Early U.S. Latina/o – African-American Muslim Connections: Paths to Conversion

By Patrick D. Bowen
The Muslim World
Vol. 100 no. 4 (2010), pp. 390-413.


While the literature concerning Latina/o Muslims in the United States has been growing, much about them still has yet to be explored, including the history of those who converted through joining African-American-majority Islamic groups prior to 1975 (the year of the formation of perhaps the first U.S. Latina/o Muslim organization, Alianza Islamica). This paper, then, aims at presenting a more in-depth look at the historical growth of U.S. Latina/o Muslims in the context of their connection with African-American Muslims up to the early 1980s.

I will begin by presenting a theoretical approach for understanding the religious conversions of Latino Muslims. I assert that we must understand their conversions as rejections and/or redefinitions of dominant discourses. I will then move on to a discussion of the historical context of the social, cultural, and ideological connections of Latina/os with African Americans, which will help us contextualize the evidence for Latina/os becoming Muslim through African-American social networks. Because of Latina/o Muslims’ small numbers in the early years and difficulty of accessing primary sources that might mention them, the findings in this paper should be seen as tentative and preliminary, with the hope that future scholarship will continue to shed more light.

Before proceeding we must clarify three things. First, this paper will be examining U.S. Latino Muslims since the early 20th century. These individuals were probably not the first U.S. Latina/o Muslim converts, nor were they the first Latina/o Muslims in the area that is now known as the United States. There is at least one confirmed conversion of a Latina to Islam in southern California in the early 20th century as the result of the marriage of a Mexican-American woman to a Punjabi immigrant, and it is likely that there were more at that time and place.

In addition, research into the history of pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas and of enslaved persons brought to the Americas has shown that a number of these Iberian-connected persons (and many of African descent) were Muslims, and that some of the slaves may have been brought to what is now the U.S. in as early as the 16th century.

Besides a few clear examples, there is little direct evidence to prove that these Iberian-connected enslaved persons in the region now known as the U.S. were in fact Muslims. But, taking into account the locations from which they were extracted, Michael Gomez has concluded that we cannot rule out the possibility, especially if we include Puerto Rico where, by it originally being colonized by the Spanish, all African Muslims there could be considered “Latino.” Nonetheless, there is little evidence that the Islamic practices of any of these enslaved Muslims were maintained up through the 20th century.

This, however, brings up another issue: that of defining “Latino.” While the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) includes in its “Latino” or “Hispanic” Muslim literature conversion stories from people who have cultural ties from Spain and Portugal to Malaysia, there is some dispute within the “Latino” community as to who can or should or would want to identify as such. Early enslaved persons brought via Iberian traders, for example, were often forced by their captives to take Latin names in the interim between their captivity and sale to Americans — Should we count these people as “Latino”? Similarly, members of various Islamic-based groups reject such an identity (as we shall see). And of course, not all “Latino” Muslims even identify themselves as such, focusing instead sometimes solely on their religious identity and sometimes on their nation of origin identity.

Nevertheless, for analytical purposes, I will follow the lead of LADO and identify as “Latina/o” all who may self-identify as such and those who have an Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) cultural heritage connection from the Peninsula to Malaysia. Of course, because sometimes we cannot know if persons deceased or inaccessible may have this connection, our findings cannot be exhaustive, but can only provide a sense of what has taken place. Finally, along the lines of identity issues: many traditional (Sunni and Shi’i) Muslims do not consider such Islamic-based groups as the Ahmadiyyas and the Nation of Islam (NOI) to be “Islamic.” Furthermore, some groups which have clear ties to other Islamic-based groups, for example, the Five Percenters/Nation of Gods and Earths, do not consider themselves “Muslim.” However, because these groups developed out of a conception of what it means to be “Muslim” and have for a long time served as the means to introduce many individuals to Islamic concepts and practices before they converted to more traditional Islamic groups, I will also include them in the present study and leave the religious designation of their Islamic-ness to members of the groups themselves.


© The Muslim World. Accessed through Wiley Online Library link.