Islamic revivalism and political opposition

among minority Muslims in Mauritius.

by Oddvar Hollup

This article analyzes the role played by Islamic revivalism in the construction of ethnic and religious identity and for political opposition among minority Muslims in Mauritius.(1) How Islamic revivalism is articulated locally can be understood in relation to internal religious discourses and the presence of other ethnic groups with whom Muslims must interact and compete for scarce resources. Islamic revivalism (fundamentalism) has been seen as the outcome of colonial oppression and thereby interpreted as political resistance (Metcalf 1982; Gellner 1981), or as a reaction to political inequality, which seems applicable to the Muslim minority in Mauritius. The importance of Muslim identity, expressed through Islamic revivalism, is related to and confirmed by their subjective feeling of being an endangered minority. Muslims in Mauritius are influenced by the religious interpretations offered by the International Brotherhood of Muslims (Tablighi Jamaat) which indicates that geopolitical forces affect Muslims living in the periphery of Islamic dominance. There also is a connection here between Islamic revivalism, social and cultural change, and minority Muslims' opposition to the Hindu-dominated political majority. Although Muslims may appear to others as a relatively homogeneous and united social group, they are in fact internally divided into sects and schools of thought. Not only is there a distinction between the relatively small Ahmadiyya sect and the majority of Sunni Muslims, but among the latter there is a further religious division between those following the Sunna Jamaat and those supporting the Tablighi Jamaat and their Tawheed ideology. This division is marked by the presence of different mosques and religious associations (Jamaat, or mutual aid societies) in most villages and towns where there is a substantial number of Muslims.

Some common misconceptions are that religious fundamentalism is primarily an Islamic phenomenon (a view that often neglects fundamentalism among Christians in Northern Ireland and among Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, for example), and that religious fundamentalism is primarily a violent expression carried out by religious fanatics. Hage (1992) argues that religious fundamentalism is a political strategy for controlling communal space. Caplan (1987) makes the important point that all fundamentalist groups have a strong sense of otherness, evident in the new ways Muslims try to distinguish themselves from Hindus. Among Muslims in Mauritius, Islamic revivalism does not display any of the aforementioned characteristics.

Mauritius is a multi-ethnic island state comprising 720 square miles, situated in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles east of Madagascar. Despite its small size, the island is inhabited by one million people who are heterogeneous in terms of ethnic group, language, and religious differences. Uninhabited until the seventeenth century, it had no indigenous population, but became populated by waves of immigrants due to colonialism, plantation slavery, the indenture system, and French (1715-1810) and British (1810-1968) colonial mercantile interests, which shaped the sociocultural environment of the island.(2) Mauritian independence in 1968 also marked the transfer of political power to Indians, in particular Hindus. The national economy, predominantly a plantation economy until the mid-1970s, has undergone a rapid transformation toward greater diversification, with increasing importance played by light manufacturing industries (textile factories) and tourism. The economic growth resulted in a very low level of unemployment (2.5 per cent) and a higher standard of living for most Mauritians. Not only did Mauritius establish a stable and democratic political system, it represents a successful case of a policy to accommodate multiple traditions while containing ethnic conflict.

Mauritius has no single ethnic group that can maintain itself in political power by forming a majority government without relying on support from an alliance of some sort. The major ethnic communities (nasyon) are Hindus (Indien) Muslims (Musulman), Creoles, Franco-Mauritians (whites), and Chinese. The Hindu population itself is divided into several distinct religious and sociocultural groups: the Bhojpuri-speaking Hindus, Tamils (Madras), Telugu, and Marathis (Bombai), denoting their regional and linguistic origin (and port of embarkation) in India.

In the Mauritian context Hindus are a distinct ethnolinguistic group, rather than a religious community.(3) They practice the same religious rituals and food traditions, but are internally divided into four castes; Brahmin/Babujee, Vaish, Rajput, and Ravived (i.e., high, middle, and lower castes) (Hollup 1994). Due to the Hindus' support of the ruling political party (Labor or MSM [Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien]), they occupy key positions in the public sector and enjoy certain privileges. Muslims, who constitute 16.6 per cent of the total population, are considered by themselves and others as a separate community. They speak Kreol, but some old people also know a little Bhojpuri. They learn some Urdu/Arabic for religious purposes in the primary school and the mosques. The majority are Sunni, belonging to the Hanefi sect or school of thought. The popular belief is that Muslims are an urban population, due to their concentration in Port Louis and Phoenix/ Vacoas, but they also live in rural areas.

