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Islam gains Hispanic converts

By Lisa Bolivar
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 30 2005

Ramadan rite expands with new trend in Florida

This year's Ramadan celebration will be extra special for members of a Margate mosque who will observe the holiday in a brand new building instead of inside the cramped storefront they used to call home.

Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen's spacious new building is just behind the old storefront off Sample Road, where Margate touches Coral Springs, but this mosque will allow more families to gather for the traditional fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, said Bibi Khan of Margate.

"Because the space we were in was so small and congested, now more people can join us in more space," she said.

Ramadan, which begins around Oct. 4, depending on when the new moon is sighted, is a monthlong holiday in which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and any worldly pleasures from sunup to sundown. The holiday is part of five requirements, or pillars, of the Islamic faith. The other four pillars are the shahaddah, or the witnessing, where a believer declares three times that there is one God and Muhammad is the messenger of God; the performing of five daily prayers; paying the "poor due" or zakat, which amounts to about 2.5 percent of a person's monetary worth; and performing a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in a lifetime, if it can be afforded.

Melissa Matos is among some area Muslims who will be celebrating the season for the first time.

When she speaks of celebrating her first Ramadan, the 20-year-old clasps her hands excitedly anda smile spreads from ear-to-ear.

Matos, who took the shahaddah in order to become a Muslim in April, has started down a path toward a new way of life, a new circle of friends and a tradition that, she said, she knows will teach her to be a better person.

"What I am looking forward to for the month is letting go of a lot of  things I do," said Matos, who lives in Miramar. "I am going to be more sensitive to things I didn't notice before, like hunger; I am looking forward to what it is going to do for my sensitivity."

Matos represents a growing number of Latin women who are taking the shahaddah and donning the traditional hair covering, called a hijab.

Altaf Ali, executive director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Pembroke Pines, said Islam is gaining an increasing number of  Hispanic converts.

"More so in California, but in Florida it's a new trend. …Yes, there are several Hispanic Muslims that have been in Florida for some time now, but in regards to the conversion rate within the last few years, I've seen an increasing rate in Hispanics converting to Islam," said Ali, a native of Guyana. "I think the Hispanic culture itself is very rich in terms of family values, and that is something that is very prominent in the religion of Islam.

"Family values play an integral role in the formation of a Muslim community. Because of those family values, there is a lot of other norms that are consistent within the Hispanic community and Islam; for instance, respect for elders, married life and rearing children, these are some of the traditions Hispanics have in common with Islam."

Matos began learning about the faith, and what she found spoke to her heart.

"Its simplicity and its universality, it's for every culture, for every time, every country, it's for everyone," she said.

Zeleina Bakhsh, Bibi Khan's sister, grew up in Guyana and moved to South Florida with her family. Bakhsh also likes to celebrate the diversity of her faith, especially at this time of year.

"Islam is about unity, and we have that here among the brothers and sisters," she said, speaking of the fellowship at the Margate mosque. "It makes you feel very emotional in that month. We read a lot of Quran, we do dikhir (reciting the names of God) and Allah is giving you a chance to beg for forgiveness if you have made a sin."

Matos said she is looking forward to learning the lessons of the season.

"It's a time when Muslims get to basically learn sensitivity to others," she said. "During that time (of early Islam) when the people lived you had large class divisions, the very, very rich and very, very poor and it was a way to get people to understand what it is to be poor."

Ali said Ramadan also offers an opportunity for starting another year on a better footing.

"What I think is very significant this year is that taking into consideration all that has happened within the Muslims who live in America and the … challenges that we faced, the month of Ramadan once again boosts our morale and it increased our self-esteem," he said. "And once again we apply forgiveness toward those who have wronged us in many ways; the negative publicity and the injustices passed upon us.

"This is a time when we say it's another year, it's a time of forgiveness, a time of reflection and giving, and we reflect on the good things we've accomplished in our country, and what this country has given us, and we appreciate that. It takes us away from the constant battle of proving what we are," he said.

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