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Who are Muslim Indo-Caribbeans?

Written by: Karimah Rahman

This article will serve as the first article in a four part series entitled Marginalization of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans and why Muslim Indo-Caribbean Thoughtful Representation is so Important! All the articles in this series can be viewed as pieces of a puzzle that would not be whole unless all are read to give proper context to the marginalization of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans.

Muslim Indo-Caribbeans can be defined as those who self-identify as both Muslim and Indo-Caribbean simultaneously.

This is usually within the context and positionality of descending from Musalman (Muslim) indentured labourers displaced by colonization from Hindostan (present-day South Asia) to the Caribbean since 1838 or descending from indentured labourers who were not Muslim and more recently chose the path of Islam. Not all those who self-identify as Muslim Indo-Caribbean descended from indentured labourers, there are cases of those who left Hindostan to the Caribbean with agency such as business owners, traders, sailors and merchants or more recent migrants from South Asia/ India post partition (1947) who self-identify as Muslim and are located in the Caribbean or their descendants.

The approximately half a million South Asian/ Indian indentured labourers displaced to the Caribbean were predominantly Hindu at 85% with Muslim indentured labourers forming a large minority (some reports of 14% and 16%, (80,000)) and were composed of many intersectional identities. Indentured labourers (including Muslim Indentured labourers) were predominantly (~85%) from Northern India, spoke Indo-Arayan languages (such as Urdu, Bhojpuri, Awadhi etc.) and boarded ships at the Calcutta port (referred to as kalkatiyas). They were predominantly from the North-Western Provinces and Oudh and the Bengal Presidency under the British Raj in mainly present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar regions. A sizable minority (~15%) of indentured labourers (including Muslim indentured labourers) came from Southern India, spoke Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam etc.) and boarded at the Madras as well as Pondicherry ports (referred to as madrasis/ madrassis). A majority of this minority were from the Madras Presidency under the British Raj, predominantly in present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

  1. This displacement from Hindostan (present-day South Asia) carries ranges of unfree displacement (some were stolen and deceived) or unfreedom and varying levels of agency.

  2. Hindostan can be defined as the “territory colonized by the British Raj (pre-partition British colonized India) that lies in present-day South Asia (India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives (and at times Myanmar)”.

  3. Barbados also has a Muslim Indo-Caribbean population established in its early years by those who migrated with agency from Hindostan as buisness owners, traders and merchants.

  4. I include South Asia rather than solely saying India since “indentured labourers left the territory known as Hindostan colonized by the British Raj that lies not only in present-day India but in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal among other countries that are termed South Asia collectively (ex: Bhutan, Maldives and at times Myanmar). Displaced indentured labourers did not solely originate from the present-day country India (a majority did) but some originated from other countries in South Asia”, therefore the descendants of indentured labourers have ancestry in locations other than India. Although there are criticisms surrounding the problematic and colonial nature of the term South Asia (and South Asian), since many do not know the locations of their ancestral roots, South Asia becomes a point of reference that can be used that encompasses all the possibilities of ancestry without having to single out India solely, since indentured labourers have ancestry in locations other than India (such as Pathan indentured labourers with origins in present-day Afghanistan).

  5. Adivasis, indigenous and scheduled tribes such as dhangars/ ‘hill coolies from the Choto Nagpur district in southern Bihar (Bengal and Orissa) of the Bengal Presidency, formed a minority and were actually the largest group represented in the early years of indenture to British Guiana (Guyana) and Jamaica. The 1% other (if looking at the 85 and 14%) is represented by Christians. Sikhs, Buddists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsee/ Parsi) and those who follow the Baha'i faith are largely unaccounted for in the archival records.

  6. Madrasis/ madrassis is a racial slur towards Southern Indians and it was used to document the ‘race’ of Southern Indians in the archival records. Southern Indian indentured labourers who spoke Dravidian languages form a majority of the indentured labourers displaced under French colonization primarily from the Pondicherry port displaced to French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique etc.

A majority of Muslim indentured labourers were predominantly Sunni of the Hanafi madhab of fiqh (school of jurisprudence) with a small Shiite, Sufi and Ahmadiyyah minority. The largest caste represented among Hindu indentured labourers in the Caribbean are low castes/ dalits. The same can be said among Muslims (and Christans) but the caste breakdown on the Emigration Passes was only provided for Hindus, thus making low castes/ dalits the majority represented overall across religions if Muslim and Christian caste breakdowns are included. Muslims are not included in the caste breakdown since there is a perception that there is no caste system among Muslims (and Christians) in South Asia/ India. There are still existing sub-hierarchical caste systems that were maintained from Hinduisim in Muslim and Christian communities despite Islam and Christianity being officially against the caste system in scripture.

Muslims are separated in a caste-based hierarchy of Ashraf (upper caste), Ajlaf/ Azlaf(lower caste) andArzal(Dalit Muslims). Along with Dalits, Muslim South Asian/ Indian communities are also comprised of scheduled tribes, Adivasis and indigenous communities as well."

