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Afro-Trini Muslims are zealots
Q: Imam Hydal, are you of the opinion that Trinidad and Tobago is in danger of being run over by Islamic extremists?
A: (Pausing a few seconds at the Port-of-Spain chambers of an attorney on Thursday morning) Well, I am not too sure about considering it...
OK. Before you complete your response, can you give us a few of the basic fundamentals of Islam?
Very well. There are five pillars of Islam: faith in Allah an unseen God, prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) and charity. We believe in the Holy Prophet Muhammad—upon whom be peace—is the last messenger of God that was sent to mankind.
There are several Islamic groups competing for turf, as it were in Trinidad and Tobago as is indeed the rest of the international community. Doesn’t this give the impression that the faith is not really united?
It is completely united in the sense of an organisation, it is united in terms of its philosophy and everybody understands its basic tenets as I have provided a while ago. But one of the problems (furrowed brow) with the history of Islam in this country is that when our forefathers came here they came from India. Their knowledge of and practice of Islam according to the Indian tradition is what had been handed down to us.
In recent years, Rabita (a Saudi Arabia-based international Muslim organisation) held a conference and a number of young Trinbagonians have gone to that country in order to learn Arabic in particular. And having come back with their newly acquired knowledge, each one seems to think they know Islam better than the others, so that some of the older Imams who have been trained around that generation who came from India, sometimes are ignored even though they have the experience.
You said the faithful are united in the basic tenets of Islam, so how come some groups take a more aggressive stance sometimes taking up arms and so on in the name of Allah, and other Muslims say the Koran does not provide for that kind of violent action?
This relates to what I just said. Our forefathers came from India with a very docile Islam in the sense that those who went to the Middle East met certain groups who are very militant in their understanding of Islam, in a very important aspect of Islam known as Jihad. But our view is that the majority of Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago accept that Jihad means a struggle, an internal struggle for us to achieve betterment of our spiritual values and so on.
Others argue that Jihad could also mean the physical and sometimes violent action in defense of their religion or perceived persecution?
Yes. I was coming to that. That is a lesser Jihad in the sense that it is not true Jihad but people, because of persecution in the Middle East, that has become the forefront of Jihad. It has been used as a weapon particularly to fight against those whom they feel have oppressed them.
But does the Koran give them the right to take up arms to overthrow a democratically elected government?
The Koran gives you the right to defend yourself with arms but it does not give you the right to overthrow any government. It abhors rebellion. I say that in my Khutba (sermon) every Friday and Muslims will defend themselves in whatever way. In the days of the Prophet it might have been the sword but in today’s world bombs and guns are being used.
Does your organisation sanction that aspect of defending your religion?
No we do not, definitely don’t, because we believe the Jihad of this age is with the pen and that is why I do so much of writing and host a radio programme.
Getting back to the first question, I was viewing a programme on the IBN network last night and the question asked was whether this country was a breeding ground for extremists, and surprisingly the majority of callers said yes. Do you share that view?
(Another contemplative pause) I have had experience in 1983, when we had a convention in Marabella and four bombs went off, 14 people were injured so therefore I know what it is to feel that kind of violence. Nobody has been held. We have our suspicions but nothing came out if it. In 1985, a Muslim missionary who came here from the International Ahmadiyya movement was assassinated in Freeport. Nothing came out of that also. My feeling is that if full investigations were done into those two incidents, 1990 may not have come about. I felt that was the training ground for what would come later.
Without in any way trying to pronounce on the guilt or innocence of those detained, are you surprised over the threat on the lives of the Prime Minister and some of her Cabinet members?
With my own experience which I have just related, I wouldn’t say I was surprised. What I am surprised about is trying to understand the motive. In the case of 1983, I understand what would have prompted those bomb attacks because there were Islamic sects who were totally against us. I however, feel such an act towards the State must have some political motives but I cannot say definitely until the investigations are completed.
One theory is that Muslim scholars from India and Pakistan have or are influencing the growth of Muslim militants or extremists in this country?
(A doubtful countenance) I am not of that opinion because most of our scholars go to the Middle East, not to India or Pakistan.
Don’t we have scholars from India and Pakistan coming here?
Very rare. The connection I feel is more in the Middle East.
Have you drawn this to the attention of the local authorities?
(Shrugging his shoulders) They do not listen to us. For example, when the matter of the IRO came up.
What precisely was that?
Since 1986, we applied to the Inter-Religious Organisation and we were told in no uncertain terms that we were not Muslims among other reasons that they came up with, and that if we were admitted other Muslim groups would pull out of the IRO. A sort of apartheid ruling as far as we’re concerned. We applied twice after that with the same result.
How come if you practice the five fundamentals of Islam you are not considered as Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago?
It has to do with ideological reasons. You see our founder had indicated he had received a revelation from God and some people believe he claimed to be a prophet which he denied in 1890. Secondly, the thing that caused the real problem is that he had stated he was the second coming or the return of Christ that he came in the spirit of Christ. The Muslims in this country believe that Christ is alive and he would come back. We do not subscribe to that.
And you are not going to change that belief in order to be fully accepted by your fellow Muslims?
Oh, I am scientifically minded. As long as somebody is dead they cannot come back. (Chuckling) It has not happened in the history of mankind. It is just not possible.
A contentious issue in Islam is the unequal treatment of women particularly in this age of gender equality. Women are not allowed to pray together with the men in certain mosques?
Well, we do not subscribe to that position at all and that is one of the things they have been against us for; and in our mosques there are no barriers. We mix, we intermingle, and we have functions in which they participate. In fact, the president of our organisation is a woman.
Imam Hydal, I am hearing some underground grumblings about strong differences, to use a mild term, in the practice of Islam between Afro-Trinis and Indo-Trini Muslims?
Clevon, you must understand that Afro-Trinis were converted into Islam, it is not that they were born into Islam and like in any other religion once you are converted you become a zealot.
Are you sure you don’t want to change that rather strong word?
It is a very strong word, yes, but that is what has led to what we are seeing today...the 1990 issue. That is what has led...Because if you look back carefully, you would see all of them are converts and even what we are seeing now they are converts to Islam, many of them. They went to shed off all that they have learn from Christianity. They want to make sure they become more zealous rather than zealots if you want to use that word.
You are aware Imam, that this might open up a hornet’s nest?
I am a controversial person (laughs aloud) so I have no problems with that. And what I see and hear on the radio and television programmes in this country is not what I would do as a Muslim. We are peaceful people and we try to live in perfect harmony with others.