Surinamese Muslims in a Plural Society by R. S. Chickrie


The paper “Surinamese Muslims in a Plural Society” attests that in Suriname, Islam survived since its second arrival in 1873 and Muslims have excelled in this plural society of many races and religions: Hinduism, Christianity, Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Hindustanis, Indonesians, Jews and Dutch. Muslims who originated from the Island of Java, Indonesia and Hindustan (India) have assimilated with ease in Suriname. This paper summarizes the social and political history of Surinamese Muslims in negotiating with the secular state to meet the needs of their community since their arrival. In doing so, it divulges into the intricate relationship of the Muslims with the state, with other ethnic and religious groups, and brings to light the triumphs and challenges they face in a plural society. An attempt is made to analyze Hindu/Muslim relations outside of the motherland, Hindustani, (India) which has been characterized by mutual respect, and cooperation, but was sometimes antagonistic and mainly due to external factors such as the arrival of the Arya Samajis from North India brining with them the practice of sudhi. After a turbulent period, the relationship today is cordial. The paper asserts that the local Muslims and the state were very aware of the Muslim/Hindu conflict in the motherland and were keen to prevent communalism from engulfing Suriname. Further, this paper exposes the schism that exists among the Islamic organizations in Suriname. It can accurately be concluded that the Islam has become part of the social and political fabric of Suriname. Brief history of Suriname.

Suriname, a Dutch speaking republic located on the northern shoulder of South America, is one of the most unique country in the world (see figure 1). Interestingly, it is the only country in the world where a mosque and a synagogue face each other and where aspects of Sharia Law (Islamic) were granted to its local Muslim community since 1940. Suriname has a population of about 492,000 and is home to over twenty languages and where the world’s three major religions- Hinduism, Christianity and Islam coexist peacefully (see figure 2).

The multicultural face of Suriname is a result of Dutch colonialism which began in 17th century and the institution of slavery to support the plantation economy. With the end of slavery in 1863, the Dutch turned to India to full this void. Quickly, the Dutch planters used the successful experiment of the British in neighbouring British Guiana, and began importing contract labourers from China, British India and Dutch Indonesia. The Chinese came from Southeastern China, while 33,000 Indonesian from 1893 to 1940 came from the Island of Java. Between 1873 and 1916 about 37, 000 East Indians labourers came mostly from the Indian States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and the former United Provinces and Oudh. (see figure 3). Thus, it was under these historical circumstances that Islam arrived in Suriname, first among the West Africa and then with the arrival of Hindustanis and the Indonesians. Suriname was a Dutch colony until 1954 when it became an autonomous province within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Unlike, the French and British, the Dutch were not interested in “civilizing” the Asian. Dutch policies towards the different ethnic groups were “off hands,” and quickly the Dutch embraced ‘asianization.” A validation of this was the Asian Marriage Decree (Muslim Marriage Act) adopted by decree of the governor in 1940. At the end of Word War II, a number of ethnic and religiously oriented parties blossomed, and in 1975 when Suriname left the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it had one of the highest standards of living in South America. This once prosperous country just after independence in 1980, was rocked by several coups led by Colonel Desi Bouterse.

Inflation and devaluation of the Surinamese guilder brought standard of living down. Today, democracy has been restored in Suriname and with tightened fiscal policies, the liberalization of the economy, and the introduction of the new Surinamese dollar, the economy is steadily growing. Suriname today is making great economic and political strides.

Islam in Suriname

The Muslim population of Suriname is predominantly made up of Hindustanis who belong to the hanafi madhab, while the Javanese belong to the Shafi theological school of Islam. A small group of Africans are Muslims and they were the first Muslims to set foot in Suriname, and have given Suriname some of its heroes, like Zam-Zam and Arabi of the Mandinka clan. With the arrival of the Hindustani and Indonesian, the Muslim population of Suriname grew to 25% up until the 1980s; however with the generous offer of Dutch nationality, thousands went to the Netherlands. From the 1970s to 1980s an estimated 200,000 Surinamese left for Holland. Today, the population is estimated at 20% of the population, but the data of the 2004 census puts the figure at 13%. There could have been some flaws in the data collection which may not reflect the true religious affiliation of the people.

