Latino Muslims in the
United States: An Introduction
By Abbas Barzegar
The Gottfried and Martha Lang Student Prize Paper
The High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology (HPSfAA)
Fall 2003, No. 2 Vol. 23, pp 126 - 129.
In recent years discussion of the role of Islam in
American society as portrayed in mainstream discourse
has been mostly associated with the “war on
terrorism;" As such, it has been concerned with
political conflicts abroad and t he threat of international
terrorism. In doing so, however, the rise of Islam as a
means of religious conversion in the United States has
been downplayed if not completely ignored.
Surprisingly, statistics such as those presented by
national Islamic organizations show increased
conversion rates after September 11, 2001. Even more
interesting is the presence of tens of thousands of
Latino Americans who have chosen Islam as their faith.
This essay introduces the rising phenomenon of Latino
conversion to Islam in the United States.
Current figures estimate the number of Latino
Muslims in the United States to be between 25,000 and
75,000. While the steadily increasing growth in the
number of Latino Muslims is a phenomenon, little to no
information exists to explain in an analytic fashion the
new religious community. However, the dozens of
journalists that have covered the phenomenon in their
local communities have enabled its increased visibility,
which has now reached national and international news
outlets. This article introduces the growing Latino
Muslim community of the United States by outlining
different trends and concerns taking place within the
group, provides an introduction to Islam as a faith, and
comments on possible future study.
Islam and Muslims
Islam is a strictly monotheistic faith with theological
and historical roots in the Abrahamic religious
tradition. As such, Islam shares beliefs with Judaism in
the Torah and Christianity in the Old Testament and
the majority of their mythologies and prophetic figures.
Elements of the New Testament are also shared as
religious references to Muslims. As a movement Islam
began in the 6th–7th century under the guidance of the
Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims hold as the last in
a long series of messengers sent by God t o the world
with the purpose of calling humanity to His worship.
Islam, in a broad sense, inclusive of its various
subsets, is characterized by a strict sense of
monotheism which aims at providing a complete
system of life as inspired by God and conveyed to
mankind through t he life and activities of Muhammad.
Ritualistically, Islam is marked by the so-called five
pillars, which characterize the lifestyle of its adherents.
The pillars include: 1) the Testimony of faith,Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and the authority
of Muhammad as His Messenger; 2) the Ritual Prayer,
which is to occur five times daily at specified times; 3)
the Annual Fast, wherein believers abstain from food
and drink during the daylight hours for the period of
one month; 4) the Almsgiving, which serves asyearly charity incumbent upon all believers wiht the
means; and 5) the Pilgrimage, which demands that
Muslims make a journey to the holy city of Mecca –
again, for those who possess the means. Further
taples of the faith include the prohibition of alcohol,
pork, and premarital sex.
Islam as a historical phenomenon had a civilization
peak during the same period that marked the Dark
Europe. Prominent centers of learning included
Baghdad, Cairo, and Toledo, where major advances in
the arts and sciences were realized and then
transmitted to the surrounding cultures. Today's
Muslim population around the world is estimated at
nearly 1.2 billion, the majority subscribing to the
orthodox Sunni branch while a powerful minority, most
visible in Iran, subscribes to the Shiite branch.
Another manifestation of Islam is Sufism, a popular
branch of religious orientation in Islam that stresses
the gnostic or mystical dimensions of religious life.
Heuristically, the study of Muslims is fairly easy due
the monotheistic and holistic dimensions of Islam.
Conventional definitions of religion apply to Islam,
such as that promoted by Clifford Geertz which
considers religion to be a system of worldview
maintenance and development. Muslim thinkers, such
the 20th century's Sayyid Qutb, consider religiona system of life governance or a manhaj rabani, divine program. In terms of experience, a Muslim's
faith might be characterized by Charles Long's
definition of religious experience as an all-
encompassing orientation that locates the indivwithin local, macro, and universal environments. While the religious dimensions of Muslim life may be
straightforward, the lived experiences of Muslims,
other people, is complicated by the interplay
between culture, religion and social environment.
