Hanafi madhab. It was not until the 1960s that Guyanese Muslims made contacts with the Arabic-speaking world. After Guyana’s independence in 1966, the younger generation of Muslims were keen to make these contacts. Guyana established diplomatic relations with many Arab countries. Egypt, Iraq and Libya opened embassies in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.

Many Muslim youths went to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya to study Islamic theology and the Arabic language. Eventually Arabic-speaking Muslims began to take an interest in Guyana and many travelled there to render assistance to their Muslim brethren.

In 1977 Libyan Charge d’Affaire Mr Ahmad Ibrahim Ehwass arrived in Guyana. He introduced many activities to benefit the Muslim community, especially the youth. Many scholarships were given to young Guyanese Muslims to study in Libya, and in 1978 he was responsible for the formation of the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT). In 1996 the late President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana toured several Middle Eastern countries and appointed a Middle Eastern envoy. His official visits took him to Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran marked a new beginning of Guyana/Iranian relationship. Guyana and Iran established diplomatic relationship in the 80’s and through various multilateral organization such as the UN, the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the OIC cooperated on various issues. Iran appoints a non-resident ambassador to Guyana, who is based in Caracas.

With the Islamic Republic severing ties with Israel and South Africa in 1979, relationship with Guyana improved tremendously. Guyana and Iran among other developing nations fought against the racist regimes in Israel and South Africa. Guyana like Iran at the UN, voted for General Assembly Resolution branding Zionism as racism.

Dr. Cheddi Jagan and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mr. Ali Akbar Velayati held a bilateral meeting in Colombia on 18th of October 1995, during the Non- Aligned Summit. Jagan said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has made significant gains in many areas and we are interested in having close cooperation with Iran at International forums.” (Iranian News Agency). Dr. Jagan extended an invitation to the Iranian Foreign Minister to visit Georgetown. In July of 1997, Special Envoy and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Mr. Mahmood Vaezi visited Guyana. Guyana in December of 1997 attended the OIC heads of government summit in Teheran. In July of 2000 an Iranian trade fair and exhibition was held in Georgetown. The exhibition was meant to acquaint Guyanese with Iranian goods, while the Iranians examined local items for export, and it was intended to encourage Iranian-Guyanese joint ventures.

Members of Tablighi Jamaat on a ferry in Guyana

It was also in 1996 that Guyana officially became a permanent observer in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). This further strengthened Guyana’s ties with the Middle East, coupled with its traditional support for a Palestinian homeland. In 1997, during the 8th Summit of the OIC in Teheran, Iran, Dr Mohammed Ali Odeen Ishmael, Guyana’s Ambassador to Washington, represented Guyana. Guyana’s application for permanent membership in the OIC was accepted in 1998 and Guyana became the 56th member state of the OIC that year. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Clement Rohee was head of the Guyanese delegation to the OIC heads of government summit in Doha, Qatar in 2000.

Dr. Ishmael was a member of the Doha delegation as well. The Ambassador has attended all OIC Heads of States Summit and Foreign Minister Summit since Guyana’s membership. In June of 1999 Ambassador Odeen Ishmael led Guyana’s delegation to the twenty-sixth session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. Dr. Odeen Ishmael was also head of the Guyanese delegation in June of 2000 at the 27th session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Most recently, in June of 2001, the Washington based diplomat was once again head of the delegation of Guyana to the 28th Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Bamako, Mali. He is indeed the unofficial ambassador of Guyana to the OIC.

At the Bamako Conference Guyana made a call for international observers in Palestine. The Palestinian delegation in Mali was very pleased with Guyana’s call for international observers, and actually the Guyanese delegation was the only delegation that made this demand. In his speech, Odeen Ishmael said, “In this regard, effective mechanisms must be identified to implement the relevant proposals aimed at achieving a lasting settlement to the situation. Guyana supports the call for international observers to be positioned in Palestinian territory to monitor the situation” (

The ambassador has represented Guyana’s interest in this organization and has helped forged stronger ties with Islamic nations. He is very familiar with member states and the politics of the organization. At the OIC and at the UN Guyana continue to champion the fight for a Palestinian homeland. Guyana also supports UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and has called on Israel to implement them. At the Doha Summit, Chairman Arafat held discussion with Ambassador Odeen Ishmael. The Chairman acknowledged Guyana’s continued support towards the Palestinian cause.

