Shaykh Ahmad’s host is Maulana Siddiq Nasir and his Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah Institute (ASWJI), the same organization that recently hosted Shaykh Faid Muhammad Said and Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ninowy. Maulana Siddiq is one of the early graduates of the Aleemiyah Institute in Pakistan. Seeker’s Hub has endorsed this initiative. Sidi Nazim Baksh will be accompanying Shaykh Ahmad on this tour and in this article he explains why it is important for Muslim scholars to continue visiting Muslims in the Caribbean.
Shaykh Ninowy in Guyana, March 2016
For the last three decades Muslims who live in Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, have been grappling with the thorny issue of what exactly constitutes an authentic expression of Islam. It wasn’t always like this, but it has made the Caribbean a highly desired destination for a variety of foreign scholars and organizations looking to make their mark.
In Guyana and Trinidad, countries with the largest communities, the majority of Muslims are direct descendants of indentured labourers who were brought from India to cultivate rice and sugar plantations during the British colonial period. There is also now a growing number of converts to Islam mostly from the African West-Indian communities across the English-speaking Caribbean.
While indentureship ended in the early 20th century, the East-Indian Muslims stayed on, raising families, establishing businesses, forging communities and building mosques – 140 alone in Guyana.
Although religious texts were imported and disseminated locally, it played only a limited role in keeping people connected to the religion. The rhythm of Islamic spirituality for the mostly agrarian communities were the intermittent visits of a number of respected scholars who were grounded in tassawuf.
In the 1930’s Maulana Sayed Shams-ud-Din visited Guyana traveling by boat from Trinidad where he was a scholar in residence for two years. Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique’s visit to the region in 1950 makes him the most prominent scholar in this period to have visited and spend time in both Trinidad and Guyana before he died in 1954 in Al-Madinah and was buried in Al-Baqi.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansari was a young man when he accompanied Maulana Siddique and he returned to the Caribbean in the 1960’s to conduct seminars and encourage local Muslims to establish educational institutions. He would later create the Aleemiyah Institute in Pakistan where three young Guyanese and one Trinidadian were offered scholarships to study sacred knowledge. Maulana Siddiq, our host, was one of the them.
Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani also visited the Caribbean in the late 60’s and early 70’s and he single-handedly revived a love and devotion to Allah’s Beloved Messenger with his inimitable style of reciting Qasidas and making the standing during the salutation on the Prophet known locally as ta’zim, a standard feature at all types of major religious gatherings.
He was so well-liked that the Muslim leaders of Trinidad made an LP of his recitation of the Quran along with his renditions of a few qasidas. Today, there are still men among the older generation of Muslims who imitate his style of reciting the Quran.
As the 14th hijri century came to an end the Islamic waters of the Caribbean got murky with the infusion of alien religious ideas. Not surprisingly, the first practice that would be attacked was the central role of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, in Muslim religious life. Opposition to the Mawlid was fierce and the singing of qasidas in praise of the Prophet was seen as a throwback to bygone days and an imitation of Hinduism. Some even labeled it as shirk.
Political organizations based in the United States began to focus their gaze on the communities in the Caribbean. The Nation of Islam was one of the first, but soon Dar al-Islam and The Islamic Party of North America led by Yusuf Muzaffaruddin Hamid, began setting up branches in the Caribbean. Both organizations were militant but also heavily influenced by the ideology of Hasan Al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and Syed Abul Ala Al-Mawdudi’s Jamaat-i-Islami.
The first murder to take place in the name of Islam in the Caribbean happened in 1985 in Trinidad when a group of men gunned down an Ahmadiyya Missionary in front of his teenaged son. The men were followers of Jamaat Al-Fuqra, a U.S. based organization headed by a Pakistani mystic that was an offshoot of Dar al-Islam.
Long before Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi dreamed of establishing a Caliphate, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr staged a failed coup in Trinidad in 1990. His goal was to establish a Caliphate according to an important report on the failed coup. Six people were killed and Abu Bakr’s Jamaat Al-Muslimoon caused millions of dollars in damage.
Today the government of Trinidad estimates that 130 adult men along with their wives and children – some 400 in all – have left the country in the last three years to join Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. This makes Trinidad the country with the largest number of Da’esh recruits per capita in the world. Some of them have taken to social media to declare Yasin Abu Bakr an apostate of Islam because he no longer pursues the path of Jihad and Hijra.
The convenient course of action is to ignore the Caribbean because afterall it is on the extreme periphery of Muslim majority countries. To do so is to ignore the vast majority of Muslims who desire to live respectfully and peacefully in a faith-diverse community as their ancestors have for well over a century with their Christians and Hindu neighbours. We have a moral obligation to assist the silent majority by opening for them the doors of sound Islamic knowledge lest some of them fall prey to a vigorous campaign by violent extremists.
REHAN: Fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi creates a safe place to explore controversial issues the author observes in society. So in the Last of the Tasburai, there is a struggle going on between the forces of extremism and those who seek the middle way. Great works of fiction, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the animals overthrow the farmer, are wonderful stories but also powerful metaphors – in the case of Animal Farm, Orwell was making a comment about the brutalities of Stalin’s rule in the former Soviet Union. Last of the Tasburai contains subtle references to historical events, characters, and places. For me understanding history helps make sense of where we are today and provides some idea of where we’re going – history does repeat itself, because human nature remains the same – generosity and greed, love and hate, courage and cowardice.
