بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
نحمده ونصلي على رسوله الكريم وعلى آله وأصحابه أجمعين
Brazil | Panama | Trinidad | Barbados
October 2008 CE /Shawwal 1429 AH
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Translated by Shoaib A. Rasheed
(June 1, 2019/Ramadan 27, 1440) with edits by Umer Ansari
Editor’s note: The following is a translation of a tour of Latin America by Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani from his travelogue entitled “Safar Dar Safar,” p. 231-268, published by Maktabah Maʿārif al-Qur’an Karachi, December 2011. It was my honor to review and give suggestions to Mr. Rasheed regarding his carefully translated work. Moreover, it is truly our honor that the esteemed Shaykh reviewed this work and considered it worthy to be published. May Allah preserve him and allow us to benefit from his knowledge, wisdom, and life experiences.
When we say the word “America,” we generally refer to the United States, today’s well-known superpower, which is located on the continent of North America. In reality, however, there are two continents both known as “America.” The larger of the two is North America, which consists of Canada, the largest country on the continent, as well as the United States, and Mexico. The second continent is South America, which stretches from Colombia all the way to Argentina and Chile. In the southern-most part of North America, there is also a long stretch of land containing numerous small countries stretching from Mexico to Panama. This region is known as Central America, even though it is technically part of North America.
Within all three Americas, the countries that speak non-English Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, or French, comprise what is known as “Latin America.” Most people mistakenly consider Latin America and South America to be synonymous. Latin America indeed includes the entire continent of South America, but it also includes other countries outside South America. For instance, it includes Mexico, which is in North America. Latin America also includes all the countries in Central America, the majority of which speak Spanish. Furthermore, between North and South America there is a body of water known as the Caribbean Sea, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. This sea contains many large islands that are collectively known as the West Indies. Each island is an independent country. According to Britannica, these islands are also considered an extension of Latin America.
In the following pages, I wish to recount the memoirs of my journey to the South American country of Brazil, the Central American country of Panama, and two countries in the West Indies: Trinidad and Barbados. Since all these countries are part of Latin America in the widest sense, I have titled this memoir “A Tour of Latin America.”
For almost two and a half years now, I had been receiving invitations from some of the Muslims of Panama and Trinidad to come and tour their countries. But these trips kept having to be postponed because of how far away these countries are and because visiting them would require a long period of time. Finally this year 1429 AH, I was able to free myself for about three weeks after Eid al-Fitr to go on this trip. The plan was to go to Panama first, followed by Trinidad. For multiple reasons that I will discuss, I decided to broaden the trip by spending a few days in Brazil on the way to Panama. Later, when a few friends from Barbados found out about this trip of mine, they insisted that I visit them as well, and so I decided to spend two days in Barbados.
We departed from Dubai at 10:30 AM on Thursday Shawwal 9, 1429 AH/October 19, 2008 CE on an Emirates Airlines flight. We were headed to São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. The previous two days had been spent busy with meetings in Dubai. São Paulo is about 13,000 kilometers from Dubai. Emirates Airlines had recently begun providing this direct flight that would take us from Dubai to São Paulo in fifteen-and-a-half hours. I had flown on Emirates Airlines many times in the past and had accumulated a large number of points. Based on these, the airline automatically upgraded me to a first-class seat for this trip. The airline had recently acquired a new Boeing 707-002 aircraft in which each first-class passenger is assigned their own beautiful little room. Each room has a door that may be closed for privacy and a seat that converts into a complete bed. Each room also has a writing table, a small closet, and many other such amenities that could in the past never have been imagined to be found in a plane. Because of these amenities, this long flight passed in comfort through His Bounty Most High.
For the past ten or twelve years, I always happened to have some sort of research to work on during my flights that was related to the Holy Quran. First, there was the project of translating my father Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani’s tafsīr of the Holy Quran known as “Maʿārif al-Qur’ān” into English. Then I was working on my own translation of the Quran into English, which went on to be published under the title, “The Meanings of the Noble Qur’an“. Most recently, I was working on a new Urdu translation of the Holy Quran with explanatory notes.1 This was published in 2012 by Maktaba Ma’ariful Quran Karachi under the title “Āsān Tarjumah-i Qur’ān.” For all three of these projects, a substantial portion of the work was actually accomplished while traveling and in-flight. Praise be to Allah that this last Urdu translation project had just reached completion this past Ramadan and is now being printed. Hence, after many years, this was the first long airplane trip in which I was not working on a research project directly related to the Holy Quran, and so this journey felt somewhat flavorless.
Nevertheless, I had another project to work on during this journey which analyzes various political theories and Islamic teachings regarding them. Many years ago, I had taught a course at Dar al-Uloom Karachi attended by honorable scholars from across the country. My friend Maulana Muzammil Kapadia had transcribed the lectures from this course using a computer and a tape recorder. Maulana Muzammil has to undergo dialysis three times each week. Allah Most High has endowed him with an extraordinary sense of resolve. While undergoing dialysis, he would listen to these tape recordings bit by bit and transcribe them until he had completed a manuscript spanning about one hundred pages, and then he sent it to me for review. During this flight to Brazil, I began reviewing his manuscript.
We flew over Yemen, crossed the Arabian Peninsula, and then across the Red Sea. Then, by way of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), we entered the continent of Africa. We flew over the Congo and Angola, and after crossing Africa, we entered the Atlantic Ocean. We flew over this ocean for almost six hours until we finally reached the South American continent. When the plane landed at São Paulo’s airport, the local time was 7:00 PM (São Paulo’s time zone is eight hours behind Dubai and nine hours behind Pakistan).
São Paulo, Brazil
Receiving us at the airport was our host Ali Ahmad Saifi. He is of Lebanese descent. His father has lived in Brazil for a long time. He was familiar with me through my books, and he had been introduced to me through my friends Ishaq Noor Sahib and Amanullah Sahib in Dubai. He showed us a great deal of affection and hosted us throughout our stay in Brazil. Ali Ahmad Saifi had arranged for us to stay at a hotel near his own house in a district called São Bernardo. Due to the overwhelming traffic, it took us one-and-a-half hours to reach there. The weather was pleasantly cool, and we spent the night in our hotel.
Brazil is the largest country in South America. It spans 32,036,480 square miles and comprises almost half the continent in terms of area. It is also the most heavily populated country in South America. São Paulo is Brazil’s largest commercial city, with a population of about fifteen million. Until the fifteenth century, the entire Eastern hemisphere had no idea that this place existed. In 1500, Portuguese navy commander Pedro Alvares Cabral set sail from Europe in hopes of discovering a sea route to India, just like Columbus and Vasco Da Gama before him. Mistakenly, he headed towards South America and discovered the way to Brazil. Little is known about the native population living there at the time. Gradually, the Portuguese learned of its abundant natural resources, so they conquered it and made it a colony of Portugal. This is why the Portuguese language is spoken here today. After Portuguese domination, the original inhabitants receded to the far-off rural areas. Colonists from Portugal continued to arrive until they comprised a large segment of the population. The Portuguese also brought over many Black Africans as slaves to provide farming labor. Many white people from other parts of Europe also came here to settle. As all these ethnicities intermarried, a new mixed race was born.