Table 1: Estimated Population by Ethnic Category in Mauritius (1983)(4)

Ethnic Community Population Per Cent

Hindus 388,919 40.2
Tamils 70,579 7.3
Telugus 28,578 3.0
Marathi 20,430 2.1
Total Hindu Population 508,506 52.6

Muslims 160,229 16.6
Creoles 243,118 25.0
Franco-Mauritian(5) 34,530 3.6
Chinese 20,580 2.2
Total Population 966,963 100


Hindus and Muslims in Mauritius share a history of indentured labor, both having been recruited to work in the sugar cane plantations. They came from the same rural districts (sometimes the same village) in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar in northern India and arrived in the same ships. They spoke the same Hindi dialect, Bhojpuri, which was widespread in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, and had a similar background as peasants, tenant farmers, artisans, and agricultural workers. In north India, Muslims and Hindus shared local traditions, such as the women's decoration of their hands with henna (mehendi), and the same foods, although for different religious reasons. Beyond these similarities women differ in the dresses they wear. Elderly Muslim women wear a long dress (baju), not the sari used by Hindu women. Younger Muslim women prefer the Punjabi dress with a shirt (kameez) and narrow-legged trouser (shalwar). The shawl (dupatta) is exclusively linked to Muslim identity.

Among the first Muslims arriving in Mauritius were a small group who established themselves as merchants in the capital, Port Louis. Those who became rich were the Kutch Memons and the Surtees, who came from Surat in Gujarat. Forming small but economically powerful communities in the capital, they were considered high-class Muslims and were largely endogamous. They took wives from India and did not generally intermarry with Muslims of indentured labor background, whom they called Calcuttea. The Memons became very influential after winning a struggle with the more numerous Surtees for control over the large Jummah Mosque in Port Louis (Emrith 1967). The appearance of these small but economically significant Gujarati Muslim communities relatively early in Mauritian history was an important factor in the spread of Islam, as they financed the building of several mosques, madrasa (vernacular schools), and colleges.

The Muslims are highly differentiated and diversified in terms of sectarian affiliation (i.e., Memons, Surtees, Sunnis, Shiia, and Ahmadiyya), occupational specialization, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation. (Socioeconomic and social-class differences cut across each ethnic group or category in Mauritian society.) But Muslims do not like to see themselves as Sunni, Surtee, or Memons and do not use such terms, believing that they create divisions and disunity within the Muslim community. Yet differences are present. Bohras are Shiia Muslims and very few are engaged in business and commercial activities. The Shiias have their own mosque in Port Louis. Another distinct religious community is the Ahmadiyya sect, locally called Quadianis, which has its own mosques. The Ahmadiyya is a small community of some 4,000 members, the majority of whom are educated, middleclass people who work as clerks, lawyers, auditors, doctors, teachers, and government servants. The government of Mauritius recognizes the Ahmadiyya sect as part of the Muslim community, but the Sunni do not regard its members as Muslims and will not marry them. Ahmadiyyas believe in the prophet Mirza Goolam Ahmad and do not accept that Mohammed was the final prophet with none after him; the Sunni consider the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims and find their doctrine heretical. The two sects constitute separate endogamous groups, have their own mosques, and relations between them have not always been amicable (Hollup 1993).

Muslims living in the capital are concentrated in a neighborhood known as Plaine Verte. Rural Muslims migrating to Port Louis for work, to start their own trades, or for marriage replaced Creoles there and transformed Plaine Verte into an almost exclusively Muslim neighborhood.

Although the indentured Indians started out as estate laborers, there were some opportunities to become smallholders of sugar cane land, either by becoming an overseer (sirdar) or a job contractor. The acquisition of sugar cane land by Indians was facilitated by an international crisis in the sugar market (the fall in prices between 1883-87) that forced French planters to sell economically marginal land in order to avoid bankruptcy. This process actually started prior to the 1880s and continued until 1920. It created a sector of Indian small planters within the sugar industry that was important for the creation of an Indian middle class. The profits from sugar cane were used to invest in trade or to finance Indian children's higher education.