REHAN: The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle referred to the four virtues a person should strive four – wisdom, courage, temperance (moderation) and justice. I wanted to write a story in which courage was placed at the center. So for Aristotle when courage was in the golden mean it came across as valour, steadfastness and being able to control one’s anger. When courage was unbalanced in a person on the side of excess, it became recklessness and arrogance. When on the side of deficit, it led to cowardice and meanness. So it got me thinking what would happen if the very best people in society developed a misplaced notion of courage. Rather than being steadfast they became reckless and arrogant. What would be the implications for society? From this the idea for the Tasburai warrior emerged. In my mind the Tasburai were the best of the people – an elite selfless warrior class who held deeply mystical beliefs. I like to describe the Tasburai as a cross between Japanese Samurai, with their bushido (the way of the warrior) and Sufi mystics, with their ideas on tasawwuf (spiritual development and cleansing the heart). So the deeper meaning behind the story is the journey human beings take to return to the golden mean, because when we are in the mean, though we’re all different we can connect with other human beings. Whereas when individuals go to the extreme, it polarizes and splits society. The notion of the middle way is reflected in all great traditions. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ reminds the believers to strive for moderation in all actions. Likewise in Confucianism, we have the doctrine of the mean and in Buddhism we have the middle way.
REHAN: That’s a difficult one, but I did notice that when my son was reading the novel, he was sitting on the edge of his seat, so perhaps that’s the answer to your question.
REHAN: Not directly, but in a circuitous manner there is a comment. Three of the main protagonists in the novel are women and two are men, which is unusual in the fantasy genre. I’ve always found that women tend to be better at reflecting, whereas men want to do stuff. In their haste and hubris men are often drawn to extremist ideas, which promise immediate results. In the novel there is an extremist group called the Hawarij, which I’ve loosely based on the Khawarij who in the history of the Muslim world were notorious for assuming they were holier than others and as a result everyone but themselves were apostates. Today, groups like Daesh are their inheritors, they’ve always appealed primarily to young men, looking for adventure, or wanting to do something with their life. During the time of Saladin they appear as the Assassins. Saladin was known as magnanimous and generous, even the Crusaders regarded him with reverence, a Knight no less. He negotiated with every group except for the Assassins, who attempted to kill him on at least two occasions. We shouldn’t forget they were called the Assassins or the Hashishins because everyone thought they were taking Hashish – a historical fact to reflect on.
REHAN: I suppose it kicked off in 2009 when my daughter, who was six years old at the time, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Clearly she didn’t appreciate that going to an office every day was work! I wrote a column in The National on 9th November 2009 entitled “What I want to be when I grow up.”
It was around this time that I started planning in earnest for the Last of the Tasburai. I attended the Oxford University Summer School for Adults in 2010 and remember sitting under the shadow of Oxford’s medieval castle, scribbling notes about a story centered on courage and valour. It was the genesis of the Tasburai trilogy.
REHAN: As a writer you must choose to include a selection of elements in your story to arouse a certain emotional response in the reader. These elements relate to: the setting, the characters and the plot. And each of these elements must be infused with conflict. This makes for an interesting read. In order to achieve this, for a first novel you need to spend about 50 per cent of your effort on designing the novel, so designing the setting (location, time period, world/s), the characters (what they look like, who they really are inside) and plot (what is the causation in the story). Last of the Tasburai, took me four years to design and write, end to end. The key is to persevere and keep on practicing. Often the first draft of whatever you write will be poor – I know it happens to me all the time – but keep on uplifting the language, polishing it and it will improve. The horror novelist, Stephen King says that if you want to call yourself a writer, you need to be producing 1000 words per day. That’s advice I’ve always followed.
Last of the Tasburai is available on Amazon and iTunes.
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In the meantime, watch a brief teaser of what’s in store. Shaykh Faraz Rabbani speaks unequivocally on the dangers of cherry-picking hadiths and verses of the Qur’an to further an understanding that goes against the spirit of Islam.
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Who are the modern extremists and are they a recent phenomenon? How can we understand them and their motivations? And what are the utterly devastating consequences of their words and actions?
Shaykh Ahmed Sa’ad Al-Azhari, Director of the Ihsan Institute, gives a detailed and engaging explanation at this event hosted by SimplyIslam of Singapore.
Did you know SeekersHub actively provides financial support to traditional scholars whose lives – and ability to teach, have been utterly devasted or disrupted by the acts of violent extremists? These scholars are zakat-eligible – contribute your zakat today and earn the rewards from these noble efforts.
Shaykh Ahmed Sa’ad Al-Azhari is the Founder and Director of the Ihsan Institute of Arabic & Islamic Studies (United Kingdom). He was born into a family of scholars whose lineage goes back to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and became a master of the Qur’an at a very young age. Shaykh Ahmed was the SeekersHub Ramadan Scholar in Residence in 2015 and much of the content can be found on the SeekersHub archives.
A khutbah delivered by Dr. Hamid Slimi, of the Sayeda Khadija Center, Canada, stressing on understanding the similarities and common ideas between the historical khawarij/kharijites (secessionists) and today’s new groups that claim to do things on behalf of Islam including breaking the laws of the countries where they live or visit, killing innocent people – Muslim and non-Muslim – as well as doing takfir (excommunicating Muslims from their faith). The message here is loud and clear: learn who we are dealing with and dissociate yourself and your families and loved ones from such people and such dangerous ideologies.
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