Muslims are separated in a caste-based hierarchy of Ashraf (upper caste, foreign, noble, royalty or descending from the family of the Prophet PBUH) such as Sayyad/Syeds, Sheikhs and Pathans whom can be viewed as the equivalent of Brahmins, then Ajlaf/ Azlaf (lower caste, shudra Muslims with Indian ancestry) and finally Arzal (Dalit Muslims with Indian ancestry). The majority of Muslim Indians, ~85% are considered backward castes comprised of Ajlaf/ Azlaf (lower caste) and Arzal (Dalit), with the overwhelming majority at ~75 % of Muslim Indians as Arzal (dalit) specifically.

Indentured labourers were displaced from Hindostan to the Caribbean under British colonization (to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana (British Guiana), Jamaica, Belize (British Honduras), Saint Lucia, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the British Virgin Islands etc.), under French colonization (to French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique etc.), under Dutch colonization (to Suriname etc.) and Danish colonization (St. Croix) with Muslims among them. The Caribbean became a location with a large Indo-Caribbean (including Muslim Indo-Caribbean) population descending from mainly these indentured labourers. These Indo-Caribbeans (including Muslim Indo-Caribbeans) then engaged in another migration predominantly after independence from the Caribbean to locations such as Canada, the United States, Europe (such as England) and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East among other locations. Indo-Caribbeans (including Muslim Indo-Caribbeans) have also migrated across the Caribbean to other Caribbean countries (some even staying for generations).

This makes Muslim Indo-Caribbeans a community twice removed (from Hindostan and the Caribbean), a diaspora (South Asian/ Indian) within a diaspora (Caribbean) within a diaspora (Muslim) or a minority (Muslims in India/ South Asia) within a minority (Indo-Caribbeans in the Caribbean) within a minority (Muslim Indo-Caribbeans within Indo-Caribbeans).

  1. Other sources that mention lower castes and dalits as the largest caste represented in the breakdown among South Asian/ Indian indentured labourers (mainly referring to among Hindus) in the Caribbean are Wood cf. Jha (1974), Jain (1989), Seenaraine (1996), Gosine and Naraine (1999) and Bahadur (2017). It is important to note that the figures for castes recorded will not be entirely accurate since it is popularly known that many indentured labourers would change their caste when recorded on the official documents before boarding the ships, at the depots or when they disembark as an opportunity to move up the social ladder when displaced from Hindostan’s shores, so the total number of lower caste/ dalits may be even larger. It is also important to note that a large portion of indentured labourers displaced in the early years to the Caribbean such as to British Guiana (Guyana) and Jamaica were Adivasis, indigenous and from scheduled tribes (such as dhangars/ ‘hill coolies from the Choto Nagpur district in southern Bihar (Bengal and Orissa) of the Bengal Presidency), yet these communities are not included in these demographic breakdowns such as by Wood cf. Jha (1974), Jain (1989), Seenaraine (1996), Gosine and Naraine (1999) and Bahadur (2017). This begs the question; were these communities included in the indentured population breakdown?, were they placed in the dalit and lower caste category in previous research?, or were they simply unaccounted for? It is important to note that there are Adivasis’, indigenous peoples and those from scheduled tribes who self-identify as Muslim as well.

  2. Each of these caste umbrella categories of Ashraf, Ajlaf/ Azlaf and Arzal are intersectional categories composed of various sub-castes and positionalities as well.

The countries with the largest Muslim Indo-Caribbean populations in the Caribbean are Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname.

They form the overwhelming main popularized representation of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans (including in the diaspora). This leaves all other Muslim Indo-Caribbean populations/ locations (including in the diaspora) largely invizibilized such as the French Muslim Indo-Caribbean community. This popularized representation of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans are mainly of indentured labourers displaced from the Calcutta port as well as their descendants, who were Sunni (with the exception of the Shiite representation of Hosay), North Indian (from the North-Western Provinces, Oudh and Bengal Presidency/ present-day Uttar Pradesh/ Bihar) spoke Indo-Arayan languages (including Urdu) and were upper caste (predominantly Pathan representation). This allows Urdu to have the largest linguistic influence, North Indian the largest cultural influence, and Sunni the largest religious influence (with the exception of Hosay amog the Shiite minority) on Muslim Indo-Caribbean representation based on being the majority among Muslim indentured labourers.

