Latino Americans Embracing Islam

By Kenny Yusuf Rodriguez
The American Muslim
Vol. 4, no. 1, January, 2003

The call to prayer echoed throughout the corridors of the mosque when Jamil slipped off his shoes and entered the prayer hall. After exchanging greetings of “As salaam `alaykum,” or peace be upon you, to his fellow Muslim brothers, he proceeded to offer his morning prayer. As he recited verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, his Spanish accent was clearly audible to anyone in listening distance. Upon appearance, many would assume that Jamil was a Muslim man of Middle Eastern descent. But no, in actuality, Jamil is a Puerto Rican Muslim.

This scenario is not so far-fetched. Many people often perceive Islam as a religion exclusively followed by people of Arab or Asian descent. However, Latino Muslims are breaking all conventional stereotypes of what Muslims “are” or “should be,” proving that Islam truly transcends all racial, ethnic and language boundaries.

According to the American Muslim Council, tens of thousands of Latino Americans across the country have been accepting Islam. It is estimated that there are anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 Latino Muslims in the United States, predominately in New York City, Chicago, Miami, Southern California, and Texas.

In her book, Islam in America, Islamic Studies professor Jane Smith states that Islam was first introduced into the Latino community during the 1970s in the inner-city barrios, or Spanish neighborhoods, of the northern East Coast. In the decades since, Islam has successfully spread across the country to members of all Spanish- speaking nationalities including Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Colombians.

“Latinos have always had an interest in Islam,” says a 22-year-old Latina convert from the Falls Church, Virginia area. The sister, who did not wish her name to be disclosed, continues by saying, “Islam has many values that Latinos hold, such as respect for others, closeness of family ties, and worship.” Other similar themes, such as the emphasis placed on respect for the mother, the importance of education, and the central role religion has in society, remain as a common thread between Islam and Latino culture.

Juan Alvarado, a 32-year-old Muslim convert whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, marvels at how his Spanish-speaking grandmother, who is not a Muslim, would always cover her hair when going out in public. “It is amazing that my very own grandmother … used to never leave the house without wearing a pañuelo (scarf) on her head,” he recalls. A New York City resident who changed his name to Shafeeq Abdullah Muhammad upon becoming Muslim, Alvarado reminisces on how his grandmother would always wear long skirts and dresses, and how “even in the summer she would cover.”

The Legacy of Moorish Spain

This correlation between Islam and Spanish culture is not a new phenomenon. Islam has been deeply embedded in Spanish history since the early 8th century CE. As a result, many comment that this Latino movement toward Islam is nothing more than a return to their religious roots.

In 711 CE, less than a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Moorish general Tariq Ibn Ziyad set sail from present-day Morocco and landed on a rocky mount on the tip of Spain, which would later be renamed Gibraltar. Following this expedition, thousands of North African Moors began to flood into the region. Within in the next three years (711-714), the Muslim Moors would spread across southern Spain and penetrate into the borders of present-day Portugal. They renamed the land al-Andalus, or Andalusia, and for nearly eight centuries to follow, it would rise to become one of the brightest beacons of development and education in the Eastern Hemisphere.

By improving on the knowledge gathered from the diverse peoples whom they traded with, the Moors set precedents in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, geography, navigation, astronomy, botany and medicine. Agriculturally, for example, with the help of dry farming techniques and drainage systems, the Moors introduced a variety of new crops into the region including oranges, bananas, strawberries, dates, sugar cane and rice (Carew, 69). As a result, many Spanish words for foods and spices have Arabic origins, such as albahaca (basil), azucár (sugar), limónes (lemons), arroz (rice), naranjas (oranges), espinaca (spinach), and zanahorias (carrots). In an on- line article entitled “Spanish’s Arab Connection,” editor Gerald Erichsen comments that after Latin and English, Arabic is perhaps the biggest contributor of words to the Spanish language.

“There is no doubt that Islam influenced Hispanic culture,” says Rafael Umar Miranda, a Puerto Rican brother who converted at the age of 21. “The very words we use when we speak Spanish are a testament to this.” “I have an ongoing list of Spanish words that originally were Arabic,” Miranda further explains, adding that his list is “already in the hundreds.”

What is it about Islam?

So what exactly is it about Islam that is attracting so many Latino converts?

In a brief autobiographical essay, Juan Alvarado describes the long journey he took researching various religions, and how it ended with him ultimately accepting Islam. “Typically, like other Latinos, I was born into the Catholic faith,” Alvarado explains. “I went through the motions of what it means to be Catholic … But by the time I was a teen, I was growing impatient with Catholicism and started exploring different forms of spiritualities.” Alvarado, who considers himself spiritual since his childhood, explains how he used to visit various churches, but “just could not feel that sense of belonging.” “I saw some things that I liked, but it just did not get a hold of my full interest,” he says. After some years of searching, Alvarado stumbled upon some Islamic material and it appealed to him. After a little research, he decided to convert. “I am now 28 and I love to read, but I no longer am searching,” Alvarado says, “I have found what the truth is.”

