History of Islam in Samoa

By Moshe Terdiman November 2011 ,

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IMAM: Dr. Muhammad Yahya is the Head of the Muslim League in Samoa.

IMAM: Dr. Muhammad Yahya is the Head of the Muslim League in Samoa.

Introduction

Samoa, which is known formally as the Independent State of Samoa, is located about halfway between Hawai’I and New Zealand, in the Polynesian part of the Pacific Ocean. It includes the western end of the Samoan islands, while the rest are under American rule.

Migrants from Southeast Asia arrived in the Samoan islands about 3,000 years ago. The contact with the Europeans began in the early 1700s and intensified only with the arrival of British missionaries and merchants in the 1830s. At the turn of the 20th century, the Samoan islands were split into two sections. The eastern islands became US territories in 1904 and nowadays are known as American Samoa.

The western islands became known as Western Samoa, passing from German rule to New Zealand, which conquered them at the beginning of World War I. New Zealand continued to administer the islands under the auspices of the League of Nations and then as a UN trusteeship until 1962, when the islands became the first Polynesian nation to reestablish independence in the twentieth century. In July 1997, the constitution was amended to change the country’s name from Western Samoa to Samoa. The neighboring US territory of American Samoa protested the move, feeling that the change diminished its own Samoan identity. American Samoans still use the terms Western Samoa and Western Samoans. 

Samoa’s total land area is 2,821 square kilometers, consisting of the two large islands of Upolu and Savai’i and seven small islets. Samoa has a population of about 193,000 as of July 2011. About three quarters of the overall population resides at the main island of Upolu, where the Samoan Capital, Apia, is also located. 42,000 people inhabit Savai’I, the largest of the Samoa islands and the sixth largest Polynesian island. According to the CIA Factbook 2011, Samoa’s population is divided into 92.6% Samoans, 7% Euroasians, and 0.4 Europeans.

The dominant religion in Samoa is Christianity. According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2010, Christians comprise 98 percent of the overall population.

This report also notes that “there is also a Muslim community that meets in a small mosque”. According to the same report, “all religious groups are multiethnic; none is exclusively composed of foreign nationals or native Samoans. There are no sizeable foreign national or immigrant groups, with the exception of U.S. nationals from American Samoa. In recent years there has been increased immigration of Chinese, Filipinos, and Fijians (mainly Indo-Fijians), often as service workers in local business or as contractors for building projects funded by foreign governments”.

According to the 2001 census, Muslim population in Samoa was 48 or 0.03% of the total population. Data about Muslims from the 2006 census was not available.

 

History of Islam in Samoa

The beginnings of Islam in Samoa go back to before 1985, when a few Muslim expatriate workers worked either for the government or for one of the UN programs. However, it seems like their numbers were insignificant and they didn’t have any influence whatsoever on the local population.

During the mid-1980s, Islamic da’wah organizations, such as the Saudi-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific (RISEAP), which is based in Kuala Lumpur, have been active in the Pacific and through its activities Samoan natives started to convert to Islam.

The first native Samoan who converted to Islam was Ilias Vole. He converted to Islam in mid-1985 due to the efforts of the WAMY director in New Zealand, A.R.Rasheed. But later on, he converted back to Christianity. Nevertheless, more native Samoans followed suit and converted to Islam in the coming years. In 1987, Ahmed Schuster and his family converted to Islam and in 1992, he and his wife performed the pilgrimage to Meccah and al-Madinah. In 1990, Mohammed Daniel Stanley and his family converted to Islam, partly through the activities of RISEAP and A.R.Rasheed.

Already in 1986, the Samoan Muslims established the Western Samoa Muslim League. Its current president is Mohammed Daniel Stanley a.k.a. Mohammed Bin Yahya a.k.a. Laulu Dan Stanley. He is 64 years old and a well known accountant and auditor who operates his own accounting firm. 

As the head of the Samoan Muslim community, Mohammed Daniel Stanley has had one room of his house at Vaiusu Village, which is located next to Apia, as an Islamic Center and a mosque. The Islamic activities involve general teaching of Islam and nightly Qur’anic lessons and the Friday prayers have been led either by Mohammed Stanley or by his son, Anis.

Mohammed Daniel Stanley has been working hard to propagate Islam among the Samoans. For a period of time, he had a weekly column in the leading Samoan newspaper titled “the message of Islam”.

In addition, he translated a booklet written by Dr. Jamal Badawi — an Egyptian born Muslim Canadian author, preacher and speaker on Islam – titled “Muhammad in the Bible” into the Samoan language. WAMY and RISEAP have been actively helping Mohammed Daniel Stanley in his da’wah work by occasionally sending him money and translating Islamic materials into the Samoan language.

Another outside Muslim organization which has been engaged in da’wah activity in Samoa is the New Zealand based Rasheed Memorial Dawah Trust. According to the website of the Rasheed Memorial Dawah Trust, its purpose is “to educate and engage people in Islam and in our communities, with a vision of achieving more peaceful, progressive communities by utilizing the heart of Islamic practice. We bring our aims to life by being active in specific, selected areas, notably interfaith dialogue (Salamah), religious education (Uloom), ecology (Mizaan) and charity (Ansaar). 

