Thursday 11 April 2019

Islam and Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: Rwanda

Republic of Rwanda a country in Central and East Africa has Islam as the largest minority religion of the country. Approximately 4.6% of the total population of the country is Muslims, virtually all practicing Sunni Muslims. Estimates show that there are equal numbers of Muslims among the Hutus as there are among the Tutsis.

Islam came to this part of the world in the 18th century, which was followed by the  Roman Catholic Church, in the late 19th century, but due to rather inactive Muslim community, it soon became the state and the largest religion in the country. Islam came through Arab traders from Zanzibar who first entered the country in 1901. Alternatively, it has been argued that Islam arrived during the colonial period when Muslim clerks, administrative assistants, and merchants from the Swahili-speaking coast of Tanganyika were brought to the country. Islam was also bolstered by Muslim merchants from South Asia, mainly modern Pakistan and India.

During its history, many efforts were made to impede the spread of Islam in Rwanda. These efforts generally exploited anti-Arab sentiment, and presented Muslims as foreigners. Catholic missionaries often went to great lengths to counter what they perceived influence of rival religions, such as Islam and Protestantism. Muslims were further marginalized by the fact that most Muslims settled in urban areas, whereas 90 percent of the population was rural. As neither Arab nor South Asian merchants ever attempted to further their faith, there was little spirit of preaching among Muslims.

Rwandans built their first mosque in 1913. This mosque is known as Al-Fatah Mosque.

April each year brings back the haunting memories of a heinous genocide of the Tutsi people which was carried out by the ruling Hutu government. In the 100-day period from 7 April to 15 July 1994, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting an estimated 70% of the Tutsi population. Like other Rwandans, Muslims too were affected by the genocide and a  large number of Muslims who took shelter in the churches were massacred without mercy, many say the the churches assisted the killers to kill all those taking shelters in the churches. Those who went to churches as a last resort to seek refuge but death eventually found them, even in what they hoped were houses of God.

The indecent and inhuman behaviour of the church siding the Hutu killers, had a telling effect on the people of Rwanda and the number of Rwandan Muslims increased after the 1994 genocide due to large numbers of conversions. The conversions were also because of the fact that the Muslims  sheltered refugees, both Hutu and Tutsi. A handful of Muslims took a stand during the hundred days of slaughter. Mosques that were once labeled by the Hutus as the "Devil House" came to save those affected by the genocide, irrespective of their faith.

Their stance inspired thousands of Rwandans to become Muslim in what was once called Africa’s most Catholic country. Here are a few accounts:
“I was a Catholic pastor before genocide,” Matabaro Sulaiman told TRT World on a chilly Thursday night in Kigali, dressed in a flashy purple jilbab - a long loose-fit dress worn by Muslim men. When the genocide in Rwanda began in 1994, the 49-year-old, suffered a crisis of faith watching the churches, in which he preached peace and unity became slaughterhouses.  “Christians were killing people in the church,” Sulaiman said. “The [victims] went to churches thinking they will find peace but instead, they were killed. “Meanwhile, I saw Muslims take people inside the mosque.” [2]
Some of the ex-Christians who are now Muslim were interviewed by the New York Times. Yakobo Djuma Nzeyimana, a 21-year-old who became a Muslim in 1996, was quoted as saying: "People died in my old church and the pastor helped the killers. I couldn't go back and pray there. I had to find something else." Another, Alex Rutiririza, who also accepted Islam, expressed his admiration of the Muslims’ role during the genocide: "The Muslims handled themselves well in 1994 and I wanted to be like them," he said. He added that during the massacres the safest place to be was the Muslim neighbourhood. [6]
Mbarushimana Hussain was four years old when he and his parents took shelter in a mosque for a month. "Even though, I was four years old, I can't forget that Muslim man. “Amid mass murder, the Muslim guy used to go out everyday and brought food for 40 non-Muslims in the mosque. Ten years after genocide, I became Muslim along with my mother and father. We couldn't forget the kindness of Muslims.” [2]
The Marc Lacey of New York Times reported in her post of April 7, 2004: When 800,000 of their countrymen were killed in massacres that began 10 years ago this week, many Rwandans lost faith not only in their government but in their religion as well. Today, in what is still a predominantly Catholic country, Islam is the fastest growing religion. [5] 
Jean Pierre Sagautu was one of these persecuted members of the Tutsi tribe, a convert to Islam from Catholic after his father and nine members of his family were slaughtered.
“I know people in America think Muslims are terrorists, but for Rwandans they were our freedom fighters during the genocide… I wanted to hide in a church, but that was the worst place to go. Instead, a Muslim family took me. They saved my life.”
During the mass killing of Tutsi, militias had the place surrounded, but Hutu Muslims did not cooperate with the Hutu killers. They said they felt far more connected through religion than through ethnicity, and Muslim Tutsi were spared. This good behaviour has had a telling effect on the Muslim population through conversion. Muslims ho once made up one percent of the population before the genocide, today “12 percent to 15 percent of the total population is Muslim”, according to Salim Habimana, a former Mufti of the country. 

While the Tutsis mostly embraced Islam to protect themselves from liquidations and to follow the people who saved them, Hutus also came to leave behind them their violent past. The more the new converted Tutsis and Hutus knew about Islam the more they became closer to each other. Islam taught them how to forgive and to love each other for the sake of Allah and how to start a new beginning. Imams from both sides played a very important role in bringing both ethnicities together under the name of Islam. [7]

As an aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Islam is respected more than ever before. The Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Fitr is observed by the government as one of the four religious official holiday (alongside Christmas, All Saints' Day, and Assumption).  Although in minority, Islam is accorded the same rights and freedoms as Christianity. Muslims are now more pro active and run their own private Islamic schools. There are interfaith talks and meetings with open door policy of the Muslims that help them to be respected just like other citizens of other faiths. 
Muslims are gathering after the Jumaa prayer in Masjid Al Quds in Kigali, Rwanda, 22 March 2019. 

As a well-integrated minority group, Muslims actively contribute to Rwandan society and they are seen as a respectable community.  In fact Islam as become a very popular religion in Rwanda. The authorities in the country have started to allow Muslims to teach Rwandans about Islam and Muslim organizations are allowed to spread their activities across the country. Today Muslims boast of so many converts that it had embarked on a crash campaign to build new mosques to accommodate all of the faithful. About 500 mosques are now scattered throughout Rwanda, about double the number that existed a decade ago.

You may like to watch a video showing Muslims of Rwanda celebrating Eid ul Fitr:

Author's Note: The data above has been collected from the references as given below. If any one differs with the material contained in this post, one may consult the references and their authors.  If someone has more material about the subject, he/she is most welcome to share in the comments box to make the post all encompassing.

Photo | References: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 56 | 7 |
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