This article has previously appeared in the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropologists Fall 2003 Journal. With the consent of the publishers, it is reprinted here. Please forward any comments, questions or feedback to the author, Abbas Barzegar, at email@example.com.
In recent years, discussion on the role of Islam in American society as portrayed in mainstream discourse, has been mostly associated with the ‘war on terrorism’, and, as such has been concerned with political conflicts abroad and the threat of international terrorism. In doing so however, the rise of Islam as a means of religious conversion in the United States has been downplayed if not completely ignored. One of the most surprising findings are statistics such as those presented by national Islamic organizations which evidence increased conversion rates after September 11, 2001. And yet even more interesting is the presence of tens of thousands of Latino Americans who have chosen Islam as faith. This essay introduces the rising phenomenon of Latino conversion to Islam in the United States.
Current figures approximate the number of Latino Muslims in the United States to be as low as 25,000 and as high as 75,000. While the growth of Latino Muslims is a steadily increasing phenomenon, little to no information exists in an analytic fashion that helps to explain the new religious community. However, the dozens of journalists that have covered the phenomenon in their local communities has enabled its increased visibility, which has now reached national and international news outlets. This article introduces the growing Latino Muslim community of the United States by outlining different trends and concerns taking place within the group. The article provides an introduction to Islam as a faith and ends with commentary concerning the possible future study of the subject.
Islam and Muslims
Islam is a strictly monotheistic faith with theological and historical roots in the Abrahamic religious tradition. As such, Islam shares belief with Judaism and Christianity in the Torah or the Old Testament, and naturally, the majority of its mythologies and prophetic figures. Elements of the New Testament are also shared as religious references to Muslims. As a religious movement, Islam began in the 6th/7th centuries under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad, who Muslims hold as the last in a long series of messengers sent by God to the world with the purpose of calling humanity to His worship.
Islam in a broad sense, inclusive of its various subsets, is characterized by a strict sense of monotheism which aims at providing a complete system of life as inspired by God and conveyed to mankind through the life and activities of Muhammad. Ritualistically, Islam is marked by the so-called 5 pillars, which characterize the lifestyle of its adherents. The pillars include: 1) the Testimony of faith wherein Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and the authority of Muhammad as His Messenger, 2) the Ritual Prayer which is to occur 5 times daily at specified times, 3) the Annual Fast wherein believers abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours for the period of one month, 4) the Almsgiving, which serves as a type of yearly charity incumbent upon all believers who possess the means, and 5) the Pilgrimage which demands that Muslims make a journey to the holy-city of Mecca, again, for those who possess the means. Further staples of the faith include the prohibition of alcohol, pork, and pre-marital sex.
Islam as a historical phenomenon had a civilization peak during the same period that marked the Dark Ages of Europe. Prominent centers of learning included Baghdad, Cairo and Toledo where major advances in the arts and sciences were accomplished which then were transmitted across surrounding cultures. Today’s Muslim population around the world reaches a total of nearly 1.2 billion, the majority subscribing to the orthodox Sunni branch while a powerful minority, most present in Iran, subscribes to the Shiite branch. Another manifestation of Islam is Sufism, a popular brand of religious orientation in Islam that stresses the gnostic or mystical dimensions of religious life.
Heuristically, the study of Muslims is a fairly easy task due to the monotheistic and holistic dimensions of Islam. Conventional definitions of religion apply to Islam such as the one promoted by Clifford Geertz, which considers religion to be a system of worldview maintenance and development. Muslim thinkers, such as 20th century Sayyid Qutb, consider religion to be a system of life governance or a manhaj rabani, divine program. In terms of experience a Muslim’s faith might be characterized by Charles Long definition of religious experience as an all-encompassing orientation that locates the individual within local, macro and universal environments. While the religious dimensions of Muslim life are fairly straightforward the lived experiences of Muslims, like all other peoples, is more complicated due to the interplay between culture, religion and social environment.
Latino Muslims in the United States
In discussing the phenomenon of Latino Muslims in the United States, one risks falling into the trap of identifying a homogenous Latino culture or identity. To attempt to bundle together over a dozen distinct national and ethnic identities whose geographic region spreads over thousands of miles is as impossible as it is irresponsible. And, in terms of religious homogeneity, the Latino community is by no means a singular entity. Nonetheless, a few broad generalizations about the Latino world are in order.
