Rum, Orthodoxy and the Lash

I was recently told a delightful, but far-too-good-to-be-true, story about the Muslims of Trinidad. It went more or less like this, and has remained in my mind as a fine image of jollity and carnival subverted by puritanism.

The mosque in Port of Spain was originally built by Indian Sunnis, but in a warmly oecumenical spirit they welcomed the island’s Shi’ites to worship there too. Each had their own separate celebrations, perhaps the most spectacular of which was the Shi’ite celebration of Muharram, marked with the usual rather sanguinary self-flagellation, bloodletting with razors and so forth. This of course took place on the correct day of the Hijjra year, shifting steadily backwards with the month of Muharram through the Christian calendar. But after a while it stopped moving, and became a fixed festival. As the years passed it became more of a multiracial carnival than anything else, no longer actually entering the mosque, but dancing round it in a haze of Calypso and rum, the latter bought from Chinese rum-stalls set up for the occasion. In the end, and perhaps as theological views began to harden, a delegation of Sunni Muslims complained to the British Governor that this noisy, intoxicated razzamatazz could hardly be said to be Islamic at all, and asked him to ban it. The Governor told them that he never interfered in native religious matters, but he would run a notice in the newspapers for a month about it and if three Shi’ites came to government house and asked for it to go on, it would have to continue. He did that, but after a month nobody turned up, and so, as he had promised, he banned the Muharram celebration. Curious about it, he ran a census of the religions on the island, the upshot of which was that the last Shi’ite had left Trinidad twenty years before.

A little investigation shows that indeed the story isn’t true – but nor is it entirely untrue, and it does relate to real events. Those events, here seen through a glass darkly, are interesting and quite significant. The story also has something to say about the eclectic, open-armed religious culture of the Caribbean, of porous borders and many parties.  The friend who told me the story was baptised as a child (separately) by both Anglican and Catholic priests, as well as being brought up a Muslim. “Nobody,” he said of his own West Indian childhood before the last war, “ever knew or cared to know what anybody’s religion was, until you went to a wedding or a funeral and saw who was officiating.”

Today there are just over 100,000 Muslims in Trinidad, about five per cent of the population; and fewer than one per cent of Trinidadian Muslims, according to Pew, are Shi’ites, mostly descended from Indian indentured labourers. This means presumably that there are some 1,000 Shi’ites in Trinidad and Tobago. In other words they haven’t left, though they are a pretty small group. But they still make a noise: there is a large annual Muharram parade, known as ‘Hosay’ for the martyred Imam Hussein, which takes place in the first fortnight of Muharram each year (and does move properly through the year with the Muslim calendar). Blood, whips and razors play no part in the proceedings. Instead, Hosay is a great procession of raucous, happy people, banging drums and singing. They carry huge ‘tadjahs,’ which are model mosques, like the great floats at a carnival, built each year by families who preserve a strict and traditional order of precedence. Not unlike the pirate and artillery guilds of Salé with their gigantic Moulid al-Nabi candles, or the bonfire guilds of Lewes. These tadjahs are spectacular, up to thirty feet high and brightly coloured, like bouncy castles, or Disney palaces, rolled on casters along traditional routes from St James which culminate at QRC (Queen’s Royal College) in the centre of Port of Spain, where prayers are said for the martyred Imam. The word tadjah is a Creolisation of ta’ziya, which started life as a model of the tomb of Hussein borne at such festivals. Afterwards, the tadjahs are taken down to the sea at Cocorite and broken up on the beach (though, alas, “Nowadays they are disposed of in a more environmentally safe manner”).

Many, many more people take part than there are Shi’ite Muslims in Trinidad: the crowds are cross-cultural and include Sunni Muslims (to the distaste of their sterner brethren) as well as Hindus and Christians. The whole tradition is wonderfully syncretic and derives from India, where the celebration of Ashura long ago generally ceased to be flagellant and Persian. Its seems possible that the tadjahs derive from the great Juggernauts of the Jagganath festival at Puri. There were certainly religious symbols, like the red and green crescent moons that are carried, symbolizing Hussein’s blood and the poison that killed his brother Hassan, but at least as important are drumming, dancing, drinking and play-fighting around the tadjahs with hakka-hakka sticks – which is probably Chinese in origin.

