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Caribbean Memories of Slavery and the Myths of Othman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate – Dr. Moshe Terdiman

March 15, 2013

Caribbean Memories of Slavery and the Myths of Othman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate


Dr. Moshe Terdiman – research fellow in the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa


The Caribbean Basin is formed out of 31 countries, which are classified linguistically into four regions including 19 English-speaking countries, 5 French-speaking countries, 3 Spanish-speaking countries, and 4 Dutch-speaking countries. Out of a total population of about 40 million, according to 2008 population estimates, only about 300,000 are Muslims. Small concentrations of Muslims can be found all over the Caribbean basin. However, the largest Muslim populations are in the English-speaking countries of Guyana, where they comprise approximately 13% of the overall population; and Trinidad & Tobago, where they comprise approximately 8% of the overall population; as well as in Suriname, which is a Dutch-speaking country, where there are nowadays about 120,000 Muslims, who comprise approximately 28% of the overall population.

The Muslims in the Caribbean Basin consist of three major groups: the Afro-Caribbean Muslims, who comprise between 60 to 70 percent of the overall Caribbean Muslims population, Muslims from the Sub-Indian Continent and Indonesia, and Muslims from the Middle East.

Nowadays, a process of Islamic revival takes place among Muslim communities in various parts of the Caribbean, and particularly among the Afro-Caribbean population. During the last thirty years or so, many Afro-Caribbeans have converted to Islam, Trinidad and Tobago has witnessed the rise of radical Islam among its Afro-Trinidadian population, and Afro-Carribean converts to Islam have been involved in terror attacks. The most famous of those involved in terror attacks was the Jamaica-born Germaine Maurice Lindsay, also known as Abdullah Shaheed Jamal following his conversion to Islam, who was one of the four who detonated bombs on three trains on the London Underground and on one bus in central London during the July 7, 2005 London bombings, killing 56 (including themselves) and injuring more than 700.

The aim of this lecture is to examine what is the role of past memories and myths concerning the posture of Islam in Africa as well as in the Americas in creating the processes of Islamic revival and conversion to Islam, which have been taking place among the Afro-Caribbean population.

Theoretical Background

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza wrote in his working paper titled “Africa and Its Diasporas: Remembering South America”, which was published in 2008, that “one critical measure of the Diaspora condition as a self-conscious identity lies in remembering, imagining and engaging the original homeland, whose own identity is, in part, constituted by and, in turn, help constitute the Diaspora… This dialectic in the inscriptions and representations of the homeland in the Diaspora and of the Diaspora in the homeland is the thread that weaves the histories of the Diaspora and the homeland together”.

The same researcher argued in 2005 that “Diaspora is a state of being and a process of becoming, a condition and consciousness located in the shifting interstices of “here” and “there”, a voyage of negotiation between multiple spatial and social identities. Created out of movement – dispersal from a homeland – the Diaspora is sometimes affirmed through another movement – engagement with the homeland. Movement, it could be argued then, in its literal and metaphorical senses, is at the heart of the diasporic condition, beginning with the dispersal itself and culminating with reunifaction. The spaces in between are marked by multiple forms of engagement between the Diaspora and the homeland, of movement, of travel between a “here” and a “there” both in terms of time and space; of substantive and symbolic, concrete and conceptual intersections and interpellations. The fluidity of these engagements is best captured by the notion of flow, that flows of several kinds and levels of intensity characterize the linkages between the homeland and the Diaspora. Flows can be heavy or light, they can be continuous, interrupted or change course, and may even be beneficial or baneful to their patrons or recipients at either end. All along they are subject to the unpredictable twists and turns of history. The Diaspora-homeland flows are, often simultaneously covert and overt, abstract and concrete, symbolic and real, and their effects may be sometimes disjunctive or conjunctive. The flows include people, cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, images and representations. In short, we can isolate six major flows: demographic flows, cultural flows, economic flows, political flows, ideological flows, and icongraphic flows”.

Cultural flows between Africa and many of its Diasporas in the America have been continuous and complex. Gerhard Kubik (1998) provides a useful typology that divides the interpretive schemes of Diaspora cultures into six categories, what he calls, first, biological reductionism, second, sociopsychological determinism, third, pseudo-historical reductionism, forth, historical particularism, fifth, cultural materialism, and, sixth, cultural diffusionism. It stands to reason that all these elements – the imagined ontologies of blackness, construction of racial hierarchies, selective appropriations of African memories and alterity, material imperatives of cultural change, and the diffusionist trails of cultural transfer – have played a role in the development of Diaspora cultures as distinctive cultures marked by similarities, differences, parallels, connections and exchanges with the numerous cultures of continental Africa. The communication and circulation of cultural practices and paradigms between Africa and its Diasporas have encompassed religion, education, literature, art, and music, to mention a few.