Occupations among Muslims include small planters, laborers, textile workers, bus conductors, taxi drivers, artisans, shoemakers, barbers, tailors, goldsmiths, hawkers, vegetable sellers, professionals, and government servants. While Muslims hold many occupations, the many in trade stress the value of becoming economically independent and the advantage of being self-employed. Many got involved in trade due to various political constraints. Some also say that petty trade is an "Islamic profession" and commercial activity is the best choice for a Muslim; therefore, trade becomes an important self-image and representation.(6) At the same time Muslims found it increasingly difficult to obtain government jobs and therefore had to look for other options for upward mobility (cf. Hollup 1992). As in many parts of the world, minorities in Mauritius, predominantly Chinese and Muslims, tend toward trade and business.

In order to understand the Muslims' concern for trade one has to take into account the role of the trading community of Surtee Muslims in Port Louis. The Surtees helped other Sunni Muslims into trade by giving them credit, cash loans, and renting out shop premises to those who started as hawkers. Some of the latter became wealthy merchants. Trading activities of the Surtees and Memons constitute important factors for explaining the migration of Muslims into Port Louis. When the value of sugar cane land rose substantially, some Muslim small planters made a fortune by selling their land and then investing in trade.

The Muslims represent a case in which ethnic and religious identity coincide, helping to make them strong. They also are better organized than the Hindus: religious associations and mutual aid societies support those in the community who need help. The mosque constitutes the focal point of the local Muslim community and Islamic teachings at the mosque and the vernacular schools aid in the adherence to Islam and its precepts. The Muslims also constitute an endogamous group; kinship and marriage bonds further support group solidarity. The few interethnic marriages that do occur are due to the openness of Mauritian society, the lack of purdah, and Muslim women's participation in wage work due to industrialization and economic growth.


Some changes appearing in religious classification and categorization among Muslims indicate a tendency toward greater homogenization and uniformity. The religious classifications that appeared over 40 years ago, such as Sunni Hanafi, Sunni Shafi, Ahmadiyya, Shiia, Bohra, etc., were grouped together in censuses in order to collect a greater part of the religious subsidies allocated to non-Christian religions (Benedict 1965). In the 1962 census and later, Muslims started to refer to themselves as adherents of Islam without specifying sect, and this tendency toward greater uniformity was accompanied by greater orthodoxy, described as the sunnification of Islam in Mauritius. Benedict (1965:39) writes that

Sunnification means the abandonment of local and sectarian practices in favour of a uniform orthodox practice. The position of Muslims as a minority group in Mauritius has assisted this process, but it has also been aided by the emergence of Muslim countries and the work of Muslim missionaries who have visited Mauritius. The establishment of a Muslim College, the Darul-Ulum, to train imams and missionaries also operates to produce a uniform orthodox practice.

This initial process of sunnification took place under circumstances of stronger political competition between Hindus and Muslims and was the forerunner of other, more apparent changes related to Islamization. The Muslim revivalist movement, whose impact has been felt more strongly in the last two decades, is an expression of a need for a separate identity, but also a response to Hindu-Muslim antagonism and an expression of opposition to the political dominance of the Hindus. Until recently the Muslims' political marginalization and unanimous support for the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien) promoted the process of Islamization. Political discontent, articulated through the collective feeling of victimization, was directed into religious reforms and Islamic revivalism. The Muslim revivalists found greatest support primarily among the educated middle class in the towns, who propagated the purity of Islam, and the emphasis on Islamic ideology tempted Muslims to turn to pan-Islamism.(7) Increased religious opposition, attempts at introducing Sharia law for Muslims, and a revival of Islamic practices among Muslims were introduced through missionary activities in the mosques and Islamic centers.

The tendency toward Islamic orthodoxy seems to have affected local religious practices, as seen in the gradual disappearance of the Muharram festival in Port Louis. The celebration of Muharram is associated with a Shiia Muslim tradition, but it became a local tradition in Mauritius in which Sunni Muslims participated. The fact that this ten-day mourning festival commemorating the first two Muslim martyrs lost its popularity is related to the process of Islamization and changes in religious leadership from landowners and merchants to more orthodox intellectuals. The increasing emphasis on orthodoxy and concern with non-Islamic practices were already evident in the mid-1950s.

Muslim leaders are constantly stressing orthodoxy. Religious leaders both in the island and coming from overseas preach strongly against what are considered non-lslamic practices. The procession of "ghouns" at the festival of Muharram is strongly condemned. It used to be practiced in many villages and estate camps but is now confined to the Muslim section of Port Louis. Even there it has diminished with the passing years. (Benedict 1961:142)

The Tazia or Ghoon was virtually the only form of recreation among Muslims, but with the coming of many priests (imams) this folk tradition withered, and today there is an almost total abandonment of the Tazia festival in Port Louis during the month of Muharram. The religious group Islamic Circle resisted the celebration of the Ghoon, which was considered non-Islamic. Later the religious movement (or mission) Tablighi Jamaat joined in the effort to remove foreign things that had entered Islam. The Surtees claim they never participated in the celebration of Ghoons and were against this particular religious expression because it was not orthodox.

