I thank Prof. Musleem Jumeer for his thoughts on my review of the book “Sunee Surtee Muslim Diaspora …” by Youssouf Cara, a Mauritian, who details the search for his (Surtee) roots in India. I appreciate Dr. Jumeer’s effort to put in the right historical perspective, in his estimate, certain facts about the Surtee immigrants in Mauritius. While he does not contest Mr. Cara’s claim that the Surtee Muslim hawkers maintained contact with the ‘illiterate’ Indian indentured workers on the Sugar Estates in the villages of Mauritius, who were lodged and also worked on the sugar plantations, and among whom were a number of Muslims who also lived in the same estate camps as the workers of other faiths – notably the Hindus. These Surtee hawkers, besides trade reasons, also took interest in the cultural lot of the Muslim workers. They would eventually help them develop ‘a sense of community’ among themselves, set up madrassas (Islamic schools) and even build mosques or ‘houses of prayer’ to help them stay close to their religion and culture. While, I concur, that this may be a moot point depending on who we talk to and whose version we give more credence to, it is yet a fact that the Gujerati migrants did help, in one way or another, the Muslim villagers in their effort to develop “a community spirit” and keep their “religion and culture alive” among them.
Also, it is a fact that my book on the history of the Muslims of Mauritius is, to this day, the only work on the Muslims of Mauritius. It is now more than fifty years since it was first published and, so far, no one has replicated my effort with a comprehensive take on the significant contribution of the Muslim community of Mauritius to the social, economic and political growth of our country which, to-day, is definitely, a shining example of what many describe as an ‘affluent island-nation’, which is the envy of its neighbours on the large continent next to us. However, I do take strong issue with the statement of Prof. Jumeer, who, unabashedly, avers that, by virtue of my book on the Muslims, I regard myself as “an expert” in the matter. Indeed, I should feel flattered but I’m not. I have never ever regarded myself as such knowing well my limitations as a ‘historian’ and knowing that, since the book first came out in 1968, there have been other and better qualified Mauritians, than myself who have published well-researched papers on the Muslim community of Mauritius. Here, I am thinking of Mr. Cader Kalla and Ms. Amenah Jahangeer-Chojoo, who have produced authoritative works on certain aspects of the Muslim community of Mauritius – not forgetting Prof. Jumeer’s own doctoral thesis on the presence of the Muslims (lascars) in Mauritius when it was a French colony [“Les Affranchissements et Les Libres à la Fin de l’Ancien Régime (1768-89)].
It is true that since the publication of my book on the Muslims of Mauritius, I may not have kept up with my research on the community because of my immigration shortly after to Canada and also because I have always believed that, sooner or later, somebody better qualified than myself from our community, will eventually rise and write a definitive book on the history of the Muslims in Mauritius. But so far this has not happened.
I agree with Prof. Jumeer that our ancestors left their villages in India for a ‘better life’ in Mauritius, little knowing that their lot would not be any better than that of the liberated slaves they came to replace in the cane-fields. However, they sweated it out and survived and, to-day, we are all proud of the legacy they have left behind for us – a beautiful country for all to enjoy, to improve upon and to continue to work to make it even better for coming generations.
I well recall, when I was researching for my book on the Muslims in the late 60s, I talked to many elders in the community, I learnt many stories of the ‘spiritual guidance’ in terms of ‘dawah (religious education) provided by, among others, some Surtee Muslim hawkers to their brethren living on the estate camps and how, in many instances, they even helped ‘finance’ the construction of madrassas’ and even mosques or prayer houses. I well recall how in my own hometown of Goodlands, I was told by several elders, including my own grand-parents, that when in the late 1940s, a Muslim family of the locality donated to the community a plot of land for the construction of a ‘prayer house’– the same plot on which the present-day mosque stands – it was the “Surtee merchants”, among others, who helped them collect the needed funds to build what would become their mosque or ‘prayer house.’ I remember, it was a modest structure in corrugated iron-sheets that lasted until it was destroyed by hurricane “Carol” in 1960. The whole community of Goodlands then got together and built the present Mosque we all know on Mosquée Road to-day. I believe there should be several examples like that in the island.
In Mauritius, every Mosque has a story – each probably as interesting as the other. It is a prime field of research for future ‘historians.’ I know, Prof. Jumeer, himself, as I have mentioned, has done credible work on the early Muslims (les lascars) in Mauritius when it was still Isle de France, and for which he deserves the community’s thanks for his work in the field.
It is not my intention to engage into a ‘debate/discussion’ on the issue. Yet, I’m sure, participation in such exchange of ideas will not only help enhance our knowledge of the Muslim community’s story and its role in our country’s history but also help us understand and appreciate the role of each other better.
Finally, I must add, Prof. Jumeer, that I was interested to read your comments on my piece on Mr. Youssouf Cara’s book. You raise some interesting ‘points’ some of which were unknown to me because, as you rightly pointed out, I may have not followed up my research after the second version my book was published in 1994.
To sum up, I should like to thank you for your honest input. Such exchanges, as I have said, can only add to our appreciation of each other and of our work. However, I must stress again that despite the valid points of history you raised, they take nothing away from Mr. Cara’s book, which is, still, a positive addition to the limited literature currently available on the Muslims of Mauritius.