Latinos Accepting Islam: A Return to Their True Heritage
By Hernan Abu Uthman Guadalupe
The vast majority of Latinos are Roman Catholic due primarily to their culture or upbringing. But many of these inhabitants of North, South, and Central America are uncomfortable and disenchanted with the various beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, including the emphasis on saints, doctrines such as the Trinity, praying to Mary (according to Catholic doctrine, it is "through" Mary as an intercessor who prays to God on behalf of the supplicant), and original sin, issues related to Church hierarchy, and lack of implementation of religious practices by many Catholics.
It has been reported in The Catholic Almanac that an estimated 100,000 Hispanics or Latinos leave the Catholic Church every year in the U.S. alone. Whether they choose to accept Islam or not, they are engaged in a search for greater spiritual satisfaction and a sense of purpose. Islam is the answer for many due to its simplicity and its teaching of a direct relationship between an individual and Allah, with no intermediary such as Jesus (as considered by Catholicism as the son of God) or a priest. When they find that Islam teaches the message of pure monotheism and promotes a belief in the true and original teachings of Jesus as a man and a prophet of God, they are attracted and want to know more. The following are some additional reasons why Latinos are drawn to Islam.
Islam teaches that the human being is born with an innate nature of purity and primal inclination to tawheed (oneness of God; monotheism). This natural disposition, fitrah in Arabic, is in complete harmony with the beliefs and practices of Islam. Every single person is born upon the fitrah as a Muslim or, by definition, one who submits to God, but it is their parents or society who turns them away. Allah says in the Qur'an in Surah Al-Araf: "And (remember) when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants and made them testify as to themselves (saying), 'Am I not your Lord?' They said: 'Yes! We testify!' [This] lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, 'Verily, we have been unaware of this'" (Qur'an 7: 172).
Human beings intuitively know that there is something greater than themselves, a supreme power or being. Many people who do not affiliate with a particular religion or church still believe in a Creator, so much so that in times of despair they call upon God to help them, as described in the Qur'an in Surah Yunus: "He it is Who enables you to travel through land and sea, till when you are in the ships and they sail on in them with a favorable wind, and they are glad therein, until comes a stormy wind and the waves come to them from all sides, and they think that they are encircled therein, they invoke Allah, sincere in their faith in Him Alone, saying: 'If You deliver us from this, we shall truly be of the grateful'" (Qur'an 10:22).
When Latinos feel some doubt about the faith they were born and raised in, still yearning to know the purpose of life and answers to questions about the origin and destiny of man, some seek knowledge about other faiths. When they encounter Islam, they find the answers to their questions and they find that the belief system makes perfect sense.
Belief in Tawheed
Latinos without a doubt believe in a Creator or Higher Being due to their culture and heritage. When they are introduced to Islam through various means, they begin to truly appreciate the importance of tawheed or the Oneness of Allah. Even though they were taught that Christianity is a monotheistic faith, they can clearly see the difference between the Christian doctrine of God as a Trinity (and the irreconcilable contradiction of "one God in three persons") and God as one, absolute, indivisible, and transcendent being. And further, they see that the Islamic belief of tawheed with its corollaries such as one universal truth and one human family, are put into practice by Muslims.
True Practice of Faith
In Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, there are principles taught which are not necessarily implemented or even encouraged. For example, Mary, the daughter of Imran (the Virgin Mary), has been depicted as wearing a head covering or hijab in many paintings and statues that adorn churches and cathedrals all over the world. Even in the Christian scripture, the issue of a woman covering her hair has been addressed. However, this modesty and the desire to emulate the most pious woman in Christianity is not taught or promoted. In Islam, on the other hand, it is an obligation upon every Muslim woman to wear a head covering and to dress modestly so that her physical form is not revealed, as commanded by Allah in the Qur'an. As a matter of fact, only a few decades ago in Latin American countries, women used to wear a head covering when they went to the church, and a general modesty of dress was the custom. Today this practice is slowly fading.
Islam teaches that each individual has a direct and personal relationship with Allah, and no intermediary such as a priest is needed to worship God, to ask for forgiveness, or be saved from punishment in the Hereafter. In the Catholic Church, if one commits a sin, he/she must seek atonement through confession, disclosing the sin committed to a priest who then gives a "prescription" of a number of prayers that must be performed in order for God to accept repentance. Another example of needing an intermediary is found in protestant churches, particularly evangelical churches: Worshippers obtain "salvation" for their sins through accepting Jesus (the "son of God") as their savior and being "anointed" or "born again" through this process. In Islam, worship is profoundly fulfilling as the five daily prayers, as well as supplications, are communicated directly to Allah who is "...nearer to him than his jugular vein" (Qur'an 50:16).
A Religion of Balance and Moderation
Islam is a faith of moderation. The Qur'an says, "Thus We have willed you to be a community of the middle way..." (2:143). This is a Divine exhortation to establish moderation in every aspect of life, avoiding the extremes of both worldliness and excessive asceticism. It is a perfect balancing of both spiritual and material existence, as can be found by studying the lives of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his companions. Islam does not require or even condone disassociation from the world; it simply requires that a Muslim live in the world according to the ethical principles and character virtues espoused by Islam.
