The Imam who sings Bhajans and Hymns


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Category: Profiles 18 May 14


“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes from the imagination, while the truth  is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez


My mixed parentage of Hindu father, Muslim mother, convent education, secular upbringing, and studies in existentialist philosophy did not prepare me for the e-mail I received recently from the Islamic Community Services of T&T asking me to be a feature speaker at their Indian Arrival Day celebrations at the Imam Shair Ali Islamic Complex, Longdenville.

I was asked because they liked a piece I wrote on Hyderabad when I was in India earlier this year. Just like that. My religion or name was irrelevant. That speaks volumes for us as a country. In journalism, when you just want to look at the beauty of a seashell, you are forced to climb a mountain to survey a battleground. The religion is increasingly, to a secular eye, covered in ruin: slaughter created by radical Islamists rampaging, from the Balkans, Chechnya, in Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan in Saudi Arabia, to Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Trinidad. I went searching: where to start?—apart from the skeletal facts of the arrival of Muslims from India in 1845 and 1870. One phone call took me to the most unexpected of places. Dr Solaiman Juman, an otorhinolaryngologist, put me in touch with his 92-year-old father-in-law Abdul Hamid Razak, the oldest imam in Trinidad, of the oldest mosque in Trinidad, in Princes Town.

In one hour, Abdul took me back to his boyhood, a sepia childhood. I could see the stars. Hear the rustle of the villages. Abdul, around 12, in fields and fields of cane. A landscape abundant with fruit trees. A difficult life. A simple life. A language that was slipping out of their hands like water, as it could not be juggled with the white heat, the strokes of cutting cane.

A people who, when they stepped on that boat, had the ground cut away from beneath their feet—but also found that it was more level than they could have ever dreamed. They could save, they could build, they could recite, they could remember the values, forget the shackles of the mother country, be masters of their own fate.

Imam Razak told me: “In 1868, my grandfather, who had a shop, got together with some fellow Muslims and built a new mosque on the six-and-a-half mile post. When I was a born, a midwife taught me to read the Bible in Hindi. I learned bhajans and hymns. Two mosques are wedged between two churches, all minutes away from where I live.”

So Abdul grew up with a simultaneous burgeoning of religions, and among the oldest places of worship in Trinidad. Across the road from his dwelling place, a midwife from the Presbyterian Church taught Abdul hymns in Hindi and English, in a school founded by the Rev John Morton from Canada.

The hymns from the London Baptist Church, which had its beginnings in 1843, mingled with the azaan and Christian hymns. The small community shared whatever they remembered, and believed in whatever seed they felt was the true religion, without judging one another. It was harsh enough out there, and with the relief of the pink sunsets and cold coconut water came kinship, continents stretching hands, meeting in the middle, in T&T, becoming something else.

When he was 18, Abdul’s mother died, leaving him responsible for four siblings, including a one-year old brother. He married at 19 and had nine children by his one wife, Rosie. The imam says of marriage: “I know the trend is for imams and other Muslims to illegally have wives, following the radicals. They go with who they want, and call it Islamic law. It is not. It is just form and fancy, couched in Islam. It is almost impossible to maintain each wife equally as it is decreed in the Qur’an.” Imam Abdul says of unity in Islam: “When our African Trini neighbours have weddings, our Indian community cooks. In turn, they visit us for Eid. Caribbean Muslims understand the true essence of Islam, which is about tolerance, discipline, kindness, knowledge, education, charity and peace.”

On women’s rights, the leap is astonishing. Imam Abdul’s youngest daughter has a master’s in medical oncology from the University of British Columbia and lectures in Brussels, South Korea and Johannesburg. He says of radical Islam: “Jihad, suicide bombers, militants. What kind of religion is that? It’s not Islam. It doesn’t belong in the Caribbean.”

The oldest imam in our country, singing bhajans and hymns, yet staying true to his faith, refusing to buckle under dogma. He’s the oldest imam and yet way ahead of some of the youngest. There you go: that’s what Marquez wrote about—the wildest imagination being real in the Caribbean.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur