Muslims in Mauritius

Mark Twain once wrote that 'Mauritius was made first and then heaven, heaven being copied after Mauritius'. For the most part, it's true: Mauritius is rightly famed for its sapphire waters, powder-white beaches and luxury resorts. But there's so much more to Mauritius than the beach when it comes to attractions. There's bird-watching and hiking in the forested and mountainous interior or world-class diving and snorkelling. Or there are boat trips to near-perfect islets and excursions to fabulous botanical gardens and colonial plantation houses. Either way, the possibilities can seem endless. And the real Mauritius – a hot curry of different cultures, traffic and quiet fishing villages – is never far away.

Ultimately, Mauritius is the kind of place that rewards even the smallest attempts at exploration. So, if your biggest discovery is the beach butler service at your hotel, then you'll need to plan a second visit!

1. Brief History

Mauritius, once known by the Arabic name 'Dina Arobi', is a small island economy comprising 720 square miles situated in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles east of Madagascar. While Arab and Malay sailors knew of Mauritius as early as the 10th century AD and Portuguese sailors first visited in the 16th century, the island was first colonised in 1638 by the Dutch.

The island was named in honour of Prince Maurice of Nassau who abandoned the colony in 1710. Uninhabited until the seventeenth century, it had no indigenous population, but became populated by waves of immigrants due to colonialism, plantation slavery, the indenture system, and French (1715-1810) and British (1810-1968) colonial mercantile interests, which shaped the socio- cultural environment of the island¹. Mauritius gained independence in 1968 and became a republic in 1992.

The Presence of Muslims in Mauritius can be traced back to the passage of Arab and Malay sailors in the twelve century, under the Dutch occupation (1638-1710), the French Administration (1715-1810) and the British rule (1810-1968). Islam took root in the island as from the French rule with the arrival of indigenous Indians as sailors hailing from Pondicherry and Bengal. They were Sunni and were referred to as “ les matelots Lascards” by the authorities and constituted a racially mixed group par excellence.

According to the French laws prevailing on the island, only the Catholic religion could be practised openly and Islam had to be an underground religion. The religious fervour of its few adherents was unabated and they were not only able to keep their faith alive in a hostile environment but even to make some converts. In 1805, the French Governor of the island, Charles Decäen, granted the necessary land concession to the Lascards proprietors to build a “chapel” to practise their faith in an area of Port -Louis called Plaine Verte².This move to grant this concession is exceptional in the history of the Isle de France (Mauritius) where the only officially recognized religion was the Catholic Church. The first mosque of the island known as the Camp des Lascards Mosque was raised.

The next group of Muslims to arrive in the island were Indian political prisoners brought to construct roads, bridges and buildings. Contact was established between them and the local inhabitants and there are indications that many of these prisoners used to attend prayers, in particular the Jummah salaat at the Camp des Lascards Mosque. In 1835 with the introduction of the Indian Indentured system a new impetus in the spread of Islam in Mauritius was witnessed. From 1835 to 1924 when that system ended, a total of some approximately 425,000 Indian labourers (Coolies) had been brought to toil in the sugar plantations following the dismantling of the Slavery System. They hailed mostly from the provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar and they boarded the ships at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

They consisted mainly of Hindus and Muslims, the latter representing about 25% of the Coolie population. Urdu became the cultural language of the Muslims and allowed the different groups of Muslims who used different dialects to communicate readily with each other. Urdu became thus the functional language through which the religious dogmas were enshrined and also the educational language of the Madrassah. Arabic was taught merely to teach the reading of the Holy Quran.