There are many Islamic influences that had a part in the cultural shaping of Latin America. And many Latinos feel a strong historical connection to the Islamic heritage found in the classical Islamic period in Spain, as well as by recognizing that Muslim slaves were brought from Africa to Latin America and there is a documented Muslim presence in the Americas prior to Columbus. Through learning about the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish conquest of indigenous lands in the Americas, and forced conversions of Muslims, Jews, and indigenous peoples to Christianity, many Latinos feel that by accepting Islam, they are reclaiming their true religious heritage.
The Spanish language has been greatly influenced by Arabic. During the almost 800 years in which most of Spain was under Islamic rule, its inhabitants spoke both Spanish and Arabic. Approximately 30 percent of words in the Spanish language, equivalent to roughly 6000 words, have an Arabic origin. Some examples are alfombra (rug), café (coffee), batata (potato), algodon (cotton), algebra (alegbra), azucar (sugar), aceituna (olive), ojala (God willing), sofa (sofa), and arroz (rice). Also names (both first names and surnames) such as Omar, Fátima, Benjamín, Medina, Alvarez, Guadalupe, Benalcazar, to name a few, are Arabic in origin.
Flamenco, a style of music with its origins in Southern Spain, is said to have been created as a way to camouflage Qur'an recitation, and its lyrics describe the acts of persecution that were brought upon the Muslims by the Christians. Flamenco was mainly established around 1499 C.E., during the Spanish Inquisition, when Muslims were either expelled or forced to abandon their belief in Allah and accept the religion of the New Spain. Muslims would hide their faith and secretly recite the Qur'an, fearing persecution by the Spanish authorities. Although guitar was introduced to flamenco songs in the 19th century, they were originally performed without instruments, similar to Arabic poetry. In flamenco, the waves of vibration and sound are reminiscent of Qur'anic recitation.
Many Latinos realize the physical resemblance they have with Arabs, South East Asians, and Africans. This drives them to find out more about their genealogy, resulting in many discovering their ancestral ties with Muslims and arousing their curiosity to learn about Islam.
Family Values in Islam
There are significant parallels between Latinos and Muslims in their family values. Islam teaches high respect for parents. Allah says in Surah Al-Isra: "And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: 'My Lord! bestow on them Thy Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood'" (Qur'an 17:23-24).
There are many other examples of the importance of family in the narrations or ahadith of our beloved Prophet. In an authentic hadith found in Bukhari and Muslim narrated by Abdullah Ibn Masood, he asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, "Which action is the most beloved to Allah?" The Prophet replied, "Salat (prayer) on time." Ibn Masood asked "Then what?" He replied, "Kindness to your parents." The Latino culture, likewise, teaches obedience to parents and respect of elders. Even neighbors or friends who are not part of the immediate family are considered cousins and are treated with respect. This is an Islamic value as well, where elders are referred to as uncles and aunts, and all Muslims are considered brothers and sisters in faith.
In Latino culture and throughout individual countries in Latin America, there are many interesting customs that have roots in Islam or Muslim culture. For example, many Latinos are averse to killing spiders. This may be related to the story of a spider that helped to save Prophet Muhammad by weaving a web around the entrance of the cave in which he was hiding from those who wished to harm him, prior to his migration to Madinah. Also, there is a saying, "Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda," which means "Allah helps those who awaken early" (with the implication that one is getting up early for prayer). Other examples are mentioning the name of Allah (God) prior to cooking, saying "Glory to God" after sneezing, belief in the evil eye, stepping out of bed with the right foot first, and many others.
Another reason for the growing wave of Latinos entering Islam is the fact that some Latinos do not see the Church truly supporting the rights of the poor and underprivileged.
In countries in Central and South America it is common to find poor, homeless individuals sitting on the steps of cathedrals begging, while these places are decorated inside with gold and opulent ornamentation and the priests are dressed in the finest robes. This is discouraging for those who feel the church should be an advocate and source of solace and help for the poor and oppressed.
In the U.S., Latinos also find Islam to be more sympathetic to their plight as minorities. They see Islam as a religion that truly cares about those who are poor and underrepresented . They can readily identify with Islam due to the Latino struggle for justice and equality being similar to the struggle of African Americans in the Civil Rights era, during which, comparably, many African Americans embraced Islam.
Islam is, in fact, a religion that promotes racial equality and social justice, appealing to minority groups and all fair-minded individuals. The perfect summary of this equality can be found in Prophet Muhammad's speech during his last pilgrimage: "All mankind is from Adam and Eve; an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good actions. Know that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood" (Sahih Bukhari).
Because of the above cited reasons, which include both historical and cultural factors, many Latinos believe that accepting Islam is a way of returning to their true heritage. It also offers them a new beginning, where they can worship their Creator in a most direct and straightforward way and fulfill their natural spiritual inclinations. Finally, they are able to join the global community of Muslims in their belief in pure monotheism and the experience of genuine brotherhood and sisterhood.