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The Unlikely Muslim: In College Park,
the way to Islam as a Latino

By Justin Cox
American Way of Life Magazine
April 21, 2010

Across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center’s twin towers, on the Stevens Institute of Technology campus where he studied engineering, he watched plumes of smoke billow from gaping openings where the planes had just hit. All at once, he was overcome by the realization of life’s fragility. “What if tomorrow’s not promised for me?” he thought. “What state will I die in?”

He’d been toying with the idea for months. But now, watching monuments to American commerce and prosperity—the American way of life, essentially—collapse in a heap of gnarled concrete and steel, a mushroom cloud filling the air where they once stood, he was moved to action. He knew there was more to life. And on Sept. 11, 2001, Hernan Guadalupe—a 20-year-old Ecuadorian raised in Union City, N.J., an occasional pot dealer and hip-hop enthusiast who step danced for his Latino fraternity—made the most important decision of his life. He decided to convert to Islam.

It was an unlikely time to convert to Islam, a religion that would become the subject of intense scrutiny and, in many cases, scorn in the months and years following the attacks Guadalupe witnessed. Moreover, like many Latinos, Guadalupe had strong cultural and familial ties to Catholicism, making him seem an improbable candidate to add to the growing ranks of American Muslim converts. But he’s no anomaly.

As Latino and Muslim immigrants populate increasingly diverse U.S. cities, coming in closer contact with each other, members of a younger generation of Latinos are finding answers to their spiritual questions beyond the traditions provided by their family’s native cultures.

For Guadalupe, it was in college, after becoming disillusioned with Catholicism, that he was introduced to Islam by a Muslim-American friend. And despite appearances, even the point at which he decided to convert wasn’t that strange.

Since 2001, scholars have noted a marked increase in U.S. Latinos embracing Islam; popular media estimates place today’s number of converts between 70,000 and 200,000 nationwide.

Some experts explain this phenomenon by pointing to the link between Latinos being the fastest growing group in America and Islam being the fastest growing religion in the world.

“There is no way you cannot see the relationship,” Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez, a religion professor at Texas Christian University, was quoted as saying in a 2008 St. Petersburg Times article on the subject.

For other experts, the causes of increased conversion rates are more complex.

“It’s a natural process for Hispanics who are dissatisfied with the church, in their own spirituality, their own level of morality and are looking for answers outside of their own traditional kind of religious traditions,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, in the St. Petersburg Times article. “Beyond that, Islam is a fairly conservative culture that probably dovetails very well with Hispanic culture.”

To Guadalupe, Bagby couldn’t be more on point. Growing up as an altar boy, Guadalupe became disenchanted with the Catholic church when he was unable to reconcile certain contradictions he found in its doctrine. For one, he didn’t understand why wine was served at communion though the Bible discourages drinking. He also couldn’t square the notions of a single God and Holy Trinity.

But most importantly, he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand.

“If religion is from God, this Supreme Being, and he wants good for his servants, good for his creation, why would he make a religion so complicated for us to understand? Why can’t there be something simple? Why does there have to be mystery in it?” Guadalupe wondered.

One night, at age 17, Guadalupe was looking out the window above his bed, trying to fall asleep. He was staring at a full moon through clear skies when, suddenly, he was seized by his mounting spiritual confusion and began pleading with God, if there was one, to give him a sign.

“I’m hearing about all these religions, I came from a religion, I got all these friends that are part of different religions and now I’m learning about this science thing, Darwinism,” he said to God. “I’m confused; how am I supposed to live my life? What is my reason? What is the order that I’m supposed to follow?”

At one point, he recalls, his supplicating became so desperate that he broke down in frantic tears, gasping for air as he begged God for direction. After somehow falling asleep that night, Guadalupe woke the next morning expecting something to fall from the sky, for some dramatic message to hit him on the head, finally answering his questions and bringing him peace. When that didn’t happened, he started drifting.

For the next three years, he says his spirit wandered aimlessly, his heart always drawn to the idea of one true God, but never sure if there was one and oblivious to which—if any—religion offered the best path to follow.

In the interim, he started drinking and getting into minor scrapes with the law. After leaving for college, he joined a Latino fraternity, competed in step dancing and lived a lifestyle laden with girlfriends and parties. Then, during his sophomore year, he met Ahmer Siddiqui, and things began to change.

They met in chemistry class and just “clicked,” recounts Guadalupe. They were both majoring in engineering, were into hip-hop and shared several mutual friends. At some point, their discussions moved to the topic of religion.

The concept of God, the Day of Judgment, heaven and hell—these were the things Ahmer liked to talk about with Guadalupe. He especially liked to point out what he saw as signs of an impending Day of Judgment.

Some such signs, like cell phones and beepers—what Ahmer thought the Qur’an was describing when it said the end will be near the day men’s hips tell them what’s happening in their homes while they’re away—piqued Guadalupe’s curiosity, and he asked to borrow the book from which Ahmer got his crazy ideas. Instantly, Guadalupe found himself fascinated as he never had been before.

“I knew of every other religion, but nothing ever drew my heart to it,” Guadalupe said of his spiritual investigations prior to Ahmer and Islam. “But immediately when I started to learn about Islam my heart was drawn to it,” he said, his right hand clenching his chest then quickly shooting to the desk in front of him, as if to show how his heart literally leapt toward the religion upon discovering it.

Guadalupe said he was attracted to Islam because it did away with the mysteries and contradictions he found in other religions, particularly in how it made the concept of a single creator easy to understand.

He also appreciated Islam’s straightforwardness in other ways. How there were instructions for what to do in every situation, codes to guide virtually every daily practice — from eating to dres s — and that it wasn’t “just something you did on Sundays,” Guadalupe said.

As a sort of “bonus,” as Guadalupe put it, there were also similarities between the Muslim and Latino cultures. He liked how in Muslim culture, much like the Latino environment in which he was raised, emphasis was put on concepts like respect for elders and loyalty to family.

It was at the time of these revelations, just months after meeting Ahmer and initiating his foray into Islamic teachings, that Guadalupe found himself watching the twin towers of New York’s skyline crumble to the ground.

Frozen in shock, screams of horror swirling around him, Guadalupe recalls a tap on his shoulder momentarily jarring him from his stupor. It was Ahmer, saying he couldn’t bear to watch anymore, and that he was going to his room to pray. Almost without thinking, as if it were the only natural thing to do at such a time, Guadalupe said he would join.

In his cramped dorm room, the men faced Kabah in Saudi Arabia, which, according to Islamic doctrine, is the holiest spot on earth. Ahmer recited in Arabic the Shahadah, or Muslim testimony of faith.

Having rarely heard Arabic before, and never having attempted to speak it, Guadalupe remembers stumbling while echoing his friend’s words before repeating them again in English, so that he could understand what was said.

“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” Guadalupe and Ahmer said, reciting the words converts say when committing themselves to Islam, and words fundamental to daily prayers of all Muslims.

Next, Ahmer directed Guadalupe to his sink and instructed him in the intricate process of partial ablution, or Wudu.

Guadalupe remembers being told to clean various parts of his body according to a strict set of rules and order, such as washing his hands three times to the wrist before cleansing his nostrils by carefully snorting water up them three times.

After cleaning themselves, the friends turned back toward Kabah and Guadalupe listened as Ahmer recited in Arabic verses from the Qur’an. He did his best to mimic the required prayer prostrations Ahmer performed: kneeling with forehead to ground, standing with hands on knees and with face down and standing. And afterward, just like that, with Ahmer and Allah as his witnesses, Guadalupe was a Muslim.

LIFE AS A MUSLIM

Short and stout, the close-cropped hair on his head in sharp contrast with the straggly beard stretching to his collar bone, Guadalupe sits at a cluttered desk in his seven-by-seven cubicle at the Dar-us-Salaam office, a Muslim community centered around a school and mosque in College Park, MD. A multicolored Muslim calendar and inspirational phrases from the Qur’an, printed in black ink on white strips of paper, decorate the walls, adding some life to otherwise drab confines.

“Dar-us-Salaam, how can I help you?” he asks when answering the landline phone shoved in the corner on his desk.

“He is very busy this week; would you like to set up an appointment, or would speaking over the phone be OK?” he asks one woman, who is seeking advice on a “personal matter.”

As administrative assistant to the Imam, or spiritual leader, Guadalupe’s responsibilities at Dar-us-Salaam run the gamut.

“He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” explained Minhaj Hasan, a fellow congregant and Dar-us-Salaam employee.

“I’m basically on call 24/7. Whenever the Imam wants to text me or call me, he does,” Guadalupe said in describing his job.

For example, following a call from the Imam during a recent snow storm, Guadalupe hit the interstate around 10 p.m. to find a sister, the title used for Muslim females, from Dar-us-Salaam whose car needed a jumpstart. On another occasion, he spent a day scouring the community to find a place a sister and her children could stay and feel safe after someone tried breaking into their home the previous night.

Beyond such adventures, however, Guadalupe also handles many of the more mundane, day-to-day matters for the Imam. He arranges meetings for marriage counseling, talks to couples interested in getting married, and to people inquiring about Islam or requesting the Imam speak in their communities.

Overall, Guadalupe says he likes his job and that it requires so much community involvement. Yet despite this, and despite having converted to Islam and having pressing spiritual questions from his past answered, Guadalupe’s life as a Muslim hasn’t come without challenges. While he doesn’t like to say he “lost” friends because of his conversion, he’ll admit it has changed things.

To illustrate, Guadalupe talks about a recent reunion of his fraternity brothers that he wanted to attend. He missed friends from college and looked forward to catching up, but had to set some ground rules if he was to go; there could be no drinking, no girls, no music or dancing. He says he asked his friends if they would oblige his request for just one hour, so that he could swing by without breaking Islamic dictates. But when they declined, saying beer and music were essential to a reunion, Guadalupe had to swallow hard and pass on the event.

In a similar situation with his extended family during Thanksgiving, Guadalupe and his wife had to leave the festivities early when people decided to watch music videos featuring scantily clad women.

Fortunately, Guadalupe sees these events as small prices to pay for what he’s gained from conversion. Sitting in his cramped cubicle one day, he explained his position.

“Once I understood certain values, certain things were more important than others; I never regretted anything,” Guadalupe said, his hands folded in his lap. He said those activities that were previously important to him were means to temporary happiness. But by “living a life according to what Allah has ordered,” he says he’s found sustained happiness, “true happiness.”

Upon this declaration, Guadalupe leans back on the rolling chair at his desk, his mouth curls into a slight smirk, and he looks up and whispers as if speaking to no one in particular: “Oh yeah, I’m happy.” His expression is triumphant. His face is 100 percent satisfaction.

Seeing him like this, it’s difficult to imagine the confused 20-year-old Guadalupe described himself as, watching the twin towers fall. For a fleeting moment, it’s almost hard to believe in such a radical transformation. But then the evidence is right there: the comfort, security and authenticity in his expression. At that moment, it’s clear that while looking up from his rolling chair in his cubicle, he probably wasn’t whispering to anyone in particular.

American Way of Life Magazine link