For over a year, an Islamic center has invited me to an evening program entitled “Coffee with the Shaykh,” an opportunity for new and re-committed Muslims to ask questions to Islamic scholars. I have noticed two things: most are women, and many are Latine. Their participation, deep questions about Islam, and the presence of this month prompted me to write some thoughts that I hope will encourage the Chapman community to consider.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Latine Muslims are emerging as the country’s fastest-growing demographic of Muslims. In 2018, 7 percent of Muslims identified as Latine.
Historically, Islam has a place within the Latine community, starting outside the United States’ borders. For eight centuries, Islam was a religious, cultural, and civilizational presence in Spain and Portugal. During this period of Islamic history, some of the most profound advances in science, culture, architecture, law, theology, and philosophy existed. Spain, Portugal, and North Africa were the most accomplished learning centers in the world. Under Muslim rule, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together, engaging each other and their civilization. Many of the Renaissance and Enlightenment-era European developments owe a debt to Spanish Muslims because of their discoveries. In my experience, when objectively discussing this history, I have found many Latine Muslims finding solace in the fact that their newfound religion shares a historical and ethnic connection. Furthermore, there have been excellent conversations wherein some Latine Muslims point out many Spanish words with Arabic origins and meanings.
There have been organizations whose objective is to educate and proselytize Islam within the Latine community. In addition, these organizations have been very active in social justice initiatives. A group of Puerto Rican Muslim converts established a social justice and outreach organization, “La Alianza Islámica,” in New York City in the 1970s. They found in Islam the principles of universal brotherhood and equality that were so prominent in the civil rights activities of the era. In a New York Times article on January 2, 2002, Ibrahim Gonzalez, 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”
In 1988, Khadija Rivera (God rest her soul) founded PIEDAD (Propagacion Islamica para la Educacion e la Devocion a Ala’ el Divino) that concentrated efforts on reaching the Latina community. They are located in New York, also. Other organizations include the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), located in New York, providing information on Islam in Spanish and Portuguese. Their mission is to “empower Muslims and non-Muslims alike to discover more about the beauty of Islam.” As we travel west from New York, the organization, “IslamInSpanish,” is located in Houston, Texas. They are a non-profit educational organization. Its founder, Mujahid Fletcher, a Columbian convert to Islam, sought to educate the Latine community after the September 11 devastation. Finally, we have Lalama (Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association). They began as a Spanish-speaking Islamic study group in the Islamic Center of Southern California. It would eventually become a service-providing community organization.
I hope the Latinx and Latin American Studies program at Chapman will consider reaching out to the above organizations and having conversations with Latine Muslims, including their joys and struggles as Muslims, especially when they announce their conversion to their immediate family. For detailed studies, it may be a good idea to look into the influences of African and Black-American/African-American culture related to Islam’s introduction to the Latine community. Studying Latine Muslims as a component in the Muslim American landscape may open insights into American society. For a few articles on the topic, please consider looking here.