Latino Muslims in the United States
When discussing the phenomenon of Latino
Muslims in the United States one risks falling into the
trap of identifying a homogenous Latino culture or
identity. To attempt to bundle together more than a
dozen distinct national and ethnic identities whose
geographic region spreads over thousands of miles is
as impossible as it is irresponsible. In terms of religious
homogeneity the Latino community is by no means a
singular entity. Nonetheless, a few broad
generalizations about the Latino world are in order.
The 2000 U.S. Census documents the presence of
nearly 33 million Latinos in the United States. The term
“Latino" is inclusive of all ethnic and national peoples
from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds.
Most Latinos come from a Catholic religious heritage;
however, regardless of whether or not one is active in
the religion, there usually exists a high amount of
religiosity in the community. Other religious
communities include various Protestant denominations
(whose numbers are increasing) and a small number of
Jews. While most Latinos in the United States identify
immediately with their respective ethnic or national
communities, e.g., Mexican American or Cuban, a broad
historical attachment to Spain is reflected in the
language, religion, and historical consciousness of
their respective cultures.
Current estimates conducted by national Islamic
organizations such as the Council for American Isl amic
Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North
America (ISNA) show the number of Latino Muslims in
America to be roughly 40,000, with some estimates
reaching as high as 75,000 or as low as 20,000. The
largest communities of Latino Muslims exist in areas
which, unsurprisingly, have the highest concentrations
of Latinos. As such, Latino Muslim communities are
most visible in large metropolitan areas such as New
York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and other
urban centers. Individuals in the developing
community often express their newfound faith through
nonprofit community organizations t hat are dedicated
toward providing Islamic services to the Latino
Organizations such as the Latino American Dawah
Organization (LADO), based in New York with chapters
growing across the country, provide information about
Islam in Spanish to those seeking it. They also
maintain an active website which publishes a monthly
newsletter that reflects t he tones and currents of the
new community. Other organizations such as PIEDAD
(Propagacion Islamica para la Educacion e la Devocion
a Ala' el Divino) concentrate their efforts on reaching
the female component of the Latino community.
LALAMA (Los Angeles Latino Muslims Association)
began as a Spanish-speaking Islamic study group at
the Islamic Center of Southern California. The high
demand and popularity of the group's activities led the
informal study group to formalize into a visible and
service-providing community organization. Similar
organizations have begun to appear in Houston,
Chicago, and other metropolitan areas.
Perhaps the best-established Latino Muslim
organization, Alianza Islamica, was founded in East
Harlem and is now located in the Bronx. Alianza was
established in 1975 by a group of Puerto Rican Muslim
converts who found in Islam the principles of universal
brotherhood and equality that were so prominent in the
civil rights activities of the era. Ibrahim Gonzales, 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" (New
York Times January 2, 2002).
Alianza provides services to its surrounding
community including AIDS awareness campaigns,
education services, and religious activities.
As yet there has been no widespread and detailed
study of the Latino Muslim population in the United
States. An initial investigation conducted by Samantha
Sanchez, one of the founders of LADO and a graduate
student in Cultural Anthropology at New School
University, offered insight into the new community.
Her study reports that the majority of Latino converts
to Islam were pursuing a spiritual path and
encountered Islam through outreach activities of
organizations such as those described above, other
Islamic organizations, or individuals. Her study also
finds, in contrast to popular opinion, that the majority
of converts are college-educated women between the
ages of 20 and 30. Sanchez finds that the most
attractive part of Islam to spirituality-seeking Latinos is
its strict monotheistic orientation and structured belief
system. Sanchez also finds that a large number of
female conversions occur due to marriage with Middle
Eastern Muslim men. Further research is being
conducted in part by t he Muslims in New York City
Project of the Middle East Institute at Columbia
University. Findings from the project suggest that the
presence of Latino Muslims in American cities is a
phenomenon connected to a much larger matrix of
social, political, and cultural factors.