The 2000 Census documents the presence of nearly 33 million Latinos in the United States. The term Latino is inclusive of all ethnic and national peoples from the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. Most Latinos come from a Catholic religious heritage, however, regardless of whether or not one is active in the religion there usually exists a high amount of religiosity in the community. Other religious communities include various Protestant denominations (whose numbers are increasing) and a small number of Jews. While most Latinos in the United States identify immediately with their respective ethnic or national communities, e.g. Mexican American or Cuban, a broad historical attachment to Spain is reflected in the language, religion and historical consciousness of their respective cultures.
Currently, estimates conducted by national Islamic organizations such as the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) approximate the number of Latino Muslims in America to be roughly 40,000, with some estimates reaching as high as 75,000 and as low as 20,000. The largest communities of Latino Muslims exist in areas, which unsurprisingly, have the highest concentrations of Latinos. As such, Latino Muslim communities are most visible in large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and other urban centers. Individuals in the developing community often express their newfound faith through non-profit community organizations that are dedicated toward providing Islamic services to the Latino community.
Organizations such as Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) based in New York with chapters growing across the country provide information about Islam in Spanish to those seeking it. They also maintain an active web-site, which publishes a monthly newsletter that reflects the tones and currents of the new community. Other organizations such as PIEDAD, (Progagacion Islamic para la Educacion e la Devocion a Ala’ el Divino) concentrate their efforts on reaching the female component of the Latino community. LALAMA (Los Angeles Latino Muslims Association) began as a Spanish speaking Islamic study group at the Islamic Center of Southern California. The high demand and popularity of the group’s activities led the informal study group to formalize into a visible and service providing community organization. Similar organizations have begun to appear in Houston, Chicago and other metropolitan areas.
Perhaps the most well established Latino Muslim organization, Alianza Islamica was founded in East Harlem and now resides in the Bronx. Allianza was established in 1975 by a group of Puerto Rican Muslim converts who found in Islam the principles of universal brotherhood and equality that were so prominent in the civil rights activities of the era. Ibrahim Gonzales, one of the founders of the Alianza Mosque says, “we didn’t want to give up the struggle, so we looked to different places. Islam represented a place for us to be part of a larger community. When we realized that within Islam there was every spectrum of people, regardless of class, regardless of race, we were attracted to that universal principle of human interaction and communion with the divine (NY Times, 1/2/02).” Alianza provides services to its surrounding community including AIDS awareness campaigns, education services and religious activities.
As of yet there has been no wide spread and detailed study of the Latino Muslim population in the United States. An initial investigation conducted by Samantha Sanchez, one of the founders of LADO and graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at New School University, offers insight into the newfound community. Her study reports that the majority of Latino converts to Islam were pursuing a spiritual path and then encountered Islam through outreach activities of organizations such as those described above and other Islamic organizations or individuals. Her study also finds in contrast to popular opinion that the majority of converts are college-educated women between the ages of 20 and 30. Sanchez finds that the most attractive part of Islam to spirituality seeking Latinos is its strict monotheistic orientation and structured belief system. Sanchez also finds that a large number of female conversions occur due to marriage with Middle Eastern Muslim men. Further research is also being conducted in part by the Muslims in New York City Project of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. Findings from the project suggest that the presence of Latino Muslims in American cities is a phenomenon connected to a much larger matrix of social, political and cultural factors.
One salient finding is the tendency for Latino Muslims to place a high emphasis on the historical connection between Latino culture and Islam. This largely unknown marriage is a product of the eight hundred year long presence of Islamic culture and civilization in Spain. During this period of Islamic history, some of the most profound advances in science, culture, architecture and philosophy were accomplished in centers of learning that included Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In fact, many of the developments of renaissance and enlightenment Europe can be attributed to the discoveries Muslims in Spain. Many Latino Muslims find solace in the fact that their newfound religion also shares with them a historical and ethnic connection. Accordingly, many of the organizations mentioned above provide information on this lesser well-known part of Spanish history. Latino Muslims are often quick to point out the existence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Spanish words with Arabic origins and meanings. This may explain why many Latino Muslims prefer the term reversion rather than conversion to describe their experiences. However, this could also be explained by the Islamic belief that all humans are born Muslim and by their environments are turned away from Islam. Thus reversion would imply returning to a natural state of being, which is Islam.
Regardless of what Latino Muslims experience in terms of a convergence between their religious and ethnic identities, a strain is felt in most Latino Muslims’ lives when it comes to their families and immediate communities, who see the embracement of Islam as an abandonment of Latino culture. Most published testimonies of Latino Muslim converts address this issues as one that permeates their day-to-day functioning as Muslims. Some of the aforementioned community organizations go to the length of publishing materials designed specifically to help new converts deal with questions family members pose.
The process by which Latino Muslims identify with pre-Columbian Islamic Spain is fairly similar to the way in which many African American Muslims have identified with the role of Islam in African history. In fact, many Latino Muslims have been drawn to Islam by way of the African American Muslim experience and its cultural outpour. The high visibility of African American Muslims throughout inner cities across the United States has made many Latinos familiar with Islam. Organizations like the Nation of Islam have stressed the applicability of Islam to the needs of ethnic communities in America, whether or not this type of rhetoric is a motivating force behind conversion is subject to debate. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to deny the fact that African American conversion to Islam has set the tone for other communities of Islamic conversion in America.
Religious conversion in and of itself is a highly complex and opaque phenomenon. At this point, due to the lack of any comprehensive data we can only make assumptions as to the reasons for conversion to Islam amongst Latinos. It seems that the newly forming community is so multidimensional that to assess outright conclusions at this point would be impossible. One thing that is for certain is that the Latino Muslim community of the United States has effectively built a niche in the larger spectrum of the American Muslim population, adding to the plurality and diversity of religious life in the United States.
Questions for Further Inquiry
Future research that aims at understanding the significance of the rising role of Islam amongst Latinos in the United States needs to be placed along a comprehensive matrix that allows for the analysis of a number of variables simultaneously. Some of the factors that need attention include the religious tone of the Latino community, the role of Latinos in the United States, the location of Islam in American civic life, the relationships between immigrant Muslim communities and Latinos, along with a host of other concerns. I briefly present a few directions for possible future research.
As alluded to before the presence of African American Muslims in major metropolitan areas has, in various ways, contributed to the rise of Latino Muslim conversion. Islam’s visible presence in the black community dates back to the early years of the 20th century and has grown exponentially since. Today the African American Muslim community is extremely diverse in its makeup, which has produced multiple layers of cultural contribution to American society by way of religious orientation. Furthermore, because most Latinos live in metropolitan centers and thus share the same space as many African American Muslims, it is safe to say that Latino Muslims have been influenced whether, directly or indirectly by the African American Muslim community. Researching the correlation between African American Muslim cultural visibility and contribution and its effect on Latinos who convert to Islam may require more than survey questions and interviews. An ethnographic assessment of Islam as it is portrayed in inner city life may produce the information we need to examine the larger implications of Latino conversion to Islam. We may soon be in a position to ask whether or not there exists an identifiable indigenous American Muslim culture, that is, a culture of Muslims in America that is a product of conversion and not immigration.
The fact that Latinos and African Americans are converting to Islam tempts the question of race and ethnicity in America. Why is it that segments of these two historically disenfranchised communities have found meaning in the religion of Islam? Does Islam provide something unique to these communities that they have not found in other religions? Many testimonies of both African American and Latino American Muslims address the way in which the structure of Islamic belief systems serve to combat deteriorating social conditions in both communities, such as drug/alcohol abuse, gang and domestic violence, the decline of traditional family settings, and so forth.
It is also interesting to note that at a time when Islam is dubbed in public discourse a hateful, dangerous and violent religion, conversion rates increase. What might explain this phenomenon? Can it be related to the different ways different communities perceive Islam? If so, what are the contours of these differences? Furthermore, it seems that there is a tendency to emphasize religious identity above cultural and ethnic identity in most Muslim communities, how might this factor into the lived experiences of community members, who have to occupy the Latino and Islamic worlds simultaneously? Are communities forging new identities or manipulating new ones? It is also necessary, no matter how fascinated we are with the idea of Latino Muslims, to ask why there are dozens of millions of Latinos who have chosen not to convert to Islam, and perhaps the thousands that were interested but decided not to? Opening a discourse on Latino Muslims in the United States can be a fruitful endeavor and should be considered.
The simultaneous presence of Islam in the national consciousness of the American public and its rapid growth among various groups in the United States raises an interesting set of questions. To treat the phenomenon of Latino Muslim conversion laxly would be a mistake. Roughly a half century ago there existed a group of ‘so-called’ African American Muslims. Leading opinions of the time considered the movement to be temporal one based off of the charisma of various leaders. However, today there are over an estimated 4 million African American Muslims in America. The empirical trend leads us to question the potential future of the current 40,000 Latino Muslims. If trends continue the landscape of American society in just few decades may look dramatically different. The study of Latino Muslims as a component in the Muslim American landscape may yield insights, not only in related academic fields, but also into the uncertain yet impending future of American society.
—Abbas Barzegar, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate