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Latino Reverts Add to Mosaic of Islam

By Amel S. Abdullah
Southern California InFocus
February 2006

Reverts to Islam often share a set of challenges as they work to gain the acceptance of family, friends, and co-workers, integrate Islam into their daily lives, and find their niche within the Muslim community. For Latinos who embrace Islam, it is usually no different. Yet, Latino Muslims are unique in many ways.

Take Marta Khadija Galedary, for example. She is a co-founder of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association (LALMA) and is at the forefront of providing a network of information and support to Latinos in Southern California. A registered nurse who works part-time at both Kaiser Permanente and the UMMA Community Clinic, Marta first heard about Islam in 1981 while studying in England. It was there that she came into contact with Muslim students from around the world who soon became her friends. "These Muslims did not talk about Islam," said Marta. "Rather, their actions meant more than preaching."

Two years later, Marta said the shahada (a declaration of faith that is the first pillar of Islam) at the Islamic Center of Southern California. As an immigrant from Mexico, Marta says the mission of LALMA is to teach the fundamentals of Islam in the Spanish language, increase awareness of Islam among the wider Latino community, and provide spiritual support for new Muslims. "Our ultimate goal is to incorporate this new Muslim group into the larger, multiethnic community of Muslims in Southern California," she explained.

With approximately fifty members from countries as diverse as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina, LALMA meets regularly at the Islamic Center of Southern California and Masjid Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, both of which are located in Los Angeles. Besides offering classes on Islamic topics in Spanish each Sunday, LALMA also provides courses in CPR, first aid and community safety, counseling for teenagers, and support to other Latino da’wah (outreach) programs in California.

Other LALMA activities include participation in the Latino Book Fair and Family Festival, where LALMA members distribute literature about Islam in Spanish, and interfaith events planned in cooperation with the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in order to meet an increased demand for information about Islam in Spanish after September 11th. "After 9/11, Islam was exposed to the Latino community at large in the form of a religion that supports terrorism," said Marta. "For them, it was impossible to picture a religion that would encourage the killing of innocent people." It was their curiosity about this issue, she explained, that actually led many Latinos to embrace Islam once they found out "the truth about Islam and Muslims."

Family Matters

Although Muslims come from all walks of life, and only about 12 percent of Muslims worldwide are Middle-Eastern, stereotypes abound. Many Latinos, said Jibrail de La Parra, "have a big problem understanding how someone can be Muslim and Mexican." A 29-year-old interior architect and resident of LA County who embraced Islam on the first day of Ramadan in 2001, Jibrail adds that his own family accepted his decision to convert, but that Latino families in general don’t usually react so well.

"Some of us have even been labeled as traitors of our roots," commented Pablo Abdul Rahim Calderon, another area resident and member of both LALMA and the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), a non-profit organization concerned with promoting Islam among the Latino community and providing literature about Islam in Spanish, English and Portuguese, the national language of Brazil. Established in 1997, LADO also strives to "educate Latinos and others about the legacy of Islam in Spain and Latin America."

Misunderstandings with family members can lead to isolation, said Sakeena, 26, a teacher in Los Angeles who was born in Argentina and raised in the United States. "The Latino has a strong family foundation, and when one converts to Islam, the family feels as though that person is making a drastic change and usually doesn’t understand."

Support for Reverts Crucial

Sakeena stresses the importance of new reverts finding a family within the Muslim community, although she says it is often difficult for Latinos to establish relationships with other groups of Muslims. "Acceptance from the Muslim community is the biggest challenge," she explained. "Islam itself is a perfect religion, but Muslims might not follow the religion as mandated and so new converts are usually not well accepted or integrated into the community."

Among its many projects, LALMA provides one-to-one support of new reverts and says that the wider population of Muslims in the US can learn from its example. According to Marta, "Every new Muslim from a Christian background goes through a period of transition, dealing with personal habits and family concerns."

"Latino Muslim organizations are great things to have," said Pablo. "They help guide people in Islam, help one learn salat (prayer), and so on. I give thanks to Allah that now many of my family members are Muslims."

While some are actually rejected by their relatives, Jibrail said most families eventually learn to "deal with it." Also, added Pablo, "It could be the opposite, and we may be completely supported by our family, peers, and community."

Arwa Ayloush, who is of mixed Syrian, Mexican, and American heritage, grew up in Texas and described the relationship she has with her family as excellent. "I think I was raised with an open mind, and that made it easier for me to become Muslim," she said. "In my experience, many Muslim women have found acceptance within their families. Of course, there might be resentment when it comes to not celebrating or partaking in many non-Muslim festivities, but I do find many keep the relationship with their respective families."

Her interest in Islam sparked by the 1991 Gulf War, Arwa, now 35, lives in Corona, and said once people "see how ‘normal’ you can be, they tend to accept you."

The Attraction of Islam

Latino Muslims often remind others that there is no "one size fits all" profile of a Latino revert. "There are various ways Latinos encounter Islam," said Jibrail. "Some find it through questioning their previous religion and finding in Islam a logical answer to their questions. Some, especially women, revert through marriage, and others do so by reading on their own and loving the concept of tawheed (monotheism)."

"It seems that most of us don’t feel that Allah should become a man and then die on a cross to be our ultimate savior," Pablo explained further. "We never bought the theory that Allah the Ultimate and Creator needs to be divided into three different entities."

Pablo, who is 29, came to the United States from Chile when he was just one year old. Growing up in the City of Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, Pablo says he was exposed to gang violence throughout his childhood and decided to join a gang himself when he was in the sixth grade. As a teenager, he spent time in Juvenile Hall and was even expelled from high school after getting into fights with rival gangs.

When threats from rivals became serious enough to put his family’s life in danger, they moved to a different city. "My mother cried for weeks, and my father was so disappointed he did not want to speak to me at all," recalled Pablo. "Once we moved to the new home I started to distance myself from the gang life and decided to start a change. I decided also that I would try to go back to church, which I did, but it did nothing for me. I also looked at Christianity and started a spiritual search. I felt so lost because the religion I grew up with made no sense to me and the other ones also did nothing for me."

For Pablo, a chance encounter with Muslims at a car dealership when he was 21 changed his life completely. "While sitting with them I started to realize that everything they said about their religion made sense to me and that everything they believed was my belief." The very same day, Pablo made shahada at Tampa Masjid in Northridge.

In an ongoing survey of reverts to Islam being conducted by Our Rising Star, a Muslim print magazine based in Issaquah, WA, 75% of Latino participants have, to date, cited a "spiritual feeling" in their decision to convert. For example, a 23-year-old male from New York wrote: "In hindsight, I remember having a ‘vision’ when I was a kid of about 10 or 12 years old. The vision was of the Virgin Mary, or so I thought. After having analyzed it, the lady I saw in my vision seemed more like a Muslim woman than anything else - she was veiled to her face and had a loose-flowing white gown that was not form fitting. It just now seems so much more like a Muslim woman. What this was for, or why it happened - I don’t know."

According to Marta, "Latino Muslims value the dignified role of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in Islam [and] cherish a direct relationship with God without any intermediaries. They find no psychological manipulation, no intimidation, and no compulsion in learning about Islam."

"Leaving the Catholic faith is not difficult or intimidating, because the same values and main beliefs are still carried on," added Sakeena.

After his reversion, Pablo says he became tolerant of others, happy in his own life, and thirsty for knowledge. "I started to read more and more after that to educate myself about Islam, and while educating myself in Islam, I started to discover that Islam has been present in the Americas at least 700 years before Columbus set foot here. Islam does that to you - it makes you want to learn more and branches you out to other subjects that involve Islam."

A Need for Literature about Islam in Spanish

Often overlooked by those who perform dawah, Latino Muslims face a lack of literature about Islam in Spanish and Portuguese, making the work of groups like LALMA and LADO all the more important.

"A big percentage of the Latino population here in California either speaks no English or very little of it," said Pablo. Although Pablo believes there may be many Latinos in North America who are interested in Islam, he fears they may be intimidated if no one at the local mosque speaks their language. "This is a real problem," said Jibrail. "There is literature out there, but sometimes it is not good, or what is good is hard to get, like literature or audio from Spain or Argentina. Some attend Friday prayers not understanding anything and leave it having learned nothing."

At present, there are at least three translations of the Qur’an available in Spanish, although reviews on each vary widely. Luz del Islam Publishing, created by LALMA to provide quality, low-cost literature about Islam in Spanish, is distributing the popular Muhammad Asad translation along with a biography of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, translated into Spanish by Martin Lings - a book that Marta calls "essential" in developing love for the Prophet. Both of these works are available on LALMA’s website, located at www.lalma.org.

Numbers and Trends

While no precise statistics exist on the number of Latino Muslims living in the United States, Muslim organizations estimate there are between 40,000 and 70,000, with the highest concentrations in major urban areas with large Latino populations. Overall, it is estimated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations that six percent of all reverts are of Latino descent.

"Insha’Allah (God willing), the Latino people may one day come to discover that Islam has always been part of our roots, not just because some of us might be descended from the Spanish Muslims [of Andalusia], but because Islam has been part of us the human race since Allah created the first human being," said Pablo.

Amel Abdullah is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Our Rising Star.

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