One salient finding is the tendency for Latino
Muslims to place a high emphasis on the historical
connection between Latino culture and Islam. This
largely unknown marriage is a product of the 800-year-
long presence of Islamic culture and civilization in
Spain. During this period of Islamic history some of
the most profound advances in science, culture,
architecture, and philosophy were accomplished in
centers of learning that included Christians, Muslims,
and Jews. In fact, many of the developments of
renaissance and enlightenment-era Europe can be
attributed to discoveries made by Muslims in Spain.
Many Latino Muslims find solace in the fact that their
newfound religion also shares with them a historical
and ethnic connection. Accordingly, many of the
organizations mentioned above provide information on
this lesser-known part of Spanish history. Latino
Muslims are often quick to point out the existence of
hundreds, if not thousands, of Spanish words with
Arabic origins and meanings. This may explain why
many Latino Muslims prefer the term “reversion" to
“conversion" in describing their experiences.
However, this could also be explained by the Islamic
belief that all humans are born Muslim and, by their
environments, are turned away from Islam.
“Reversion" would imply returning to a natural state of
being, which is Islam.
Regardless of what Latino Muslims experience in
terms of a convergence between their religious and
ethnic identities, a strain is felt in most Latino Muslims'
lives when it comes to their families and immediate
communities, who see the embracing of Islam as an
abandonment of Latino culture. Most published
testimonies of Latino Muslim converts address this
issue as one that permeates their day-to-day
functioning as Muslims. Some community
organizati ons publish materials designed specifically to
help new converts deal with questions posed by family
The process by which Latino Muslims identify with
pre-Columbian Islamic Spain is fairly similar to the way
in which many African-American Muslims have
identified with the role of Islam in African history. In
fact, many Latino Muslims have been drawn to Islam
by way of the African-American Muslim experience
and its cultural outpouring. The high visibility of
African-American Muslims throughout inner-cities
across the United States has made many Latinos
familiar with Islam. Organizations like the Nation of
Islam have stressed the applicability of Islam to the
needs of ethnic communities in America; whether or
not this type of rhetoric is a motivating force behind
conversion is subject to debate. Nonetheless, it would
be difficult to deny that African-American conversion
to Islam has set the tone for ot her communities
Islamic conversion in America.
Religious conversion in and of itself is a highly
complex and opaque phenomenon. At this point, due
to the lack of any comprehensive data, we can only
make assumptions as to the reasons for conversion to
Islam among Latinos. It seems that the newly forming
community is so multidimensional that to assess
outright conclusions at this point would be impossible.
One thing that is for certain is that the Latino Muslim
community of the United States has effectively built
niche within the larger spectrum of the American
Muslim population, adding to t he plurality and
diversity of religious life in the United States.
Questions for Further Inquiry
Future research aimed at understanding the
significance of the rising role of Islam among Latinos in
the United States needs to be placed along comprehensive matrix that allows for the simultaneous analysis of a number of variables. Some of the factors
that need attention include the religious tone of the
Latino community, the role of Latinos in the United
States, the location of Islam in American civic life,
relationships between immigrant Muslim communities
and Latinos, and a host of other concerns. I briefly
present a few directions for possible future research.
As previously alluded to, the presence of African-American
Muslims in major metropolitan areas has, in
various ways, contributed to the rise of Latino Muslim
conversion. Islam's visible presence in the Black
community dates back to the early 20th century and grown exponentially since. Today the African-American Muslim community is extremely diverse in its
makeup, which has produced multiple layers of cultural
contribution to American society by way of religious
orientation. Furthermore, because most Latinos live in
metropolitan centers and share the same space as many
African-American Muslims, it is safe to say that Latino
Muslims have been influenced, whether directlyindirectly, by the African-American Muslim community. Researching the correlation between
African-American Muslim cultural visibility and
contribution and its effect on Latinos who convert to
Islam may require more than survey questions interviews. An ethnographic assessment of Islam as it is portrayed in inner-city life may produce the
information we need to examine the larger implications
of Latino conversion to Islam. We may soon be in a
position to ask whether or not there exists an
identifiable indigenous American Muslim culture – that
is, a culture of Muslims in America that is a product of
conversion and not immigration.
