The Arab, Indian, Indonesian and Islamic world in Suriname

This article is also available in: Italiano

Suriname is a surprising nation for many aspects and one of these is immigration, which is definitely more linked to India and Indonesia than to the Middle East. Precisely for this reason, Hinduism and Islam occupy a place of respect in its history

Very small premise

I used the words “The Arab, Indian, Indonesian and Islamic world in Suriname” rather than just “Islamic” precisely to emphasize the split nature of the various realities, which will however all be dealt with in this article. I would like to specify it because they often associate automatically, but, for everything concerning South and Central America, it would be a serious mistake; in fact the very many Arabs who came here were mostly Maronites, Orthodox, Druze and only a small part of them were Muslim (and among them there were both Sunnis and Shiites).


On the contrary, the historical presence of Islam in these lands is mostly attributable to Indian and Indonesian workers (as in the case of Suriname) or even to African slaves purchased by the Portuguese for their plantations. As always, I will try to follow a mostly chronological narrative by combining the two stories but I repeat: they are two different stories that are joined here.

The arrival of the Indians

Unlike most of the countries of South America, Suriname was not colonized by the Spanish or Portuguese, but by the Dutch, adopting unique characteristics compared to the rest of the continent, including a much more varied migration. Once the slave trade was put to an end in 1873, in fact, Holland had an urgent need to replace the old servants with new and very low cost labor; for this he turned to the United Kingdom. London had in fact long since begun to send Indian labor to different parts of the Empire where it was lacking such as, for example, South Africa, the Caribbean and Mauritius, and this led the Amsterdam royals to a real migration agreement.


Initially the conditions of the Indians were even worse than those reserved for slaves but, thanks to some targeted interventions, mortality collapsed and this allowed the community to take solid roots in the territory. To date about 27% of the population is of Indian origin, with 78% practicing Hinduism, 13% Islam, 7% Christianity and the remainder Jainism.

The arrival of the Javanese people

Beginning in 1890, the Dutch began to exploit not only the “foreign” labor from India, but also the “housewife” from their largest colony: present-day Indonesia. In fact, starting from 1512, the immense archipelago had been taken by the European yoke and, consequently, the Netherlands exploited it to secure more manpower at an even lower cost. Most of them came from Java and were hired with the specific task of working on the plantations, so much so that the only case of railway workers in 1904 was considered a “News”.


Unlike the Indians, where Hinduism predominates, the religion most followed by this group is Islam with 67%, 21% is Christian and the remainder follows the Kejawen, an ancient Java religion. It must be said that Islam originally practiced by the Javanese is something very particular and that it tended to also include traditional elements and / or in any case related to the Kejawen and this, especially with the intensification and speeding up of communications between peoples, resulted as a a question of not easy resolution.

The arrival of the Arabs

The Arab impact in Suriname is ridiculous compared to that had in all other countries in South America, but the presence of a community of 500 citizens of Lebanese origin, who arrived here around 1890, should nevertheless be noted.


Despite being a clear minority, it is interesting to note that, even in this case, they have managed to equally become one of the country’s economic super-powers (with a specific focus on the textile market). Furthermore, they should all be Christians, which dismantles the Arab = Muslim equation for the umpteenth time.

Islam in Suriname

With about 14% of Muslim citizens, Suriname is the country in South America where this religion is most practiced as a percentage of the population, so much so that in 1996 it became part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; to date the faithful would be about 500,000 between Sunni, Ahmadiyya and unaffiliated.

The Ahmadiyya mosque

However, it should be emphasized that Islam is not the first religion in the country and not even the second; at those points are Christianity, with about 48% of the population, and Hinduism with about 22%.

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