By Dr Sharon Syriac
“Religion, we must remember, is an indispensable element of peace in any nation”
(Fr Martin Sirju, ‘Kinsmen in faith break fast’ Catholic News April 24, 2022)
In a symbolic gesture of solidarity, Archbishop Jason Gordon broke fast with members of the Muslim community on Friday, April 8. Later, on the eve of the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday, May 1, Sr Theresa Vialva CHF, Principal of Holy Faith Convent, Couva, welcomed Shamshad Ali, a practising Muslim and owner of Price Club Supermarket to address a Zoom audience on ‘The Role of Muslims in Nation Building’ during their ongoing Let’s Talk Nation Building series.
Islam arrived in Trinidad in two waves—first through enslaved Africans and afterwards, through the migration of indentured Indians. Most Muslims who arrived here were Hanafi Sunnis and some Shias and although these early labourers brought few material possessions with them, they brought a deep faith.
Notwithstanding the disparity between the Sunni and Shias, between the enslaved Africans and the indentured Indians, the early Muslims came with an awareness of the Five Pillars of Islam. These fundamental practices are ritual obligations for all Muslims and include the declaration of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage.
Upon completion of their indenture contracts, Muslims moved off the estates, formed their own villages and set up mosques with their own imams around the 1860s. The first masjid or mosque built in Trinidad was the Calcutta Asja Majid in Freeport, founded in 1863.
These mosques no doubt, reinforced Islamic belief in the centrality of prayer since Muslims are required to pray five times a day. However, more than this, mosques also became centres of education, social welfare, and dispute resolution.
In Trinidad, three organisations emerged to preserve Muslim identity and maintain a viable presence in the national community. These organisations were the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association of Trinidad and Tobago Inc. (TIA), the first to be incorporated into an Act of Parliament; the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association (ASJA), which gained prominence when the government of Trinidad & Tobago declared Eid-ul-Fitr a public holiday, and the Trinidad Muslim League (TML).
Belief and values
Shamshad Ali explored the Muslim presence through Trinidad’s economic landscape and in its financial sector. He identified the influence of Islam in companies like KFC and Royal Castle which now serve halaal foods and pointed to the strong Muslim roots in organisations like Fine Choice, Arawak, Presidential Insurance and Price Club Supermarket which are committed to serving the needs of the public, without abandoning their religious identity.
Therefore, what can we learn from some of the fundamental principles of Islam, that could have a transformative impact on our nation?
Ali revealed that Islamic finance is built on principles that differ from conventional finance, offering to its clients banking that is aligned to the laws of Islam. One major principle of Islamic law which differs from conventional finance is its “ban on interest”. Under Islamic law, interest is forbidden. As such, since Muslims cannot accept interest, they resist the opening of saving accounts, opting for chequing accounts instead, which offers little to no interest. Nevertheless, if interest accrues, then that interest is donated as charity.
Zakat – obligatory charity
Zakat is compulsory charity in Islam, requiring that men and women who have achieved a level of wealth must donate 2.5 per cent of it. Through the payment of zakat, the rich share their wealth with the less fortunate, in the hope that the poor will eventually rise above their poverty.
The word ‘zakat’ literally means ‘to cleanse’ or “purify” and Muslims believe that paying zakat purifies, increases and blesses the remainder of their wealth.
This principle of giving charity is important for nation building, especially since it was emphasised that if zakat is properly and persistently paid, there would be no poverty. In paying zakat, one performs a spiritual duty and fulfils a social obligation.
Islamic religious education includes the study of the Quran, the collection of the word of God as transmitted to and recorded by Prophet Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel. Islam emphasises the value of both religious and secular education so primary and secondary Muslim schools have been established in Trinidad as well as an Institute of Higher Islamic Studies.
Although women can neither lead the prayers nor become imams in institutionalised forms of Islamic religious observance, the impetus behind women’s religious and secular education is to facilitate the teaching of their children.
However, while access to education and training for Muslim girls and women is excellent here, this may not be equally so in other countries in the Islamic world.
Belonging vs Public Protection
The audience remained baffled regarding the radicalisation of Islam within some sectors and the recruitment of some Trinidadians in ISIS. Citizens who had joined such organisations are not stateless.
However, while a humanitarian approach is preferable regarding these citizens return to our society, Ali cautioned that this would not be without serious consequences for public safety and repatriates’ own psychological health.
He fears that having witnessed extreme violence, if such persons are not debriefed of this violence, they may perpetuate it. How then can the State balance, manage and monitor these citizens need for belonging and rehabilitation, with the need to protect the rest of the public?
We are becoming a 21st century nation. Our different theological beliefs and ritual practices need not divide us. Instead, we must learn to balance the tightrope of belonging and protection, local culture and global influence, social responsibility, and moral values. We must sit together and ‘break the fast.’ Dialogue towards understanding. Dare to learn from each other to transform our nation.
Dr Jerome Teelucksingh will be the keynote speaker for the upcoming Let’s Talk Nation Building discussion May 29, 2022 on ‘The Role of East Indians in Nation Building’. Should you wish to attend, call 468-0488 or 780-5820 for further details.