By Shabnam Ally and Ray Chickrie
As Muslims in Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and other parts of the Caribbean observe the celebrations of Eid Ul Azha (this week), better known as “Bacra” Eid or Qurbani; we take you back to the year 1896, a historical chapter in the history of Islam in Guyana. It is an opportune time for us to reflect on the many sacrifices (Qurbani) that our ancestors made in their adopted homeland while instilling their religious practices on future generations, and which today has survived vibrantly in Guyana and the Caribbean.
In 1896 a group of “Mahomedans” merchants from Georgetown led by Gool Mohumad Khan, Goolam Ally, Goolam Aidin, K. H. Dharsee, Kareem Baccus, and a few others of the Mussulman faith sent a petition to the Combined Court of British Government
in which they requested a grant of money for the purpose of constructing a mosque and a school in Queenstown Ward (where today sits the Queenstown Jamma Masjid) and where the children of the “immigrants” would attend the school attached to the mosque.
The petition was signed by Muslims from across Guyana led by Gool Mohumad Khan, who was born in 1853 and was a Yusufzai Pathan from Swat, Afghanistan. Khan arrived in British Guiana on 11th May, 1877 on board the ship King Arthur.
In defence of Islam, and the Prophet Mohamed, as criticisms of the Muslim community mounted, Gool Mohamed Khan did not stand by idly. He engaged the Christian Church in historic debates and discourses that resulted in the publication of his book, "Unity v Trinity.” The first edition of the book was published in 1910 in British Guiana. After the book was later discovered, his Pakistani niece, Begum Akhter Jahan Khan, published the Third Edition of the book in August, 1988 in Pakistan
In 1906 he returned to India with his family, leaving two of his 11 children (which can be considered a sacrifice) with his sister-in-law (who were childless) in British Guiana as well as a rich legacy of his contributions to the Muslims of Guyana.
The petitioners drew attention to the fact that there was no proper place of worship or schools where they can congregate especially for Friday prayers or where their children may be educated without losing their religious background. The petitioners felt that the benefits to the colony “must be apparent to the British government to have the East Indian immigrants and their children educated in a proper manner and in their mother tongue (Urdu), as well as in the English language, by teachers from one of the colleges of India.” The petitioners argued that since a great portion of the immigrants leave the Colony for India, the building of a school and mosque would serve as an incentive for many to remain in British Guiana.
The petitioners further urged the Court to take into consideration that “the growing number of East Indian Immigrants in the colony, the sad want of education in the faith of their forebears and their want of an education in their mother tongue.” They also brought attention to the religious discrimination against non-Christians, and urge the government to grant the Muslim financial help, which would benefit the colony as much as the parents and children whereby the East Indian children would be better educated. This sort of pleading with the British governor general continued up until the 1950s by other subsequent Muslim organizations, but the British denied the Muslims any help. While, the Christian schools continued to receive funding from the British government but not the Muslims nor the Hindus which the petitioners raised back in 1896.
At the time (1896) of signing the petition, according to the petitioners, there were about 105,463 Hindustanis in British Guiana and among those 32,432 were born in the colony and about 20,000 were Muslims.
Throughout the period of indentureship and up until independence, East Indians on the whole were denied education and employment in the public sector, unless they converted to Christianity. This was yet another sacrifice they were forced to endure in order to further their socio-economic standing in the “eyes of the British.”
To our Muslim brothers and sisters in Islam we wish you a happy Eid-ul-Adha.
A special thanks to Professor Dr Wazir Mohamed, of the University of Indiana and the Anna Catherina Sunnatal Jamaat who shared this historic document with us.