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Area Hispanics find familiarity in Islam

Converts say they are surprised to discover similar customs

By Wendy Hundley
The Dallas Morning News
October 15, 2003

When Carlos Puerto was growing up in his native Colombia, he was taught to step out of bed in the morning on his right foot to ensure a good day.

It's a custom, he said, that's common in many Spanish-speaking countries.

So he was surprised, many years later, to find a similar practice among Muslims, who follow the example set by the prophet Muhammad.

"When I embraced Islam, I was surprised by all the similar customs," said Mr. Puerto, one of a small but growing number of Hispanic converts to Islam. "I believe there's a closeness of Islamic values to the Hispanic culture."

Mr. Puerto, who is known in the Islamic community by his Arabic first name, Abuabdurahmanr, is one of the organizers of the first Open House for the Hispanic Community at the Dallas Central Mosque in Richardson.

Saturday's event will include a reception, tours and lectures by Imam Omar Weston of the Islamic Cultural Center of Mexico. Imam Weston also will preside over a question-and-answer session.

The open house is designed to introduce the Hispanic community to Islam, said Nadiya Iqbal, who was born Brenda Avila and is a new convert to Islam.

She said about 100 Hispanic people are affiliated with the mosque, but she believes the number of Dallas-area converts is much higher.

Like Mr. Puerto, she was struck by the similarities between Muslim and Hispanic traditions.

"The respect for elders, the respect for family, the courtesy and manners," she said, listing some common features. "It goes hand-in-hand."

She even found words and phrases that had a familiar ring. "Every Spanish-speaking person grows up saying 'ojala,' which means Lord willing," she said. "The Arabic 'insh'allah means the same thing."

It's not surprising that the languages are similar, said Michael Provence, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Southern Methodist University.

The Moors ruled Spain for almost 700 years, and "10 to 30 percent of the Spanish language is derived from Arabic," he said. "Ojala is directly from the Arabic."

Like many Latinos, Mr. Puerto was raised a Roman Catholic and didn't know much about Muslims or the tenets of their religion.

He first met a group of Muslim students when he came to the United States to attend the University of Arkansas as an exchange student.

He said he was struck by their courteous and thoughtful manners, which reminded him of home.

"I felt that I was being with Spanish people more than Muslims," he said. "They were very kind and respectful. They put the needs of others before their own needs."

He soon began learning more about Islam and was attracted by its lack of hierarchy.

"I was able to worship God without any kind of preachers," he said. "In the Catholic Church, you have to ask a priest for forgiveness. In Islam, anyone can be a preacher."

He said he's a better person since he embraced Islam on Jan. 24, 1997. But his conversion surprised his family.

"They thought I'd embraced a cult. Nobody there knows anything about Islam," he said. "But now that they've seen the changes in me, they're happy."

A version of this story also appears in the Grand Prairie Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News link