Religion has always played an important role in the lives of Africans both in the continent and in the Diaspora as they grapple with spiritual issues concerning ethics and morality, the sacred and profane, and the ultimate meanings of life and death that are tied, in complex and diverse ways, to the social challenges and discourses of daily existence. The traffic in religious ideas, institutions, and iconography has been particularly intense and compried an important aspect of the African Diasporic experience, identity, and linkages with Africa. In the histories of Diasporas religion has often functioned both “as a factor in forming diasporic social organization, as well as in shaping and maintaining diasporic identities” (Kokot et al. 2004: 7). Africans dispersed from the continent brought religious beliefs, rituals, and values into their new lands of settlement. Like all markers of identity, the nature and role of religion ebbed and flowed, changing over time, depending on local and international contexts as well as the shifting configuration of the religious ideas, institutions and interlocutors themselves.

The historic Diasporas brought with them two major religious traditions: first, those often referred to as “traditional”, “indigenous’, or “local” African religions that developed into what have come to be called “African derived religions”, and second, Islam. The latter was as African as the former. The tendency to treat Islam as non-African is based on essentialist notions of African cultural and religious authenticity or purity that are unsustainable on historical experiential grounds: for African Muslims their identity as Muslims and Africans is indivisible, one does not invalidate the other. 

Historical Background

The first Muslims who arrived at the Caribbean were Sub-Saharan Africans from West Africa, where Islam has been the dominant religious practice as early as from the tenth and eleventh centuries, who were enslaved to serve in the Caribbean plantations. Estimates of Muslims sold into slavery vary, ranging from 10 – 15 percent (Austin 1984: 32 – 36) to at least a third (Shelton 2002) of the overall Africans who went to the Americas. Sylviane Diouf suggests a figure of between 2.25 and 3 million Muslims sold of whom 15 to 20 percent were women. Many of the Muslims shipped to the Americas were victims of armed conflicts including the Marabouts wars in the Senegambian region in the late seventeenth century, the Jihads in the early nineteenth century in Hausaland, Kanem and Bornu, and the Oyo civil war of 1817 that resulted in large numbers of Yorubas including Muslims being sent into slavery. Others fell prey to abductions that hit Muslim clerics, students, teachers, traders and nobility particularly hard due to their high levels of mobility, so that while large numbers of uneducated Muslims were shipped to the Americas, Diouf (1998: 39) suggests that “a large proportion of the deported Africans came from the intellectual elite”.

The influence of the Muslims was probably much greater than their numbers. In the Americas many of the Muslims took leadership positions in slave society because they were literate, well-organized and enjoyed a sense of their superiority vis-à-vis other slaves, an attitude buttressed by the fact that they were more favorably viewed than other slaves by the slave owners, which sometimes became a source of tension between them and the non-Muslim slaves. Thanks to the spiritual, intellectual, and martial fortitude of the Muslims some of whom came from elite families in West Africa, Islam became a critical resource for cultural and political resistance.

Due to the severe conditions of slavery, most of these slaves gradually abandoned their Islamic religion and converted into Christianity. Yet, despite the forced baptism there were still West African Muslim slaves, who continued in spirit, if not in reality, to study and observe Islamic life. Some of them may have been caught up while on transit in search for knowledge or while engaged in jihad, for they arrived at their final destinations with Arabic manuscripts, concealed to avoid seizure from the ever suspecting white slave masters. A number of them appear to have come from West Africa.

Muslims were behind many of the slave revolts in the Americas. The first slave revolt in the history of the Americas occurred in 1522 in Hispaniola and was led by Wolof Muslims, who also rebelled in Puerto Rico, Panama, and Colombia. This prompted Spain to issue a royal decree in 1526, the first in a series of anti-Muslim legislation, forbidding the introduction of Wolofs “from Senegal, negros from the Levant, blacks who had been raised with the Moors, and people from Guinea” (Diouf 1998: 145). Muslims were leading and involved in slave revolts in Hispaniola (1522 – 1532), Mexico (1523), Cuba (1529), Panama (1550 – 1582), Venezuela (1550), Peru (1560), Guatemala (1627), Chile (1647), Martinique (1650), and much later Florida (1830 – 1840).

