By Amani Simons, NMB Curatorial Intern

History | April 2, 2024

Reading time: 7 minutes

Since 2019, I’ve faithfully observed Ramadan, the ninth and most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, as a tribute to my grandfather who reverted to Islam in 1975. During Ramadan, I join millions of Muslims worldwide in centering myself spiritually, reflecting on Islamic values, and fasting from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from both food and drink (yes, including water).

As I prepared for and began to observe Ramadan this year, I started to think about what I knew of the history of Islam in Bermuda and what about it convinced my grandfather to raise his family in the Islamic faith. I quickly realised that I know very little about the religion’s origins on the Island. Understanding Islam’s origin in Bermuda not only opens a wider conversation about untold stories of the Bermudian experience but also helps me to understand my own grandfather and, in turn, myself. 

Founded in 7th century Mecca (modern-day Saudi Arabia) by the Prophet Muhammad, Islam is an Abrahamic religion similar to Christianity or Judaism. Like Jesus and David, Muhammad is believed to be a descendent of the Prophet Abraham, and all three religions are monotheistic, centred around one deity (known as Allah, God, or Yahweh). Islam was founded on five main principles: profession of faith (tauheed), prayer (salah), alms (zakat), fasting for the month of Ramadan (sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). 

Image of Ancient Mecca, the city where Allah revealed the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad and Islam began, making it the holiest location in Islam.  

Since the beginning of recorded histories, every civilisation has been recognised as having some form of religious practice. Religion is utilised to explain the unexplainable such as concepts of existentialism: creation of the universe or the purpose of life. This makes it an important facet of human history. Like many aspects of culture, religions have been taught and passed down from generation to generation, with the purpose of preserving cultural and traditional values, cementing legacies, and maintaining a connection to heritage, especially in the context of migration, whether forced or voluntary.  

Though Islam’s origins began in West Asia, in the millennium since, Islam has become intertwined with the cultural identity of many African and African diaspora communities. As many as 30% of the 12 million Africans forcibly taken from their motherland during the transatlantic slave trade were thought to be Muslim. They carried their culture and traditions with them throughout their Atlantic World journey. 

The experiences and histories of Islam in the Atlantic World are nuanced and reflective of the complex relationships, identities, and interactions throughout this region. Bermuda’s history with Islam is also reflective of the Island’s relationship with the United States. The history of Bermuda’s current Islamic tradition grew as an offshoot of the 20th century establishment of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in the US and their fight for Black equality. In this sense, Islam in Bermuda is deeply intertwined with modern Bermudian and American history, specifically the Civil Rights Movement and Black liberation. 

To understand what prompted the creation of the Nation of Islam and bolstered its significance to Black liberation, we need to contextualise the society and culture of the US during this time. As Black Americans migrated out of the South to the North, West and Midwest in the early 20th century, exposure to Black American culture grew. Yet thoughts of racial equality and integration did not develop quickly. In fact, the opposite happened. The growing threat of the KKK increased racial tensions, which were worsened by the 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression. The rate of unemployment for Black Americans tripled in comparison to their White counterparts. With the economy in shambles and unemployment on the rise, Black Americans needed a symbol of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow, which the Nation of Islam offered with its rhetoric of Black social and economic liberation, and connection to the religion of their ancestors. 

The Nation of Islam was founded in the US by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930 as a Black nationalist organisation. From the NOI’s inception, its aims were the liberation of Black Americans and separation from White Americans. After Elijah Muhammad assumed control of the Nation in 1934, this ideology continued with the integration of Pan-Africanism and the deification of the Nation’s former leader Fard Muhammad. This expanded the Nations influence amid the looming threat of another world war and an increased animosity towards a racially segregated United States. Elijah Muhammad’s ideals greatly appealed to the demographic of young, economically disadvantaged Black men.  

The Nation also preached in prisons, where they converted a young man in 1952 who would become the public face of the Nation and one of the most influential figures of the 20th century American Civil Rights Movement: Malcolm X. 

Depiction of the 1959 Theatre Boycott in the “Hall of History” mural painted by Graham Foster at the National Museum of Bermuda.