There are some disputes between orthodox Muslims and traditionalists in which the former accuse the latter of being polytheists and idol worshipers. Opposition to these and other forms of heterodoxy has led to a decline in Sufi religious practices. Although popular Sufi religious practice and interpretation are not necessarily unorthodox, there are attempts to control the Sufi orders by orthodox Muslims representing the scholarly tradition. In religious discourse the latter is said to belong to the core while Sufism represents the periphery (Gardner 1995; Lambek 1990).

There are still a few Sufi religious practitioners among the Muslims in Mauritius, but they face increasing pressure by Islamic orthodoxy and sunnification. Those who support Sufi religious practices believe in intermediaries between God and humans. This stands in contrast to the ideology of orthodox Muslims, who do not acknowledge Sufi religious practice and the role of intermediaries. Benedict (1961: 128) notes that

the existence of pirs or saints is held by many orthodox Muslims to be incompatible with Islam. Some may acknowledge that pirs have existed in the past and have even come to Mauritius, but they do not acknowledge the existence of Mauritian pirs today. Nevertheless there are Muslims who claim to be pirs and who receive some support for these claims. The tombs of two of the most famous pirs receive annually many offerings of incense, money and lengths of cloth.(8)

The most famous Sufi is Pir Jammal Shah, an imam who came from India to Mauritius about 130 years ago and is said to have healed many people. After his death this religious leader was buried inside the Jummah mosque in the capital. Those who are ill can pray to this Sufi for cures and favors. Pir Jalalud-din, whose tomb is in the Muslim cemetery at Bois Marchand, is also credited with cures in return for vows. The tombs of Pir Jamal Shah and Pir Jalalud-din can be regarded as Mauritian analogues to many of the Hindu deities and to the shrine and tomb of Pere Laval, a Roman Catholic missionary to whom similar vows are made (Benedict 1961). Some Muslims pray at the tomb of an unmarried female saint, Bibi Ameena, located at La Saline in Port Louis. Influential persons who support Sufi practices have prayers performed for them in order to be cured of their sickness. More controversial are the living pirs found in Plaine Verte who used to be particularly active during the Muharram festival.

Sufism in Mauritius has become marginalized, although it never was widespread. It persists in Mauritius as a folk tradition among a few Muslims in some villages. Sufism as an intellectual exercise, however, may arise from time to time with the coming of mawlanas (imams) from India, and in those cases Sufism can experience a revival.


When Muslims recently tried to de-emphasize their Indian origin and Indian cultural heritage by reconstructing or redefining their history, it was an effort to distinguish themselves from the Hindus in order to promote a separate Muslim identity. Although the majority are descendants of Indian indentured laborers, they tried to appear as descendants of Arabs and of merchants (Eriksen 1993:72). Their languages were Bhojpuri and Gujarati; very few were literate in Urdu. However, in the 1972 census virtually all Muslims stated their ancestral language as Urdu. In the next census ten years later, more than half the Muslims stated their ancestral language as Arabic. During the mid-1970s a powerful Arabic movement had emerged, and it became more attractive for the orthodox Muslims in Mauritius to be part of this movement than to identify one's roots in India. We may appreciate these behaviors as a political statement, but the attempt to create a new and purer Islamic identity was contested by other Mauritians and other Muslims.

The shift from Bhojpuri to Urdu is but one example that illustrates the attempts to emphasize cultural differences rather than similarities between Hindus and Muslims. The association of Urdu with Muslims is new in Mauritius, and the demand for Urdu instruction for Muslim children in primary schools can be interpreted as an opposition to the promotion of Hindi among Hindus and the right of Muslims to instruction in ancestral or Oriental languages on the same terms as those given to other ethnic minorities (e.g., Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi). Urdu is the written language associated with Muslims but it is used rarely, usually in connection with rituals performed by an imam and other religious leaders. Muslim children are taught to write and read Urdu and Arabic in primary school and evening classes in the vernacular schools, but these languages are restricted to religious contexts because the majority of Muslims speak Kreol. However, instruction in Urdu functions as an important symbol in reinforcing a separate ethnic identity.

