Muslims in South Florida include growing number of Hispanics

By Colleen Wright
The Miami Herald
July 19, 2012

When South Florida’s approximately 100,000 Muslims on Friday begin observing Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic faith, one of those who will be celebrating is Aisha Kanar.

Kanar, whose family fled the Cuban Revolution when she was 5, was raised in a Roman Catholic family. Growing up in Hialeah, she attended St. John the Apostle Catholic Church and graduated in 1971 from Notre Dame Academy, formerly an all-girls’ Catholic high school. She had thoughts about becoming a nun. But as she studied more about Catholicism, Kanar grappled with key tenets of her faith: the Holy Trinity, confession and celibacy of priests and nuns.

“I started asking questions and couldn’t get many answers,” said Kanar, who converted to Islam more than 20 years ago.

Kanar, 58, will observe Ramadan, a monthlong period of fasting from dawn to dusk, at Masjid Miami Gardens, a mosque that is increasingly seeing more Hispanic Muslim members. Indeed, Kanar is one of an estimated 3,000 Muslim Hispanics in South Florida. Overall, the number of Muslims living in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties has grown from about 70,000 10 years ago to more than 100,000 today.

“The Hispanic Muslim community is very well integrated into the Islamic-American community. They go to the same mosques, celebrate the same feasts and holidays and have the same beliefs that the Muslim community around the world has,” said Oubay Atassi, 58, who grew up in Argentina and whose father was an ambassador to Syria. He lives in Doral.

“We have big families,” said Nezar Hamze, director of the South Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), referring to the growth in South Florida’s Muslim population. He described Muslim Hispanics as a “minority within a minority.”

Much of the growth among Hispanic Muslims comes from Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile have large populations of residents with Arab ancestry. Chile is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians. Brazil has an estimated 10 million people of Arab descent, including more than seven million Lebanese. Atassi estimates that 80 percent of South Florida’s Hispanic Muslims come from migration, with the remaining 20 percent stemming from conversions.

The growth can be seen in South Florida’s mosques and Islamic schools. Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach is expanding, while mosques in Pembroke Pines, Miami Gardens and Kendall, among others, have steadily grown. Masjid Al Sultan Sallah Deen on Griffin Road in Fort Lauderdale is also popular with the Hispanic Muslim community, South Florida’s Muslim leaders say.

Shaikh Shafayat Mohamed, the imam at Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines, expects 600 to 700 to attend services Friday, about 200 more than the average turnout. Of those, Mohamed estimates about 40 to 60 will be Muslims of Hispanic origin, with most being Catholic converts from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Ecuador. Most of those who convert are usually younger than 35, he said.

Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, 45, was driving through his hometown of Vega Alta in Puerto Rico when a mosque perched on a mountain cliff piqued his curiosity.

“I was on a spiritual search, and something clicked,” said Ruiz, who said he had been a “non-practicing Catholic.”

Ruiz, who converted nearly 10 years ago, is a lawyer for CAIR and executive director of the American Muslims for Emergency and Relief. He attends Masjid Miami Gardens and the Islamic Center of South Florida in Pompano Beach with his wife and two twin children.

Ruiz blogs on the Islamic world, the Middle East and international policy. He frequently appears on television programs and writes for various publications as an expert on Christian-Muslim relations.

Kanar found her way to Islam after friends in Miami introduced her to Muslims from Syria and Saudia Arabia. They told her about the Quran, the sacred text of Islam. Kanar began reading and was drawn to the writings of the Prophet Mohammed. She went to her first Ramadan service in 1977 and converted to Islam eight years later in Syria.

“My mother was devastated,” said Kanar, whose mother hadn’t come to terms with her conversion until she married and had children. “It was a way of life that I acquired.”

Kanar, a purchasing agent for AAR Landing Gear Services in Miami Lakes, met her husband, Ahmet, who grew up in Istanbul, after she converted. They have three grown children and have been attending Masjid Miami Gardens since it opened in the early 1990s. The Kanars and Ruizes are part of about 10 to 15 Hispanic Muslim families in the congregation, many of them Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians and Peruvians, she said. Many are women who married into the faith.

“Hispanic culture is more similar to the Muslims’ culture than it is to American culture,” she said.

This year, Ramadan 1433 begins Friday and ends the evening of Aug. 18. The dates of Ramadan change yearly, as it is based on the new moon. Ramadan celebrates the angel Gabriel’s visits to Mohammed.

Ramadan includes two other holy days within the month: Laylat al Qadr, and Eid ul-Fitr. Laylat al Qadr, or Night of Power, marks when the Quran was first revealed to Mohammed, and falls in the third week of the month. Eid ul-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking Fast, celebrates the end of the monthlong period of fasting and spiritual rebirth.

Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami, says many Muslims can be found fasting, coming together to celebrate the fast with the community and frequenting the mosque during the month of Ramadan.

“Globally it’s very much a family affair,” De Sondy said.

Worldwide, De Sondy says there is a growing interest in Islam. The current global Muslim population is 1.6 billion, the world’s second-largest religion after Christianity. Within the next 20 years, projections call for 2.2 billion Muslims by 2030. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world.

“We’re constantly bombarded with negative images of Islam,” De Sondy said. “When you scratch below the surface, you see a human face.”

Although it took eight years for Kanar to cover herself with the hijab, or head scarf, she and her family fully participate in the rituals of Ramadan. They pray at the mosque every night and read chapters from the Quran. They plan on celebrating Eid with morning prayer, visiting with friends and a picnic in the park.

“Islam is something that comes from within,” Kanar said. “It’s a religion between myself and God.”

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