Does Haiti have a hidden Muslim heritage?

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2024 marks the 220th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution. The New Arab examines how Muslims were involved, and how Islam may have influenced Haitian cultures.

On December 25, 1522, over a dozen enslaved Africans launched an attack against their captors on the island of Hispaniola, which is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

This event resulted in the liberation of other enslaved individuals and marked the inaugural recorded slave revolt in the New World.

The repercussions of this uprising were profound, prompting Charles the Fifth of Spain to prohibit the transport of ‘slaves’ suspected of having Islamic affiliations to the plantation-based colonies in the Americas.

The 1835 Malê Rebellion in Brazil, recognised as a Muslim-led slave rebellion, unfolded on a Sunday during Ramadan in the northeastern enclave of Bahia.

According to Harvard’s Divinity School, the captured rebels adorned themselves in Muslim attire, including head coverings and long white tunics.

Additionally, they carried prayer beads and Quranic amulets on their persons, believed to offer protection.

This may underscore the significant involvement of Muslims in slave rebellions during the Transatlantic slave trade which spanned from the 16th to the 19th centuries and led to the trafficking of over twelve million Africans to the Americas.

Scholars estimate that approximately one-third of these individuals were Muslims, many of whom lost their lives during the perilous Middle Passage.

The Haitian Revolution, which took place between 1791 and 1804, stands out as the most successful slave revolt in history, involving enslaved Africans and liberated Black individuals.

This revolutionary wave served as an inspiration for subsequent slave uprisings, including the 1800 Richmond slave rebellion in Richmond and the earlier mentioned Malê Revolt in Brazil.

Key figures in the Haitian Revolution, such as Toussaint L’Overture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Francois Makandal, Dutty Boukman, and Cecille Fatima, employed guerilla warfare tactics to disrupt French mercantilism and governance on the island.

Despite the pivotal role played by these figures, questions arise about the presence of Muslims dating back to the Haitian Revolution and its implications for the enduring influence of Islam on the island today.

Exploring this historical aspect provides valuable insights into the multifaceted role Islam played in shaping the dynamics of resistance and cultural continuity during this transformative period.

Portrait of Toussaint Louverture, chromolithograph by George DeBaptiste, c.1870 [photo credit: Getty Images]

Clues in Arabic?

The Arabic language is one of the ways historians and anthropologists have determined the presence of Islam and Muslims during the Middle Ages and the pre-modern era, in the Caribbean and the Americas.

A more striking example of this is Omar Ibn Said, a Fulani scholar who was taken as a slave to the United States, and whose life story is the subject of the only Arabic autobiography by an enslaved person.

This is also true for Caribbean islands like Haiti. An 18th-century physician and historian Michel Étienne Descourtilz described a man in his mid-forties in Haiti as having once been a ‘priest’ and teacher to the sons of an African king, who wrote down for him a prayer in some twenty lines of Arabic.

It’s why some historians believe African Muslims participated in the Haitian Revolution. In Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Sylviane A. Diouf mentions nineteenth-century Haitian historian Thomas Madiou who describes Makandal as charismatic, skilled and who “had instruction and possessed the Arabic language very well.”

Boukman who is said to have arrived in Haiti from Jamaica “ had an English name that was rendered phonetically in French by Boukman or Boukmann; in English, however, it was Bookman.

Boukman was a “man of the book,” as the Muslims were referred to even in Africa — in Sierra Leone, for example, explained by an English lieutenant, the Mandinka were “prime ministers” of every town, and they went “by the name bookman.”

Historian Danjuma Bihari tells The New Arab these conclusions do not have a far-reaching consensus in the historiography, but say they give an insight into Muslim cultural and social influences in the region.

“The earliest source I have come across on the Maroon leader, François Makandal, is from The Black Jacobins, the magnum opus of the Trinidadian scholar, CLR James,” Bihari explains.

“Nowhere in The Black Jacobins is Makandal referred to as a Muslim or a scholar of Arabic. The name ’Makandal’ was initially attributed to the French derivation of the Congolese name, ‘Makandala’. (But) recent linguistic scholarship has identified Makandal as a Muslim.”

Another clue is that it was not uncommon for Maroons, runaway slaves who built separatist communities on Caribbean islands and South America, to retain names that pointed to their ethnic and religious origin.

“In Jamaica, the names of the leaders of the First Maroon War point to an Akan, perhaps even Asante heritage. On the island of Dominica, (there was) a Maroon leader called ‘Balla’, a name that suggests Wolof origins. It is also a name associated with Muslims, just as in Suriname there were two Maroon leaders, ZamZam and Araby. (But) these ‘Muslim’ names may (also) indicate contact with Muslims rather than actual conversion to Islam,” Bihari adds.