From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Brazil remained under Portuguese rule. Eventually, a freedom movement began, and on September 7, 1922, Brazil gained its independence from Portugal. After independence, people from around the world left their homelands to settle in Brazil due to its natural resources, trade, and industry. These immigrants came from Africa, Europe, and the Arab countries. Many of these Arab immigrants were Muslims. The number of Muslims in Brazil has continued to grow until it has reached almost one million today. Most Muslims in Brazil are ethnically Arab, most of whom are originally from Lebanon. About seven percent are actually new Muslim converts that were born and raised in Brazil. Pakistanis also have a small presence these days.
Ali Saifi’s father, Ahmad Saifi, moved to Brazil from Lebanon years ago. He played an active role in building masjids and Islamic centers in the country. On the second night of our stay, he hosted a dinner at his house in my honor, to which a few local people were also invited. At this dinner, the locals told me that – by the grace of Allah – there are more than 100 masjids in Brazil. In the state of São Paulo alone, there are almost fifty masjids. They said that the trend of accepting Islam is growing very rapidly among Brazilians, and if more resources for calling to Islam were available in the Portuguese language, their numbers would likely be even larger. (After interacting with some new Brazilian Muslims later on in this brief visit to the country, I too sensed the strength of this reality, which I will discuss more later).
As each of the local guests told me about themselves, I could see that many of them were very pious, enthusiastic, and dedicated. There was, for instance, a young Pakistani man named Farhan Desai who, after hearing the news of my arrival, traveled three hours with some of his friends to come here. These gentlemen are providing a valuable service to Islam in this country through their work in the Tablighi Jamaat. They told me that, Alhamdulillah, the Jamaat is working actively here.
Brazil is an important part of the global poultry market. There are numerous farms in Brazil that raise chickens, and the country exports poultry meat all across the world. Much of the chicken even in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are imported from Brazil. Even though this meat is labeled as having been slaughtered according to Islamic methods, its actual halal status has always been in question: in these South American countries, chickens are generally slaughtered by machine, and this method of slaughter does not comply with the prerequisites of the Shariah. For this reason, we do not advise consuming it. I have discussed this matter in detail in my book, Aḥkām al-Dhabā’iḥ.2 This has been translated into English by Amir Toft and published in 2006 by White Thread Press under the title The Islamic Laws of Animal Slaughter. One of the reasons why I had decided to stop in Brazil on my way to Panama was to gather more information on this issue, for Ali Saifi and his father are among the few people here that provide halal monitoring and certification for chicken slaughter.
A few days before my arrival, I asked him if he could arrange for me to inspect some slaughtering facilities during my visit, but he informed me that according to the policy of most slaughterhouses, anyone coming from outside the country can only be permitted to enter the factory after a few days of quarantine within the country. Hence, it would not be possible for me to inspect during this short visit. He did tell me, however, that there is a fixed time period allotted in the factories for slaughtering chickens for Muslim consumption, and that during this time, the chickens are not slaughtered by machine blade. Instead, four workers stand at the assembly line with knives, and as the chickens pass by them, they recite “Bismillah” and slaughter them by hand. This is exactly the technique that this humble writer had proposed in my book, Islamic Laws of Animal Slaughter.
While these observations by Ali Saifi and Ahmad Saifi did at least dispel the misunderstanding that these chickens are slaughtered using a mechanical blade, or that the “Bismillah” is recited by switching on a tape-recorder, they also informed me of some other problematic issues. First, even though it has been stipulated to the slaughterers that they must recite “Bismillah” over every chicken and that they are not to be engaged in any other task while on duty, they are nevertheless only human, and sometimes they may be momentarily distracted when they cough, sneeze, etc. and given how rapidly the chickens are passing by them on the assembly line, there always remains the possibility that a few chickens may pass by without having had the “Bismillah” recited over them. Second, it is difficult for every slaughterhouse to employ exclusively Muslims to perform the slaughtering. This is because these factories are located far from the cities in areas where most Muslims do not prefer to live. For this reason, in some places, Christians have been hired as well, and they are required to slaughter in the name of Allah Most High. Now, practically speaking, just how meticulous are they in doing so? It is hard to say with certainty. Furthermore, they tell me that there are more or less fifty poultry processing factories in Brazil, and every day approximately one thousand chickens are slaughtered inside each one. Moreover, the organizations that monitor and certify Muslim slaughter widely vary, and it is not possible to say which specific protocols and conditions they observe. When this poultry arrives in the market, it is very difficult to determine which slaughterhouse each chicken came from and who certified it.
In summary, after learning the above-mentioned information, the doubts and reservations regarding poultry meat imported from Brazil have still not been lifted. There is a dire need for a trustworthy system along international lines for providing halal meat. It is lamentable that the governments of Muslim countries are not placing any emphasis in this direction. But there are some private organizations I have approached regarding arranging such an initiative under the supervision of reliable scholars, and some preliminary steps forward have even been taken. May God lead them to the station of success.
During our stay in São Paulo, we saw some of the city’s magnificent masjids. Praise be to Allah – not only could their minarets be seen from afar, but the number of people attending prayers was also quite sizable. We offered Friday prayer at Masjid Abu Bakr al-Ṣiddīq, which was located in the same neighborhood as our hotel. The masjid had an Egyptian shaykh who delivered a good sermon in Arabic. The masjid also has an Islamic center, programs for children’s education, a Muslim restaurant, and a shop that sells Muslim necessities. We also had the opportunity to pray at the King Abd al-Aziz Masjid which was built with help from the Saudis. It is grand and beautiful with an expansive prayer space. For the past twelve years, it has also had a school in which almost one hundred students study. It teaches modern subjects side by side with religious education. Even though the Markaz (local headquarters) of the Tablighi Jamaat is housed inside Masjid Umar bin al-Khattab which is a far distance from here, nevertheless, it is the King Abd al-Aziz Masjid that most Jamaat groups frequent. Even during our visit, a Jamaat group was there from Marrakesh.
At this time, Ali Saifi introduced us to his cousin Suhaib, the son of his maternal uncle. Suhaib is a prime example of how the Tablighi Jamaat has sparked revolutions in people’s lives. This young man is very active in the Jamaat’s work. Ali told us that Suhaib’s father, Mustafa Ahmad al-Urrah, was among the wealthy Lebanese immigrants that became completely estranged from faith and religion after moving to Brazil. His life was filled with every negative aspect of Western culture imaginable. Other Muslims did not think well of him. His father tried every method possible to rectify him, using both firmness and gentleness, but his behavior refused to change. Finally, in around 1971, one Jamaat group came from Britain. Its ameer (group leader) was giving a talk, and Mustafa al-Urrah happened to be in the vicinity. He saw the appearance and demeanor of the ameer and assumed with disdain that he must be raising funds for some masjid or madrasah. But then the ameer started speaking and said with who knows how much sheer compassion: “We do not want a single coin from you. On the contrary, we have spent our own money to come here. We have come solely to call you to pursue the religion brought by the beloved Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace).” Mustafa al-Urrah regretted his initial assumption. Allah Most High had willed for him to change his life. He listened to the entire speech, and later, upon the ameer’s suggestion, Mustafa al-Urrah went to Pakistan in 1972. When he returned, he was a different person. The people who had known him from his prior life could not even recognize him. After returning from Pakistan, he dedicated his whole life to the work of the Tablighi Jamaat in Brazil, and he remained engaged in this service till his dying breath. His efforts were pivotal in spreading Tabligh activity throughout the country. His son Suhaib invited us to rest at his house in the afternoon on the third day of our trip. There, we were introduced to his entire family, and we saw that they are all engaged in Tabligh.
Ali Saifi also took us on a tour of São Paulo (which the locals pronounce with nasalization of the letter “ã”). Aside from being the largest commercial city in Brazil, it is also the largest manufacturing center in South America. Its population is around 500,000. It is said to have been founded by Christian missionaries on January 25, 1554. This date coincided with the feast day of Saint Paul, the founder of the distorted version that is modern Christianity, whose name in Portuguese is “São Paulo.” Hence the city was named after him. The city’s largest main street is Paulista Avenue. With its grand skyscrapers, it reminded me of Park Avenue in New York. This area also contains an extremely expensive shopping district, which is just as famous as the shopping district of Los Angeles.
The city is situated on the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean. A long stretch of mountains covered with lush greenery runs along the coast, spanning a far distance. On one side of the mountains is the ocean. On the other side, at the foot of the mountains, is a spread of natural lakes, small scattered waterfalls, and a dense jungle of wild trees. Many trees are bearing local fruits, including banana and mango. Around here, mango trees spring up naturally. Trees loaded with mangos can be seen everywhere, even in the streets, freely available to all and sundry. This entire region is replete with natural beauty by which the onlookers obtain pleasure. We then passed through Santos, the seaport of São Paulo, which is considered the largest seaport in South America. There is a small city here, which also has a masjid. Farther along, we came upon another city called Cubatao, which contains gas wells and oil refineries. The smell of oil and gas fills the air. Indeed, it is said that this city produces the greatest amount of air pollution in the world. Then Ali Saifi took us to a beautiful coastal city called Guaruja, whose mayor happens to be Muslim. This city is situated on a charming corner of the Atlantic Ocean where the ocean can be seen frolicking with the lush green mountains. Here, at this time, the weather was heralding the arrival of a flourishing spring, with greenery scattered all around. Surrounded by these tranquil views of nature, the weariness of travel vanished for a little while.
After spending two days in São Paulo, the time for our departure was near, but Ali Saifi said that if we left without eating Brazilian-style fish as well as some of the local halal food, it would be as though we never experienced Brazil at all. Therefore, he took us for lunch at one of São Paulo’s beautiful restaurants, which indeed had delicious vegetables, sauces, and a collection of fish varieties the likes of which I had never seen before. He had also invited Mustafa al-Urrah’s son Suhaib to the meal. After eating, he invited us to his house to rest, and from there we left for the airport.
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Before heading for Panama, we next spent two days in Brazil’s second-largest city, Rio De Janeiro (known simply as “Rio” for short). There we met a young Brazilian man that works with Ali Saifi. He is a new Muslim whose Islamic name is Abu Bakr. Ali had already sent Abu Bakr to Rio ahead of us so that he could arrange a place for us to stay, and to receive us when we arrived. Abu Bakr is actually from Rio originally but had been living in São Paulo for work. Even though his mother tongue is Portuguese, he also speaks fluent English which was fortunate, for there are very few English speakers in Rio. And so, after offering Maghrib prayer in the airport, we took a one-hour flight to Rio through TAM Airlines. Abu Bakr was at the airport to welcome us, and he had brought a taxi. While driving to the hotel, I asked him about how he had accepted Islam, and he told us this faith-kindling story.
Abu Bakr said that he had become interested in learning about Islam through the internet. He had already learned English before, and he used to watch television channels about Islam, as well as some video cassettes he had acquired. Hence, his interest in Islam continued to grow. He especially enjoyed reading the blessed seerah of the Noble Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). During this time, he became acquainted with a Sudanese scholar at one of the old masjids in Rio. When the scholar saw his interest, he promised to give him private lessons. At the same time, he happened to be sharing messages with a Brazilian girl in São Paulo through internet chat. This girl was a staunch Protestant Christian, and after the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, she had developed a bitter enmity towards Islam and Muslims. She started to study Islam with the aim in mind to actively oppose Islam. She read the Noble Quran in translation, and read the seerah of the Noble Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). As she studied, her heart began to change, and soon she became convinced that Islam is the only true religion. Here was Abu Bakr studying the seerah with the Sudanese scholar, and that girl was doing her own independent study. They never saw each other; they would merely chat with each other through the internet. It so happened that Abu Bakr had to go to São Paulo for work, so he scheduled a meeting with her, and there they decided to become engaged. Soon after, he accepted Islam in 2004 through his Sudanese teacher. When he told the girl, she, in turn, told him her own story, as well as the fact that she had already accepted Islam well before. Hence their wedding took place while they had both already become Muslim.
Our taxi driver, Saeed, was also a new Brazilian Muslim, but he only spoke Portuguese. With Abu Bakr translating for us, I asked Saeed about how he had accepted Islam. He told me that his son used to know a Muslim teacher in his youth. Through his relationship with the teacher, interest grew in his heart to learn about Islam, and sometime later, he actually accepted Islam. He suggested to his father Saeed that he should become Muslim as well, so Saeed also learned some introductory knowledge of Islam and then became Muslim. Saeed’s son is in Sudan these days pursuing religious knowledge.
These stories from these two new Muslims – I heard them first hand. Abu Bakr said that many people here come to the Islamic center every week to become Muslim. Even though most Brazilians are Catholic Christians, they are becoming weary of their religion, and whoever learns of the truth of Islam accepts Islam readily. Abu Bakr also told us that the people here are not prejudiced. Rather, they are open-hearted people, and – in contrast to other Western countries – they sympathize with Muslims. If Islam is clearly explained to ten people, he estimated that three or four would surely accept Islam. The problem, however, is that the only language they understand is Portuguese, and very few people are capable of calling towards Islam in the Portuguese language. When our Tablighi Jamaat groups from Portugal come here, they are tremendously beneficial, but Jamaats that come from other areas are of limited benefit since they do not know the local language. I suggested that these Jamaats focus on local Arab Muslims to prepare these local bilingual Arabs to become callers towards Islam and continue the effort in the Portuguese language. Otherwise, I remarked, it, unfortunately, seems difficult to expect foreign Portuguese-speaking scholars and preachers to come here in large numbers. But if a few local youths can be groomed to come to us in the Muslim world, acquire religious education, and then return to their country to take up the effort of spreading Islam, it can be very beneficial, Inshallah.
Hearing these stories and Abu Bakr’s analysis of the situation, my heart came to the painful realization that when it comes to preaching to non-Muslims and calling them to Islam, we have not been able to create an organized system that allows people living in all parts of the world to witness the light of Islam effectively. Jamaats, institutions, organizations – we have a lot. But there exists no noteworthy international institution specifically dedicated for this purpose. On a related note, it is all very well for me to suggest that it would be beneficial if some young Brazilians came to our countries to study, but unfortunately, our governments have placed so many restrictions on foreign students coming to study in religious schools that obtaining a student visa is about as easy as conjuring a river of milk. When it comes to the priorities of Muslim governments, the imperative to call towards Islam is not even at the bottommost bottom of the list. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun. It is only due to the special favor of Allah Most High and Islam’s magnetic pull that people like these continue to cling to Islam despite being deprived of resources.
The Muslims in Rio De Janeiro are much fewer in number than in São Paulo. Almost fifty Muslim households live here. For this reason, aside from one or two prayer areas (musallas) for the Jamaat, there was until recently no formal masjid. Recently, a nice masjid has been built through Kuwaiti funding, along with a plan to build an Islamic center and a school for children’s education. A society called al-Jam’iyyah al-Khairiyyah al-Islamiyyah was founded with this goal in mind. Its president, Zayn al-Abideen, who is originally from Lebanon, invited us to visit this masjid. The masjid building was mostly complete, but its attached buildings meant to house the Islamic center and the school were still under construction, and unfortunately, their construction had halted due to lack of funds. Br. Zayn al-Abideen as well as the Jam’iyyah’s secretary Sami said that for now, a series of Quran and Hadith classes have been established, as well as weekly tarbiyyah programs for the kids. But seeing the whole situation, I realized that this initiative is at its elementary stages, and much more work still needs to be done. I led Zuhr prayer at this masjid. Only one row could be formed, and that too with difficulty.
Rio De Janeiro is a very progressive city. Abu Bakr said that “Rio” means “river” in Portuguese, and “Janeiro” means “January.” The point where the ocean meets up with the land takes on the appearance of a river, and the Portuguese discovered it in January, and that is the reason why it was named “Rio De Janeiro.” For almost two centuries, it remained the capital of Brazil. Later, the capital shifted to the newly-built city of Brasilia. Rio contains far more natural beauty than São Paulo. We stayed in a beautiful coastal area in the Windsor Hotel, where, from our room on the twenty-second floor, the winding coastal road could be seen. On its right side were immensely tall buildings, and on its left side, the waves from the Atlantic Ocean could be seen crashing onto the shore. There are other coastal areas in Rio, each one containing its own unique beauties. From each of these places, the lush green mountains can be seen spread out from far away. Abu Bakr took us to a place called Pedra da Gávea. Here at the edge of the ocean, the shape of each mountain is unique and awesome. In some places, the peak of the mountain appears to be fashioned in the shape of a dome, and in other places, it looks like a crown. From the peaks of these mountains, the ocean appears crescent-shaped, and its surrounding valleys and mountains laden with lushness and flowers are a wondrous sight of natural creation. Fa tabarakallahu ahsanu l-khaliqeen [Q 23:14].
Abu Bakr drove us around the city. He showed us the city’s notable buildings, one of which looked to be strangely designed when seen from far away. We were told it is the world’s largest soccer stadium. It was a blessing to visit Brazil for the first time, the largest country in the sixth largest continent in the world, and learning about the affairs of the Muslims there. Our next stop on the trip was Panama.
On the 30th of Dhi ‘l-Qa’dah (which by coincidence also happened to be the 30th of October), after offering zuhr prayer at the Rio De Janeiro airport, I boarded a Copa Airlines flight at 12:30 PM and headed to Panama. This flight took us in the northwest direction for six-and-a-half hours, most of which were spent flying over Brazil’s airspace. Copa Airlines is the flag-carrying airline of Panama, and it services a wide network among Central and South American countries. Unfortunately, the aircraft was small and needed maintenance. Finally, after passing over Columbia, the plane landed slightly earlier than scheduled in Panama City’s airport. The local time when we landed was 5:30 PM (Panama’s time zone is one hour behind Brazil and five hours behind Pakistan).
My hosts had arranged for us to have access to the VIP lounge at the airport. We did not experience the slightest bit of inconvenience, and we were able to offer asr prayer with ease. A large crowd of well-wishers was waiting both inside and outside the airport. We learned that a lot more people were actually still on the way since the plane had arrived earlier than scheduled. Most of these people had never seen me before, nor had I ever seen them, but just through reading my books and listening to my lectures on the internet, Allah Most High had placed love in their hearts for someone that was almost eleven thousand kilometers away from them. It is clear that this love was for the sake of Allah, and a source of abundant happiness for both me and them. I do, however, feel ashamed, and I also make dua from the bottom of my heart that Allah Most High make me worthy of this love and good opinion.
In Panama, I met the respected Saleemuddin Sahib and Iqbal Sahib, who were my hosts and the ones that had invited me here in the first place. They are originally Pakistani and have been doing business in Panama for a long time. They play an important role in local religious activities. Saleemuddin Sahib has been connected with me for many years. We stayed at his home, and a large group of well-wishers remained with us until late into the night. I stayed in Panama for one week, during which time I was closely engaged with those well-wishers.
Panama is the last country in Central America, after which South America begins. The country spans an area of almost 30,000 square miles. When it is mapped out, it resembles the letter “S.” It is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Panama City, its capital, lies on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. This is an extremely lush region surrounded by mountains, oceans, and rivers. The beautiful skyscrapers lining the edge of the Pacific Ocean have added to its beauty. Since Panama is very close to the equator, rain showers occur here very often, and the weather is consistently warm (around 30-35 degrees) for all twelve months of the year. There is also very little variation in the timings of sunrise and sunset; the day and night are always twelve hours long. The prayer times change very little.
Historically, Panama had been home to various tribal nations of American Indians. Spain conquered it in the 16th century just like other regions in Central America. In 1821, it gained its independence from Spain and became part of the South American nation of Colombia. There were movements to advocate for its independence from Colombia as well. Finally, in November 1903, it separated from Colombia and became its own sovereign nation. During this period, the Spanish brought Africans here as slaves and forced them to work in farming and other labor. For this reason, a large number of the local inhabitants today are African by lineage. People from Spain, Europe, and various Asian countries have also settled here. In the latter portion of the 19th century during the construction of the Panama Canal (which will be discussed in the upcoming sections, Inshallah), people from Bengal and the Arab world also came here and settled in large numbers. Many of them were Muslims.
In 1924, a few members of the Aswat family of Gujarat, India came here for business and settled. Two years later a Gujarati businessman by the name of Sulayman Biku settled in Panama and built the first formal masjid in the country, which is known today as Jāmiʿ Masjid. Many families from Gujarat and the Arab world continued to come here and settle. Sulayman Biku Sahib played a major role in buildings masjids and Quran learning circles (maktabs) in Panama. He passed away in 1987 (may Allah Most High have mercy on him). Today, out of Panama’s population of three million, about four-and-a-half thousand are Muslim, out of whom the Gujarati Muslim population is larger in Panama City, and the Arab population is larger in the city of Colón. The population of Pakistani Muslims is also growing these days. There are a total of nine masjids in the entire country, among which two of the large ones are in Panama City: one is the Jāmiʿ Masjid, and the other is Madina Masjid. Both the masjids are magnificent, and their minarets can be spotted from afar. I happened to be staying in a place that was closer to Madina Masjid, and so that is where I offered most of my prayers. Every night after isha, I would give talks at one of the two masjids. It was clear to see that – Praise be to Allah – the Muslims here have made a laudable effort to maintain their religious identity. There was a good attendance at the masjids, and in each lecture, people participated with much enthusiasm and listened attentively after traveling from far distances.
Praise be to Allah that several scholars are here providing religious guidance. Among them, the greatest and most esteemed scholar is Mufti Abd al-Qadir Sahib, who was educated in Dabhel, Gujarat, India. He plays an important role in guiding the Muslims here, and praise be to Allah that everyone heeds his counsel with all their hearts and souls. His role in nurturing and preserving the religious atmosphere of the Muslims here is worthy of praise. Many young scholars have graduated from the Dar al-Ulooms of Britain at either Bury or Hadrat Maulana Saleem Dhorat Sahib’s madrasah in Leicester. The Muslims here have also, with the help of their scholars, established a Dar al-Uloom in a place far from the city that I also had the chance to see. Currently, this madrasah is providing instruction in religious studies, Urdu and Arabic language, Islamic history, basic fiqh, and tajweed, and it is being advanced gradually level by level. At this time, forty-two students of knowledge are in boarding here, among whom one is from Chile, and another is from Venezuela. Among the teachers, I sense a zeal to do their work fruitfully – Praise be to Allah. Maulana Afzal Patel Sahib is a young scholar who has a passion for study and research. He accompanied me for most of the time, and almost all his discussion was a scholarly inquiry on some matter or another. From this, I perceived that he possesses within him an attachment to knowledge that will become a key to progress. I was also very pleased when I saw this same type of passion in some of the other teachers. These eminent people also seem concerned with local issues facing their own society. May Allah Most High grant them blessing in their efforts. Ameen.
In the center of the city, there is also a madrasah for female students of knowledge. I visited it, and reviewed its curriculum, and was pleased with it. The teachers there are female scholars that have studied in India’s female madrasahs. A few male scholars also teach there while attentively observing the rules of modesty (pardah).
For Muslims living in countries where they are in the minority, the most important issue for them is the raising and schooling of their children. If these children are educated through the public school systems, those systems and the environments they promote will act as a deadly poison for their religious growth. Whenever I go to those countries, I make it a point to advise those Muslims that for the protection of the next generation, they should establish their own schools and educational institutions in such a way that general subjects are taught side-by-side with core religious knowledge. Furthermore, there should be an Islamic ethos that permeates both the school environment and the atmosphere of the general community. This ethos will protect the children from the particular aspects of the West that cannot be tolerated. Throughout my trip to Panama during my various lectures, I directed the attention of my brothers and sisters towards this imperative. Upon inquiring further, I learned that a few local Muslims had felt this exact concern, and had built a Muslim school. They invited me to visit it, but after seeing its curriculum and environment and talking with the staff, I sensed that while these respected people definitely appreciated the importance of this issue, a lot more remains to be done to bring the school to the level necessary to acquire the desired outcomes. It was agreed that a committee be formed that would work with the school administrators in an attempt to improve the existing system of the school.
Panama has two major cities: Panama City, which lies on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and Colón, which lies on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Colón is a seaport and a commercial city. Many of the Muslims there are involved in business. Most of them are Arabs, and they have built a magnificent masjid there whose imam and khatib was an Egyptian scholar. My host Saleemuddin Sahib and a few others desired that I deliver a lecture at that masjid as well. Since most of the listeners there would be Arab, I planned to deliver this lecture in Arabic. When the imam learned of my arrival, he telephoned me to invite me to give the Friday khutbah. We left Panama City and headed for Colón in a car caravan full of well-wishers. After driving for almost two hours, we arrived in Colón near the time of Friday prayer. Seeing a beautiful masjid like this one with its tall minarets brought joy to my heart. The imam was already waiting for me. Before the prayer, I gave my Arabic lecture. In Arab masjids, this Arabic lecture is the same as the Friday sermon.
Since Colón is a business-oriented city, I chose to speak about the responsibilities of a Muslim businessperson. It is not the way of Muslims to chase after business interests while forgetting why they came into this world. The Holy Quran repeatedly warns Muslims that their wealth and prosperity should not cause them to become heedless of the remembrance of Allah Most High. Furthermore, it is not enough for a Muslim to fulfill merely his own religious responsibilities; he is also responsible for arranging for the religious nurturing of his household. He must make every effort to protect them from heading towards the Hellfire. I proposed that every Muslim should set aside some time from his regular duties daily so that the entire household should learn knowledge of the religion and develop concern for the Hereafter in their hearts. This was the first time anyone from the Subcontinent had given a khutbah at this masjid. Alhamdulillah, these congregants listened attentively. Afterward, the imam requested me to lead the prayer. After the prayer, I heard about the Islamic center attached to the masjid, and we also discussed some local fiqh issues. These generous people treated us with great affection and hospitality. May Allah Most High reward them in abundance.
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is one of the country’s most important landmarks. It is internationally renowned as one of the wonders of the world. To leave this country without seeing it would have been most unsuitable. Hence, my hosts arranged a visit to the canal as part of our itinerary. Aslam Patel Sahib was the one to take us. He had been with me for most of the trip so far and had treated me with great affection.
If one examines a map of the world, one immediately notices that the world’s two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, are separated by the continents of North and South America. At most points, many hundreds or thousands of miles of land lie between these two oceans. But at the junction of these two continents, there lies a thin, tortuous strip of land that can be seen gradually narrowing as it runs from north to south. It starts in Mexico and ends in Panama before joining up with South America. At this strip of land, the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is very small. Indeed, at one point here, this distance dwindles to a mere fifty miles. Before the twentieth century, if anyone wanted to sail from America’s eastern shore to its western shore, they had no choice but to travel thousands of miles circumnavigating the entire continent of South America – all because of this tiny stretch of land. The countries that were frequently making trade voyages to America’s West realized that if this fifty-mile strip of land could somehow be converted into water capable of allowing ships to pass through, then it would serve as a shortcut to pass directly from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
At the time, the territory that would become modern-day Panama was under Colombia’s rule. In 1869, a French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps built the Suez Canal (which today is owned by Egypt), thereby connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. In light of this success, in 1878, Colombia’s government gave a French company this narrow land between the two oceans on a ninety-nine-year lease and contracted them to build a similar canal. In 1884, with Ferdinand de Lesseps’s assistance, the company began work on this land. Seventeen thousand laborers were ordered to start digging. These laborers were mostly from the West Indies. But this initiative – for which so many human beings had performed backbreaking work, and for which France’s wealthy had wildly and rashly invested their capital by buying shares in the company on the heels of its success with the Suez – failed. This was because the land in this region was not dry like the land on which the Suez Canal was built. Here, rain would fall in downpours, and a few hours of rain would ruin months of work. Another reason was frequent outbreaks of Yellow Fever that would take the lives of laborers in droves, to such an extent that more than six thousand people were buried there. In the end, the French company gave up and dropped the project. But France’s failure did not put an end to the effort to connect the two oceans.
In 1903, Panama gained independence from Colombia and became a sovereign nation. In 1906, the United States leased that same land from Panama with their own aim of building a canal. The French company had planned to dig a trench so that the water of the two oceans would mix. But America learned from France’s failure and came up with an entirely different plan. Rather than forcing the two oceans to mix, they decided to construct a fresh-water canal. There was an already-existing natural river called the Chagres that ran through that land. The Americans dammed up this river to create a man-made canal. But the problem was that this canal happened to be twenty-six meters above sea level. Hence, how could a ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean be lifted twenty-six meters to enter the canal? And after it had crossed the canal and reached the Pacific Ocean, how could it be lowered back to sea level? And the ships crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic faced the same problem in reverse. The solution to this problem is what came to be considered the wonder of the Panama Canal. The ship from the Atlantic Ocean enters into a long pool that has large sturdy gates on either side. Once the ship coming from the ocean is completely inside the pool, the gates close on both ends, and water is pumped into the pool in such a large quantity that the ship rises until it is at the level of the canal. At that point, the gate adjacent to the canal opens, and the ship can now enter the canal and cross through it. Then when the ship approaches the Pacific Ocean, it enters another similar long pool whose water level is at that moment at the level of the canal, higher than sea level. Then both the gates close, and the water inside this pool is pumped out, by which the ship lowers until it reaches sea level. Then the gate adjacent to the ocean opens, and the ship enters the Pacific Ocean. Every ship that desires to pass from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa must pass through these steps. In this manner, this fifty-mile stretch of land can be crossed in about twenty-four to thirty hours. If this canal did not exist, it would take almost one entire month of circumnavigating the entirety of South America before the ship reached the other side.
This canal opened in 1914. Because the Americans had constructed it under the auspices of a special treaty, they retained control of it until 1999. They would collect a hefty fee from all the ships that passed through the canal and give a petty royalty to Panama. For a long time, a dispute remained between Panama and America over control of this canal to the extent that at one point, the two countries broke diplomatic relations with each other. Finally, on December 13, 1999, America let go of its dominion to mend relations, and from then on, Panama has retained control of this canal. It is said that a fee of two thousand dollars is collected for each ship that crosses the canal, and hence, this ingenious passageway is a major source of revenue for Panama.
A platform has been built overlooking the canal so tourists can watch the ships being lifted and lowered. From this platform, the canal can be seen far away, and the pools (which are called locks) are directly in view. A ship came right in front of us and entered into the pool, whose water level was lower than the level in the next part of the canal. After the ship was well-situated in the pool, the doors on both sides closed, and numerous pipes began filling the pool with water. In about half an hour, right in front of our eyes, the water level inside the pool had climbed, and the ship had risen along with it until it became equal with the water level of the next section. At this point, the gate on the side adjacent to the next section was opened, and the ship exited. There is also a museum here that exhibits the canal’s entire history. It has a scaled-down model that simulates a ship crossing the channel.
Panama is an extremely lush country filled with dense jungles. Just as in Brazil, here wild trees bearing mangoes and other fruits are scattered about. There are many small mountains, and one particular region also has mountains that are tall and cold. Jutting from the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other are tiny bays that can be seen peeking out from between the lush mountains. One of these places is called Santa Clara. Our hosts had arranged for us to spend one night in a beautiful cottage thereupon the kind and generous invitation of the owner of the cottage: the wife of the late Sulaiman Biku Sahib, who had built the first masjid in Panama, as we had mentioned above. We arrived there with a large caravan of well-wishers. This spacious and beautiful cottage was located high above the seashore and provided a heart-touching view of the deep blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest and deepest ocean. I know not how many countries it spreads across between the East and West. I first witnessed the sight of it when I was in Indonesia and Malaysia. I saw it again in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then in Japan, and then again in Australia and New Zealand. Now, in Panama, that same ocean is before my eyes. When reflecting on the thousands of miles across which this ocean spreads, I am reminded of a verse from the Holy Quran:
وَهُوَ الَّذِى سَخَّرَ الْبَحْرَ لِتَأْكُلُوا۟ مِنْهُ لَحْمًۭا طَرِيًّۭا وَتَسْتَخْرِجُوا۟ مِنْهُ حِلْيَةًۭ تَلْبَسُونَهَا وَتَرَى الْفُلْكَ مَوَاخِرَ فِيهِ وَلِتَبْتَغُوا۟ مِن فَضْلِهِۦ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
He is the One who has subjugated the sea, so that you may eat fresh meat from it, and may take out from it ornaments you wear, and you see the boats cleaving through it, and so that you may seek His bounty, and that you may be grateful. [Q16:14]
We spent a peaceful night on the seashore, and the next day we returned to Panama City while stopping along the way for various programs. The next day, on the morning of Monday, Shawwal 20, 1429 AH (i.e. October 20, 2008), we had to depart for Trinidad. This one week had passed in the blink of an eye, but because of the sincerity and love of the compassionate people I had been surrounded with, I felt like they had been my friends for years upon years. Even at the airport up until the moment of my departure, a group of these honorable people remained at our side, and they bade us an emotional farewell. May Allah Most High bestow upon all these honorable people righteousness and success in both their religion and their worldly life. And may He decree this love as being solely for the sake of Allah (khalis li wajhillah), and thereby endow both parties with its blessing. Ameen followed by Ameen.
We flew to Trinidad with Copa Airlines as before. This plane was even smaller than the one that had taken us from Brazil to Panama, albeit this time the flight was only four hours long. We landed at around asr time in Trinidad’s capital city, Port of Spain. Our hosts had arranged for us to be able to pass through immigration and customs quickly (Trinidad is one of the few and far between countries where Pakistanis can simply be issued a visa upon arrival at the airport). Outside the airport, many local scholars were there to receive us, as well as Shiraz Sahib, who had originally invited me. We prayed both asr and maghrib at two different masjids on our way to our place of lodging. That night, nothing was on the schedule except to rest. Hence, we passed the time by learning about the state of affairs here from Shiraz Sahib.
Trinidad is the second-largest country in the West Indies. It is comprised of two islands, one called Trinidad, the other called Tobago. Hence, the country’s full name is “Trinidad and Tobago.” In 1498, when Columbus (who, it is said, discovered the continent of America) arrived here on his third sea voyage, it was the home of the Arawak people. Columbus claimed this land on behalf of the Spanish government and decimated these entire people, and for three hundred years, no one paid any special attention to this genocide. In 1797, Britain conquered this territory from the Spanish. Since this area’s original inhabitants had been annihilated, they brought over slaves from Africa and elsewhere to cultivate tobacco. Britain wished to similarly have control of Tobago, but in 1781, France conquered Tobago and made it a colony. In 1802, however, the British fought with the French and forced them to relinquish it, and in 1899, they made it a part of Trinidad. When formal slavery was abolished in 1820, the British government would bring over many people from India to perform hard labor. In this way, a population of Indian Hindus and Muslims started to grow here. Today, 41% percent of the population is ethnically Indian. From 1923, movements began in Trinidad and Tobago demanding independence from Britain. In 1962, the country gained its independence and became a sovereign nation. During this time, people came from other parts of the world as well to settle. Currently, the total population of the country is 1,100,000, among which Muslims comprise 135,000. Mashallah, even in as small a country like this, there are 132 masjids, and they are quite well-attended.