In Mauritius, Hindus and Muslims speak Kreol and Bhojpuri. The former represents a linguistic homogenization and an integrative factor in this plural society, and the association of Bhojpuri with Hindus has made some rural Muslims give up speaking it in favor of Kreol, which is not identified with a particular ethnic community. It was the Muslims' demand for a greater share in government jobs that surfaced as the major political expression of Muslim discontent in Mauritius, not the demand for teaching Urdu. Urdu has hardly any practical significance or use to Muslims other than as a symbol of Muslim identity, and Muslims in Mauritius would be considered a separate community by religion alone. This means that Urdu does not necessarily represent a constitutive part of Muslim identity, despite their self-representation. It sufffices to say that Muslim ethnic identity in the Mauritian context is essentially a religious identity. It designates an ethnic group and a religious community in Mauritius, and as such resembles the identity of Bosnian Muslims (Bringa 1995) and of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka (Munck 1992). The Muslims in Mauritius have a distinct religious identity but this does not coincide with a national identity, as with the Malay in Malaysia' where being a Malay means also being Muslim (Nagata 1974).


Before 1962 Muslims formed part of the larger Indo-Mauritian population and were included in a common category with Hindus, Tamils, Telugus, and other people of Indian origin. With increased political representation among Indians due to the new constitution in 1948 and the extension of adult franchise, a gradual politicization of ethnic identity appeared and the Muslims began a struggle to be recognized as a separate community. Their attempts at expressing a religious and ethnic distinctiveness were also generated and shaped by their situation as a minority group and their fear of Hindu dominance. Simmons (1982:44) stresses the growing split between the Muslims and Hindus.

Over the years Muslims have talked fearfully of Hindu domination, and this fear, as much as anything, has shaped their political behaviour in Mauritius. Throughout the constitutional negotiations, Muslims were primarily concerned with safeguarding the interests of their own community.

Changing political conditions, Hindu political dominance of government employment opportunities, and increasing competition over the allocation of scarce resources led to a further drifting apart of the two communities. Muslims rejected being classified as Indians and encouraged a stronger religious identification with Islam.(9) In the early 1960s some Muslims organized a small political party, Comite D' Action Musulman (CAM), to champion the interests of the Muslim community. The increasing politicization split Hindus and Muslims into opposed attitudes toward independence. The Muslims in CAM wanted to support the demand for independence on the condition that the Muslims got separate electoral rolls. However, despite an alliance with the Labor Party and PMSD (Parti Mauricien Social Democrate) after independence, CAM remained of little political influence and few Muslims (less than 10 per cent) supported the party. Most Muslims (80 per cent) support the MMM. A political alliance in 1991 between the ruling party (MSM) and the opposition (MMM) gave Muslims two coreligionist ministers in the government, which helped ease their discontent.

Because Muslims were collectively supporting the opposition party (MMM), they felt they became victims of discrimination by the government: a political experience that they shared with members of other ethnic minorities (e.g., Tamil and Creoles).(10) Muslims believe they were forced into block voting, and the result of their collective electoral behavior was that they were penalized after the 1983 election, when no Muslim was appointed minister. A few Muslims shifted their allegiance and political support to the governing party for pragmatic and personal career reasons. The policies pursued by Muslims have varied from the religious revivalist, as represented by the CAM, to the secularist and modernist ideology by the MMM.(11) Hindus, Tamils, and Creoles tend to identify the Muslims with the MMM, which has become a collective label for Muslim political identity. Some Muslims were penalized not because of their ethnic and religious identity, but due to their identification with a political affiliation opposed to Hindus. The correlation between ethnic affiliation and political alignment is very strong and almost institutionalized in the political structure and culture (Bowman 1991; Eriksen 1992; Hollup 1993). Ethnic solidarity is activated during election time; otherwise people tend to live together without much apparent consideration for ethnic ascription because ethnic and religious identities are implicit and taken as a given.

What seems to be most important for Muslims and other minorities is whether they are represented in the government by ministers recruited from their community. This is seen as a safeguard for their community to get access to the distribution of state resources through political patronage. Such patronage is not necessarily desired for personal benefits; but Muslims do think that there is a better chance of obtaining certain benefits at the personal level if the minister is a Muslim rather than a Hindu. Most Muslims, regardless of socioeconomic status and class background, felt more secure with the MMM than with the Labor Party. After the 1983 election and the defeat of the MMM, Muslims felt so persecuted that many of them became hawkers or opened small businesses. A former Muslim politician explained:

The Muslims turned closer to their religion and wanted to become more independent so that they did not need to knock on the door of any politician. There was a withdrawal into their own society and religious ideology. The Muslims did not become violent extremists as a result of their powerless political position. They adapted a defensive strategy rather than an aggressive one.