Guyanese dressed in Arab wear

However, Guyanese Muslims returning from the Arab world to Guyana began introducing changes that irked the local Muslims. They advocated changes that they believed were more authentic to Islam as well as to the Arab world. Many who studied in Arabia were highly influenced by Wahabism, and thus a new interpretation of Islam was brought to Guyana which confused the locals. Wahabism’s interpretation of Islam came in conflict with some aspects of the Muslim culture of the subcontinent.(n26) One scholar notes that the `Guyanese have not really benefited from the scholarships granted to students to study in Arabia, India or Pakistan because only a few have returned home, and even of the few who have returned home, an even lesser number have made positive contributions. Some have needlessly raised juristic issues which serve only to create division and confusion in the community’.(n27)

In the 1970s Guyanese Muslims began a movement toward greater homogenization and uniformity. Greater orthodoxy or sunnification accompanied this tendency toward uniformity. Sunnification means the abandonment of local and sectarian practices in favour of a uniform orthodox practice. The position of Muslims as a minority group in Guyana has assisted this process but the emergence of Muslim countries and the work of Muslim missionaries who have visited Guyana have also aided it. The establishment of Muslim colleges to train imams and the generosity of Muslim governments to provide scholarships for young Muslim Guyanese have been helping to produce a uniform orthodox practice. In essence, denying one’s Indian-ness helps to bring one closer to the `Arab-ness’ of Islam. Arabic and Arab-ness, it would seem today in Guyana, legitimizes Islam, and South Asian `cultural Islam’ is now viewed as un-Islamic and polluted with innovations.

As in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the process of sunnification in Guyana took place under political competition between Hindus and Muslims. This process of Islamization or the revivalist movement, whose impact has been felt since the 1979 Iranian-Islamic revolution, is an expression of a need for a separate identity. In many of these countries Hindus and Muslims have had an antagonistic relationship.

The revivalist movement is an expression of political dominance. Muslims refused to be dominated by Christians or Hindus in Guyana. Some Muslims in Guyana have entertained the idea of forming a Muslim political party for some time. This indeed happened in the 1970s with the formation of the Guyana United Muslim Party (GUMP) by Ghanie. The party founder was hoping to capture five seats in the Parliament. But he was unsuccessful in rallying the Muslim vote. Guyana’s two main political parties have always courted the Muslims. Nevertheless, most Guyanese Muslims today believe that aligning themselves with political parties does them no good.

The tendency toward orthodoxy seems to have affected local religious practices, as seen in the gradual disappearance of the observance of Muharram, which is associated with the Shia Muslim tradition. The tazia or the tadjah (a procession of mourners marking the anniversary of the assassination of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet) was an annual event in which Muslims as well as non-Muslims participated. However, orthodox Muslims in Guyana began to see the celebration of tazia as un-Islamic.

Some agreed that it was just a time to congregate for the sake of socializing. Hindus, it seems, also participated in this festival which later came under heavy criticism from pious Muslims of the Hanafi madhab. According to Basdeo Mangru, there was hardly any evidence of conflict between the Hindus and Muslims to suggest a lack of social cohesion which had prevailed between the Africans and the Creoles under slavery.(n28) However, pressures increased from many sources to end this practice. Muslims wanted the state authorities to recognize the more orthodox holidays such as the two Eids and Youman-Nabi.

By 1996, when Guyana achieved independence, the taziya was history. Today Muslim leaders are constantly stressing orthodoxy. Religious personalities both in Guyana and those returning from overseas preach strongly against what are considered un-Islamic practices. There are many disputes between orthodox and traditionalists in which the former accuse the latter of pagan practices.