Accepting Islam in Trinidad
People are accepting Islam in Trinidad. My own host Shiraz Sahib is a new Muslim. His father was a Hindu, but Allah Most High bestowed Islam upon his mother. Through her influence, Shiraz Sahib became a Muslim, and he plays an active role in religious activities in the country. One of the country’s federal ministers, Madame Fatima, is also a new Muslim. She recounted the amazing story of her coming to Islam in an interview that was published in an article in Cairo’s “Minbar al-Islam.” Her original name was Mik Davidson, but after accepting Islam, she adopted the name “Fatima.” She says that she was raised in a Christian family, and on March 9, 1950, her family had decided to enroll her in a Christian monastery to become a nun. That day when she awoke from sleep, she heard a voice echoing in her ear calling, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” This voice caused her to tremble. She did not know the meaning of the voice at the time, but after that, she refused to enroll in the monastery. She spent many years after that seeking guidance from Allah Most High until she found a copy of a translation of the Holy Quran, and her heart testified that it was the truth. She also met a Pakistani scholar Maulana Siddiq Sahib, and an Indian scholar Shaykh Ansari. When she told them of the beliefs she held at the time, they told her that, by the grace of the Most High, she was already a Muslim for all intents and purposes. She says that even though she formally announced her Islam in 1975, in reality, she had already become Muslim in her heart the moment “Allahu Akbar” had echoed in her ears, and that her heart had filled to the brim with faith once she read the translation of the Holy Quran, and that love and reverence for the Noble Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) had been engraved into her heart. She says that before, people in Trinidad used to think that Islam is only a religion of the Indians, but after she accepted Islam, people of other ethnicities, especially those of African descent, also started to become Muslim. This trend has continued to the point that Muslims make up about 13% of the population, while Catholics are about 13%, Protestants are 72%, Hindus are 6%, and the remaining 32% includes various other religions. Shiraz Sahib said that every so often, several people at every Islamic center will be graced with Islam. Many people also accept Islam after watching a TV channel run by a local scholar, Mufti Waseem Sahib.
Dar al-Uloom Trinidad
Praise be to Allah for a large number of religious scholars in Trinidad. Even from our own Dar al-Uloom Karachi, many graduates have come here over the past few years. Among the scholars in Trinidad, the most well-known is Mufti Waseem Sahib. His ancestors were from India, and he himself graduated from Jami’at al-Uloom al-Islamiyyah Binori Town in Pakistan. His encouragement was a major influence in my decision to accept the invitation to come to Trinidad. He runs a large Dar al-Uloom here, and the very next day after our arrival, visiting this Dar al-Uloom was the first thing on our agenda. It is located in a rural area on the outskirts of the city of Port of Spain. The Dar al-Uloom was founded in 1984 by Mufti Sabeel Ali Sahib (may Allah have mercy on him), and since his demise in 1996, Mufti Waseem Sahib has been its dean (mohtamim). Besides teaching religious subjects up to the level of daurah-i hadith, it also has an exemplary system for teaching general subjects up to metric and intermediate levels. Its entire syllabus has been prepared in consultation with Dar al-Uloom Sabeel al-Rashad in Bangalore, India. The Dar al-Uloom also has a Fatwa Department (dar al-ifta), as well as a program offering training in issuing fatwa. The cleanliness and beauty of buildings reflect the beauty of its administration. This is the largest institution of Islamic learning not just in the West Indies, but in all of Latin America. Currently, almost 500 male students and almost 150 female students are studying here. They come from all around the West Indies, as well as from various parts of Central and South America. Apart from Mufti Waseem Sahib, Maulana Shiraz Ali Sahib and Maulana Abd al-Salam Sahib are also among its passionate teachers and administrators. The Dar al-Uloom also has committees for tending to the needs of the Muslims including officiating weddings, monitoring halal meat, moonsighting, and more. Mufti Waseem Sahib also runs his own TV channel that is dedicated to spreading religious knowledge. People have informed me that this channel has wide viewership not only among Muslims but even among non-Muslims. As I had mentioned previously, non-Muslims have learned about Islam and become Muslim through this channel, by His grace Most High.
The Dar al-Uloom’s masjid is magnificent, and it was full of people when we arrived. Even though most Muslims here are of Indian descent, they do not understand Urdu and have by and large forgotten their language over the years. Even the students and teachers at the Dar al-Uloom can speak very little of it, though they are more familiar with it than most due to their religious education. Hence, my hosts advised that I should deliver my talks in English, especially since the audience consisted of lay Muslims, some of whom had come from far away. After the lecture, Mufti Waseem Sahib took me on a tour of the Dar al-Uloom. I was very pleased to see how well it is administered, and I realized that this institution is a source of tremendous blessing for this region.
A Meeting with the President of Trinidad
When my host Shiraz Sahib was making VIP arrangements at the airport before my arrival, he had also submitted a notice to a government office introducing me. Somehow, this letter found its way to the president of Trinidad Professor Maxwell Richards. When the president read the letter, he told Shiraz Sahib to introduce me to him and the prime minister. I was bewildered as to why the nation’s president would want to meet a student of knowledge such as myself. On the other hand, I saw no reason to refuse. Hence, on Wednesday the 22nd of Shawwal, we arrived at the President’s House at 10:00 AM. The President’s House is a simple two-story building that had no signs of pomp or grandeur, though the gardens within the boundary walls were quite charming.
The president wasted no time inviting us inside and showed us great hospitality and courtesy. He welcomed me to Trinidad, and after we had exchanged some pleasantries, he said he had learned that I had done significant research on the Islamic financial system and that I had also authored books that had contributed to the field. Hence, he was interested in learning more from me about the economic teachings of Islam. He especially felt the need to learn this because of the economic crisis afflicting the whole world these days; some economists are writing that Islamic financial institutions have been the least affected and that the solution to this crisis lies in Islamic teachings. The president wished to know the truth of this theory.
I presented him with a detailed answer, the summary of which is as follows: The fact is that our current crisis is the obvious consequence of an interest-based financial system that is strangling the entire world in its clutches. This system contains three fundamental aspects that caused this crisis, and as long as these aspects remain, the world will continue to fall into crises like this one time after time.
The first of these three aspects is that interest-based transactions are based on a monetary and financial system in which financing is not backed by any real assets. Furthermore, the value of real money (even if it happens to be in the form of banknotes or bills) has been disregarded, and instead only hypothetical and calculated money is being generated, which is not even backed by banknotes or bills. They are nothing but numbers, which are imagined to be money and go on to promote interest-based transactions. The sale of derivatives has further exacerbated the problem. Therefore, the amount of real money is but a small fraction of the collective money supply, the staggering majority of it being hypothetical and calculated money. [The details of this discussion are not possible to discuss in a travelogue, but further explanation is mentioned in my book, The Historic Judgment on Interest from paragraph seventy onwards.]
The second problematic aspect of an interest-based financial system is the buying and selling of debt, which has fanned the flames of the current crisis. The third aspect is the system of short sale and blank sale transactions in the stock market that is characterized by buying and selling without possession and ownership of the items being bought and sold. This system has nurtured gambling, which has repeatedly caused economic shocks.
After briefly explaining these three problematic practices, I explained to him that they are prohibited in Islam. The Holy Quran has decreed that involving oneself in interest is tantamount to desiring to wage war against Allah Most High and the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). I further explained that it is prohibited in Islam to have financing that is not backed by an asset that is real. Furthermore, in Islam, debt is not a business venture to earn a profit. Profit can only be earned from the buying and selling of real goods or services. Profit cannot be earned on things that are hypothetical, speculative, or uncertain (ghayr yaqīni) things. For this very same reason, it is also impermissible in Islam to buy and sell loans, derivatives, and any assets that have not yet come under the possession and ownership of the seller, such as blank sales and short sale transactions. The underlying reason for the current crisis is none other than these unethical practices.
