Early U.S. Latina/o - African-American
Muslim Connections: Paths to Conversion
By Patrick D. Bowen
The Muslim World
Vol. 100 no. 4 (2010), pp. 390-413.
While the literature concerning Latina/o Muslims in the United States has been
growing, much about them still has yet to be explored, including the history
of those who converted through joining African-American-majority Islamic
groups prior to 1975 (the year of the formation of perhaps the first U.S. Latina/o Muslim
organization, Alianza Islamica). This paper, then, aims at presenting a more in-depth
look at the historical growth of U.S. Latina/o Muslims in the context of their connection
with African-American Muslims up to the early 1980s.
I will begin by presenting a
theoretical approach for understanding the religious conversions of Latino Muslims. I
assert that we must understand their conversions as rejections and/or redefinitions of
dominant discourses. I will then move on to a discussion of the historical context of the
social, cultural, and ideological connections of Latina/os with African Americans, which
will help us contextualize the evidence for Latina/os becoming Muslim through
African-American social networks. Because of Latina/o Muslims' small numbers in the
early years and difficulty of accessing primary sources that might mention them, the
findings in this paper should be seen as tentative and preliminary, with the hope that
future scholarship will continue to shed more light.
Before proceeding we must clarify three things. First, this paper will be examining
U.S. Latino Muslims since the early 20th century. These individuals were probably not the
first U.S. Latina/o Muslim converts, nor were they the first Latina/o Muslims in the area
that is now known as the United States. There is at least one confirmed conversion of a
Latina to Islam in southern California in the early 20th century as the result of the marriage of a Mexican-American woman to a Punjabi immigrant, and it is likely that there were
more at that time and place.
In addition, research into the history of pre-Columbian
exploration of the Americas and of enslaved persons brought to the Americas has shown
that a number of these Iberian-connected persons (and many of African descent) were
Muslims, and that some of the slaves may have been brought to what is now the U.S. in
as early as the 16th century.
Besides a few clear examples, there is little direct evidence
to prove that these Iberian-connected enslaved persons in the region now known as the
U.S. were in fact Muslims. But, taking into account the locations from which they were
extracted, Michael Gomez has concluded that we cannot rule out the possibility,
especially if we include Puerto Rico where, by it originally being colonized by the
Spanish, all African Muslims there could be considered "Latino." Nonetheless, there is
little evidence that the Islamic practices of any of these enslaved Muslims were
maintained up through the 20th century.
This, however, brings up another issue: that of
defining "Latino." While the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) includes in its
"Latino" or "Hispanic" Muslim literature conversion stories from people who have
cultural ties from Spain and Portugal to Malaysia, there is some dispute within the
"Latino" community as to who can or should or would want to identify as such. Early
enslaved persons brought via Iberian traders, for example, were often forced by their
captives to take Latin names in the interim between their captivity and sale to Americans
-- Should we count these people as "Latino"? Similarly, members of various
Islamic-based groups reject such an identity (as we shall see). And of course, not all
"Latino" Muslims even identify themselves as such, focusing instead sometimes solely on
their religious identity and sometimes on their nation of origin identity.
analytical purposes, I will follow the lead of LADO and identify as "Latina/o" all who may
self-identify as such and those who have an Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) cultural
heritage connection from the Peninsula to Malaysia. Of course, because sometimes we
cannot know if persons deceased or inaccessible may have this connection, our findings
cannot be exhaustive, but can only provide a sense of what has taken place. Finally,
along the lines of identity issues: many traditional (Sunni and Shi'i) Muslims do not
consider such Islamic-based groups as the Ahmadiyyas and the Nation of Islam (NOI) to
be "Islamic." Furthermore, some groups which have clear ties to other Islamic-based
groups, for example, the Five Percenters/Nation of Gods and Earths, do not consider
themselves "Muslim." However, because these groups developed out of a conception of
what it means to be "Muslim" and have for a long time served as the means to introduce
many individuals to Islamic concepts and practices before they converted to more
traditional Islamic groups, I will also include them in the present study and leave the
religious designation of their Islamic-ness to members of the groups themselves.
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