This is in contrast to the earlier period when, as one scholar notes, `Guyana did not experience any major juristic problems within the period 1838-1920s. At no time were there more than 750 Shia and by 1950 they seemed to have been absorbed into the Sunni Muslim group’.(n29) However, after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and with the coming to power of Imam Khomeini in Iran, there was a sudden upsurge of Shiism across the world. Soon thereafter following the arrival of a Shia missionary in Guyana, two groups were established, one in Linden, Demerara and another in Canje, Berbice. During Muharram in 1994 a Shia organization, the Bilal Muslim Mission of North America sent a couple of people to visit Guyana. Shia Muslims feel resented by the main Muslim body merely because of Wahhabis “propaganda”.

Since then BMMA has been paying regular visits to Trinidad and Guyana. BMMA sent hundreds of copies of Quran translated by S.V. Mir Ahmad Ali and other literature. BMMA also supplied the small community in Trinidad and Guyana with TV, VCR, computer, printer and fax machines. BMMA also financially supports the running of Madressah in Guyana and dispatches reading material and other literature on regular basis. However, the impact of Shiism in Guyana is yet to be determined.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Guyanese Muslims who returned from Arab educational institutions began a process of reconstructing the past. They tried to de-emphasize their Indian cultural heritage by reconstructing or redefining their history. Much of it was an effort to distinguish themselves from the Hindus in order to promote a separate Muslim identity.

Although the majority are descendants of South Asian indentured labourers, they presented themselves as descendants of Arabs. While their mother tongue was Urdu, many claimed that it was Arabic. During the mid-1970s a powerful Arabization movement had emerged, and it became more attractive for the orthodox Muslims in Guyana to be part of this movement than to trace one’s roots in Pakistan or India. This movement to create a purer Islamic identity was contested by other traditionalists, especially the older generation.

Today in Guyana many Muslims are concerned with the spread of other madhahib. The Director of Education and Dawah of the CIOG, Ahmad Hamid says, `As from 1977, Muslims in Guyana saw the introduction of the teaching of other madhahibs. These were new to the local Muslims and created some serious problems’.(n30) A trustee of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Ayube Khan, is also concerned about this division and regretted that too many dissentions have occurred `because of infiltration of disruptive elements’.(n31) This same concern was raised by the Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Haji Shaheed Mohammed, who says that ` With petty misunderstandings, the exuberance of the youths and the need for general guidance to see that the Jamaat remains on the Hanafi madhab, being Imam of the Queenstown Jama Masjid can be a trying task’.(n32)

The shift from Urdu to Arabic and the emphasis to do away with traditional practices illustrates the attempts to emphasize cultural identity. They link these practices to Hinduism, hence, would like to purge Islam of these `innovations’. The association of Arabic with Muslims is new in Guyana and the demand for Arabic illustrates the emphasis to differentiate from the Hindus. Muslim children are taught Arabic and Urdu during the evening at Muslim schools (madrasah). These languages are restricted to religious contexts because all Guyanese Muslims speak English. There has been a movement recently in Guyana to introduce Hindi into the national curriculum.

If this becomes a reality Muslims will demand Arabic or Urdu as well. A Hindu dominated government in Guyana will create tension with the Muslims. Muslims in Guyana are concerned with safeguarding the interests of their own community. They are better organized than the Hindus. Muslim religious associations and mutual aid societies support those in the community who need help. The mosque constitutes the focal point of the local Muslim community and Islamic teachings at the mosque and the vernacular schools aid in the adherence to Islam and its precepts. Guyanese Muslims are an endogamous group; kinship and marriage bonds further support group solidarity. The few inter-religious marriages that do occur are due to the openness of Guyanese society, the lack of purdah, and Muslim women’s participation in the labor market.