The fact that Latinos and African-Americans are
converting to Islam begs the question of race and
ethnicity in America. Why is it that segments of these
two historically disenfranchised communities have
found meaning in the religion of Islam? Does Islam
provide something unique to these communities that
they have not found in other religions? Many
testimonies of both African-American and Latino-
American Muslims address the ways in which the
structure of Islamic beliefs serve to combat
deteriorating social conditions in both communities,
such as drug and/or alcohol abuse, gang and domestic
violence, the decline of traditional family settings, and
It is also interesting to note that at a time when Islam
is dubbed in public discourse as a hateful, dangerous,
and violent religion, conversion rates increase. What
might explain this phenomenon? Can it be related to
the different ways different communities perceive
Islam? If so, what are the contours of these
differences? Furthermore, there seems to be a
tendency to emphasize religious identity above cultural
and ethnic identity in most Muslim communities; how
might this factor into the lived experiences of
community members who occupy Latino and Islamic
worlds simultaneously? Are communities forging new
identities or manipulating old ones? It is also
necessary, no matter how fascinated we are with the
idea of Latino Muslims, to ask why dozens of millions
of Latinos have chosen not to convert to Islam, and
perhaps why t housands were interested but decided
against it. Opening a discourse on Latino Muslims in
the United States can be a fruitful endeavor and should
The simultaneous presence of Islam in the national
consciousness of the American public and its rapid
growth among various groups in t he United States
raises an interesting set of questions. To treat the
phenomenon of Latino Muslim conversion laxly would
be a mistake. Roughly a half-century ago there existed
a group of so-called African-American Muslims.
Leading opinions of the time considered the movement
to be a temporal one based on the charisma of various
leaders. However, today there are more than four
million African-American Muslims in America. The
empirical trend leads us to question the potential future
of the current 40,000 or so Latino Muslims. If the
trends continue, the landscape of American society
may look dramatically different in just few decades.
The study of Latino Muslims as a component in the
Muslim American landscape may yield insights not
only in related academic fields but into the uncertain
yet impending future of American society.
1. The Gottfried and Martha Lang Award is an annual,
competitive award for which the student awardee
receives recognition at the annual meeting of the High
Plains Society for Ap plied Anthropology, a cash prize
of $100.00, and publication in the High Plains Applied
Anthropologist. Students are encouraged to submit
papers by January of each year to the Editor's Office,
High Plains Applied Anthropologist. See “Guidelines
for Authors" at the end of this issue for further
information on submission requirements.
2. Abbas Barzegar is currently a graduate student in
the Department of Religious Studies at the University
of Colorado, Boulder. His research interests include
the effects of religion on resistance movements and the
interplay between culture and religion in Muslim
societies. He also is Production Manager at the
Palestine Education Network, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to educating the public on the Palestinian
Human Rights issues.
3. Sanchez, Samantha and Galvan, Juan. Latino
Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America.
Islamic Horizons, July/August 2004.
4. For a thorough introduction to Islam please see An
Introduction to Islam by Frederick Denny.
5. This definition is outlined in Geertz's classic essay,
“Religion as a Cultural System."
6. Please see William Shephard's translation of Social
Justice in Islam by Sayyid Qutb.
7. Charles Long's understandings of religious
experience are outlined in his Significations: Signs,
Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion.
8. For a thorough outline on the African-American
Muslim experience see Aminah Beverly McCloud's
African American Islam.
Resources for Further Reference
1995 An Introduction to Islam. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company.
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York:
1995 Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in
the Interpretation of Religion. Aurora, CO:
The Davies Group.
McCloud, Aminah Beverly
1995 African American Islam. New York: