Mauritius, “The Star and Key of the Indian Ocean” as it likes to style itself, is a group of islands lying south of Asia and east of Africa. Originally colonized by the French, Mauritius was taken over by the British as the spoils of victory in the Napoleonic wars. The islands still retain a French flavor, however, as the new masters allowed French language and culture to continue throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The people of Mauritius are descended from colonists, African slaves and Indian indentured laborers.
The First Muslims
According to records available, one Muslim called Ally Khan had petitioned the French administration for the freedom of his wife from slavery. That was under Governor Nyon (1722-1725). A decade later, Mahe de Labourdonnais, who was later to develop the colony, brought in from India lots of workers, namely tradesmen who settled in Port Louis. They were mostly artisans and seamen who were affected to major development works in the dockyard and harbor. (2) They comprised people of such varied occupations as carpenters, black-smiths, masons, jewelers, shoemakers, tailors as well as sailors.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that among the African slaves brought in the colony by the white settlers to work on the sugar-cane plantations, there were also many Muslims whose identities were, however, lost under the Christian names given to them by their white masters. Most of the slaves brought to Mauritius were generally shipped from the east cost of Africa, notably from Quiloa and Mombasa, where there has always been a strong Muslim presence. Mauritian historian Muslim Jaumeer mentions the name of Califa as the first Imam (religious leader) in the colony. Other slaves were brought from the island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal, and also from the Yoloff in Mozambique.
In 1758, a group of Indian merchants established themselves in the colony and did thriving business. There is no doubt that there were Muslims among these merchants.
Even to this day the Muslims in Port Louis have maintained a rich tradition as merchants, many of them holding position from the days of French rule. The sailors and seamen, who worked in the harbor were known as lascars — Persian word for traders. As far as it can be ascertained, these lascars were all Muslims. The term lascar has come over the years to be singularly linked with the Muslims and has become a synonymous appellation for them. * Moreover, this is evidenced by the fact that the Muslims settled in Port Louis, who, in 1798, petitioned for and subsequently got a plot of land for the construction of a mosque, are referred to in the Deed of Concession as les lascars propriétaires. Over the years later, the number of Muslim settlers in the island grew to such an appreciable size that by the year 1765 they began celebrating the Tenth Day of Muharram.
In 1758, a group of Indian merchants established themselves in the colony and did thriving business. There is no doubt that there were Muslims among these merchants, and even to this day the Muslims in Port Louis have maintained a rich tradition as merchants, many of them holding position from the days of French rule. The sailors and seamen, who worked in the harbor were known as lascars — Persian word for traders. As far as it can be ascertained, these lascars were all Muslims. The term lascar has come over the years to be singularly linked with the Muslims and has become a synonymous appellation for them. * Moreover, this is evidenced by the fact that the Muslims settled in Port Louis, who, in 1798, petitioned for and subsequently got a plot of land for the construction of a mosque, are referred to in the Deed of Concession as les lascars propriétaires. Over the years later, the number of Muslim settlers in the island grew to such an appreciable size that by the year 1765 they began celebrating the Tenth Day of Muharram.
Many of the Indians who, in those days formed only a minority, living as they did in a completely non-Indian — and for the matter, non-Muslim — surrounding, became Christians, took negro wives and settled in the land. These Indians slowly underwent such transformation that very little of what was basically Indian, still less Muslim, was discernible in their ways and manners. However, not all the Indians succumbed to the strong Christian environment prevalent in the at that period. That was particularly true of the Muslims, who continued to celebrate the Muharram and, audaciously, the practice of their religion and culture. Half a century later, having assumed the position of a community, conspicuous by its size and unity, they petitioned Governor Malartic (1792-1800), on December 29, 1798, for the concession of a plot of land in Camp Lascars (now Plaine Verte) on which they proposed to build a mosque. That request of the Muslims gave rise to strong opposition from the white settlers who were for the most part staunch Catholics. Consequently, their request was denied. But the Muslims were not not deterred. Some four years later, they renewed their demand in another petition to the successor of Malartic, Governor Moliere (1800-03), that is on February 02,1802, with the hope that it might meet with more sympathetic consideration . Their petition having been turned down, three years later, in 1805, they petitioned the Governor again — but this time to the successor of Governor Moliere, Governor Decaen. On October 16, the same year, Governor Decaen, in a magnanimous gesture, acceded to the request of the Muslims. By signing the Deed of Concession, Governor Decean reckoned the sale of a plot of land in Camp des Lascars to a group of “Lascar Propriétaires” for the construction of “une chapelle pour l’exercise de leur culte” (a chapel for practicing their religion The area of the land was 120 toises (about 5,000 square feet). The chapelle stands till to-day on what is known as Dr Hassen Sakir (formerly Pagoda) Street — so called because the French settlers erroneously mistook the mosque for a pagoda.
The Deed of Concession of the Mosque signed by Governor Decaen is an important document in the history of the Muslims in Mauritius. It is an undeniable proof of the presence of Muslims and of Islam in Mauritius since the time of the French rule.
The First Mosque
The original Mosque, built some time during 1805, was destroyed by a violent hurricane in 1818. However, it was rebuilt soon after. Among its many benefactors was the Sobedar family. In fact, for many years, it was a customary for the Imams of the Mosque to come from the Sobedar family. Hajee Sobedar, who later traced the mihrab (prayer niche) of the Jummah Mosque at the time of its construction in 1851, was a prominent member of the Muslim community of Camp des Lascars. On his death, which occured on April 29, 1881, he was interred in the compounds of the Camp des Lascars Mosque, which is today officially known as the Al-Aqsha Mosque.
The Camp des Lascars Mosque was the first — and so is the oldest — mosque in Mauritius. It has undergone considerable changes over the years to meet the needs of a growing congregation. It is no longer the small lime-washed structure it was during the days of French rule. It has been expanded and renovated regularly over the years to satisfy the growing demands of an ever-growing congregation that continues to plod its way daily to its old beloved roof for worship and meditation. However, the site the Mosque occupied is the same. It is the living symbol of the spiritual and cultural awareness of those lascars who, in the face of tremendous odds, sowed the seed of Islam in Mauritius, and which has kept on flourishing till today.
The mosque also testifies, to some extent, the spirit of tolerance and understanding shown by Governor Decaen towards the Muslims and their religion. That magnanimity was, however, in keeping with the new spirit ushered in by the epoch-making revolution in France in 1789, which had also impacted in Ile de France.
When the British took possession of the island in 1810, like the French they turned to India to look for cheap and skilled labor so as to further the development of the island. The British, however, laid more emphasis on agricultural development and embarked on massive importation of what came to be termed as indentured laborers.
In 1833, the first group of Indian workers, among whom were a respectable number of Muslims, arrived in Mauritius as indentured laborers to work in the cane fields. And, by the time the year was out, 1,160 men, 61 women, 22 boys and 11 girls were brought to Mauritius under contract with the sugar cane planters.
The immigration of indenture workers from India continued with brief lapses till 1922 – by which time 450,000 laborers were brought into the colony. Of that number, a good many chose to return to India at the expiry of their indenture while many others opted to stay behind and settle in the colony. Those who stayed, either renewed their indenture or worked for their own account as day men or in small trades. The influx of Indian workers in Mauritius brought about a radical change in the make-up of the population in the island. In 1835, the Indians in Mauritius formed only a minor segment of the total population but a decade later, they reckoned to almost a third and about twenty years later that fraction swelled to two thirds – a proportion that has been maintained to this day with the Indo-Mauritians – Muslims included – forming the majority segment of the population. However, the Muslims by themselves represent a minority – about 17% of the Mauritian population.
Muslims as traders
The prestige as well as the cultural and social prospects of the Muslim community in Mauritius was considerably enhanced by the presence in the colony of a small group of merchants and traders, who were doing flourishing business and wielding considerable influence in commerce and trade in the island. These merchants and traders were all from India and the large majority of them were Muslims. Most of them arrived in the colony at about the same time as the indentured laborers, that is, in 1835. The arrival of these traders in Mauritius was not binding by any contract as was the case with the indentured workers. They came of their own free will and with a certain amount of capital with which they started their business. And, it was not long before they made a reputation for themselves in the mercantile community of Mauritius.
These Muslim Merchants established firms and stores and became leading dealers in foodstuffs and textiles. They became a prosperous group who soon began to venture in the sugar industry as owners of sugar estates and factories and also of steamships and the docks. The export of sugar, the main product of the colony, fell almost entirely in their hands while the import of grains, jute bags and textiles became more or less a Muslim monopoly.
The Number of the Muslim traders in Mauritius rose steadily in the years that followed as more and more of them continued to arrive and settled in the colony, and soon it came to pass that the number of businesses owned by Muslims in the colony exceeded by far the total number owned by all the other religious groups in the island. The main source of their wealth was in trade and not in the cultivation of land, as it would be in the coming years, with the descendants of the indentured workers. For years and to a great extent, even to-day the Muslim merchants were among the main suppliers of food and over grocery items as well as clothing and building materials in Mauritius.
From trading, local Muslims have – most of them successfully – endeavored to invest in industry, both for local and export markets, whilst great emphasis has also been put on furthering university education of young Muslims.
Today, the Mauritian Muslim community can count to have, in its midst, some of the best professionals, be they doctors, barristers or engineers.
The 1968 constitution of Mauritius recognized four religious categories: Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians, and the general population. According to a 1989 estimate, of a total population of 1,080,000, Muslims constituted about 16 percent(179,280). Recent statistics are not available because questions on religious affiliations have been removed from the population census.
The Muslim population is approximately 95 percent Sunni and many are Urdu-speaking. Other languages include Bhojpuri, Gujarati, and Arabic. Sunnis adhere mostly to the Hanafi school of thought, reflecting their roots in the Indian subcontinent. The biggest and second oldest place of worship is the Jummah Mosque in Port Louis, but there are many smaller mosques in the towns and villages. The highest concentration of Muslims is found in the capital Port Louis, predominantly in the Plaine Verte, Ward IV , Valle Pitot and Camp Yoloff neighborhood.
This piece is taken from the Mauritian Muslim website.
See on-line at: http://www.mauritianmuslim.co.uk/mauritius.asp