Muslims were also intimately involved in the great slave revolts of the nineteenth century. They provided critical leadership in the Haitian reolution. In Haiti, many of the Muslims who were forcibly converted to Catholicism retained their Islamic identities, while others lived in maroon communities where they often served as leaders. Two leading maroon figures of the revolution, Fracois Macandal and Boukman (originally from Jamaica), were most likely not only Muslims but also Marabouts. Diouf claims that “other marabouts, and Muslims in general, played a crucial role in the Haitian revolts, and ultimately in the Haitian revolution through their occult skills, literacy, and military traditions… Though their role has not been acknowledged, the Muslims were essential in the success of the Haitian revolution” (Diouf 1998: 153).

A Muslim also headed the slave island-wide rebellion in Jamaica between December 1831 and January 1832. This rebellion, misinterpreted as the Baptist War, is reported to be in response to the call for jihad made through Wathiqah, or Wathiqat Ahl Sudan,written by Shaihu Othman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817), who was the founder of the Sokoto Sultanate in 1809 as well as a religious teacher, writer, and Islamic reformer.

Othman Dan Fodio was one of a class of urbanized ethnic Fulani living in the Hausa States in what is today northern Nigeria. He was a teacher of the Maliki School of law and the Qadiriyyah order of Sufism. Dan Fodio was well-educated in classical Islamic science, philosophy and theology and became a revered religious thinker. His teacher, Jibril ibn ‘Umar, argued that it was the duty and within the power of religious movements to establish the ideal society free from oppression and vice. His teacher was a North African Muslim religious scholar who gave his apprentice a broader perspective of the Muslim reformist ideas in other parts of the Muslim world. Dan Fodio used his influence to secure approval to create a religious community in his hometown of Degel that would, Dan Fodio hoped, be a model town. He stayed there for 20 years, writing, teaching and preaching.

In 1802, the ruler of Gobir and one of Dan Fodio’s students, Yunfa, turned against him, revoking Degel’s autonomy and attempting to assassinate Dan Fodio. Dan Fodio and his followers fled into the western grassland of Gudu where they turned for help to the local Fulani nomads. After that, Yunfa turned for aid to the other leaders of the Hausa States, warning them that Dan Fodio could trigger a widespread Jihad.

Othman Dan Fodio was proclaimed Amir al-Mu’minin, or leader of the faithful, in Gudu. This made him a political as well as a religious leader, giving him the authority to declare and pursue a Jihad, raise an army and become its commander. A widespread uprising began in Hausaland. This uprising was largely composed of the Fulani, who held a powerful military advantage with their cavalry. It was also widely supported by the Hausa peasantry who felt over-taxed and oppressed by their rulers.

Othman started the Jihad against Gobir in 1804. The call for Jihad did not only reach other Hausa states such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria but also Borno, Gombe, Adamawa, Nupe and Ilorin. These were all places in what is currently northern Nigeria and Cameroon with major or minor groups of Fulani Muslim religious scholars. After only a few short years of the Fulani Jihad, Dan Fodio found himself in command of the largest state in Africa, the Fulani Empire. His son, Muhammad bello, and his brother, Abdullahi, carried out the Jihad and took care of the administration. Dan fodio worked to establish an efficient government grounded in Islamic law. After 1811, Othman retired and continued writing. After his death in 1817, his son, Muhammad Bello, succeeded him as Amir al-Mu’minin and became the ruler of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was the biggest state south of the Sahara at that time. Othman’s brother, Abdullahi, was given the title Emir of Gwandu and he was placed in charge of the Western Emirates, Nupe and Ilorin. Thus, all Hausa states, parts of Nupe, Ilorin and Fulani outposts in Bauchi and Adamawa were all ruled by a single politico-religious system.

Dan Fodio wrote more than a hundred books concerning religion, government, culture and society. He developed a critique of existing African Muslim elites for what he saw as their greed, paganism, or violation of the standards of Shari’ah Law, and heavy taxation. He encouraged literacy and scholarship, including for women, and several of his daughters emerged as scholars and writers. Some followers consider Dan Fodio to have been a Mujaddid, a divinely inspired “reformer of Islam”.

Dan Fodio’s Jihad followed the Jihads successfully waged in Futa Bundu, Futa Jalon, and Futa Toro, between 1650 and 1750, which led to the creation of those three Islamic states. In his turn, Dan Fodio inspired a number of later West African jihadi movements, including those of Masina Empire founder Seku Amadu, Toucouleur Empire founder Hajj Umar Tall who married one of Dan Fodio’s daughters, and Adamawa Emirate founder Modibo Adama.

One of Othman dan Fodio’s most inspiring writings was Wathiqah, or Wathiqat Ahl Sudan, which is considered to be by some Muslim religious scholars the manifest of the Islamic Jihad in the Hausa States. This document, which was written on the eve of the Jihad in Sokoto, was aimed at mobilizing the Jama’a for the Jihad. It therefore contained the reasons that necessitated Jihad in Hausaland and a passionate appeal to Muslims to come out to make Hijra and fight Jihad. Dan Fodio made clear the importance of the struggle for the establishment of an Islamic state. In this document, Dan Fodio called on the Muslims to wage Jihad in order to get rid of the corruption and to reinforce justice in the society. It also exhorted all Muslims to be true and faithful to religion if they wished to enter Paradise.

It is no surprise, then, that in the late 1820s, when the Wathiqah found its way into the New World and was circulated among the African Muslim slaves in Jamaica, it inspired them to rebel against their white owners. Some of the injustices and oppressions in the slave plantations must have had some resemblance to the ones addressed to in the Wathiqah. It was secretly circulated and though in Arabic its message of Jihad got through and was well received.

This document reached the hands of Muhammad Kaba, a Muslim slave of Spice Grove Estate who had been baptized and known by his Christian name Robert Tuffit or Robert Peart. Of Mandingo parentage, Kaba came from Bouka, a short distance east of Timbuktu, and belonged to a well-to-do family learned in law and Islamic teachings. Apparently Kaba, who studied the Qur’anic law at Timbuktu, which was then regarded to be one of the most important centers of Arabic and Muslim studies, was a marabout and a Sufi. So strong was Muhammad Kaba’s belief in Islam that never in practice or in spirit did he give up his faith. Even as a member of the Moravian Church, Kaba and many of his fellow brethren who had gone through the process of baptism were practicing Islam. These Muslim slaves, who were inspired by the Wathiqah, which called on the Muslims to wage Jihad and resist slavery, rebelled against their white owners. Commonly known as the Baptist Rebellion or the Baptist War, the slave’s revolt of 1832 wrought havoc of irreparable dimension to the plantation system in Jamaica and hastened the Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in the British Empire, in 1833. Later on, as from the 1830s, when slavery was formally abolished, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers from the Sub-Indian continent and Indonesia were brought to the Caribbean basin. Among them were also many Muslims.

Here then is an echo of the jihad of Shaihu Othman Dan Fodio in the far away Caribbean. The Wathiqa may not, indeed could not, have been the only document that found its way into the Caribbean. Some of the arriving slaves may well have been in one way or the other part of the Jama’a or extensions thereof. All these factors may have facilitated the impact of the jihad of Shaihu Othman in the West Indies. The impact itself could not have been limited to the uprisings in the plantations. By making Islam a rallying point and a symbol of liberation from the shackle of the oppressions of the white man, the impact of Shaihu Othman had helped transform Islam into a liberating force.

This posture of Islam in the Americas and the Caribbean has endured to this day and remains one of the most motivating factors for the increasing conversions to Islam among the black Diaspora. The myth and the living memories of Othman Dan Fodio and the Wathiqa have also been serving during the last thirty years or so to revive Islamic and African identity among Afro-Caribbeans throughout the CaribbeanBasin and the Diaspora but particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, the only Caribbean country where radical Islam has been already there in the open as from the 1980s.


The Revival of Islam among Afro-Caribbeans in Trinidad and Tobago   

Yet, before dealing with radical Islam in Trinidad & Tobago, some information about the country and the Muslim community there is in order. Trinidad & Tobago is, in fact, the southernmost of the Caribbean Islands and the last before Venezuela. Trinidad is about evenly split between Afro-Trinidadians and people who trace their ancestry to South East Asia, most of them Hindus but there are also some Muslims among them. Thus, Trinidad & Tobago’s political parties are largely race-based, with Afro-Trinidadians dominating the ruling People’s National Movement and South Asians making up the bulk of the United National Congress.

The same racial divide found in politics exists in the country’s religious communities, with most of the country’s churches and mosques either Black or Indian. The Muslims comprise about 8% of the country’s population. Most of them live in Trinidad but there is a handful in Tobago as well. The first Muslims to arrive in the country were brought from Africa as slaves by the colonialists. The next wave of Muslims came from South Asia as indentured laborers to work on the sugar cane and cacao plantations. Muslims today comprise mostly of South Asian descent, but there are many Afro-Trinidadian converts lately. Several Muslim organizations flourish in Trinidad, among which is the Islamic Coordinating Council – the instrument of the dominant South Asian Muslim community – which comprises the four major Islamic groups: the Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association (ASJA), the Trinidad Muslim League (TML), the Trinidad Islamic Association (TIA), and the United Islamic Organization. The latter comprises 14 smaller and more radical Muslim organizations, some of which were formed as a consequence of Middle Eastern missionary activity. In addition, there are other Islamic groups, such as the Trinidad Muslim League, the Islamic Trust, the Tabligh Jamaat, and the Islamic Missionaries Guild of South America and the Caribbean. All have significant followings there.

Among the radical Islamic organizations, Jamaat al-Muslimeen (Muslim Group) is the most notorious and well-known throughout Trinidad and Tobago. The founder and leader of Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), which was founded in the mid-1980s, is Yasin Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, formerly Lennox Phillips, the eighth of fifteen children is the son of a soldier in the Trinidad army. Born in 1941, Lennox, an Afro-Trinidadian not yet 18, joined the Police Service in 1959. Becoming disenchanted with the service and with Trinidad in general, he migrated to Canada in 1968. He was converted to Islam while being a student in Canada and by the early 1970s returned to Trinidad as Abu Bakr. JAM has several hundred members. The organization has traditionally been comprised primarily of Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts to Sunni Islam, who converted to Islam in the 1980s, following the rise of the Nation of Islam in the US. Thus, its ideology and discourse combine a mixture of the most extreme fringes of pan-African nationalism and Black power ideology and identity politics, with Islamist rhetoric and symbolism. Indeed, Abu Bakr maintained links with Libya in the 1980s and 1990s. JAM reportedly received funds through Libya’s Islamic NGO—World Islamic Call Society—to finance the construction of its main mosque, schools, and a medical center.

JAM has portrayed itself through the years as an advocate for all Afro-Trinidadians, including non-Muslims, against the South Asians, who have comprised a frequent target for its attacks during the years. On this background, it launched its violent 1990 attempt to overthrow the Trinidadian government over grievances related to land ownership, social and economic inequality, and government corruption, and to erect an Islamic state instead. On July 27, 1990, 114 members of JAM, led by Yasin Abu Bakr and Bilal Abdullah stormed the Red House—the seat of the national parliament—while the parliament was in session. They took the Prime Minister, A.N.R. Robinson—who was shot and wounded amid the ensuing chaos—and most of his cabinet hostages. At the same time, they attacked the offices of Trinidad & Tobago Television, then the only TV station in the country, and the Trinidad Broadcasting Company, then one of only two radio stations. The ensuing standoff lasted for five days while rioting and looting gripped the Capital, Port of Spain, leading to the death of 24 people and to the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property. On August 1, after six days of negotiation, JAM’s members surrendered and were taken into custody. They were tried for treason, but the Court of Appeal upheld the amnesty offered to secure their surrender, and they were released. The Privy Council later invalidated the amnesty, but JAM’s members were not re-arrested and the case was abandoned. It should be noted that although most Trinidadians did not support his 1990 coup attempt, many at the time agreed with the issues raised by the JAM during the crisis, especially impoverished Afro-Trinidadians.

Subsequent to the attempted coup, JAM aligned itself publicly with the United National Congress, in the run-up to the 1995 General Elections. Later on it aligned itself with the People’s National Movement, the party which forms the current government of Trinidad & Tobago. Before and since those elections, present and past members of JAM have been connected to or prosecuted for serious violent crimes. These crimes included drug and weapons trafficking, drug and gang related killings, money laundering, rape, and a current spree of kidnappings for ransom targeting mainly South Asian Trinidadian members of the local upper and middle class.

Moreover, in 2005, JAM has been connected to a series of four bombs set of in and around the capital, Port of Spain. The first went off on July 12, hidden in a trash bin a few blocks from the parliament. As a result, 13 people were injured, two of them critically. The last bomb exploded on October 14, at a nightclub in St. James, a suburb of the capital. Ten people were injured. As a result, Abu Bakr was taken into custody, along with other members of JAM, but they were all released shortly afterwards. Still, on November 19, 2005, another JAM member, Lenville Small, was arrested on suspicion of carrying out the bombings, but he was later released without charges.

Most recently, Yasin Abu Bakr was put on trial, together with six other members of JAM, for the attempted murder of two former JAM members, Salim “small Salim” Rashid and Zaki Aubaidah, who were expelled or split from the group on June 4, 2003, because of ideological differences or shifts in allegiance to rival Afro-Trinidadian Muslim groups. Zaki Aubaidah happens to be Abu Bakr’s son-in-law. This plot, however, resulted in the killing of a woman with no ties to the organization. As in the past, Abu Bakr was found not guilty and released, but he still faces sedition and terrorism charges stemming from a November 4, 2005 televised sermon. In the sermon, celebrating ‘Idd al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Abu Bakr declared “bloodshed and war in 2006” on wealthy Muslims, i.e., most probably the South Asian Muslim community, if they did not donate a percentage of their income to charity. Following this sermon, Abu Bakr was arrested. He was charged on November 10, 2005 with incitement, sedition and extortion, and on November 22, was additionally charged with terrorism. According to the BBC this was the first case brought under Trinidad’s new Anti-Terrorism Act.

In recent years, JAM has maintained a lower profile due to increased government pressure and a series of high-profile arrests of its members. Nevertheless, the group has remained a vocal player in Trinidadian politics. Indeed, until now, Abu Bakr’s influence among a narrow, albeit vocal segment of the Afro-Trinidadian population, and his willingness to resort to violence and other radical measures, made him virtually untouchable. His reach extends from corrupt elements of the police and security services all the way to the upper echelons of political power, including Trinidad’s major political parties. This influence insulated him from prosecution. It is his ability to pressure the government in vulnerable areas that makes him so influential. In a testament to that influence, Abu Bakr convinced in 2002, the state to grant him the authority over lucrative state-owned land in Valencia. He later mined the land, only to resell the extracted materials back to the government. In doing so, JAM was able to earn vital revenue and provide jobs and social services to its members and supporters. Trinidadians, however, continue to characterize JAM as a criminal organization rather than a religious or political one. Thus, in light of the recent crime wave threatening the stability in the country, the Trinidadian government has made true efforts to go after JAM and to curb its activity. One of the difficulties in the way to curb the activity of JAM is the existence of other small radical groups in Trinidad, all of them being connected somehow to JAM.

One of these groups is the Waajihat-ul-Islamiyyah (Islamic Front), headed by Omar Abdullah, himself an Afro-Trinidadian Muslim convert. Like JAM, the Waajihat-ul-Islamiyyah is comprised mostly of Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam. Local sources allege that Abdullah harbors extremist leanings. The Islamic Front has been accused of publishing material expressing support for al-Qaeda, but Trinidadian authorities have not provided conclusive evidence of any direct links with global Jihad. Omar Abdullah is often outspoken in his criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Trinidadian government’s policy towards Muslims. Trinidadian authorities also tie Abdullah to local crime and other illicit dealings. Abdullah was born and grew up in Tableland. He boarded both a Presbyterian and Hindu primary schools and later St. Stephen’s College, PrincesTown, an Anglican Church assisted secondary school. Abdullah started to practice Islam about twenty years ago and has always been described as a “hard line Muslim”. He is believed to be smuggling AK-47s, Tech-9s and Glocks into Trinidad & Tobago. He might have even fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

Another such radical Islamic groups active nowadays in Trinidad & Tobago are the Jamaat al-Murabiteen (Almoravids, after the African Muslim dynasty that ruled Morocco and Spain in the 11th and 12th Century) and the related Jamaat al-Islami al-Karibi (Caribbean Islamic Group). These groups are associated with one time JAM chief of security and imam of its San Fernando Mosque, Maulana Hasan Anyabwile, formerly Beville Marshall. He had been a member of JAM for 27 years and was among the participants in the failed coup attempt in 1990. In 2001, he split with Abu Bakr over what Trinidadian sources allege was a personal rift with the group’s leader. Anyabwile hosted a radio show where he was known to criticize Trinidadian Hindus, South Asian Muslims, and his former JAM associates, for their purported failure in improving the lot of Muslims in Trinidad & Tobago. In 2002, Anyabwile was shot and critically wounded by an unknown attacker in what many believe was part of a larger turf war between rival Muslim activists, most likely the JAM. Now a paraplegic, Anyabwile continues to fear for his life, but remains an outspoken critic of Abu Bakr.

A key aspect of radical Islam in Trinidad is the Afro-Trinidadian character of groups such as JAM, Waajihat-ul-Islamiyyah, Jamaat al-Murabiteen, and Jamaat al-Islami al-Karibi. Abu Bakr’s worldview was influenced strongly by the “Black Power” movements that emerged in the US and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s. He claims to be inspired by what is known in Trinidad as the 1970 “Black Power Revolt”, which entailed bloody race riots between Afro-Trinidadians and South Asian Trinidadians. Thus, the discourse of groups such as JAM borrows heavily from the militant fringes of pan-African nationalist movements such as the Nation of Islam. Like the Nation of Islam, Afro-Trinidadian Islamists claim to advocate for all Afro-Trinidadians, and not only to the tiny Afro-Trinidadian Muslim community. For many Afro-Trinidadians, conversion to Islam signifies their assertion of identity in a society in which they are underserved and face discrimination. Yet, it must be stressed that if most of Trinidad’s radical Islamic groups are dominated by Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts, it does not mean that all Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts can be labeled as radical.

These Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam are also influenced by the heritage of Othman dan Fodio. The best manifestation of Othman dan Fodio’s impact on cotemporary Afro-Trinidadians is the internet website of Hassan Anyabwile. He owned as a member of JAM, a website called New Madina, thus recalling the Hijra of the Prophet Muhammad from Meccah to al-Madina as well as the Hijra of Othman dan Fodio to Degel, where he created his model religious community. In this website, one can see clearly the African Jihadist influence upon him in the form of an e-mail address — It refers to the Sokoto Empire, established by Uthman dan Fodio in the beginning of the nineteenth century. See on-line at:

The great impact of Othman dan Fodio on Hasan Anyabwile can be seen very clearly in his profile from December 2008, as it appears in a blog called Minority Muslims Affairs. According to this blog, he lives in London and calls himself Hasan Anyabwile al-Karibi or Mawlana Hasan al-Karibi. Hasan writes about himself that “I am a Muslim of Afro-Caribbean descent an graduate of Dar ul Uloom, Trinidad & Tobago, Caribbean. A follower of the School of Imam Malik b. Anas and a member of the Jama’at of Shaykh Uthman b Fudi better known as ShehuUthman dan Fodio. I am also a caller to Islam, teacher, researcher, writer, historian of Afro-Caribbean and Islamic history, a warrior, and Shaykh of Jama’at al Murabiteen al Karibbiyah based in Trinidad and Tobago, and a married man”. (

The Jama’ah of Shehu Othman dan Fodio in America

From this description, it seems like there is a group called Jama’at of Shaykh Uthman b. Fudi, of which Hasan Anyabwile is a member. We can learn more details about this group from a post, which was posted by Yusuf Yearwood on a blog called Planet Grenada on July 12, 2007 titled “Nur az Zaman (Light of the Age)”.

Yusuf Yearwood is an Afro-Caribbean Muslim who lives in London. He told the blog’s readers about a new Yahoo internet group called Nur az Zaman (, which does not exist any more. The post reads as follows: “This yahoo group is dedicated to An-Nur a Zaman (the Light of the age) Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio and the true flag bearers of the Shehu’s minhaj (methodology) The Jama’ah of Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio in America. It is mentioned by the great wali (friend) of Allah Shaykh Mukhtar al Kunti ‘The perfected friends of Allah in this age are three. One is an Arab who resides beyond Syria. His light is the light of La illaha ill Allah. The other is a Fulani in the land of the blacks, Uthman Dan Fodio. His light is the light of the seal of the Messenger of Allah, which was on his left shoulder. As for the last one his light is the light of the heart of the Messenger of Allah’. Based on this and many other statements, there is consensus that the great mujadid (renewer) of the 12th Islamic century was Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio. The Jama’ah of Shehu Uthman dan Fodio in America is directly connected to the broader community of Shehu Uthman through our Sultan, Al Haj Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad At-Tahiru (residing in Mayurno, Sudan) the 16thcaliph and direct descendant of Shehu Uthman dan Fodio. We are dedicated to reviving the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (saws) by following the traditions of those great scholars who came before us and by adhering to the minhaj (methodology) of Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio and his community until the advent of Al-Mahdi (Peace be upon him). This yahoo group is open to all Muslims”.