Following the 1991 general election Muslims did gain some promotions, government jobs, etc., and felt somewhat happier about the fact that a former minister (Utteem) became president, although he has no formal influence or power. Most Muslims still support the MMM party, but are more politically fragmented due to the emergence of factions within the MMM.


Islamization is a global ideological phenomenon responsive to exogenous influence, but the process takes different forms in Mauritius, in the sub-Saharan countries, and in Southeast Asia. In some of the African countries (e.g., Sudan) Islamization is spreading through missionary activities with tribal groups (Manger, In press). The process of Islamization in Mauritius includes building new mosques, schools, and Islamic Centers, which are often financed by foreign sources; i.e., generous gifts from Libya and Saudi Arabia. The Muslims in Mauritius invite foreign missionaries to come and preach, and since 1958 members of the transnational religious movement Tablighi Jamaat, originating in India, have come to teach people the true scriptural tradition of Islam. The Indian missionaries communicate mostly in Urdu because they do not know the local patois and Mauritian Muslims do not speak Arabic, except to recite a few prayers. There are many translations of the Koran, and while educated Muslims use French or English, a few use Urdu. In the mosque some imams use Kreol to interpret the holy message to the congregation.

New elements deriving from Arab culture, such as the architecture of the mosque and its dome, have been introduced as part of the process of Islamization. Another Arabic influence is the manner of greeting among Muslim men, particularly after prayers at the mosque, which involves embracing and shaking hands. This intimate form of greeting, which also occurs at religious festivals and marriages, expresses affection and solidarity and is a way of reconfirming Muslim identity.

The pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) is popular, but after making the hajj, people do not add al Haj or Hajjid to their names. Increased wealth accumulated through trade among Muslims has made the pilgrimage to Mecca an accessible reality rather than a distant dream. Some new practices are not yet uniformly adopted by the majority, but some Muslim men have started to wear long shirts (jilbab), which they acquired after the pilgrimage. The former practice of wearing the Indian shirt (kurta in Hindi) was discouraged because it did not signify Muslim identity. Some Muslims have started to grow long beards, and some women, primarily the wives and sisters of religious leaders and a few middle-class Muslims, now wear the hijab headdress. As yet, very few women appear veiled in public. The headdress and the veil are newly introduced practices and, according to a highly educated Muslim woman, were encouraged by Islamic missionaries. Gardner (1995) has argued for an association between wealth, which partly derives from overseas migration, and increasing orthodoxy (doctrinal purity) among Muslims in Sylhet, Bangladesh. There it is the rich and powerful who are most interested in enforcing orthodoxy.

Some orthodox Muslims in Mauritius have become increasingly concerned with how to live and behave as a good Muslim and follow the tenets in the holy Koran. One of the habits they have tried to change or give up altogether is drinking rum. A few Muslims drink alcohol but try to hide it, and a family will reject a suitor who drinks, saying they do not want marriage with a "drunkard."

There is a move toward a more literary tradition within Islam at the expense of elements considered non-Islamic, heretical, and repressed by orthodox religious leaders and groups. In this religious discourse, the interpretation provided by orthodox Muslims relying on the scriptural tradition seems to become more hegemonic, creating religious authority for itself. Islamization is also a means to bring the Muslims back to the teachings of Mohammed (Dawa) and to do away with local and alternative interpretations of Islam. There is also a stronger emphasis on the need to learn Arabic as a true sign of going back to holy scriptural tradition. Previously there was only the learning of Arabic recitation in the vernacular schools, but now there is more concern with correct pronunciation, the ability to read, and understanding. When defining themselves Muslims emphasize the fact that they put religion into practice in depth. As a principal of a Muslim college said:

It is the religion (Islam) and all its teachings that make a person a Muslim. It is a knowledge of the Koran and its moral ethic that is contrasted to other religions. To be a good Muslim is to submit oneself totally to the will of God and follow exactly the practice of the prophet Mohammed, the messenger of God. It is not enough to be born into a Muslim family (through kinship and descent); without being a Muslim by practice one is only a Muslim by name. Muslims must emulate and follow the practice of the prophet to the greatest extent, imitate his kind of justice, dress, food, the way he talked, and so on.

Muslim identity is a religious identity that surpasses all other social identities. Today Mauritian Muslims refer solely to religious adherence and not to ancestry, descent, or regional origin in India.


The revitalization of Islam, whereby universalistic elements have come to suppress particularistic elements, is evident in the disputes between the Hindu-dominated government and the Muslim community regarding the application of religious law for Muslims. The founder of the CAM, Abdul Razak Mohammed, discussed the issue during the first coalition government in 1969-70. Muslims demanded that for them marriage, divorce, and inheritance should follow Muslim personal law. Muslims used to celebrate ritual or religious marriage (Nikah) prior to civil marriage. The government stated that civil marriage must precede religious marriage. In 1982 the late Prime Minister Ramgoolam agreed in principle that Muslims have a right to their personal law. The government formed a committee that made way for the law, but it was not codified. After the election in 1983 Muslims were "punished" for their support of the opposition party. The prime minister dissolved the committee and Muslims were made to marry according to Mauritian law. The issue of a personal law for Muslims was brought to the Privy Council which decided in favor of the government. Muslim personal law remains an issue and subject to political bargaining.

Many Muslims have not yet registered their marriage as a civil one. More important to them is that they marry according to Muslim law; that is, the ritual marriage (Nikah). Muslim marriages have followed personal law for some time, but in 1987 the government banned them in order to enforce equity. Still, to register a marriage is not an essential matter for Muslims and some Muslim couples wait years before they register their marriage.

The implementation of Islamization and demands for the introduction of personal law for Muslims assume many forms of ideological discourse. For example, a girl in a privately owned and run secondary school in Port Louis insisted on wearing the hijab, which had been recently introduced by orthodox Muslims. There was no rule against schoolgirls wearing such a headdress, but the principal wanted her to wear the same school uniform as the other children, and told her to remove the hijab if she wanted to continue at his school. Otherwise she could transfer to a Muslim private school, as at the Islamic Center. After some attempts at negotiation, the girl was expelled from the school. After the following Friday prayer, there was a demonstration of more than 1,000 Muslims in Port Louis. The issue received press coverage and became a controversial matter for the ministries of education and government. Muslims argued that a Muslim girl and her parents had the right to decide whether to wear the hijab, and that religious law (personal law) has primacy over secular law.


Considerable religious discourse among Muslims in Mauritius concerns different interpretations of the Koran and how to live an Islamic way of life. Like the Muslims in India, most of the Sunni Muslims in Mauritius follow the Hanafi school of thought. But this is changing and more people tend to go directly to the sources: the Koran and Sunna (custom and practices). The Jummah mosque (masjid) and its board of directors, who represent the Sunna Jamaat, are important in Mauritius and recognized by the government as the official representative of the Muslim community. The Sunna Jamaat has always addressed the people in Urdu through the Friday prayers (which are also broadcast on radio), but the youth know little Urdu, which is not taught in primary school. However, with the establishment of different religious groups and movements among the Muslims, such as the Islamic Circle, the Tablighi Jamaat, SIM (Student Islamic Movement), and Hisbullah, the interpretations offered by the Sunna Jamaat were seriously contested. The Islamic Circle religious group, started in 1958, revived Tawheed ideology. They said that some imams who had come from India introduced Indian customs related to funeral rites that have no place in Islam, and generally resisted what the Jummah mosque preached.

As a consequence there is no unifying force that can claim sole religious authority. The Jummah mosque no longer represents the majority of Muslims, and the youth in particular do not recognize the religious authority of the Sunna Jamaat. The latter has more influence among older people, whereas Tablighi Jamaat is stronger among those between the ages of 30 and 50. The Sunna Jamaat is accused by the Tawheed group of introducing Indian elements in faith and promoting the practice of praying to the saints to intercede on behalf of supplicants. The Tawheed accepts only the Koran and the Sunna, the six authentic books. The Tablighi Jamaat brought many visiting imams from abroad and encouraged young Muslims in Mauritius to do Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Egypt. When they returned they taught the precepts of Tawheed. The Tablighi Jamaat became one of the most influential organizations in spreading the Tawheed ideology during the last twenty years. The adherents of Tawheed practice Islam through missionary activities and believe that it is insufficient to say that one is a Muslim without practicing Islam; e.g., wearing the hijab, performing the five daily prayers in congregation, and practicing purdah. The Tablighi Jamaat has now a Mauritian base with a separate mosque and an Islamic center in Port Louis. It preaches in Kreol, which is understandable to the youth, rather than in Urdu. Among the youth the SIM, Tablighi Jamaat, and Hisbullah exercise the most religious influence.

