By Dr. Geoffrey Cook for The Muslim Observer -
Haiti is a benighted country that your author knows well having made working journeys there, and serving on a Committee in my home State of California to support that nation in her struggles (the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere) for over a decade now.
The information your essayist is to relay was a surprise to me, too, although I had intended to write about a slave rebellion that a Muslim led during the early history of Creole Hispaniola for the Observer a year and a half ago, but I could not trace the references down even in the largest academic library in Western North America which is literarily down the street from me. With the Internet, though, I have been able to trace the history and condition of the religion on the western half of that nation’s island.
Islam came at the earliest period of the then Colony by the importation of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa. As the current distressing rioting in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims demonstrates, there is a significant population of Muslims from West Africa. From an historian’s point of view, the fact that the middle men in the slave trade were Arabs (Muslims) is most disturbing.
Much of the early accounts are confused by 200 years of oral tradition (many times relayed memory), legend and mythology. There are two mangled accounts of rebellion, but they were in another French isle in the Caribbean, Martinique, that became associated with the Haitians. One says that the leader still wanders around Saint-Dominique, as Haiti was called then. This is no more than mythology.
Many Muslim slaves from West Africa were forcibly baptized, but there is a belief that the Maroons (any group of slaves descended from fugitive slaves from the Seventeenth through Eighteenth Centuries) mainly held onto their Islamic beliefs. One such slave, Dutta Boukman, who was smuggled in from Jamaica, received his name because he could read, and his French masters reported he read upside down which indicated he most likely was reading Arabic and, at that, feasibly, the Koran. This description is an unquestionable fact although legend claims he was a Voo-Doo priest, but “revisionist” Haitian scholarship suspects that he was a Muslim. Nonetheless, his death by decapitation in a 1791 rebellion, which he commanded, raised the demand, again, that led for freedom and the finally successful Black Haitian Revolution for Independence in which the Muslims, who were instrumental in that War, spoke Arabic to confuse their enemies!
Before Dutta, another Maroon leader, a Marabout warrior in the Islamic tradition, François Macandal, too, attempted a rebellion, but was burned ghastly at the stake in 1758. The Mandingos, a distinct linguistic group, from West Africa, provided much of the leadership during the Haitian Revolution, and many of them were most definitely Muslims.
Islam had a vital impact at the birth of the Republic, and now it is beginning to assert itself once again. Various estimates are that the Muslim population in this Creole motherland is between 3500 and 7000. Most of the adherents to the faith live in Port-au-Prince earlier this month, where the majority of the death and destruction befell and the Mosquee Al-Fatiha stands (stood?), and the Bilal Mosque and an Islamic Center in the second largest city in the country, Cap Haitian, on the north coast is situated. (Cap Haitian, fortunately, was not impacted as much.) There are other places of worship locally maintained throughout the land mass although your writer has not been able to confirm the comprehensive condition of the community after the disaster on January 12th.
In the 1920s an influx of Arab immigrants entered Haiti from the Middle East – especially from Morocco although ethnically the largest of the Haitian Muslim population today are indigenous to their Caribbean country. Your researcher did trace down some individual North American Muslims, but not their demographics within the populace. Being an impoverished mixed assemblage, they were not able to construct their first Mosque until 1985. It was a built from a converted residence. The first minaret was built in 2000. Whether that minaret is standing has not been determined by your journalist, also.
Politically, the first Muslim to enter the Chamber of Deputies (i.e., their Congress) was Nawoon Marcellus on the Fanmi Lavalas ticket, the Left-leaning party led by President Aristide.
Your writer, who has gotten encouraging press releases from Islamic charities benefiting the citizens irrespective of belief, it is important to know that your Zakat is, further giving succor to your Muslim brothers and sisters. The figures (0.4of the population) and institutions your writer has mentioned may have drastically been decimated. After the situation has been solidified, rebuilding this small but burgeoning religious society remains.
Author's Note: We have just passed the fifth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. I wrote this at the time of the time of that tragedy. I am revisiting it in remembrance of that time and place: