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The mosques of Port-of-Spain

Saturday, July 8, 2017
Back in Times
Queen Street Masjid in the 1950s.

Trinidad’s landscape has been enriched by the fine example of Islamic architecture in mosques scattered throughout the land. While there are many facets of this architecture that were extracted from the far Eastern Islamic countries, most notably, the Domes and Minarets, the modifications make them truly an expression of the Trinidadian Muslims. Islamic calligraphy is another fascinating expression and we salute the Muslim community in preserving and sharing these expressions, truly enriching the lives of the citizens. We share two of the magnificent structures in San Fernando for our readers.

—Rudolph Bissessarsingh Trinidad has many fine examples of Islamic architecture which have reflected the status, dignity and size of the Muslim community in the island. Nevertheless, the first masjids were humble structures of wood, tapia and thatch that served the various jamaats in the communities where there were numbers of the 20,000 or so Muslims who came to the island under indentureship.

By the 1920s, however, some adherents of the faith had prospered exceedingly and were able to erect masjids in keeping with their elevated economic status. Foremost among these men was Haji Gokool Meah, who had come to the island in the mid-1800s and was left orphaned when his mother died. From labouring on an estate near San Fernando, he saved and bought a mule cart and later expanded into shopkeeping.

Gokool became a millionaire before his death at age 92 and was best known as the owner of the Globe chain of cinemas. The Globe Cinema he founded in Port-of-Spain still stands as an outstanding example of Art Deco architecture. At the time of its construction, it was the largest movie house in the region as well as one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the land.

He also owned extensive holdings in Diego Martin, where every morning he observed the dictum of Islam on the giving of alms by standing at his gate with a large basket of hops bread to be distributed to hungry children. A very devout man, he was one of the few who early on had made the holy pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca. After 1922 he became known as Haji Gokool Meah.

On lands of the old Peru Estate in Coolie Town (now St James), a ramshackled tapia building had served as a masjid on the Western Main Road. In 1927 Gokool had this levelled and construction of a new building in classic Islamic style started. Using a combination of local labour and directed by foreign craftsmen, the new mosque was made with reinforced concrete which was used to good effect in the imposing dome and the four minarets. There was also a Mihrab, or prayer niche, aligned in the direction of Mecca. A handsome iron and concrete fence separated the compound from the busy main thoroughfare.

The enormous cost of the edifice was borne by Gokool, who left a stunning $1 million in his will to start the Haji Gokool Meah Trust. His eldest son, Noor, was the primary trustee.

The proceeds were used to pay for the upkeep of the building and the salary of a resident imam. It was also used for charity, which was something that Gokool was famous for throughout his entire life. Haji Ruknaddeen arrived in Trinidad in 1893 and after a short period of indentureship, supported himself as a tailor in Tunapuna.

A scholar and literate in several Eastern languages, he was soon recognised as a cleric of standing and became to his brethrens a guide, adviser and leader. He was a Sufi or ascetic of his faith and rose to become the Quazi or leader of the Muslims of Trinidad. In conjunction with another prominent Muslim, Al Haj Maulana Shah Mohammed Hassan, he formed in 1933 the Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association (Asja) which remains today the largest and best known Islamic organisation in the nation, with several primary and secondary schools in various communities which provide a high standard of education to children of all denominational backgrounds.

Starting in 1935 with a gift of land from a prominent Muslim on Queen Street in Port-of-Spain, Asja planned to erect a grand masjid in the best Islamic tradition. One of the benefactors, bakery owner Mohammed Ibrahim, was the main driving force. Part of the donated property adjoined a piece of land owned by the patriarch of the Lebanese community, Abdou Sabga. Ibrahim tried to buy this parcel of land several times without success, eventually offering Sabga a blank cheque to make his own price.

The businessman promptly tore up this cheque, declaring that if the land was to be used in service of God he would gladly give it for free, which is what he did.

Ibrahim supervised the construction process, which was done in reinforced concrete like the Gokool Meah masjid. A garden of tranquility inside the grounds was included in the design, which boasted airy and magnificent chambers, including the obligatory Mihrab. Both the Queen Street and Gokool Meah masjids stand as examples of how indelibly part of the national spectrum the Islamic community has established itself.


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