There are over 100 mosques in the country and elements of Shariah, Islamic Law have been incorporated into Suriname’s Civil Code since 1941 when Governor Johannes Kielstra by decree passed the Asian Marriage Act which ended in 2003.1 Going back to the late nineteen century in Suriname, the Muslims have had some charismatic political, civic and religious leaders such as Munshi Rahman Khan, Hazrat Ahmad Khan, Kallan Khan, Habiboel Rahman, Moulvi Shekh Ahmadali, Karmat Ali brothers, Kallay Khan, Abdoel Hafiez Khan, Gul Khan, Haji Mohammed Islam Ramjan and Mohammed Hassan Ashruf. These leaders constituted the local ullema who had enjoyed great religious legitimacy. Many of these men spoke Urdu, Persian and Arabic and were very verse in Quran and hadith. There is something to be said about Gul Khan who was an Afghan refugee. He spoke Arabic, Urdu and Persian and was versed in the Quran and fiqh, and he came into confrontation with the colonial authorities and some of his fellow Muslims when he lectured them about the paying and collecting interests; he also addressed the issue of bidah or innovations that had penetrated Islam in Suriname. He was exile to his homeland and during his absent he became a hero, many named their sons Gul Khan after him. Many felt that the wrath of god had descended on them when they lost their wealth and cried dearly for Gul Khan.2 These men were shaped by events at home and in the motherland, India, as the Hindu/Muslim conflict in India raged , , leading up to the division of the subcontinent, it had serious repercussion for Hindu/Muslims relationship in Suriname.

The Muslims of Suriname have always been politically and economically active. Naturally, Suriname’s first political party, the Muslim Party was founded by Janab Asgar Karamat Ali in 1942 who had a volatile relationship with the United Hindustani Party (VHP), a Hindu political party. The Muslims did not want to be dominated by Hindus from the bitter experience of events in the homeland.

Today, the Muslims are well represented in Suriname’s Staten (National Assembly), and they face no discrimination. In fact, the country once had a Muslim Prime Minister, Janab Liakat Ali Khan and a Muslim Foreign Minister, M. A. Faried Pierkhan, and prior to that, many Muslims served as members of the National Assembly. The state accommodates Muslims for their religious obligations like giving them time off for the Friday Jumma prayers and Ramadan. The end of Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr is a national holiday, and Suriname is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) since 1996. The country has since appointed three envoys to the OIC- Dr. Anwar S. Lall Mohammad, Maurits Hassan Khan and Mohamed Rafeeq Chiragally who have all traveled to some important Islamic countries to forge ties on behalf of the government of Suriname.

There are about eight jamaats (societies) in Suriname- Hidayatul Islam, (1921) Khilafat Anjuman (1931) and Surinaamse Islamitische Vereniging (SIV-1929). These are some of the earliest organization in the Suriname and they still exist today. Other organizations are the Madjlies Moeslimien Suriname (MMS) founded in 1974 and the Suriname Moeslim Association (SMA) founded in 1954.

The Majlis Muslimin Suriname (MMS) or Council of Muslims in Suriname is an umbrella organization founded in 1974 to represent all the Muslims regardless of race. They have successfully established contacts with the World Muslim League, the World Islamic Call Society, the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations and the Islamic Missionaries Guild.3 The masjids in Suriname have institutionalized social welfare programme to address the needs of their communities like the Catholics churches. They have established an efficient social infrastructure that aggressively addresses the basic needs of their communities such as homes for the abused and runaway boys and girls. They distribute zakaat to the poor; maintain qabarstan(graveyard), elderly homes, and operate many Islamic schools that offer Islamic studies, adaab (etiquette), Quran, math and the sciences. These religious schools have received government subsidies since 1950 when the National Assembly of Suriname voted to subsidize all Hindu and Muslim temples and schools to end a the discrimination of aiding Catholics and Protestants institutions for over a century. Finally, this injustice was corrected, Suriname and its Muslim citizens have come a long way forward. Suriname today prides itself as a showcase of multiculturalism.

The rebirth of Islam- the arrived of the Hindustanis

With the arrival of the Hindustanis in 1873, Islam was reintroduced in Suriname when the ship Lalla Rookh arrived with forty-five Hindustani Muslims from North India (see Figure 4). These Hindustanis Muslims were from the Urdu speaking belt but many also spoke their regional dialects like Avadhi, Braj, Bhopuri and Maithli. Around Forty-Five Muslims migrated from what is now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, known before as the United Provinces and Oudh(See figure 3). They were mostly from the following districts: Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Mirzapur, Lucknow, Allahbad, Jaunpur, Azamgargh, Gaya, Faizabad, and Benares. Seven Muslim died of natural causes before their five-year contract ended. In fact, six die before spending one year in Suriname. With eleven returning to India and seven dead in less than five years, roughly thirty two Muslims of the Lalla Rookh remained in Suriname. Most of the Muslims were Urdu speakers whose decedents today still speak Urdu in Suriname today. From the early period of indentureship, Urdu was taught at the Madarsas in Suriname. Some of the fathers of Urdu in Suriname were Hazrat Ahmad Khan, Munshi Rahman Khan, and Moulvi Shekh Ahmadali.4 “Some years later the descendents of the immigrants, like Sardar Karmat Ali, Kallay Khan and Abdoel Hafiez Khan and other carried out this work.”5 There were two Urdu-publications dating back to 1938, Hakikatul Islam(the Truth of Islam) and Juma Akhbar (Friday News).6 Moulvi Ahmadali edited Hakikatul-Islam which was handwritten for twenty-four years since 1935. Urdu developed rapidly in Suriname since all the Moulvis, Maulanas and Ustaads were literate in Urdu and because of the proliferation of Urdu publications and radio programs. Urdu remains a functional language among Suriname’s Hindustani Muslims today, and a major part of their cultural identity.

In Uttar Pradesh between 1873-1916 Muslims constituted about twenty percent of the population. About fifty percent migrated to Karachi, Pakistan in 1947 when the sub-continent was divided between Hindus and Muslims. And even after the bloody partition when hordes of Bihari and Uttar Pradeshi Urdu speaking Muslims flocked to Karachi, the Muslims today are still about twenty percent of the population due to high birth rate. Uttar Pradesh has a vibrant Muslim population facing many challenges such as poverty, illiteracy, diseases and religious conflicts. Many backward castes exist in Uttar Pradesh today and Hindus have a cordial to strain relationship with the Muslims. Lower castes Hindus and Muslims have forged a unique alliance during election time to oppose the upper caste Hindus who dominate the political landscape of the North India. It was from this area of India that the majority of immigrants came from.

When the Muslims arrived in Suriname they were scattered in different districts throughout the country but they strived to make contact with their fellow Muslims because of their common religious bond by establishing the jamaat system. Small mosques were built across the country; some alleged that the first was a small mosque which was built behind the Wolfenbuttel while others claim that it was at Plantation Marienburg. The land was donated by the Abdul Kariem family.7 With the arrival of more learned Muslim of Islamic theology such as Ahmed Khan (Hafidji) in the 1900’s, marked the beginning of a vibrant period for Islam in this former Dutch Colony.

During the early period of indentureship many Muslim men bore three to four names with Mohammed being the most popular. Baksh was also a very popular name among the men and which was misspelled repeatedly. Khuda was also another popular prefix, and Ally is a popular suffix. Amongst the women were a large percentage with the common suffixes UN or AN at the end of an Arabic name to make it feminine which is very common in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. For example, Nasir or Amir becomes Nasirun or Ameeran. Some women bored the name Wazirun, Bashiran, and Ameeran. Bibi, Persian for lady, was a name that many women bore was well- Bibi Jainab, Bibi Khatun, or Bibi Maryam. Another interesting phenomenon is the spelling of names such as Ramjan instead of Ramzan, Jainab instead Zainab, Najir instead of Nazir or Nijamuddin instead of Nizamuddin because in parts of Uttar Pradesh, zeen is pronounced like a jeem. Numerous names were misspelled, and some are beyond recognition. Muslims men normally bear three to four names, and this created massive confusion during the recording process. For example, there is certainly an error in names such as Emambaksh Hassanbaksh and this is a pattern common among the names of Muslims in Suriname. Hindustani Islamic Organizations

