Islamic and Hispanic Cultures Intermesh
as Muslim Community grows
By Spence Kimball
August 08, 2009
McAllen-Islam came to Dante Peña late in life.
Peña grew up in a Catholic home under the influence of his deeply
religious mother. His Catholic faith played such a central role in his
life that he decided to become a priest.
But Peña felt unfulfilled after he completed his studies at St.
Anthony’s Seminary in San Antonio. He abandoned his ambition to join
the priesthood and drifted through years of spiritual malaise.
That drift continued until a friend recommended a book about Sufism,
a mystical Islamic sect that seeks the presence of divinity in this
life. Peña admired the Sufis devotion to God even as they carried out
their daily routine.
“I wanted to be totally consumed by the presence of God no matter what I was
doing,” he said.
As Peña’s interest in Islam took root where his Catholicism had
fallen flat, he opened the newspaper and read an article about a new
mosque on Elsham Road in Edinburg.
He went to the mosque and decided to become a Muslim three weeks
after his visit. Peña said the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of
faith, for the first time when he was 56 years old.
“I thought, ‘Wow, Islam has come to me,’” he said.
And it has come to the Rio Grande Valley.
The region’s Islamic community now numbers about 200 predominantly
Sunni families who worship in four mosques in Brownsville, Edinburg,
McAllen and Weslaco.
Mohammed Farooqui moved to Edinburg in 1984 to accept a position as
an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas-Pan
American. He was the institution’s first Muslim faculty member.
Five other Muslim families lived in the Valley at that time. They
gathered together and held intimate prayer services in the privacy of
their own homes.
Farooqui and the other families dreamed of having a more formal
building for worship. That dream came true in 1993, when they converted
a self-service laundry in Weslaco into the Valley’s first official
Their community has since grown well beyond those humble services in private
homes and local laundries.
Muslims move here to take advantage of job opportunities in health care,
business and education, Farooqui said.
And they mesh well with the region’s conservative, family-oriented culture.
“Latino culture is very close to our culture,” said Assad Al-Ahoob,
a pediatric cardiologist at the Pediatric Heart Clinic, 5506 S. Jackson
Road, Edinburg. “We intermingle easily.”
Farooqui felt secure in the Valley even after 9/11, when many
Muslims across the country felt uneasy about how their neighbors would
He took the initiative and began educating the public about Islam to
prevent misconceptions from being spread. He has given over 100
lectures at schools, colleges and various religious organizations since
People are welcoming, but Muslim life in the Valley still has its challenges.
“Traditional foods are not easily available,” said Zafar Anjum,
director of the mosque in Brownsville. “In a small town it’s very hard
to find the things we need.”
But Farooqui believes prospects for the future are good despite
these minor hardships. He expects Islam to become an increasingly
public, important part of the Valley in the future.
And just as Muslims like Farooqui feel at home in the
Hispanic-majority border towns of the Valley, Peña feels at home with
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I’m gaining a whole community in place of nothing.”
Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Belief in the oneness of God (Allah)
2. Five daily prayers facing Mecca, the Muslim holy city.
3. Care for and donations to the needy.
4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan.
5. Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca for those who are able.
Major divisions of Islam:
Sunni Muslims 85 to 90 percent of Muslim world.
Shiite Muslims 10 to 15 percent of Muslim world.
Shiite Muslims believe Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed, while Sunnis accept Abu Bakr as his successor.
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