In the new world perhaps one of the African-based religiosities that has a more obvious contribution from Islam is Palo Monte. However, as we know, many Africans brought to the Americas in the diaspora were Muslims. Therefore, Islamic influence necessarily goes beyond a singles American religion. It is not always simple to understand the Islamic origin of some religious elements. In the case of Haitian Vodou this is often an unexplored discussion. In this brief article I hope to reveal that there is indeed an important Islamic influence in Vodou. In order to do so I will quote mainly two papers. One by Benson and the other by Khan.
LeGrace Benson says that there is evidence of Islam in the vèvè and in the ancients ritualistic flags. Benson also tells us about mambos and houngans using the salutation “Salam Alechem” and this author also talks about the Lwa Senego who greets people with the phrase “As salaam aleikum”. Thus, if we follow Benson we will be sure that Islam is present in Vodou. The question now is to find out how this would have happened. Of course that this is a bold objective and that I will not be able to fully explore it here but in a very introductory manner.
Benson continues the discussion by revealing that Muslim slaves brought to Haiti were probably literate due to the need for the faithful of Islam to read and write the Koran. Furthermore, Benson tells us that the use of letters and geometric characters was employed in amulets like the hatumere. Perhaps then the designs of the vèvè can also find some ascendancy in this practice.
Aisha Khan gives us an interesting perspective on the relationship between Vodou and Islam by commenting that Boukman (one of those responsible for the Bwa Kayman ceremony in 1791, which triggered the Haitian revolution) was connected to the Islamic world. The reasoning for this connection is that Boukman was a Jamaican who was reportedly taken to Saint Domingue by an English slave trader. It is said that his name "Boukman " would be the French corruption of "Book Man" which Khan remembers in due course. Two interpretations would be possible here: 1) he would have been a literate slave; 2) he would have been linked to a specific book. Khan points to the second as the most likely and says that Boukman was probably identified by his close relationship with the Koran. The Qur'an is specifically quoted because “People of the Book” was the way Africans referred to Muslims, accordingto Sylviane Diouf (quoted by Khan). In addition, Khan points out that Makandal would also have been a Muslim, as well as Fatiman or Fatima (the mambo who presided over Bwa Kayman together with Boukman ).
Quoting Diouf again, Khan says that she believes Makandal and Boukman were, in fact, marabouts - or religious leaders of Islam. To support this idea, the author quotes Laurent Dubois who retrieves writings from 1779 that present Makandal as a representation of Muhammad. Moreover, marabouts were famous for their skill with gris-gris, types of charms typical of the Caribbean. Interestingly, these amulets are generally made as leather bags or other materials with Arabic writing inside. They share some resemblance to to paquets of Vodou, although the origin of paquets be attributed to Niksi Wambi Congo. In this line Khan again mentions Dubois who says that a contemporary of Boukman recorded that the hair of the pig sacrificed in Bwa Kayman was used in the manufacture of amulets.
Khan rightly points out that it is necessary to consider that the practices of these Muslim Africans like Makandal and Boukman were syncretic. This did not happen, as the author teaches only because of the Caribbean environment, since African Islam itself was already syncretic. Something that already happened with the Christianity of Congo as we see in the works of Jhon Thornton.
Khan herself comments that life in the colonies would make it impossible for a Muslim to stay within the orthodoxy of religion. This could be one of the reasons why the Islamic identity of many central figures in the formation of Vodou remains in the background. It is clear that this breakdown of orthodoxy could also account for a greater plasticity of practices, leading to innovative knowledge and practices that would later be part of the structuring elements of what we know as Vodou.
Proper exploration of relations between the Islamic world and Haitian Vodou is material for more than this article can offer. However, the discussion raised here is relevant as it mainly points to the topic of the diversity of origins and manifestations of Haitian Vodou. When investigating the different influences that make up this spirituality and thinking about the myriad of spirits and practitioners, it is clear that doing Vodou can only be really beautifully varied. Finally it is my hope that when we notice how this integration became something so fascinating we also increase our respect for the most varied ways of connecting to the invisible.
Khan, A. “Islam, Vodou , and the making of the Afro-Atlantic”. New West Indian Guide . Vol. 86. No. 1-2 (2019). Pp. 28-54.