By Sameera Iqbal
November 20, 2007
Why Some Hispanic Converts to Islam Say They Feel Closer to God
Olé! Allah! Most people would guess that these two words are worlds apart, but they’re actually not. Surprisingly, nearly 200,000 Latinos in the United States identify themselves as Muslims, according to the American Muslim Council.
What accounts for the growing acceptance of Islam among the members of the country’s largest minority?
Across the United States, many Latino communities are in close proximity to Muslim centers, especially in states like Florida, Texas, New York and California. As Latinos learned more about Islam, they became more connected to the Muslim heritage, making their religious transition easier.
Both Latino and Islamic culture share a deep appreciation for religion and family. Alex Robayo, who has been Muslim for over a decade, was drawn to the same values in Islam that he grew up with. “There are a lot of similarities with our culture, with the way our families are. It’s almost like if you replace the religion and the language, the families would be almost the same,” he said of his attraction to Islam.
Women have historically been drawn to Islam and Latino women are no different. Sixty percent of Latino converts are women, estimates Latino American Dawah Organization.
Irene Abbasi, a native of Puerto Rico, has been Muslim for more than 30 years.
“When they say Islam deems women as second class citizens, I find that ridiculous,” she said. “In Islam, if you’re in a miserable marriage, you have the option of getting a divorce and getting your rights … right now it’s called a prenuptial. Well, Islam had this in the 13th century.”
For some Latinos, embracing Islam meant giving up familiar things, such as pork alcohol, and dating. While many Latinos find these restrictions challenging, their focus on aspects of the new religion helps them adjust.
Islam introduced spiritual practices that were different from the Catholic upbringing of many Latinos, such as five daily prayers, fasting and a more direct connection with God. “Prayer was the first thing that bought me closer to being a Muslim. It became a source of strength and peace,” said Ibrahim Gonzalez, who became Muslim when he was 17.
Some Latinos feel a special connection with Islamic heritage, owing to the rich history of Muslims in Spain. Before Christopher Columbus arrived on the scene, the Muslim empire ruled for 800 years. The Muslim empire left its mark on architecture, food and language of Spanish culture, which was then bought over into Latin America through the conquistadors.
Hundreds of Spanish words have Arabic roots. Historians have concluded that “olé” is the Spanish adaptation of the Arabic word for God, Allah.
Today, some Latinos feel they are reclaiming their Muslim heritage by returning to the religion. Gonzalez said, “We felt Islam, within our culture, was a hidden treasure.”
Even while embracing the Muslim culture, the Latin heritage remains highly prized. Islam calls upon followers to celebrate their heritage and remember their forefathers. Abbasi proudly proclaims, “I’m Puerto Rican, I’m Boricua.”