In the wake of the Indentured System, three other distinctive groups of Muslim immigrants originating from the Indian province of Gujerat settled in the island soon after 1835. The first group came to be known on the island as Maiman merchants, hailing mainly from the towns of Kutch. The second group came from Hallai in the Indian province of Kathiawar and were known as Hallaye merchants. Both were experts in the supply of cereals, mainly rice and dholl. The third group came to be known as Surtees and hailed mainly from the town of Surat and the surrounding towns of Rander, Bharuch etc. and were experts in the supply of textile products to the island.Whilst the Maimans remained basically an urban group centered on Port-Louis, the Surtees, in view of their greater number found themselves to branch out into retail trade, did much to spread Islam in the rural countryside of the island. Some of them opened retail textile shops in the most important villages with a high concentration of Old Immigrants. Strong bonds developed amongst them and this helped to consolidate the position of Islam in these villages with the result that Islam was reintroduced to some of the Muslims who might have drifted off due to lack of religious exposure and to the non-Muslims as well. The Maiman and Hallaye responded positively whenever they were approached for contributions for funding the construction of mosques in the rural areas. By the turn of the century, the Muslims were to be found practically in most of the villages of the island with a good concentration in the East at Flacq, the South and in the capital.


2. Population, Demographic composition and Geographic distribution

Despite its small size, the current population of Mauritius is 1.2 million people made up of Indian, African, Chinese and European origins³. The main religions are Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims represent 17% of the total population. This is a small country where religious festivals, rituals, customs and traditions abound in all their splendours. With such diversity in the cultural fabric of a society, Mauritius is often described as a miniature representation of the world itself, where 'East meets West '.

According to the Census Report of 1871⁴, the Muslims constituted 13.15 % of the whole population of the island - some 41,575 out of a total of 316,042. The latest Census (2000)⁵ reported some 195,939 Muslims out of a total of 1,143,069, representing 17.14 % of the total population (Table 2). The Muslims of Mauritius are made up of a small group of Ahmadiya, shias and other sects while the majority are Sunni Muslims following the Hannafi school of thought. A demographic composition of the Muslim population as stipulated in the 2000 Census Report is shown in Table 1:


Table 1. Demographic Composition of Muslim Population in Mauritius

Composition

Nos

Sunnee Muslims

195,668

Ahmadiyah

102

Mohameddan

121

Other

48

Total

195,939


Source: Population Census 2000


The classification under Mohameddan and Other could well represent the Shia who forms a very closed community consisting of a few family relationships. The Ahmadiyahs, on the other hand, are much greater in number than what is officially declared, possibly declaring themselves as Sunnee Muslims. In terms of geographic distribution, the Muslims are to be present in both urban and rural areas with a higher concentration (55.7%) in the urban areas while 44.3% are located in the rural areas. Table 2 shows the geographical distribution of the major ethnic/religious groups in Mauritius, including the Muslims according to the Census Report 2000.

Table 2. Distribution of Population in Mauritius by Area and Religion

Area

Total Pop

Muslims

Indus

Christians

Chinese

Others

Mauritius

1,143,069

195,939

584,983

344,967

8,149

9,031

Urban

503,045

109,131

186,124

198,382

4,785

4,623

Rural

640,024

86,808

398,859

146,585

3,364

4,408

Total

1,143,069

195,939

584,983

344,967

8,149

9,031

Flacq

126,839

14,865

87,763

23,700

153

358

Port-Louis

127,855

49,243

26,658

49,925

1,241

788

Savanne

66,356

12,485

38,251

14,481

418

721

P.Wilhems

358,182

59,225

155,265

136,761

3,462

3,469

Pamplemousses

122,252

18,250

72,449

29,037

936

1,580

Grand Port

106,665

13,752

67,703

24,477

491

242

Riv.du Rem

98,854

11,001

68,165

18,455

534

699

Moka

75,479

15,533

45,317

13,520

768

341

Black River

60,587

1,585

23,412

34,611

146

833

Total

1,143,069

195,939

584,983

344,967

8,149

9,031

Source: Population Census 2000

The higher concentration of the Muslims lies in the centre of the island (Plaine Wilhems) that groups several urban areas. However, Port -Louis, the capital of the island, on its own has the highest concentration of Muslims. Trading activities of the Surtees and Maimans since their arrival in Mauritius constitute important factors for explaining the migration of Muslims into Port Louis. This is especially true when the value of sugar cane land raised substantially, some Muslim small planters made a fortune by selling their land and then investing in trade. Today the majority of trades in Port -Louis belong to the Muslims.

