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Praising Allah -- En Espaņol

By Jeannette Rivera-Lyles
Orlando Sentinel
August 19, 2006

Hispanic converts to Islam give up roasted pork and Christmas but say they can combine their culture and faith.

Catherine Garcia enters the mosque barefoot and finds a spot on the floor. She kneels and leans forward. Palms, nose and forehead touch the ground. Her lips move, almost imperceptibly, whispering words in Arabic.

Three years ago, she would have been in a Roman Catholic church, murmuring prayers with her rosary beads. Today, she invokes Allah while reciting portions of the Quran.

Garcia, 33, is among an estimated 70,000 Hispanics nationwide embracing Islam, blending with apparent ease two cultures seemingly at odds.

They are renouncing salsa dancing, roasted pork and Christmas. But they are making their tamales with halal meat, reading the Quran in Spanish and sharing their faith at Hispanic cultural events.

"I am a Latino woman," said Garcia, who was born in Colombia and now lives in east Orange County. "I prefer to read the Quran in Spanish, and I praise God in Spanish. It's the language that I feel."

Cities throughout the nation, but especially in Florida, California, New York and Texas, are seeing the conversion rate to Islam among Hispanics grow every year.

The exact number of Hispanic Muslims is hard to measure because the U.S. Census does not ask about religion, and mosques do not keep membership rolls.

Muslims are still a small percentage of the 41 million Hispanics in the U.S. But some experts think that since 2001, the number of the nation's Hispanic Muslims has increased from an estimated 40,000 to about 70,000. That calculation is based on a 2001 survey of mosques by Muslim scholar Ishan Bagby of the University of Kentucky.

A testimony to their growing presence is the dozens of Hispanic Muslim groups throughout the nation, and even a national group, the Latino American Dawaah Organization. (The Arabic term dawaah refers to inviting non-Muslims to Islam.)

"As a rule of thumb, the size of the Latino Muslim population within a particular area generally corresponds to the size of the overall Muslim population within that area," said Juan Galvan of Orlando, vice president of LADO, in an e-mail.

That would explain why east Orange County, which has the county's highest concentration of Hispanics, has the largest mosque in Central Florida.

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said there weren't any Hispanic faces at the Masjid Al-Rahman mosque on Goldenrod Road when he came here in 1993.

"Now I see many on a regular basis, and that's just on the men's side," Musri said. Muslim men worship in a separate room from women, who watch the sermon on closed-circuit television.

Bassem Chaaban, who teaches classes for new Muslims at Masjid Al-Rahman, says that just about every group he teaches has several Hispanics in it. He encourages them not to abandon their cultural roots.

"We have members called Jose and Fernando," he said. "We tell them, 'You don't have to change your name or who you are.' [The purpose of] Islam is not to change your identity; it is to improve your life."

Some explain the phenomenon of Hispanic conversions as the inevitable fusion of two groups already converging because of population growth.

"Where Islam would have contacted with Hispanics, earlier on, would have been in bigger cities," Bagby said. "Places like New York City, for example. But the growth of the communities have allowed for more contact with one another."

Bagby thinks Hispanics are more likely to convert now because some of the traditions associated with their native countries have weakened.

"Second- and third-generation Hispanics are not necessarily thinking that to be Hispanic is to be Catholic. They can separate the tie between religion and culture," Bagby said.

Others, such as Musri, point to the historic and cultural links between the Spanish and Muslim worlds.

"It is a renaissance, if you will," Musri said about Hispanic conversions. "It's in their blood."

The Moors were North African Muslims who governed most of what is now Spain and Portugal for more than 700 years beginning in the 8th century.

The Spanish language retains hundreds of words that derive from Arabic, and many traditions associated with the culture can be traced to the Moors.

This historic connection, Musri thinks, makes the transition from Christianity to Islam easier for Hispanics.

"From skin color to food to family values, Hispanics and Muslims have much in common," Musri said. "We believe in Jesus [as a prophet] and in the same commandments. It's easy to reconcile [both cultures]."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, also might have contributed indirectly to many conversions.

"A lot of people became curious about the teachings of Islam, and for some that resulted in conversions," said Galvan of the dawaah organization.

Garcia said she was happy in her Catholic faith. She even considered becoming a nun. But the more she studied the Bible, the more she felt as if the Vatican had gotten some things wrong in its modern interpretations. She became familiar with Islam through friends and liked its "simplicity."

Being a Hispanic Muslim makes Garcia a minority within a minority, but that doesn't intimidate her.

Wearing her customary attire of a hijab -- a head covering -- and long-sleeved tunic, Garcia went to a Latin bodega on a recent afternoon. She attracted curious looks as she pushed a shopping cart toward the Goya beans display, but she didn't seem bothered.

"I felt more like a foreigner before, than I do now," she said of her experience as an immigrant. "I feel like family now. I'm completely at ease."

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