The Nation of Islam was introduced to Bermuda through the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks in 1959. It was distributed by Bermudians Kenneth Castle Sr. and Dilton Matthews (later known as Sayyed Ramadan). The newspaper was purchased in New York by workers on the Oleander cargo ship and smuggled here on the Oleander. This same year, Bermuda was on the brink of societal revolution. Though the Progressive Group’s theatre boycott successfully desegregated Bermuda, the fight for racial equality was not over. The Nation appeared as an alternative solution to problems Black Bermudians could not solve: social, economic, and political equality. However, the NOI aimed to solve it through complete separation, not integration. Additionally, influential members such as Malcolm X, and later, Muhammad Ali (in 1964) characterised the Nation as a potentially powerful entity in the fight for civil equality on the Island. Their fame and influence within the Black American community inspired Black Bermudians to join.  

Yet not all Black Bermudians agreed with the separatist approach of the Nation. Some feared a separatist ideology would hinder efforts on racial equality, especially given the Progressive Group’s ideology of peaceful resistance and racial integration proved to be effective. In fact, suspicions of a negative reaction to racial separation were confirmed when the 1965 banning of the Muhammad Speaks newspaper heightened racial tensions. Consequently, Nation members began covertly distributing the newspaper, after multiple attempts to reverse the ban. Bermudian Black power organisation the Black Beret Cadre aided Nation members in the distribution of Muhammad Speaks. They claimed that division among Black Bermudians was futile as “the oppressor makes no distinction between Black people when he is intent on violating their constitutional rights” (Swan, 2009). This vital understanding between the Nation and the Black Beret Cadre was more powerful to the collective good than each group’s individual aims. 

Front page of the Muhammad Speaks Newspaper from 1971

Regardless of the challenges they faced, the Nation fought hard to establish an economically prosperous Black identity in Bermuda throughout the rest of the 1960s. Bermuda’s Muslim community supported their members in a similar way to the Friendly Societies of Bermuda. The Friendly Societies were vital to the empowerment of Black Bermudians Post-Emancipation by providing education, legal, and financial support. During the 1970s, members of the Island’s Muslim community opened various institutions. Bakeries such as Brunswick and Zaki’s, and the Steak ‘n Take restaurant were staples for halal foods (products permissible by Islamic law) and deserts created by the Nation of Islam. In my opinion, before they closed, Zaki’s Bakery made the best bean pie on the Island. I tried many times to get their recipe to no avail. Laundromats on Parsons Road in Devonshire and Ord Road in Paget were also established by Muslim families. The Ord Road one is still owned and operated by a Muslim Bermudian family over 40 years later. 

In 1975, the Muhammad Mosque or the Masjid, as it is colloquially known, was opened on Cedar Avenue in the City of Hamilton, Bermuda. There are also two other Islamic Worship Centres: Masjid Quba and the Bermuda Islamic Cultural Centre. The Masjid houses the Clara Muhammad Primary School, which my cousins attended. The Masjid also hosts Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha which are religious celebrations. The former commemorates the end of Ramadan, and the latter is celebrated to remember the spirit of Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his son Ismail.  

Entrance to the Muhmmad Masjid, where my grandfather worshipped for over 40 years.

The same year that the Bermuda Masjid was founded my grandfather formally reverted to Islam. My mother and aunt were young, but they said the biggest changes were their diet changed and instead of spending money on celebrating Christmas and receiving gifts, they would travel during summer vacations. They also recall a distinct change in my grandfather’s relationship with his spirituality. For the next 40 years, he would uphold four of the five Pillars of Islam: profession of faith (tauheed), prayer (salah), alms (zakat), and fasting for the month of Ramadan (sawm). Unfortunately, he was unable to fulfil the fifth and final Pillar, the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) as he passed away in 2015 before he was able to go. His passing greatly impacted me because we were very close, and I struggled through my journey with grief. In my six years observing Ramadan and embarking on my own journey of spirituality, I have felt closer to him, and begun to understand his decision to revert.  

Pictures of me and my grandfather “Pa”, Dudley. We were very close, and I miss him every day.

Over 60 years since its arrival in Bermuda, Islam is still a prevalent aspect of many residents’ lives, including my own. However, it is bigger than just Bermuda. Islam is the second biggest religion globally, and each Muslim has their own experience and story about how Islam has shaped their lives. My journey exploring my family history within the context of Islam in Bermuda adds another Bermudian perspective to the multifaceted experiences of Muslims throughout the greater Atlantic World and the world as a whole. 

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