“From what I have seen, [Latinos] are drawn to the pure monotheism where there is no trinity mystery and complex metaphors to explain how `three’ equals `one’,” explains Rasheed Cordero, an Argentinean brother who resides in Florida. “The emphasis on obtaining knowledge” also helps to attract Latino converts, he adds.

Struggles and Obstacles

Although content with their religious beliefs, many Latino Muslims who accept Islam often have many obstacles to overcome. Isa Lima, a 21-year-old brother from the Washington, D.C. area, recalls what it was like when he became a Muslim six years ago. “I was afraid about what others would do to me when I first converted,” Lima says, “so I kept it a secret.” Lima, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, admits that he could keep his conversion hidden for only so long.

“After a while, my family knew I had accepted Islam because they noticed me making Wudu’ (ablution), and they would hear me praying Fajr,” Lima comments. “They considered my conversion to be a result of `brainwashing’ by Muslim immigrants who gave me Da’wah,” Lima says. But for the most part, he explains that his family has “accepted and liked some aspects of Islam and has rejected others.”

Lima goes on to explain that there are many brothers and sisters who face even greater opposition. He relates the story of one brother he knows who was placed in a situation where he had to choose between his religion and his family. “His family gave him a strange ultimatum,” Lima says. “Either be our son or be Muslim.” In the end, the brother clung to his decision and was forced to move out of his parents’ house.

Rasheed Cordero remembers certain instances outside of his home where he encountered his own problems. As a student at Florida International University, Cordero explains one incident when he and a few Muslim brothers were praying in an empty classroom. “We were praying and a couple of guys walked in for a meeting they had and they were like, `Hey!'” Cordero explains, “so the students went and got security.” “By the time they came back, we were done,” he continues. When the guards arrived, they asked if everything was all right, and Cordero answered with an affirmative “Of course.” On the way out, one of the students who called security made a smart remark in Spanish assuming that they wouldn’t understand him. One of the Muslim brothers responded, saying that he didn’t have to go and call security. “The guy was shocked,” Cordero says. He probably didn’t expect a Muslim to be able to speak Spanish.

Cordero also recalls some annoyances that regularly occur to many Muslims, converts and non-converts alike. Sometimes “I’m home praying and the phone rings, or someone knocks,” he mentions, but “they can wait,” Cordero adds with a laugh.

Isa Lima says that, although converts to Islam at times endure difficult obstacles, the best examples to follow are those of the earliest Muslims. “The most amazing and heart-touching stories of Muslims being fought against because of their acceptance of Islam are concerning the Sahabah,” Lima explains, referring to the righteous companions of the Prophet (pbuh). As far as his own problems, Lima boldly states, “I didn’t meet opposition that couldn’t be defeated easily with Allah (swt) as my protector.”

Hopes for the Future

Samantha Sanchez and Juan Galvan, co-founders of LADO (Latin American Da’wah Organization), are currently in the process of compiling a book of Muslim conversion stories entitled Latinos Revert to Islam: What’s Old is New Again. “We need to let the world know that Latino Muslims exist,” Galvan states on the LADO website, Galvan goes on to illustrate the parallel between Latinos being the fastest growing group in the US, and Islam as the fastest growing religion in the world. “By 2050, one of out every four Americans will be Latino,” Galvan mentions, “insha’Allah, with our book many Americans will wonder `Why are so many Latinos converting to Islam? What is it about that religion?”

At the same time, many Hispanic Muslims envision the message of Islam reaching populations in Central America and the Caribbean. “Latin America is ripe for Islam,” Juan Alvarado comments. “It is incredible that despite everything, Islam is still growing which to me proves the veracity of Islam.”

Isa Lima offers similar hopes for the future. “The message of Islam can be spread to Latin America,” Lima says, mentioning that this is a part of the world that would greatly benefit from the principles of Islam, such as justice, discipline and education. “It’s our duty as Muslims to give Da’wah,” Lima explains. “This is an area that Muslims need to seriously reach out to.”

But Lima mentions that ultimately, the success of Muslims is dependent on the will of Allah (swt). “Allah united the hearts of the Sahabah with Iman (faith),” he says, “and hopefully our communities will unite in a similar manner.”

Notes and References

Carew, Jan. Rape of Paradise. A & B Books Publishers. New York: 1994.

Erichsen, Gerald, ed. “Spanish’s Arab Connection: Language of the Moors is Major Contributor to Vocabulary.” 24 Sept. 2001. (2 Feb. 2002).

Smith, Jane I. Islam In America. Columbia University Press. New York: 1999.

The American Muslim link