Hisbullah is a militant religious group of recent origin, started by a man who had been to Saudi Arabia. There are different interpretations of what is meant by fundamentalism among Muslims and non-Muslims. Shepard (1987:314), who uses the term "radical Islamism" for what often is called fundamentalism, writes, "Like modernists, but even more insistently, radical Islamists claim that Islam is for all aspects of social as well as personal life. They agree with the modernists that Islam is flexible and that un-Islamic 'superstitions' must be eliminated."


Islamic revitalization in Mauritius and its emphasis on the universal elements of Islam among Muslims has to be understood in terms of the need for Muslims to distinguish themselves from other Indians and create a separate Muslim identity. But revitalization is also a reaction to their position as an ethnic minority subject to political marginalization after independence. In Mauritius there is no basis for distinguishing Muslims from other people of Indian origin except by religious identity. Beliefs about what it means to be a Muslim, what Islam is about, and how the holy text regulates one's life show increasing uniformity and orthodoxy among the Sunni Muslims. There are hardly any alternative or parallel interpretations (multiple voices and various traditions), except for the contesting ideology represented by the presence of the Ahmadiyya sect. The Islamization processes have to be understood in a wider sociopolitical context of Hindu dominance and Muslim fear. Islamization and its practices are the political language through which Muslims construct group identity, difference, and separateness. In the Mauritian context the process of Islamization can be interpreted as a political force partly deriving from international sources and missionary activities. One of its visible results has been to strengthen religious identity, close ranks vis-a-vis outsiders, and clarify ethnic boundaries.

Islamic revitalization became a symbol of political protest, taking place under sociopolitical circumstances in which Muslims found their opportunities jeopardized. After Mauritian independence there followed economic stagnation and high unemployment that produced fierce competition for government employment among members of different ethnic groups. Those who suffered most were ethnic minorities (Muslims, Tamils, Creoles) and supporters of the political opposition. For Muslims and Mauritian interethnic relations in general, one has to take into account the relationship of minorities to their ethnic other, the Hindus. Muslim religious identity was explicitly used for political mobilization in a political culture where politicization of ethnicity became institutionalized.


(1.) Material for this article was collected during 1990-91 in Savanne district. Another two months of fieldwork in 1993-94 concentrated on the Muslims living in the southeast of the island. I acknowledge the travel grants given by the University of Bergen and the support of the Nordland Research Institute, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), and the University of Leiden. (2.) French colonizers started agricultural production with African slaves imported from Madagascar and Mozambique. Slavery was abolished in 1835 by the British and the sugar plantations were deserted by emancipated slaves, who settled on Crown land along the coast and in Port Louis (Allen 1983). From 1834 to 1910 the indenture system brought 450,000 Indian laborers to the sugar plantations to replace the former slaves. (3.) Hindus share a common origin in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in north India and speak Bhojpuri (a dialect of Hindi). (4.) In order to estimate the population by ethnic category or community, the census figures stating religious affiliation have been compiled and sometimes cross-checked with figures indicating the language of forefathers where this was possible. The figures are approximate and should be treated with some caution. (5.) This figure, based on those who stated French as their language, probably includes other social categories than the white Franco-Mauritians, who constitute less than 2 per cent of the population. It may include people of British and mixed parentage, such as the Coloreds (mulattoes), who have adopted and prefer to speak French. (6.) Muslims point out that the prophet Mohammed was a trader and that Islam has taught them to make some profit. Metcalf (1993:586) notes that according to some texts trading, if pursued in accordance with divine injunctions, also merits reward. (7.) A similar process took place among Muslims in Uttar Pradesh in north India. Brass (1974:126) writes, "A return to the pristine practices of Islam naturally meant eliminating all heretical ceremonies and rituals derived from Hindu-Muslim religious interaction." (8.) The term pir refers to a holy man or a saint and is usually connected with Sufi tradition. (9.) This dichotomization within the Indo-Mauritians may have been influenced by the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1948. (10.) For example, a very good Muslim volleyball player was excluded from the national team's tour of France. Even the female Muslims returning from hajj were bodily searched at the airport. (11.) The radical opposition party, the MMM, has an anticommunal ideology and universalistic approach expressed in the slogan, "one people, one nation" (Ene sel le pep, Ene sel nasyon).


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