By Anthony Chiorazzi
May 14, 2007
As a girl in Catholic school, Khadijah Rivera dreamed of becoming a nun despite the fact she feared Jesus. She was frightened by her church’s bloodied statue of Christ nailed to the cross and was plagued with fear when receiving communion. "When I used to put the host in my mouth," she says, "I never bit it. I let it melt because I was afraid to bite the body and blood of Christ." Years later, as an adult, she says she has now gotten over these fears and learned to love Jesus more. The reason for her change of heart? Rivera converted to Islam.
According to Rivera, who founded PIEDAD, a Latino Muslim organization based in Tampa, Florida, with over 300 members nationwide, Latino Muslims are on the rise. In America, they are close to 100,000 and growing, more than doubling their numbers in less than a decade.
Rivera says reading the Koran played a role in her conversion. "Here’s a book that explained to me in a logical matter why we’re on earth," she says. "What we’re suppose to do and where we go afterward. All the questions you could ask are answered in the Koran."
Now, as a Muslim who wears the hijab, or headscarf, Rivera, 56, says she doesn’t fear Jesus because she understands him. "I don’t see him as God, but as a man who was a messenger of God and a special prophet."
A Supportive Forum
Latino Muslims can be found in sizable numbers in metropolitan centers where large populations of both Latinos and Muslims reside, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Miami.
LALMA (Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association) is one of the several Latino Muslim organizations in California. The organization began eight years ago with five members and now has over eight times that amount and still growing. LALMA offers not only Spanish speaking educational classes on Islam but also a supportive forum for Latino Muslims.
Marta Felicitas Ramirez, the leader of LALMA, says that she came to Islam through much soul-searching, study and by privately reciting the shahada ("There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger") and witnessing immediate answers to her problems.
The 9/11 Factor
According to the Harvard University Pluralism Project, statistics show that there has been an increase in conversions to Islam in the US since 9/11. Many Latino Muslims attribute this to the media focus on Islam in the wake of events like 9/11 and the Iraq war. They believe that due to the extensive media coverage, people grow curious about Islam, check it out and often find truth in it.
Ramirez contends that for many of these traditionally Catholic Latinos, their conversion is eased by the fact that they don’t have to abandon their love of Jesus and Mary because both are highly regarded in Islam. The Koran dedicates an entire chapter to Mary.
Jesus, Mary and Islam
Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, says that there is more written in the Koran about Mary or Jesus than Muhammad. Turk says it’s also important to remember, "Muhammad came with the final brick for a beautiful building."
In short, Turk says that Muslims believe that Jesus was born from a virgin birth, performed miracles—including healing the sick and raising the dead—and was the Messiah (a man chosen by God to lead the Jewish people back to God’s ways).
However, there are major differences. Unlike Christians, Muslims don’t consider Jesus divine or believe he rose from the dead. They also don’t believe in the idea of inherited Original Sin and that a divine atonement had to be made by a God-Man to bridge man’s eternal separation from God. According to Islam, Jesus was one of many prophets sent by God to turn mankind back to the ways of the Almighty. Muslims believe that Muhammad was God’s last prophet.
Leaving the Faith
Some believe that the conversions of Latinos from the faith of their ancestors isn’t motivated by theological issues. "The reason why some Latinos are leaving the Church for Islam is they never really understood Catholicism," argues Fr. Lawrence Seyer at the University of Southern California’s Catholic Center. "They have a very cursory understanding of it, but what excites them about Islam is the discipline—no alcohol, a more structured prayer program and great sense of community."
Nevertheless, Seyer adds that if these converts are seeking the truth and can find it better in their new group than in a dysfunctional Catholic group that they left, then maybe in the end, they will be better off. "But what we might at least hope for," says Seyer, "is that they will explore this new faith, learn from it and then realize the wisdom they always had in the Catholic Church and come back home."
Fr. Bill Delaney, senior priest of St. Agnes Church in South Los Angeles, which sits only a few blocks down from where LALMA often meets, says the reason why some leave is because they are not involved enough with their own parish. "It’s all about getting people connected," says Delaney.
At St. Agnes—which is over 90 percent Latino—that connection is made through a 300-member charismatic prayer group that meets once a week. Delaney says that any Catholic who experiences one of their high-charged services will see another side of Catholicism that will draw them closer to their faith and Catholic community.
Trouble with the Trinity
In the two years that Turk has been Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center, he has seen over 100 converts to Islam and a majority of them have been Latino Catholics.
His experience suggests there may be more of a theological basis to these conversions than some might think. According to Turk, when Christians—Catholics in particular—were asked why they wanted to convert to Islam, without exception they said they had always believed in God but never could make sense of the Trinity and felt that Islam just made more sense. "There is no leap of faith in Islam," says Turk.
"I always felt that ‘God the Father’ in the Trinity was the real boss and whenever I prayed, that’s who I had in mind," says Ricardo Pena, a Latino convert to Islam living in Chicago. Pena says that as a devout Catholic, he never believed that Jesus was God. The Islamic idea that God is absolutely one—with no parts—and that Jesus is not God but a prophet just made more sense to him.
Pena was further attracted to Islam when he learned that it embraced Moses, Abraham, Adam, Eve and other biblical figures. "After hearing that, I was completely blown away," says Pena. "How is it that they believe in ‘our’ prophets? I thought Islam had nothing to do with Christianity or Judaism." Pena wanted to learn more.
After studying Islam for seven months, Pena, along with his brother, became a Muslim in 1995. But when Pena told his parents, they didn’t take it too well. "We broke the news to them at about 8:30 or 9 PM one night and didn’t conclude the dramatic fallout until four in the morning."
Today his family is much more accepting. In fact, his older sister and her husband have since converted to Islam as well. "We are still hoping for our parents, though," says Pena.
Islamic prayers mingled with the bustling sounds of traffic as he prostrated himself in prayer in a little mosque in Havana, Cuba, recalls Diego Santos, a Cuban-American who traveled to the communist state not long ago to visit his family.
A recent convert to Islam and a writer who prefers not to use his real name, Santos says that Islam in Cuba—like in America—is becoming more visible and that during his stay he found no attempt to repress it. In fact, after jum’a, Friday prayers, Santos talked openly in Spanish about Islam with fellow Muslims while strolling down the crowded streets of old Havana, even passing the government offices of the Cuban Community for the Defense of the Revolution, which has a notorious reputation for being the snitch center for Cuban rule breakers. "Nobody was hiding their Islam in Havana," says Santos.
Back in Los Angeles, Santos attends meetings of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association (LALMA), an organization working to help inform the Latino community about Islam. Santos says as a Cuban-American that he has been well embraced by the Muslim community in America because his conversion confirms Islam as a universal religion. Santos hopes that more people will understand that Islam is for everyone whether they live in Europe, America or even Cuba.
And for many Latino Muslims living in America, Islam has brought them closer to a community they’ve long felt estranged from—Muslim Spain. Ramirez, leader of LALMA, says that the Catholicism brought to the indigenous people of the New World by the Spanish was not voluntary. It was forced, brutal and genocidal.
On the other hand, Ramirez says, Islam represents a religious tradition brought to Latin America via Muslim slaves that was much more accepted and self-sustained, despite continuous efforts by the colonial powers to viciously stomp it out.
"I think my learning about Islamic Spain gave me an impetus for learning more about Islam, and may have played a role in my conversion," says Juan Alvarado, a spokesperson for the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), a national organization based in New York that promotes Islam among Latinos. Alvarado lives in a rural part of Pennsylvania with no Muslims and has to travel an hour to the nearest mosque.
A great source of pride for Latino Muslims is the understanding that many major advances in the areas of science, medicine, mathematics and philosophy have Arab and Muslim origins. In fact, John L. Esposito, Islamic scholar and author, says, "Many of the great medieval Christian philosophers and theologians—Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon—acknowledged their debt to their Muslim predecessors."
The Latino-Arab connection is also evident in other areas. According to Alvarado, many common Hispanic surnames have Arabic origins. For example, Garcia comes from the Arabic word Gharsiyya; Medina from Madina; Padilla from Abdillah and Ventura from Ben Tura. Latino Muslims say that up to 4,000 words in Spanish are Arabic in origin.
Converts and Challenges
Despite the historical nexus between Muslim and Latino traditions, there still remain cultural challenges and stereotypes for Latino Muslims to overcome. Jurlio Moreno, 58, who lives in Los Angeles and is a member of LALMA, says that when he converted to Islam his wife asked him if he was a terrorist. Moreno responded: "You have known me my whole life. You know I’m no terrorist."
After 9/11, the headscarf-wearing Khadijah Rivera, founder of the Florida-based PIEDAD, says someone spat in her face and others shouted obscenities at her. "I could have taken off my hijab (head scarf) or spoken out," says Rivera. Rivera chose to speak out and went on the popular Christina talk show and said that you can’t blame Islam for 9/11 any more than you can blame Christianity for what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma.
As Latino Muslims, Pena says they share in the same persecution that other Muslims face in America. The only difference, says Pena, is that Latino Muslims can remain concealed if they choose. "Because my name is Ricardo Pena and not Osama Al-something, people generally assume that I am anything else but Muslim."
Pena adds, "I always joke that people react to us as though they had just seen a Leprechaun. ‘Look honey! It’s a real live Latino Muslim.’"
Keeping the Culture
Dawud Khalil-ullah Abdullah, 54, a Muslim educator in Los Angeles, says that Allah did not send Islam to destroy any culture, but to purify it. "You’re free to stay in whatever culture you were born into," says Abdullah. "You can be a Mexican and keep eating burritos and tacos, and you don’t have to change what you eat or how you dress as long as it fits within Islamic perimeters. You can’t eat menudo with pork in it, but you can eat menudo without the pork."
Khadijah Rivera says that there are still challenges for Latinos Muslims, but some things don’t change. "I may have converted to Islam," she says. "But I haven’t lost my salsa, my zest for life."