Now, usually, when the millstone starts to rotate, the weevils tend to get ground up along with the wheat. In this case, however, indeed, the Islamic institutions that had remained free of these unethical practices have not been as affected by this crisis compared to regular institutions.
I went on to discuss that the modern world has thus far experienced two economic systems: socialism and capitalism. Allah Most High has guided humanity toward a third middle way: the Islamic economic system. It is a shame, however, that whenever this third system is discussed, clamor starts to be heard from Western circles who accuse the people speaking about Islam of desiring to wind the clock backward. Furthermore, the latest propaganda these days is that Islam is merely a religion of terrorism. The upshot of it all is that no one even has the opportunity to seriously consider Islamic teachings.
President Maxwell Richards, himself very well-versed in law and economics, listened to this explanation with great attention and interest. He even asked questions throughout the discussion, and in the end, he acknowledged these negative aspects of the current economic system. He said that to eliminate them is not within one person’s power, but he desired that I meet the prime minister as well, and he pledged to contribute as much as he could. The prime minister was out of the country at the time, so the president’s desire was unable to be fulfilled during my visit.
This meeting lasted almost one hour, and it made me feel certain that the current economic crisis has forced thinkers even in the Western world to reflect on the weaknesses of their economic system. I recalled this couplet from a poem written by my respected late brother Zaki Kaifi (may Allah have mercy on him):
تنگ آجائے گی خود اپنے چلن سے دنیا
تجھ سے سیکھے گا زمانہ ترے انداز کبھی
One day the world shall grow weary of its course,
Then the age will learn from you your ways.
My host Shiraz Sahib wants to introduce interest-free initiatives for Trinidad’s Muslims. He has done some preliminary work on this endeavor under the guidance of Mufti Waseem Sahib. But before the formal inauguration of this endeavor, he has first started a series of classes for training professionals, several sessions for which have already taken place. Secondly, he and Mufti Waseem Sahib hoped that I would review their system and offer some advice. For this, they took me to their institute and presented me with a summary of their work until now. In such a short time, it was difficult for me to comment responsibly on the work as a whole, but to the extent of what I had understood, I provided some basic advice, which they said they intended to act upon. Originally, they had hoped I would accept a formal position on their institute’s shariah board. Because of the distance, as well as my own preoccupations, I had already excused myself from this, but Mufti Waseem Sahib continues to guide him.
My stay in Trinidad was very busy overall. Every morning was spent touring some institution or another, and after maghrib, there would be lectures to give at various masjids. I gained a familiarity with the various organizations and institutions here and also had the opportunity to advise them. I was happy with their overall condition. I was also happy to see that – Praise be to Allah – the Muslims here are well: they are concerned with the preservation of their religion, and the work of Tabligh is active.
Trinidad is considered to be among the most beautiful islands in the West Indies: a world of oceans, mountains, and waterfalls. It is a popular tourist destination. Just like the other islands in the West Indies, its equatorial climate characterized by light warmth and frequent rain-showers is a special attraction for Western tourists. Given how busy I was, I actually did not get an opportunity to visit the island’s tourist destinations, but upon the insistence of one local friend, I stayed on the 22nd floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is situated in a very picturesque location. From one side of it, I had a gorgeous view of the Caribbean Sea, and on the other side was a view of the city spread out at the foot of a mountain covered with greenery. From Monday through the morning of Saturday, I stayed here for the five days of my visit. I spent Friday in one of the island’s northern cities, where I delivered the Friday khutbah in a magnificent masjid that was packed with people. Later that evening after Maghrib, I also gave a lecture in a hall attached to that same masjid. The city’s most highly-educated Muslims were given a special invitation to attend this lecture. This was the final day of my visit, and from there, I departed for Barbados the next morning.
Barbados is another small island in the West Indies. Fourteen years ago in 1998, I had spent five days there, a brief account of which is on pages 107-111 of my travelogue, Dunya Merey Agey. Even though I had received many invitations to return to Barbados since then from well-wishers, I had not originally been planning to stop there this time, for obtaining visas for Brazil and Panama had been so time-consuming that I had been unable to obtain a visa to Barbados before leaving. But the well-wishers there, especially Mufti Mahmud Dana Sahib, had heard the news that I had come as far as Trinidad. They insisted that I should not leave before stopping in Barbados, even if it was only for one day. Hence, after great effort, they obtained a special visa for me and sent a copy to Trinidad. For this reason, we cut our stay in Trinidad short by two days, and on Saturday morning we departed for Barbados. The plan was for me to leave Barbados the very next evening for Pakistan.
This trip was forty-five minutes long, and when we landed at the airport, a large crowd was waiting to welcome us. Due to the shortness of my stay, my hosts from the Islamic Academy of Barbados had only scheduled two programs for me. The first program was that Saturday evening. They had organized a seminar entitled, “The Economic and Financial Teachings of Islam.” It was held at the largest conference hall in Barbados after isha, and I was already scheduled to give its keynote speech. Apart from local scholars, the city’s Muslim and non-Muslim professors, lawyers, and people from other sectors attended as well. The Academy had scheduled my second program on Sunday morning. It was a consultation session for the scholars of Barbados, in which we discussed local fiqh topics for almost one and a half hours. When I had come to Barbados the first time, there were two large masjids. Now, praise be to Allah that another large masjid has been added. The Muslim population has also increased to almost 3,000. I have previously written about how the Muslims over here had established a very strong system for children’s education. This time, I was even able to visit a proper school called the Al-Falah Primary School, which is run under the guidance of the scholars.
We spent most of Sunday in Barbados, and after Maghrib, we departed for London on a British Airways flight. On Monday the 27th of Shawwal, we landed in London’s Gatwick Airport at fajr time. We had to stay here until 1:00 PM. The respected Maulana Saleem Dhorat Sahib of Leicester had already telephoned me while I was in Barbados to say that he was actually in London these days, and he invited me to spend these few hours with him. He was at the airport when we arrived, and one of his friends, who is a doctor, had a house near Gatwick. There we rested for a few hours, and after a joyful meeting with the Maulana, we took off at 1:30 PM on an Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai. We landed in Dubai at 12:30 AM. We spent that night in Dubai, and we departed for Karachi in the morning. After a thirty-two-hour journey, we returned to our homeland at about noon by Karachi time. After thirty whole days, this lengthy trip reached its end in safety and security by the bounty and grace of Allah Most High.
And Praise Be To Allah At The Beginning And The End
Usmani, Muhammad Taqi. Safar Dar Safar. Maktabah Maʿārif al-Quran Karachi, Karachi, Pakistan, December 2011, p. 231-268
Translator: Shoaib Rasheed earned his BA in Islamic Studies from University of Michigan- Ann Arbor. He went on to study Arabic and Islamic studies for one year at Darul Qasim in Illinois, as well as benefit from private lessons with local scholars. He is interested in Islamic history, culture, and scholarship. Some of his previous works can be found on his blog: https://silentadmirerblog.
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