The Jama’at of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio is absorbed with preserving the heritage of Othman dan Fodio. In an interview conducted during the first half of 2008 with the Brothers of Mujahideen Team, which is an Afro-Puerto Rican Islamic Hip Hop band based in New York, who are called that way after the Mujahidin who fought in the Jihad announced by Othman dan Fodio at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its members said that they are involved in the Shehu program.

This program, according to the same interview, is “called the Jamaat of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio, also known as The Shehu. It’s our connection back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) our intellectual branch of the Jamaat is called Sankore Institute of Islamic African Studies. We have collected over 1,500 manuscripts from Africa and we have digitized them and studied these blessed texts from the river of knowledge in Africa. The teachings of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio produced thousands of scholars; one of the greatest was his daughter Nana Asmau. She was a poet, counselor, prolific author and (was) very important in political issues. She formed a university for women called the Yantaru that produced women who became scholars in Islamic Studies. The Yantaru still exists today and there are small branches through out the U.S.A. Maybe millions…it’s ridiculous. The sad thing is, there are fake organizations out there selling and pimping this history but do nothing to revive these manuscripts. The Sankore Institute has been reviving these manuscripts for over 2 decades”.

The Sankore Institute of Islamic African Studies is headed by Amir Muhammad Shareef. He was born in the United States, in Los Angeles California in 1959. His parents joined the Nation of Islam, when he was a young boy, and he embraced Sunni Islam while a teenager. He is the founding director of the Sankore’ Institute of Islamic-African Studies and is well known for his scholarly translations, commentaries of classical Arabic manuscripts from Black Africa, and dynamic speeches calling for the renewal of Islam and justice for oppressed peoples. He studied the works of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio, Shaykh Abdullahi ibn Fodio, Sultan Muhammad Bello ibn Uthman dan Fodio, and many other scholars of the Sokoto Caliphate with many scholars based in Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger. In 1999, Muhammad Shareef was appointed as the amir in America of the Jama`ah of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio by the present Sultan of Sokoto, al-Hajj Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad Tahir. He dedicated himself to teaching the teachings of Othman dan Fodio and converting people to Islam.

It is not clear from all the above mentioned information whether the group is big or small. Yet, it seems like this group appeals to many Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Americans Muslims or converts to Islam, who live in Great Britain as well as in the US. They try to bring back the “golden age” of Othman dan Fodio first, by preserving his teachings and secondly, by following them in order to create the model religios community built on the bases of Islam and African ancestry.


Nowadays, the myth and the living memories of Othman dan Fodio and his Wathiqah arouse within the Afro-Caribbean community emotions of stronger Islamic identity. Indeed, the re-emergence of Afro-Caribbean Muslim communities throughout the Caribbean Islands and the radical Islamic challenge emanating from the Caribbean Islands are expected only to grow together with the ever growing social and economical tension that has prevailed during the last two or three decades in the Caribbean between the main two groups which share it; Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians and even among the South Asians themselves, such as the situation prevailing in Guyana, between Muslims and Hindus. If we look at who are the Trinidadian radical Muslims, we can see that most of them are Afro-Trinidadian converts to Islam, who are poor in comparison to the affluent South Asian Muslims and Hindus.

Moreover, during the 1960s, Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam coupled with the Black Power Movement spread Islamic influence into the Afro-Caribbean population in the Caribbean Basin as well as in the Diaspora. This created a popular image of Islam, which still holds, as a religion for black people.

This mix of internal and external processes at hand provided a great opportunity for the Afro-Caribbeans to define their identity in Islamic religious colours versus the wealthy South-Asain Hindus or Muslims. Thus, making Islam a rallying point and symbol of liberation from the shackle of the oppressions of the white man through the Wathiqah had helped transform Islam into a liberating force. This posture of Islam in the Americas and the Caribbean has endured to this day and remains one of the most motivating factors for the increasing conversions to Islam among the Afro-Caribbeans. They return in their minds to the glamorous period of Uthman Dan Fodio and the African Jihad, while trying to do the same in the Caribbean or, at least for now, in Trinidad and Tobago.


The paper Caribbean Memories of Slavery and the Myths of Othman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate was presented at the Research Workshop on Islamic Resurgence in the Age of Globalization: Myth, Memory, Emotion, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway, 4-6 September 2009.

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