3. Muslim Role and Challenges

Since their arrival in Mauritius the Muslims established mosques to preserve their faith and identity and contributed to a large extent to its socio-economic development. The Muslims' Role and Challenges in the Mauritian context can be looked into, firstly, by considering the community as a homogenous block living along with other communities in a secular state. Here "secularism" means that, in principle, the State does not indulge in religious matters, and vice-versa. Also, the State is not against religion but stands at equi-distant with respect to all religions (Paradigm A). Obviously, in practice, we do notice several deviations from this definition of secularism in the case of Mauritius.

Else, the community can be reckoned as made up of individuals of Islamic faith, each with his or her own specificity, living amongst other citizens, all equal in rights and responsibilities, in a secular state (Paradigm B).

Paradigm A has been a historical reality in Mauritius. However, if at one end, the Muslim community is now becoming increasing heterogenous as far as socio-cultural aspects are concerned, there is also a growing trend towards the emergence of a new Mauritian Muslim or Muslim Mauritian identity. The latter is not at all a fixed, monolithic identity, but is one marked by pluralism or diversity, its multiple facets evolving with time. This apparent paradox simply reflects the fast-changing nature of our Muslim society, itself a component of a wider society that is fast mutating. Socio-economic development, various forms of globalisation, growing secularism coupled with another paradox which is the persistence of communalism, impact of the systems of education, mobility and exposure to new worlds, youth and woman empowerment, impact of media and political context, here and around the world, are some of the key factors that are making Paradigm A apparently obsolete and opening the doors to Paradigm B.

Paradigm B, in its extreme form, will not recognize the existence of "communities" but will focus on the individualistic concept of citizenship. However, it will acknowledge the right of citizens to organize themselves in associations. Hence, it does not per se prevent the community to function. As we notice a shift from Paradigm A to Paradigm B, we have to note that the role of Muslims cannot be the same in the two cases, at least when it comes to the details. If, bound by the Quran and the Sunna, the fundamental role of acting as a witness towards mankind is unchanged, the mission statement of tomorrow's Muslims may be different altogether.

The following FIVE challenges should be addressed:

1. The growing participation of women, more than 50% of the population, in different spheres of life, implies that we have to rethink the role of Muslim women in line with the Quran and Sunna and in response to the new context.

2. Political leadership becomes a different issue when we move from Paradigm A to Paradigm B. Whilst integrity, competence and the desire to serve remain paramount qualities for anyone eligible to be a leader, religious denomination is no more a crucial parameter. The leader is not elected to defend a community but to serve all in a spirit of justice according to universal principles. In a similar way, Muslims should look forward to serve, and if they deserve, also assume leadership in other fields like medicine, social work, education or still science and technology.

3. With the liberty of faith and practice of religion guaranteed, dawaah must assume a new definition, far from the idea of proselytism. Education, active dialogue and common action with people of other faiths will be the challenge of the day. Inviting people to Islam is possible only through wisdom and beautiful teaching, a methodology of significant pertinence in Paradigm B. Respect of non-Muslims is essential just as Muslims should ensure that they, too, are respected.

4. The next challenge will be to give life to our mosques and allow them to play fully their roles. In an era of sheer individualism accompanying Paradigm B, voluntarism will become a rarity. Mosques, and all Islamic organizations for that matter, will have to be professionally run and will have to give a new meaning to the term "community", a concept that the State is likely to reject completely. The Mosque or organizations must be capable of handling a host of Muslim matters from divorce pleas to burial permits, from Islamic education to interfaith dialogue, from anti-drug sensitization to hajj organisation. The State involvement should be minimal.

5. The Muslim youth will have a multiple and changing identity but as far as faith is concerned, there is no other identity than what is defined by the Islamic fundamentals. Educating the youth in this sense, on the Islamic ethics and art of living is a major challenge.

4. SCOPE OF MUSLIM RELATION WITH THE MUSLIM WORLD

Muslim relation with the Muslim world dates back to the late 18th century when Muslim traders from the Indian subcontinent came to settle in Mauritius and developed trade with their mother country. Urdu, the language of communication and religious instruction, served as a basis to establish links with Pakistan. The established links were profound as Muslims would observe with fervour the National Day of Pakistan, study the works of Allama Mohammad Iqbal and diffuse them and also celebrate his anniversary. To-day trade has expanded considerably with Pakistan and comprises textiles, furniture, foodstuffs, medical supplies and construction materials. Many maulanas and muftis are trained in Pakistani madrassas while the government of Pakistan offers up to 16 scholarships in the field of medicine and engineering every year under the P.T.A scheme. Given the prohibitive cost of university fees in the West many Muslim students are seeking admission in Pakistan universities for Islamic studies and other fields of science.

The second Muslim country with which Muslims in Mauritius have established strong relation is Saudi Arabia, obviously for spiritual reasons in the accomplishment of hajj and umrah. But gradually links were established with the World Muslim League and Dar ul Iftah resulting in the late 1970s in the admission of students in Ummul Qura University and Medina University for graduation in Arabic Language and Sharia. Relation with Saudi Arabia developed further in the 1980s when those students graduated in Saudi Universities were employed as Daees for enhancing the knowledge of Islam and Arabic in Mauritius. In 1983 the newly elected government in Mauritius embarked on a policy of systematic boycott of Muslims, barring them from jobs in both private & public sector. The Islamic Association known as Students Islamic Movement (now Islamic Society of Mauritius) acted as agent for Saudi Oger Company which provided jobs to hundreds of unemployed Muslims.

It is worth noted also that the first Arab Imam of the Jummah Mosque was a Saudi, Imam Hammad of Medina Munawwara. He officiated in the 1950s. But the Muslim daee and scholar of Saudi origin who left his prints in the history of Muslims in Mauritius is no doubt Maulana Abdul Rashid Nawab, a former teacher of the Nizam of Hyderabad. He set up madrassas in Mauritius to teach the Islamic faith and Arabic to the very young in the 1920s and gave training to future daees and imams. His madrassa in Port Louis is known as The Muslim High School .It has now developed into a remarkable Islamic association catering for both Islamic and secular studies. He died in 1951 and is buried in Mauritius

Among other Muslim countries is Egypt that became close to Mauritius especially after the OCAM Conference and the OAU Summit that led to the subsequent opening of the Libyan embassy in Mauritius. Relation with Egypt at first was limited to scholarships to students for Islamic studies at Al Azhar University and Medicine at Cairo and Alexandria University. Today trade relationship is well developed with Egypt and Muslim traders import Foodstuffs, electrical products and construction materials on large scale.

It should be noted that in the 1970s Mauritius was economically very weak and the country wanted to establish ties with the rich Arab countries. Hence even Iraq sent Arabic teachers to teach at the primary school. In 1984 the Libyan embassy was closed and its ambassador was expelled manu militari in a wake of anti Muslim political euphoria. Gradually the contract of the Iraqi teachers was not renewed.

Relation with other countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey was limited to tertiary education, the government of those countries offering each a handful of scholarships for studies of science in their universities. Since 1986 scholarships were obtained in the field of Medicine and Engineering in Tunisia through the Islamic Development Bank of Jeddah in partnership with the Islamic Society of Mauritius (SIM). Lately Turkey has become a trade partner of Mauritius mainly in foodstuffs and construction materials through Muslim traders.