Surinamese Muslims were once united especially during the early period of indentureship but from 1925 to 1935 they became bitterly divided, and like in neighboring Guyana, they tend to compete rather than compliment each other. They are divided into Sunnis, Ahmadis, Hindustani and Indonesian. The most significant factor that led to deep division was the entrance of the Ahmadis in Suriname during the 1920s.8 The Surinamese Islamitische Vereniging (SIV) was officially founded in 1929 under the leadership of two brothers, H. Asgar Ali and Karamat Ali. The first board of directors comprised of Asgar Ali (President), Hanief Mia (Vice-President), Baas Abdul Sovan (Secretary) and Asgar Karamat Ali (treasurer). In 1931, the land on the Keizarstraat was purchased and a mosque was built under the guidance of Baas Ibrahim. In its quest to make international contact, the SIV came into contact with Maulana Ameerali of Trinidad who visited Suriname in 1934. The Maulana visited Suriname however, “his explanations of the doctrine and the principles of the founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement divided the jamaat into two parties.”9 The uproar over the Ahmadiyya centered over the controversy of its alleged proclamation that its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed prophethood which is in stark  contrast to Islamic teaching that Muhammad (SWS) is the final Prophet. The Surinamese Lahori agrees that Prophet Muhammad is the final Prophet and stressed that they belong to the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat –E-Islam, Lahore. Their official website reads:

We believe that no prophet can come after the Holy Prophet Muhammad, neither new
nor old, and that this was also the strongly-held belief of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad
who always denied the allegation that he claimed to be a prophet.”10

This division led to the founding of the Khilafat Anjuman in 1931. Later, in 1950, the Suriname Muslim Association (SMA) was founded under the guidance of Maulana Mohammad Aleem Siddiqui of Pakistan, who denounced the Ahmadiyya Qadiani and urged the Sunnis to unite and establish the SMA.11 After a bitter battle within the SIV, some prominent members such as Moulvi Hafiez Khan, Moulvi Kalay Khan, Moulvi Mohamed Safie, Moulvi Ibrahim Illahibaks, Moulavi Mohamed Abbas, Moulvi Baktali and Moulvi Mahtab Mia left the SIV, founded the Khilafat Anjuman, and the Anjuman Hidayatul Islam (AHI). More divisions later led to the collapse of the Anjuman Hidayat Islam, and the founding of the Suriname Muslim Association (SMA).12 The oldest Islamic organization in Suriname was the Anjuman Hidayat Islam which was divided into two factions in 1921. One faction was led by Gafoer Somardien Ketwaru. In 1929, the AHI moved to Wolfenbuttel on the Keizarstraat, the said year that the Ahmadiyya entered Suriname, and whose leaders took control of the property at the Keizarstraat under the name SIV.

During the 1940s the SIV was led by Jabbar and then under S. M. Jamaludin. According to the SIV, it was a fruitful period because intense tablighi work was done by foot, radio, as well though publications in Arabic, Dutch and Urdu. An Urdu periodic, Juma Akhbaar was also published. The sick and poor were cared for and the cemetery at Nagelstraat was kept. However, politics engulfed the Jamaat during the presidency of Mohammed Radja who was an active politician. Elections were help and the group led by Mr. Niamut won. Finally, the new mosque construction began to take shape and on July 27, 1984, in grand style, that ornate mosque that graces the landscape of Paramaribo today was opened. This Mughal style mosque was designed by Mohamed Nazier Ataoellah, an architect with a civil engineer degree. It is one of the most beautiful mosques in South America. From 1985 to 2005 the SIV was under the presidency of M. R. Pierkhan and relationship with the other Muslim communities  improved. The SIV published numerous literatures on Islam, and Muslims in Suriname in Dutch, English and Urdu. Some of its most popular publications are AL-Nur, AL-Haq (1971-1980) and ALFajr which is its current periodical.13

