NGO activity in Guyana: The Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
August 22, 2002

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Origin and structure

The Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana (CIOG) came into existence in July 1979 after receiving a mandate from a “Group of Concerned Brothers” who had become frustrated by the internal rivalry and hostility between the two factions of the United Sadr Islamic Anjuman. The political controversies which underpinned the problems within the community led to the creation of an organisation whose leaders do not hold public or political office. Their focus is to unify the Muslim community, educate Muslims about the requirements and obligations of their faith and more importantly disburse, in an equitable manner, to needy persons regardless of religious or political persuasion, the annual Zakaat which is incumbent on Muslims. The result is a not for profit NGO with a structure which allows for community participation.

Approximately eleven percent of Guyana’s population is Muslim. They worship in 130 Masjids which is led by an Imaam. These Masjids are scattered in about eleven regions which do not necessarily correspond to the national regions but are concentrated in Georgetown, West Coast Demerara, East Coast Demerara and Berbice. They are therefore several Masjids in each region. The communities peripheral to and associated with the Masjids are called Jamaats. The CIOG is governed by a Central Executive Council which is elected/nominated each year by the Imams of the Masjids and a representative of each Jamaat who attend the AGM.

In fact, prior to the AGM, ballots are sent to Masjids and Jamaats with the names for the President, Vice- President and Treasurer and the votes are tallied at the AGM. Other members are either appointed by the council or elected by delegates at the AGM. These include the heads and directors of the committees - medical, legal, education and Dawah, Zakaat and NACOSA. The organisation is financed by donations - both foreign and local - and by membership fees.

Activities of the CIOG

Distributing the Zakaat collected, to the poor and needy is one of the very important responsibilities of the CIOG. Zakaat is the third of the five pillars of Islam which literally means “growth, increase, purity and righteousness. Technically it means to purify one’s possession of wealth by distributing a prescribed amount which has to be given to the poor. It has as its goal, to prevent wealth from circulating only among the rich. It is Fard (compulsory) on every sane Muslim, male or female past the age of puberty who completely owns the stipulated minimum of wealth (called Nisaab) free from any debts and owned the Nisaab one year ago. Zakaat is payable on money, gold and silver jewellery, ornaments and utensils, livestock, merchandise for trade and agricultural produce. It is NOT payable on one’s house, means of transportation, clothes and household effects once in personal use, personal books and tools. It is stated that among the benefits which accrue to giving Zakaat are - Gaining the pleasure of Allah, an increase in wealth, shelter on the day of judgement and it also contributes to longevity while not giving could lead to grievous penalties.

The Nisaab is set annually. In 1998 it was $28,688, in 2001 it was $30,600. It is the responsibility of CIOG’s Zakaat committee to collect and distribute the sums collected. Starting with a very modest $20,000 a year in 1979 it reached a staggering $42.6 million in 2000. This was paid out to 1016 eligible, poor Muslims and several non-Muslims also for medical expenses, housing, victims of disaster, destitute persons and orphans. This increase is symptomatic of the increase in the poverty level in the society as a whole. It is reported that the numbers of recipients have increased significantly over the last twelve years.

Regional representatives work with the Imaam and Jamaat to identify beneficiaries. An important complement to the distribution of the Zakaat to the needy is the sponsorship of Muslim orphans. They can either be sponsored by an individual or an organisation. The CIOG receives funds from Kuwait for its orphan sponsorship programme.

Its responsibility for the distribution of Zakaat has ensured its involvement in the provision of other kinds of social welfare like the setting up of a senior citizens home for Muslim women, and this year, establishment of a housing committee to help shelter the homeless. This includes its sponsorship of medical outreach programmes and its participation in community development activities.

An equally important mandate of the CIOG is education. In the early years this was primarily religious education. To educate Muslims about their responsibilities, how to read the Holy Quran, the specific times for periods of fasting and to advise on day to day activities including business practices. To this end, links were developed with universities in Medina and Damascus where young men were and are still sent for training. Over the last two decades, as standards slipped and functional illiteracy and the lack of skills increased especially among the youths, education has expanded to include secular and vocational education also. The CIOG now runs courses on management, law, business opportunities, public speaking and aspects of public health. Since 1994 the CIOG has had a scholarship programme with the Bank of Saudi Arabia to provide interest free loans to students to pursue studies at the University of Guyana. In 1997 the CIOG received a commitment from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah to build four vocational schools which would offer courses similar to the ones offered at GTI. The first was established at Met-en-Meer-Zorg.

Education and vocational training is the main objective of the CIOG’s women’s arm, NACOSA, the National Committee of Sisters’ Affairs. It is run by an executive committee which includes representatives from each of the ten regions of Guyana. Its motto is to work towards the upliftment of all Muslim women. Since its establishment in 1992 it has run several education, vocational and counselling programmes. The demand for this particular service has increased significantly over the years as the stress and strains of the society takes its toll even in the Muslim community which has significant support systems. NACOSA raises its own funds and has also received support from the BCCP. NACOSA’S dream of a Muslim school which took its first step in 1996, came to fruition with the opening of the $60M IBN SINA academy.

While the changing times has caused the CIOG to expand its education programme to include secular and vocational education and training, its main focus is still to educate the Muslim community about Islam and its practices. To this end, it sponsors the radio and television programme Islam and You which is intended to sensitise Guyanese of African descent about the religion and INSIGHT where current issues are discussed from an Islamic point of view. This is complemented by the 12 issues per year of the newspaper Al Bayan. Three of them are published on the occasion of the three major religious festivals.

Most noteworthy in recent years is the CIOG’S role in advocacy both for its constituents and also in respect of national issues. CIOG has protested the negative images painted of Muslims in films like “The Siege.” It has campaigned for Muslim women to be photographed in their headgear, campaigned for “free and fair elections,” the extension of the life of the Constitution Reform Commission and made submissions and participated in the development of the Poverty Reduction Strategy. It has also spoken out on controversial issues like post elections violence, extra judicial killings, and welcomed and encouraged the process of continued dialogue between the President and Leader of the Opposition.

Complementing its role in advocacy, is its collaboration with other actors within civil society to restore peace, and stability to our embattled community. No doubt there is a recognition that any effort to improve the lot of its membership will be futile in an environment of discord and insecurity. To this end, towards the end of 2001, the CIOG invited several NGOs including the NGO Forum and the Guyana Council of Churches to meet and talk. What eventually evolved was the initiation of a Peace Education Institute which would focus on networking among NGOs to develop a data base of information which could be used to sensitise the public especially at the grass roots level on national issues.


The CIOG is an NGO which has good reason to be proud of its achievements given its troubled beginning. It has grown from a small inward focused organisation to a dynamic one with the flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of its membership. At the same time, it has reached out to the wider society in acts of “caring and sharing.” Over the next five years, it hopes to train a large corps of skilled educators to provide religious education and to continue to push the work of the Peace Education Institute and be a strong advocate for the involvement of civil society. However, a careful perusal of its activities has indicated only minimal attention to the single most significant health issue in our society - the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge, given the imperatives of its faith, to come up with innovative ways to educate its young people in particular, both male and female about the specifics of the disease.