RMDT was originally founded by Abdul Rahim Rasheed QSO (1938-2006) and was rededicated to him after his death. The Trust operates primarily in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, as well as in some Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. RMDT collaborates closely with like-minded groups in New Zealand, Australia and further afield.[10]

The Fiji Muslim League has been involved in helping the small Samoan Muslim community to give Islamic education to its children. In the past, the Fiji Muslim League provided scholarships to six Samoan students to study in Muslim colleges in Fiji and one of them graduated with a certificate in Electronic Engineering from the Islamic Institute of the South Pacific. 

The Samoan Muslims have been an inseparable part of the overall Samoan population, which is mostly Christian. This was best shown following the tsunami that hit Apia and the rest of Samoa on September 2009. The Western Samoa Muslim League with the help of Al-Ghazzali Centre, which is based in Sydney, and the Rasheed Mamorial Dawah Trust from Auckland donated two truck loads of aid to the emergency office in Apia for emergency distribution to victims of the tsunami. The two organizations also sent ten volunteers, including lawyers, accountants, and IT professionals, to help rebuild Samoa.

They visited villages across Falealili and Aleipata, offering assistance with clearing damaged areas and helping families rebuild makeshift homes. They also helped in Vaiusu with Samoa’s biggest Mangrove project, planting 1000 mangrove seedlings before returning home. Moreover, Muslims organizations in Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia made a coordinated effort to send family food packs from Fiji, each pack containing food to feed a family of eight members for one week.

Indeed, the best explanation for this solidarity between Muslims and followers of other religions in the Southern Pacific was given by the Auckland lawyer and Secretary of the Rasheed Memorial Dawah Trust, Aarif Rasheed, who said that the South Pacific community is a relatively small one in which communities needed to support each other regardless of race, faith or other differences. 

Challenges Facing the Samoan Muslim Community

The small Samoan Muslim community is facing a lot of challenges going forward. According to a situation report on the Muslim communities in Tonga and Western Samoa prepared by the director of the Fiji Muslim League’s Da’wah Department, “there is a decline in Muslims’ numbers in Samoa due to migration and lack of support which caused some of these converts to slowly neglect Islam and they converted back to their old religions or are no longer members of any religion”. 

Moreover, according to the same report, other obstacles and challenges facing the Samoan Muslims are: “the Ahmadiyyah and Shi’a remain a great threat to this Muslim community; the social life and the family ties put great pressure on the new young converts to Islam.

They have to follow the custom and norms of the society; when the young Muslims attain the age of marriage they find it difficult to get a Muslim partner and this result in marrying a non-Muslim. This results in he or she may abandoning Islam”. 

In addition, Mohammed Daniel Stanley has been outspoken against the possible spread of radical Islam to Samoa. Already in January 2003, he praised the directive issued in December 2002 by Fiti Sunia, the attorney general of neighboring American Samoa, according to which people from 23 identified risk countries (including Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan and Fiji among others) must receive his special approval before entering the territory.

Mohammed Daniel Stanley said that American Samoa being a US territory could be a target for terrorist attacks. He said that Samoa should implement the same restrictions or, at least, should have some control over the whereabouts of these foreigners since their intentions were unclear.

He was afraid that since tourism was at the time a major source of income for Samoa, an incident similar to the Bali bombing, which took place on October 12, 2002 and which resulted in 202 people killed and 240 people injured, happened in Samoa it would devastate the economy. 

Mohammed Daniel Stanley was also involved in the preparation of security measures during the 2007 South Pacific Games. Later on, following the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, he said that Osama bin Laden got what he deserved, but warned that revenge action taken by al-Qaeda might reach Samoa’s shores.

Mohammed Daniel Stanley said that Osama bin Laden “deserved it because he put us [Muslims] all in danger. It’s a good thing that people like this causing problems for all the innocent people in the world get what they deserve.

And the problem is that there are a lot of uneducated Muslims who will consider him a martyr and it’s those people who will create more danger later on. What we’re worried and concerned about are new leaders who come up and start new problems. New terrorism approaches using the name of Islam when what they do has nothing to do with Islam”. 

Mohammed Daniel Stanley further said that “although separate from local police and law enforcement, discussions in Our Centre is geared so our Muslim community understand the existence of Pakistani and Bangladeshi connections here in Samoa”. Therefore, the Islamic Centre will be monitoring those people and their whereabouts so that they will not be able to expose the Samoan Muslim community to what Mohammed Daniel Stanley termed as “any stupid un-Islamic activity”. 

Summary

The preamble to the Samoan constitution describes the country as “an independent state based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and traditions”. Indeed, the Fa’a Samoa, or traditional Samoan way, has remained a strong force in Samoan life and politics. Despite centuries of European influence, Samoa has maintained its historical customs, social systems, and language, which is believed to be the oldest form of Polynesian speech still in existence.

That might be the explanation for the small Muslim Samoan community and for what seems like its dwindling numbers. Thus, the two factors that will determine the future of the Samoan Muslim community are the continuity of international Muslim funding, aid and da’wah efforts on the one hand and the impact of the clash which has been taking place between the Fa’a Samoa and the religion of Islam, which is foreign to this country and to its culture.   

It should be mentioned that there are significant Samoan communities in the US, New Zealand, and Australia. In general, these communities maintain ties with family remaining in Samoa, and still consider themselves to be Samoans. These communities have also experienced a few cases of conversion to Islam. The most famous of them is that of Sonny William ‘Sonny Bill’ Williams, a New Zealand rugby union player and former rugby league player of Samoan descent on his father’s side, who converted to Islam in 2008.

Therefore, Muslim converts from the Samoan Diaspora might have an impact on conversion of their family members who still reside in Samoa to Islam.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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