The Khilafat Anjuman was founded on March 15, 1931 by Haji Lall Mohammed Kalay Khan, and its first president was Somardeen Ketwaru. Kariem Bux donated the land where the Khilafat Anjuman is located today. Haji Kalaykhan was the founder and the first president was Mr. Ketwaru whose brother-in-law was president of the SIV, Karamat Ali. Haji Islam Ramjan and Hassan Mohammed Ashruf, who came from India in February of 1882, had a turbulent relationship. Ashruf accused Ramjan of dishonesty in a land dispute. Ashruf asked Ramjan to vacate his property but was shocked to learn that Islam Ramjan had become the owner of his property. Ashruf trusted Ramjan to register the land for the establishment of a mosque, but did not expect that Islam would later become the owner of the property. After problem with the Ashruf family, the Anjuman Hidayat moved to Calcuttastraat. The AHI was divided over the issue of leadership in 1931, and moved the AHI to the Hernhutterstraat where a small mosque was built of wood by the Hassan Mohammed Ashruf family.

The land was also donated by the latter family. Tension rose most significantly when members discovered that the SIV was influenced by the Ahmadiyya after the Maulana Ameer Ali visited  Suriname in the 1934. In 1948, Soekhai donated a plot of land to the AHI on the Kankanriestraat where they are still currently housed. At this juncture of history there was a rift between the AHI and the Ashruf family which led to the AHI moving to Calcuttastraat.14

The Khilafat Anjuman was located at Grote Cobeweg, where the SIV orphanage is now located. This land was owned by Somardeen Ketwaru the brother-in-law of Mr. Karamat Ali. The mosque was made of wood and half opened. Ketwaru who had owned a bakery there was in a financial predicament and could not repay his debts so he decided to sell the land that housed the mosque. The board of the Anjuman requested his price and wanted sometime to acquire the property, however Karamat Ali, his brother-in-law who was an influential political and president of the SIV, convinced Kewtaru to sell him the land. The mosque was locked from the public after it was sold to Karamat Ali. The Anjuman Khilafat moved out, and then a Freddie Karimbux convinced his mother to donate a piece of land they had on the Cromelingstraat for the establishment of a sunni mosque. In 1946, the Anjuman moved to Cromelingstraat and in 1981 a new mosque was erected. Haji Ameer Nanekhan was the president up to 1980 when he was removed from office by order of the court by a youth faction. The building of the mosque finally continued under the new leadership and by 1985 a striking new mosque was constructed, and officially opened in 1987. The Khilafat Anjuman also built the Tiedul Islam mosque at Henrikstraat, but abandoned it to the Deobandis led by Amir Roshan Nanekhan and Rehmatoellah Abdoel Bashier who they accused of introducing Wahabi doctrines in Suriname. In 1983 the Khilafat Anjuman ended its cooperation with the SMA and two years later the so-called wahabis were driven out of the Khilafat Anjuman, they then aligned themselves with the SMA. Eventually, they were flushed from the SMA.

In 1985 Al Haji Ashruf took over the leadership of the Khilafat Anjuman, and prior to that he was secretary of the Anjuman for many years. When he became president he collected and spent his own money to pay off the debt of the Anjuman. He worked with the Afro and Javanese Islamic communities, and established contacts with Muslims in Guyana and Trinidad. Ashruf has donated generously to other Muslim communities in Suriname and during his leadership a home for the elderly was established. He has been working hard with the Muslims of Cayenne, French Guyana to build a mosque there. Most recently, the Khilafat Anjuman has been plagued by an internal strife which led to the resignation of Haji Ashruf in 2006. The mosque is divided into two groups one led by Imam Chitanie and the Haji Ashruf faction. The elderly home which was named after Haji Ashruf has been renamed after Maulana Noorani by Imam Chitanie, who is the current head of Khilafat Anjuman.