Islam within the Latino Community

By Hjamil A Martínez-Vázquez

From “Hispanic American Religious Cultures.” pp 306-309. 2009.

Within the Latino community, there are Hispanic Muslims. Although figures are obscure, and while some estimates range from a low of 20,000 to a high of 200,000, the latest and most conservative estimates by Islamic groups and leaders state that there are between 50,000 and 75,000 Latino Muslims in the United States. As of 2002, the Council on American-Islamic Relations established that Latino reversions constituted 6 percent of all Muslim conversion in this country. Most members of the Hispanic Islamic community are located, but not limited to, major metropolitan areas with large Latino populations, like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. While some reversions took place in the 1970s with the exposition of US Latino to the Nation of Islam, the process of reversion among US Latinos at a larger scale is a recent phenomenon, specifically since September 11, 2001. The majority of US Latinos who have reverted are women and men between the ages of 15 and 35, most of whom have a college degree. Many of these reversions happened in school settings, work conversations, or through friendships. Most US Latino Muslims described their reversion as a process or a search, an intellectual and spiritual journey that in some cases takes years, rather than an emotional conversion moment typified among Protestants and Pentecostals.

Multiple explanations for the growth of Islam among Latinos during the past decade exist. Many express dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Christianity, specifically with the Catholic Church, for what they perceive to be a rigid hierarchical structure with what appears to be a polytheistic nature (such as the concept of the Trinity). US Latinos who reverted to Islam claim that their new religion provides better explanations to the mysteries of God, as well as a closer and more direct contact with the Deity. For others, the aftermath of 9/11 spotlighted Islam, leading some US Latinos to search and research this religion that they found attractive. Some US Latinos saw in Islam a marginalized religion, and compared that marginalization to their own reality in the United States. This social commonality facilitated the process of reversion. Thus, the process of reversion among US Latinos should not only be understood as a religious process, but also as a social transformation.

As mentioned above, the growth of Islam among US Latinos is a fairly recent phenomenon; however, it has roots in Medieval Spain. US Latino Muslims who have recently reverted, can claim a connection with over 700 years of Muslim (Moorish) rule in Spain (711-1492). This connection to the past helps explain and defend their reversion process as being neither new nor outside of their historical story of the Latino culture. However, some tend to romanticize the Moorish culture, not in its European and Western sense, but by tracing it back to North Africa. The term “reversion” is specifically used by most US Latino Muslims to focus on the aspect of “going back” to their roots, not only religiously but also historically and culturally. Consequently, many do not see Islam as being outside of Latino culture, but rather as an intrinsic aspect of Hispanic heritage. Still, such explanations of reversion are viewed with suspicion and skepticism by the non-Muslim US Latino community and by non-Hispanic Muslims.

The relationship between US Latino Muslims and US Latinos and Muslims, in general, creates a sense of loss of identity and an anomie for the former. There are no specific masjids (mosques) just for Latinos, compared to Latino churches within Christian groups. Hence, US Latino Muslims attend the mosque with other Muslims, not taking into consideration their ethnicity or nationality and the issues of language and culture become points of contention, even when there are multiple similarities. Because of this sense of anomie, US Latino Muslims have been creating organizations in order to foster support groups. These organizations also bolster the spread of Islam among other US Latinos by producing Spanish translations of Islamic literature and work toward ensuring that language does not become an issue in the process of Dawah (invitation to, sharing of Islam). These different organizations meet for social contact and educational purposes, engaging in their faith in both English and Spanish. For many participants of these activities, the group has become a family, since their own family does not necessarily share their religious experience. Some have even been marginalized and alienated for their reversion, specifically their turning away from Christianity. For women, it is more difficult because of wearing the hijab (women’s head and body covering) as this piece of clothing becomes an obvious expression of their religion. Although their family members question their decision, US Latina Muslims assert that they find in Islam more respect, rights, and privileges, even though some would accuse the religion of still being patriarchal. US Latinas have expressed greater decision-making freedoms within Islam, especially regarding their clothing, which they see as being decided by women rather than imposed by men.

As of 2007, there are no major academic publications regarding this community, yet the presence of US Latino Muslim organizations and groups are evident by their growth. There are local organizations in many cities across the United States, like the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association, Latino Muslims of the Bay Area, California Latino Muslim Association, Chicago Association of Latino-American Muslims, Alianza Islámica (NY—now defunct), and PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación de Devoción a Alá el Divino), which have websites with information and personal reversion stories. The largest and most recognized organizations is LADO (Latino American Dawah Organization), founded in September 1997. LADO maintains a website, an online newsletter, and has regional chapters. Two of its founders, Juan Galván and Samantha Sánchez, are working on a book that will include reversion stories from Latino Muslims from across the United States.

This recent, growing presence of US Latino Muslims is generating interest and concern, not only within the US Latino community but also within the Muslim community in the United States, as both of these communities struggle to address the needs of this growing group among them. Meanwhile, US Latino Muslims are striving to find their own space within both communities.

“Hispanic American Religious Cultures.” Miguel A. De La Torre, editor. ABC-CLIO, LLC. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2009. This encyclopedia is the first comprehensive survey of Hispanic American religiosity, contextualizing the roles of Latino and Latina Americans within U.S. religious culture.

Google Books link