New elements derived from Middle Eastern culture, such as architecture of the mosque and its dome, have been introduced as part of the Islamization process. Nevertheless, `Indo-Iranian’ architecture is still very pronounced in the style of mosques throughout Guyana. Another influence is the manner of greeting among Muslim men, particularly after prayers at the mosque, which involves embracing and shaking hands. The incorporation of Arabic words and terms instead of Urdu words and terms is very evident today. For example, instead of using the Urdu word bhai (brother) many use the Arabic term akhee. Guyanese Muslim who can afford it do make the pilgrimage to Makkah. Some men have started wearing the long shirts (jilbab) which they acquired after the pilgrimage and sport long beards. Some women have started wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

There is a move toward a more literary tradition in conformity with Islam at the expense of local traditions. In this religious discourse, the interpretation provided by orthodox Muslims relying on the scriptural tradition seems to become more hegemonic, creating religious authority itself. There is stronger emphasis on the need to learn Arabic for the namaz (daily worship) and on correct pronunciation, as well as the ability to recite, and understand the Qur’an. In Guyana today the emphasis is on practicing orthodox and Sunni Islam. This is voiced by many imams who advocate strict adherence to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

However, while the newly returned men tend to convey that they have a monopoly on religious affairs, they have so far failed to institutionalize positive changes. Even their Bedouin garb intimidated the local Muslim population, and drew more fear rather than respect for them.

These `learned’ men were soon forced to abandon one mosque for another and an entire realignment took place in Guyana. New organizations were formed which sought to make changes that they perceived were in line with the authentic Islam of Arabia. The cleansing of the `Indo-Iranian’ traditions was high on their agenda, and continues to be so.

In 1994 at the 78 Corentyne Mosque, during one Eid, two separate Eid Namaz were held. The CIOG’s official publication Al-Bayan writes, `For Eid-ul-Azha 1994, the Muslims witnessed a very sad incident that clearly indicated that the #78 Jamaat is definitely divided into two factions’.(n33) A younger imam who returned from Arabia was expelled from that mosque. This division led to the resignation of Al-Haj Mohamed Ballie as imam. Today one faction is building a new mosque nearby. Al-Bayan cited a similar incident at the Shieldstown Jamat in 1992: `One brother was physically removed from the masjid because he refused to comply with the ruling of the Jamaat’. (n34)

Most Guyanese Muslims agree that it would be wise if the opponents and proponents of the Indo-Iranian tradition seek their answers from the Qur’an, the Sunnah and ijma’ (consensus), instead of seeking drastic changes. ` Despite their shortcomings and lack of formal education, the early Muslims played a dynamic role in maintaining the Islamic society and paved the way for us to enjoy the benefits’.(n35)

For the younger generation everything that is different from the Arab world is wrong. They fail to contemplate that from Albania to Zanzibar the Muslim world speaks many languages and hails from many different traditions. Here in Guyana, they tried to replace Urdu with Arabic. Instead it would have been easier to build upon what the Guyanese Muslims had knowledge of and that is Urdu. When the Muslims arrived in Guyana their medium of communication was Urdu, and only a handful could read and write Arabic. In fact for the early Muslims Urdu provided the basis for their understanding of Islam and the Qur’an. Urdu today is a dying language in Guyana, while in India it is being held hostage by Hindu zealots. On the other hand, Arabic has not made any significant impact among the Muslims in Guyana.

Thus, it would seem unrealistic of the younger generations of Guyanese Muslims who have returned to Guyana from the Arab world to demand the cleansing of established traditions, which has caused great tension in the community. Guyanese Muslims themselves have come to Guyana from a region with a rich history in art, architecture, literature, math, music, science, philosophy and theology, and so, they have a rich heritage of their own. This should be recognized by the `learned men’. They should strive for unity in preserving the uniqueness of Guyanese Muslim culture. Speaking Arabic or dressing like an Arab won’t make one an Arab or a Muslim. It only reinforces low self-esteem and erects a barrier between them and other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

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