Syncretism

This can be best understood by examining the syncretic nature of religious expressions in the Caribbean and South America, which evolved as strategic adaptations by enslaved Africans.

These expressions represented a form of ‘survivalism,’ allowing individuals to uphold their spiritual beliefs, which had been prohibited by colonial governments.

While acknowledging that there were enslaved African Muslims adhered to the sunnah or path of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it’s important to recognise that religious syncretism also existed in Africa before the era of slavery, that it endured as a feature of life for some of those that were enslaved, and that it is, therefore, a historical pathway for tracing the enduring Muslim presence on the islands.

Anne M. Jennings argues the amalgamation of traditional beliefs and Islam was how some African communities interpreted Islamic spirituality, and that this was not only prevalent in West Africa but in other parts of the continent.

Zar or ‘spirit’ possession cults are popular in countries like Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, where belief in supernatural beings aligns with the belief in jinn and angels in Islam.

The Nubians’ veneration of nature prevailed within the new belief system when Islam was introduced. For instance, water and dates hold a special value in Nubian culture, just like in Islam where the water ritual is performed before prayer and the consumption of dates is part of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

In Haiti, this form of syncretism came to support a spiritual ecosystem that included Voodoo religion and Islam.

“Voodou, as practised in Haiti, is a product of the dissipated remnants of Islam which left the Africans after years of neglect and inability to practice their faith accordingly, combined with the elements of the animist pantheon and ancestor worship faiths and Catholicism,” blogger Pascal Robert writes for The Huffington Post.

Music is another area where certain Islamic ideals are expressed through lyrics, musical styles and organising principles of Haitian Voodoo music.

LeGrace Benson reveals in her article Qismat on the Names of Allah in Haitian Vodou‘ that at least one Haitian priestess or manbo has described some songs including Islamic phrases like “As-salaam alaikum,” or alterations like “A salaam alay.” 

Aisha Khan’s argument in Islam, Vodou, and the Afro-Atlantic World underscores that Islamic practices were an integral part of the diverse religious landscape in the New World.

The disruption caused by chattel slavery to continental African beliefs and culture may offer insight into why a cohesive Muslim presence did not emerge in Haiti and other Caribbean islands during and after the Haitian Revolution. This absence had significant implications for understanding the trajectory of Islam in that hemisphere.

As Michel Gomez notes in The Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas, as cited by Khan, the Muslim population in Haiti was likely too small, too assimilated into Saint-Domingue society, and religiously syncretic to sustain a distinctively Muslim identity.

Griyo: Food link to West Africa

Irrespective of their diverse backgrounds, all Haitian communities engage in the practice of using food to commemorate their country’s revolutionary history, with some culinary traditions serving as tributes to the island’s West African Muslim heritage.

At the forefront of these culinary connections is Griyo, Haiti’s national dish and a popular street food snack. Comprising pork, lemon, red beans, rice, pickled cabbage, and fried plantain, Griyo is believed to derive its name from the island’s connection to the griots of West Africa.

These griots, encompassing traditional storytellers, oral historians, and musicians, have historical ties to various West African groups, including the Mandinka people of Mali and the Fulani, Serer, Hausa, and Mauritania Arabs in other regions.

Griots play a significant role as a bridge between the past and present, serving as the custodians of their community’s history. They are entrusted with recounting genealogies, myths, legends, and historical events through mediums such as songs, poetry, and storytelling.

A theory about why this dish was named after these storytellers is that Griyo was a food reserved for rich people in pre-revolutionary Haiti. This not only reflects how African Griots were considered a notable caste of people, but this mirrors the status that Griots had in West Africa.

One of these is joumou soup, a broth made up of meat, vegetables, pasta and squash, that’s eaten at the start of the new year to mark the start of the Haitian Revolution.  Cultural anthropologist Bertin Louis Junior says enslaved Africans were forbidden from eating the dish which was reserved for plantation owners. But on January 1 1804, the wife of revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines encouraged Black Haitians to eat the soup.

While there is no concrete evidence of a direct link, Joumou bears resemblance to broth dishes like Ebe found in some Muslim-majority West African countries such as Sierra Leone, where it is primarily consumed during Ramadan and for commemorative purposes. Like joumou, ebe features meat, and vegetables, and is cooked with squash, yams, and plantain.

Haiti: Bilal’s conversion

While the island is home to a small minority of Arab-descended people from Middle Eastern countries like Syria, there is a growing number of African-descended Haitians turning to the Islamic faith, particularly in the capital Port-Au-Prince. According to some estimates, there are at least 5,000 Haitians who have converted to Islam in the past two decades. 