As trade started to develop with Asia in the late 1980s, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were the prized countries for Muslim traders. Today Malaysia has topped them all both in commerce and education. Many students and traders, Muslims and non-Muslims as well, are turning to Malaysia as their preferred destination for tertiary education and business. The Islamic Society of Mauritius (SIM) had tried hard in the late 1980s and in the 1990s to convince Malaysian bankers to open an Islamic bank in Mauritius. At present the government is showing a great interest in the establishment of an Islamic Financial System in Mauritius and joyfully it is a Malaysian expert, Dato Ahmad Tajuddin Abdur Rahman, who has been contracted by the Islamic Development Bank as special assistance to the Bank of Mauritius.

The Islamic Republic of Comores is another country worth mentioning as trading partner of Mauritius but trade is still in its infancy and one- way traffic in favour of Mauritius. The country has also benefited funds from the Kuwait Fund for Development to finance infrastructure projects.

5. Muslim Organisations

Freedom to believe, practice, propagate, assemble, associate and educate is embedded in the Constitution of Mauritius. Extracts of the relevant provisions are shown in the caption below:

Taking this into consideration, the Muslim Community of Mauritius has enjoyed the privilege of setting up and running organisations in the country for the purpose of practising religious obligations, propagating Islam, educating the community and providing welfare ever since the arrival of the first Muslims on the island. Thus as far back as 1805, the first mosque was built and to date there are about 200 mosques for a population of nearly 200,000 – adults and children, male and female included. These are managed usually by committees set up by the Musallis or organisations formed for that purpose. They are registered officially with the Waqf Board, which is a body appointed by Government.

Early in our history, the Muslim business community has set up organisations grouping its business people often based on ethnic origin rather than business type or enterprise. Organisations such as the Cutchee Meiman Sunnee Mussulman Society (1852) and Surtee Sunnee Mussulman Society (1890) are still in existence. The community has strived to set up schools for religious studies in the first instance like the Muslim High School, in addition to madrassahs which are traditionally attached to mosques. Furthermore, primary and secondary schools such as the Madad ul Islam College, Islamic Cultural College, Aleemiah College, which in addition to imparting Islamic values, follow government secular curriculum, have been established. The latest addition is the Doha primary, secondary and tertiary education institution, a project partly funded by the State of Qatar.

Side by side with the above-mentioned institutions, Islamic Movements and Associations were set up in the seventies and earlier in line with similar movements internationally, to cater for the revival of Islam as a dynamic force to uplift the spiritual values of Islam that was much neglected at that time. Such movements as the Islamic Circle, the Students Islamic Movement, later to be known as SIMOI (Société Islamique des Mascareignes et de l’océan indien), the Women Islamic Movement etc. are still in existence and working on the Da’wah scene. International Organisations such as the World Islamic Mission, the Tablighi Jamaat and others have also set foot on the island. With the help of the Islamic Development Bank the SIMOI has launched the first Islamic Institute of Education and Training (IIET) that caters for the education and training needs of the Muslim Community.

Today, the country is somewhat inundated with Islamic organisations which unfortunately have thrived on the differences in schools of thought, exacerbated by the influx of students who have studied Islam at various universities in India, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Signs of intolerance have unfortunately appeared in the Mauritian Muslim scenery. Some are highly influenced by extremist movements or thoughts. Fortunately there are some moderate organisations or movements who try to shed light on living Islam in a non Muslim environment and inculcate in the Muslim the need to do da’wah by example, viz. to become an exemplary citizen of the country.

On the social and welfare front, numerous organisations have been set up to deal with collection and distribution of Zakaat. The main organisation in this field is the Islamic Welfare Foundation. Many of these organisations are recognised officially as charitable organisations and are registered with Government. As such, people contributing in these charities were eligible until last year to tax deduction.

To date, as long as they dwell within limits set by the Constitution of Mauritius and do not indulge in acts or activities likely to initiate or spread disorder and chaos, Islamic associations or movements are accepted by the Government and are free to operate. A Registry of Associations exists at the level of Government
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