Muslim Indo-Caribbeans are "not a monolithic or homogeneous group or community but comprised of multiple intersectional truths, identities, positionalities and lived experiences based on various cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, languages, gender identities, sexual identities, abilities, socio-economic statues etc.". Self-identification with being a Muslim Indo-Caribbean is based within a wide gamut of what each individual believes being Muslim/ Muslim-ness and Indo-Caribbean/ Indo-Caribbean-ness is and what these identities mean to them based on their multiple intersectional truths, identities, positionalities and lived experiences. Self-identification with being Muslim/ Muslim-ness comes within a wide gamut or degree of ‘practicing/ non-practicing’, ‘religiousity/ non-religiousity’, ‘spirituality/ non-spirituality’ (these terms mean different things to each individual) as well as cultural attatchments and everything in between. Self-identification with being Muslim Indo-Caribbean can include having at least one parent (or grandparent) that is Muslim or being of mixed ancestry with at least one ancestor being a Muslim indentured labourer displaced to the Caribbean. Self-identification with being Muslim Indo-Caribbean also includes a wide gamut of relationality to/ or not to the West Indies/ West Indian-ness, Caribbean/ Caribbean-ness, India/ Indian-ness, South Asia/ South Asian-ness and where a home/ homeland (or multiple homes/ homelands) lie.

Each person claims/ does not claim, chooses to self-identify/ or not to self-identify differently with these identities based on their intersectional positionality, lived experiences and relationality to these various identities.

One can self-identify with multiple identities or homes simultaneously with each identity meaning something different to each person. All these identities are not a dichotomy where one must choose one or the other and loyalty or ‘authenticity’ should not be lessened in identification with multiple identities simultaneously. No self-identification or claim is ‘more’ Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean) than another. Simultaneous identification with being Caribbean or West Indian does not make you any less Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean) and it should not be assumed as such. Same goes for simultaneous identification with being Indian and/or South Asian, that does not make you any less attached to being Caribbean or Indo-Caribbean (or even Muslim Indo-Caribbean) and it should not be assumed as such. We must be critical of those who act as gatekeepers or play purity/ ‘authenticity’ politics in relation to giving more validity to certain expressions of Muslim Indo-Caribbean-ness (and Indo-Caribbean-ness) over others. One form of identification or claim to being Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean) is not the ‘only way’ or the ‘right way’ to self-identify or claim Muslim Indo-Caribbean-ness (or Indo-Caribbean-ness) and no one should say that there is only one way. No one should act as the gatekeeper enforcing who and how one can self-identify as Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean). Everyone has their own journey of self-identification with being Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean) and everyone’s journey is different based on their intersectional truths, identities, positionalities and lived experiences. Each of our journeys in self-identification as a Muslim Indo-Caribbean (or Indo-Caribbean) is valid and no one’s journey should be belittled. As long as this self-identification is not due to oppressive reasoning such as racism (such as Anti-Black Racism) or promotes cultural appropriation (such as the cultural appropriation of Black/ Afro-Caribbean or Indigenous cultures).

By sharing our journeys and stories of self-identification as Muslim Indo-Caribbeans (or Indo-Caribbeans) we can learn more about our intersectional complexities and nuances as a community, learn, unlearn and heal so we don’t perpetuate problematic hierarchies of self-identification within our community.

The content from this article can be viewed in the video below or on both Karimah Rahman's personal Instagram (@karimah_kr) or on The Muslim Indo-Caribbean Collective (MICC) Instagram page (@muslimindocaribbeancollective) from a @lotustoronto1 IG Live. The links are below.

Series: Marginalization of Muslim Indo-Caribbeans and why Muslim Indo-Caribbean Thoughtful Representation is so Important!

First Article: Who are Muslim Indo-Caribbeans?

Second Article: Muslim Indo-Caribbean Marginalization: In Indo-Caribbean, Indentured Diasporic, Caribbean, West Indian, Indian, South Asian and Muslim Spaces

Third Article: Muslim Indo-Caribbean Marginalization in Indo-Caribbean Spaces

Fourth Article: Muslim Indo-Caribbean Marginalization: The Establishment of the Muslim Indo-Caribbean Collective (MICC) and How to Engage in Solidarity with Muslim Indo-Caribbeans


Karimah Rahman (@karimah_kr) is currently pursuing a PhD in Policy Studies in the Immigration, Settlement and Diaspora Policy Stream at Ryerson University. Karimah’s research focuses on intersectional marginalization, lack of thoughtful representation and Anti-Muslim Racism towards Muslim Indo-Caribbeans in Indo-Caribbean, Indentured Diasporic, Indian and South Asian spaces due to problematic purity/ ‘authenticity’ politics. The legacy of Muslim Indo-Caribbean resistance to colonization and journey of learning, unlearning and decolonizing. Karimah’s research includes the marginalization of Indo-Caribbeans and the Indentured Diaspora by Mainland South Asians/ Indians from an intersectional perspective due to problematic purity/ ‘authenticity’ politics and coined The South Asian/ Indian ‘Authenticity’/ ‘Purity’ Hierarchy Theory to unpack this. Karimah’s research is predominantly within a Canadian context such as with the 2001 South Asian Heritage Act that Indo-Caribbeans can be attributed to lobbying/ grassroots mobilizing for but are invisibilized in its implementation during South Asian Heritage Month. Karimah is the founder/ curator of The Muslim Indo-Caribbean Collective (MICC) (@muslimindocaribbeancollective), a published spoken word artist, writer and Managing Editor of the Identity Politics and Belonging cluster for The Migration Initiative’s article publications (@themigrationinitiative).

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