One of them is Bilal Habashi, a 33-year-old imam and da’ee (inviter to Islam) living in Port-Au-Prince where he converted to Islam in 2006.

He tells The New Arab it was when he travelled into the capital from his village home that he began to meet Muslims. 

“I had a lack of knowledge of Islam having grown up in rural Haiti. I was a Christian, more specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. It was not until a friend of mine called Karbala introduced me to (another) Muslim from Egypt who was a peacekeeper in the country and happened to speak French. He introduced me to Islam,” Bilal tells The New Arab.

Following his conversion, Bilal gained more insight into the religion that led him down the path to seeking knowledge, and thereafter becoming an imam and community leader of his community.

Part of this included overseeing the completion of the mosque, Masjid ul Shaheed in 2021, where he regularly delivers Friday sermons.

He is also the founder of the Madinah Orphanage and Academy in the capital which hosts hundreds of orphans that are taught how to read the Qur’an and learn Arabic, and other Islamic rituals.

Mosques are a sprawling indicator of Islam’s growing popularity in Haiti, where in 2016, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship officially listed 36 mosques and around 50 madrassas or Quranic schools.

Bilal Al Habashi in Chalon Miragoane, Haiti, 2006 [photo credit: Bilal Al Habashi]

In the Caribbean, particularly in countries like Guyana, Indian Muslims played a pivotal role in constructing mosques. Examples include the Queenstown Jama Masjid, founded in the latter part of the 19th century by Indian indentured servants.

Similarly, in Jamaica, the first mosque, Masjid Ar-Rahman in Spanish Town, was built in 1957 by Indian immigrant Mohammed Khan, showcasing the significant contribution of Indian Muslims to the establishment of Islamic places of worship in the region.

Bilal tells me that all of the mosques and other Islamic institutions on the island have been established by Black Haitian Muslims which is a stark difference from the promulgation of Sunni Islam by Asian and Arab migrants as mentioned.

He goes on to say that part of the growing influence of Islam in Haiti comes from a long-standing relationship between the two.

“The language that we speak is Haitian Creole- a language that the ancestors created among themselves to communicate against the French who enslaved them. Certain Arabic words are used like Muslim men call each other ‘aki’. It’s part of our lexicon, especially in the ghetto areas. (So in becoming Muslim) we Haitians say that we are coming back to our roots,” Bilal explains.

Masjid Omar Wajid established in 2023 [photo credit: Bilal Al Habashi]

Those ‘roots’ are also grounded in how Muslim Haitians in the present day view the revolution’s place in the country’s relationship with Islam.

On a preliminary trip to Haiti, Khan explains that she met Haitian Muslims on a preliminary research trip who challenged traditional interpretations of the Bois Caiman ceremony through an Islamic lens.

They say ‘Bois Caiman’ is in fact ‘Bois Kay Imam’ which means ‘the first by the imam’s house’. That it was not a ceremony but a ‘khutba’ and that it happened on Eid-ul Adha. A pig was not slaughtered because it would have been too noisy for a secret meeting, rather it was a lamb and that ‘voodoo’ comes from the word ‘wudu’ which is the ritual washing performed before daily obligatory prayers performed by Muslims.

“In many Haitian Muslims’ point of view, rather than perceiving Haiti as a place that needs Islam to improve, (it’s) a place to which Islam is logically suited. One might perhaps call this a Haitian nationalist Islam, where local cultural history is not eclipsed by or in competition with religion but instead is central to it,” Khan says.

Haiti’s potential Muslim heritage unveils a rich tapestry of historical and cultural influences that have shaped the island’s identity. From the roots of the Haitian Revolution to the syncretic expressions of Islam and the culinary tributes in Haitian cuisine, the journey through Haiti’s past reveals the enduring presence and impact of Islam.

The intertwining threads of history, language, and religious syncretism paint a nuanced picture of the connections between Haiti and Islam.

The establishment of mosques, such as Masjid ul Shaheed overseen by Bilal Habashi, reflects the growing influence of Islam in Haiti, with a noteworthy emphasis on the contribution of Black Haitian Muslims which exemplifies the evolving landscape of Islam in Haiti, where a growing number of African-descended Haitians are turning to the Islamic faith.

Adama Juldeh Munu is an award-winning journalist who’s worked with TRT World, Al-Jazeera, the Huffington Post, Middle East Eye and Black Ballad. She writes about race, Black heritage and issues connecting Islam and the African diaspora

Follow her on Twitter: @adamajmunu





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