One’s quest to understand oneself and attain one’s identity necessitates the study of history. Indeed history provides the source of knowing what happened in the past in order to fully understand and appreciate the present. According to the famous historian A. L. Rowse*, “Everything has its history.” So does FML, which is now 77 years old.
All historians agree that history is an integral part of the social fabric of any society or organisation. Indeed as the famous scholar Saiyad Qutub** has said, “The most important need of the day is to help the Muslim acquire confidence in himself and his past so that he is able to face the future with hope, courage and high resolve.” It is with this spirit that the following brief history of FML has been written by Dr. Ahmed Ali, a scholar and historian, who is a past Vice President of FML. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not FML. Br. Ahmed Ali may be contacted through FML.
*A.L. Rowse 1946, The Use of History, English University Press, London.
**S. Qutub, ‘Forward’ in Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi 1973, Islam and the World, Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, Lucknow.
Muslims as Indentured Labourers
Muslim settlement in Fiji derives from the indenture system which between 1879 and 1916 brought 60,536 labourers from India, of whom Muslims constituted 14.3%. Muslims numbered 5098 males and 2537 females; almost 90% were aged between 11 and 30 years.
They came under girmit, a five year contract which deprived them of their human rights and brutalized them for the profits of their employer. The labourers emigrated to Fiji to escape the oppressive social and economic conditions of India. They were encouraged to come and remain in Fiji by the British colonial rulers of Fiji and India. The apprehensions and protests of Fijian chiefs regarding the influx of Indian labourers were brushed aside to accommodate the demands of imperialist capitalism.
In a situation where the labourers were overworked, women sexually abused, and violence was the British rule of law, Muslims clung to Islam; and even transmitted it to their children born in Fiji. In this remarkable achievement, Muslim women played a courageous and indispensable role, even though the evils of girmit assaulted their moral integrity most of all. It was the fortitude provided by their Islamic faith that enabled Muslims to survive the horrendous sufferings and injustices of girmit.
From 1884 onwards, many who had completed girmit and remained in Fiji, formed their own Muslim communities in different parts of Fiji. They tended to be small, often isolated, as Muslims always remained a tiny minority but recognizing the need for contact and cooperation among themselves for social and religious enhancement. There were from the beginning Muslims who were literate and sufficiently versed in Islam to assume leadership roles, including in such fundamental matters as leading prayers.
Islam is a faith that can be transmitted and preserved through oral instruction, through memorizing mandatory prayers and verses of the Holy Quran. Obligations can be fulfilled without public display. Milad gatherings, initially in homes, helped foster an Islamic identity and inculcated a sense of unity. By 1894 Muslims in Navua were slaughtering cattle to celebrate Baqr Eid, and a mosque was there by 1900. In 1902 Labasa had “a mosque of corrugated iron and weatherboard”.
Muslim efforts to proclaim their distinct Islamic/Muslim identity is evident in 1909 before the first Education Commission, in their request for Urdu, to be taught in the Persian script to their children. Urdu remains an essential symbol of Muslim identity in Fiji – today it is taught in schools and students are able to learn it as a public examination subject as far as Form 7; its retention remains at the forefront of Fiji Muslim League’s education objectives.
Islam is a faith that emphasizes community participation and the need to pursue community goals saw the emergence of community organizations. In 1915, the Anjuman Hidayat ul-Islam petitioned government for the solemnization of Muslim marriages by a kazi and recommended its secretary’s appointment as one for the Suva area. In Lautoka the Isha Ithul Islam emerged and in 1916 was directing its efforts towards building a mosque there.
Establishment of FML
By 1908 there were about 4000 Muslims in Fiji, a third of them still indentured, Around Suva there were only about 70 Muslims, without a school or a mosque. But numbers in the capital city steadily grew, and Suva in 1919 saw the Anjuman-e-Islam, the forerunner of the Fiji Muslim League, meeting frequently in Toorak to advance the interests of the small Muslim community in the capital. Among those who attended the meeting on 31 October 1926 at the Jame Masjid in Toorak to establish what became the Fiji Muslim League were: Abdul Aziz Khan, a successful businessman, who was elected the first President of the FML; Nasir Ali, secretary, Nasirud Dean, vice-president, Atah Mohammed, treasurer, Khifayat Hussein, assistant secretary, Mohammed Tahir Khan of Lautoka was there representing Ba, Nadi, and Lautoka.. Moulvi Rasul Buksh represented the Nausori-Rewa area. Others present included Moulvi Rahim Buksh; Abdul Gafoor Sahu, Fordil Khan, Wali Mohammed and Nure Abdul Khan.
They came from all walks of life, workers as well as self-employed entrepreneurs, several Fiji-born among them, all of them of independent means and minds determined to secure permanence for Muslims and Islam in Fiji. They organized to pursue Muslim goals as the 1920’s were tumultuous years. The industrial strikes of 1920 and 1921 had isolated those who came from India and heightened Fijian and European antagonism towards them. There was also emerging communal militancy among Indians inspired by visitors from India and events there; making the small Muslim community apprehensive and more conscious of its Islamic distinctness. Muslims felt a need for a voice of their own, articulating their specific concerns and aspirations, hence their Muslim League, patterned on the sub-continent original.
Role of FML in Education and Welfare
While the Fiji Muslim League has remained generally faithful to its original objectives in working towards the social alleviation of Fiji’s Muslims, its greatest enterprise has been in the field of education. Its first venture was a school already in existence in 1926, known initially as Islamic Girls School, today’s co-educational Suva Muslim Primary in Nabua. Today, the Fiji Muslim League through its branches, twenty-six of them of varying sizes, owns and manages seventeen primary and five secondary schools plus a tertiary institution (Islamic Institute of the South Pacific). The Fiji Muslim League accepts as students and staff members of all ethnic groups domiciled in Fiji. It does nevertheless ensure the special Islamic character of its educational institutions. In 2000 its student population was: 4464 in secondary and 5243 in primary schools. In the secondary schools 3015 were Muslims, 994 Fijians/Christians and 455 others, including Hindus.
Its schools are well patronized by Muslim students and generally their academic performance is of the highest standard. Increasing numbers are enrolling in tertiary institutions locally and abroad. There is a steady stream of Muslim diploma and graduate holders, some through scholarships, most through the sacrifices and efforts of their families. Muslim parents place a very high premium in seeking secondary and tertiary education for their sons and increasingly for their daughters. The Fiji Muslim League provides help for tertiary studies for needy Muslims through loans from its Education Trust and the Islamic Development Bank. Of the two IDB loan/awards for tertiary studies one is given locally for information technology and the other for the study of medicine in Pakistan. Most of the latter in recent times have been allocated for training Muslim female doctors; some have qualified and are working in Fiji.
The demands for assistance for tertiary studies are greater than the resources of the FML permit. Emigration is reducing the proportion of Muslims in our schools while that of others is increasing. Similarly, the FML is losing its members, especially young professionals who are leaving Fiji for greener pastures elsewhere. While this outflow has been a feature of Fiji’s Muslim society since the 1960s, it has accelerated as a result of Fiji’s political troubles of 1987 and 2000 and also as a consequence of more flexible immigration rules in Australia, New Zealand and North America.
Besides education, the Fiji Muslim League from its outset has attempted to assist in satisfying all the social needs of Muslims. Currently its involvement in social welfare is both at national and branch levels. In times of natural disasters or turmoil the Fiji Muslim League directly helps Muslims whose homes and lives are disrupted. Its charity keeps many families clothed, fed and even housed, and Muslim children in school.
FML and Politics
The Fiji Muslim League has always been active in safeguarding all aspects of Muslim life. Various petitions in the 1930s and memoranda and letters since then to government bear testimony of its dedication. Though not a political organization, the FML speaks on political issues affecting Muslims. Since 1929 it has sought to obtain representation for Muslims, in the Legislative Council till 1970, and in Parliament (both the House of Representatives and the Senate) since 1970. Likely success in 1931 was thwarted by Indian influence in India and in 1965 and subsequently by Indian political leaders in Fiji, sometimes with the assistance of some Muslim themselves. Indian leadership has preferred to keep Muslims within its own racial classification as the Muslim presence swells Indian numbers and enables demands for a greater share for Indians in the politics and resources of the country — gains are not commensurately transferred to the Muslim community.
Many challenges have come its way: internal strife, sectarian divisiveness, economic hardship, political exclusion; all have hitherto been overcome through the courage and determination of its members to advance their Muslim organization for the greater good of Islam.
The success of the Fiji Muslim League owes immensely to the devoted and generous service of many Muslims down the years. Of the most recent, was the late Sher Mohammed Khan Sherani, President from 1961 to 1966 and then continuously from 1973 till his death in 1988. He also served from the 1930’s at branch level. His service was dedicated and selfless, frequently from personal resources and at great sacrifice. His successor till 1995, Abdul Rauf, and now Patron, also served many years in various capacities. Some of old were India-born Said Hassan (lawyer), Mirza Salim Buksh (civil servant), Moulvi Rahim Buksh, Moulvi Taj Mohammed, Rahmatullah Khan and locals Anwar Shah, Hasan Raza, Molvi Nur Ali, S.M.Dean, Bahadur Ali, Gulab Khan, Nizamud Dean, and some more recently, lawyer/politicians, S.M.Koya, M.T.Khan and Faiz Sherani; as well as Mohammed Razak Akbar, Ramzan Ali, Sher Mohammed Khan, Ishaq Ali, Moulvi Sayyed Ishaq, Master Ahmed Ali, Master M.T. Khan, Fazal Khan, Riaz Dean and Maulana Bashir Ahmed Diwan. These are only some.
Throughout Muslim women have played a critical role in ensuring the continuity of Islam in Fiji. They have been mothers, wives and teachers, usually in the background, thereby making them faceless despite their essential and invaluable contribution. Evidence exists of a Muslim women’s organization after 1926 but it faded away to be temporarily revived in 1945-46. It was in 1968 in Lautoka that the Fiji Zanana League was cinstituted and since then it has played a daily part in the social and religious life of Muslims here. Two important contributions, out of several, are those of Mrs Amina Koya and Mrs Noorjehan Dean.
In 1944 out of the first Muslim soccer inter-district tournament in Sigatoka the Fiji Muslim Sports Association was founded. Of its three initiators, M.T.Khan, Aligarh graduate and lawyer, Nur Ali from Toorak, only Sher Mohammed Khan is still with us. This association since its inception has made a sterling contribution in bringing young Muslims together annually in sports. Of late its spirit appears to have flagged and it needs to return to the dedication of its earlier stalwarts.
There is also a very active youth movement tracing its origins to the 1960’s, whose executive meets regularly and organizes camps and other gatherings for young Muslims. It has a national outreach, with members from high schools as well as tertiary institutions and university graduates and professionals in the workforce. Recently it has organized a wing to facilitate the interests of young educated Muslim women.
Ownership of FML
Though the Fiji Muslim League has not attempted to be a mass movement it has nonetheless throughout its seventy-seven years with its extensive range of involvement in all aspects of public affairs and in serving the religious needs of all Muslims embraced all Muslims. Every Muslim family in Fiji at some time or other has provided participants at branch or national level, directly or indirectly. All have contributed when the need has arisen. The Fiji Muslim League belongs to all the Muslims of Fiji, and to many now living abroad.
This post is taken from the website of Fijigirmit.org.
See on-line at: http://www.fijigirmit.org/a_fml-history.htm