Just as in the story I was told, a self-appointed caucus of rather austere and pompous Sunnis from India took angrily against what was seen in the nineteenth century as a ‘Coolie carnival,’ a vulgar and irreligious display of unruly sectarian fun. And just as in the story, they set about getting it banned. The first procession was in the 1850s: by 1882 the men with beards were getting seriously self-righteous, and 107 of them – probably put up to it by a Canadian missionary – petitioned the governor, Sir Stanford Freeling, to abolish the Hosay. What the authorities had hitherto regarded as a harmless ‘Coolie festival,’ was in fact, they wrote, “a form of idol-worship which has no place in our religion.” What annoyed these Indian Sunnis was that it was heterodox and syncretic, definitely lower-class and that the Shi’ites were welcoming to black island converts. The rolling bacchanal described to me by my friend was apparently not far from the truth: “When people drink rum and like vain fellows swing their sticks and shout Hassan before Taziya,” wrote the petitioners,” we get much shame because gentlemen think this is the Mohammedan religion … in this play quarrels arise, injuries are inflicted, bones are broken, men are killed …”

But a lot of it was just plain snobbery – that word ‘gentlemen’ is a giveaway – and racism. The self-righteous defence of an imagined orthodoxy was also important in marking out a Muslim elite. The ingratiating tone used to the governor, to suggest that the whole thing was a threat to decency and public order, is decidedly unattractive. Hosay undermined the exclusivity that ‘respectable’ Sunni Muslims sought: “Unspoken was the resentment not just at the inclusion of non-Muslims but at the inclusion of Afro-Trinidadian Muslims,” as one writer puts it. The colonial authorities took the bait, and a British report on Hosay commissioned at this time says: “There is little doubt that the Indian immigrants looked upon the processions as a sort of means of demonstrating their power. It is not as if the procession were confined to Mahomedans. If they were so confined they would be of manageable dimensions, but as Hindoos and Mahomedans alike are found in them, they would become unmanageable.” This had a great deal less to do with religion than with fear of disorder. The sugar industry was in crisis in the 1880s, and unrest was growing. 1881 saw riots at Canboulay – Carnival –  after an attempt to ban it, and the growing popularity at Hosay of Imam Hussein as a champion of the oppressed, regardless of their religion, perhaps seemed to bode ill for public order.

The British were happy enough to crack the whip (particularly since the governor was away in Britain). So the Hosay processions were banned from entering towns. But there were a lot of aggrieved party-goers, Shi’ite and otherwise. In 1884 30,000 marchers turned out. The St James Hosay procession went off peacefully enough without confrontation; but the procession at San Fernando was blocked by troops, who fired on the crowd, killing more than a dozen marchers in what became known as the Hosay Massacre. The number tells us a lot: there were many more marchers (by a multiple of ten or fifteen) than Shi’ites in Trinidad and Tobago. But the Sunni proponents of ‘Indian Islam’ had won, for the time being at least, and went on pontificating pugnaciously.

Hosay was never quite the same again in the colonial period. It recovered to some extent with impending Independence, Hosay processions proliferating beyond St James and Cedros to many other sites. But as a correspondent with a Trinidadian newspaper put it in 1994, “the tradition of the Shi’ites, which our forefathers brought from India, remains alive but in a very weakened state.” In the words of another writer, “Islam in Trinidad lost a potent, popular strain of Islamic discourse which had already shown its world-view in colonial Trinidad by accepting Afro-Trinidadians into the fraternities charged with practising the esoterics of Muharram.”

It was a petty island squabble over who was to define Islam, and like all such struggles generated much heat and little light. The Sunni ‘Indians’ marched onwards snapping at the boundaries of their island Islam against the heterodox and the black-skinned. Ahmadis were their targets through the middle years of the twentieth century, and later the Black Muslims of the Mucurapo Road commune, the Jamaat al-Muslimun, which rose to prominence with its abortive but bloody coup attempt of 1990. Today the practice of Hosay seems to flourish, but it is opposed by the puritans of the old Sunni establishment (“idol-worship”) and Iranian-influenced Shi’ites who see it as a perversion of the real Ashura business of long faces and self-mortification. Having myself watched the climactic Karbala procession of Ashura in Iraq some years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I prefer the middle road.

I had meant to write about the 1990 coup, but have run myself quite out of time, distracted both by the delightful story that I started with, and then by the less delightful, but intriguing, events behind it. And it does sound like a fine party.


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