U.S. Hispanics embracing Islam
By Amy Green |
The Christian Science Monitor
October 5, 2006
With her hijab and dark complexion, Catherine García
doesn’t look like an Orlando native or a Disney tourist. When people ask where
she’s from, often they are surprised that it’s not the Middle East but Colombia.
That’s because García, a bookstore clerk who immigrated to the U.S. seven years
ago, is Hispanic and Muslim.
On this balmy afternoon at the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, she is
at her mosque dressed in long sleeves and a long skirt in keeping with the
Islamic belief in modesty. “When I was in my country, I never fit in the
society. Here in Islam, I feel like I fit with everything they believe,” she
García is one of a growing number of Hispanics across the U.S. who have found
common ground in a faith and culture bearing surprising similarities to their
From professionals to students to homemakers, they are drawn to the Muslim faith
through marriage, curiosity and a shared interest in issues such as immigration.
The population of Hispanic Muslims has increased 30 percent to some 200,000
since 1999, estimates Ali Khan, national director of the American Muslim Council
Many attribute the trend to a growing interest in Islam since the 2001 terrorist
attacks and also to a collision between two burgeoning minority groups.
They note that Muslims ruled Spain centuries ago, leaving an imprint on Spanish
food, music, and language.
“Many Hispanics … who are becoming Muslim, would say they are embracing their
heritage, a heritage that was denied to them in a sense,” says Ihsan Bagby,
professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky.
The trend has spawned Hispanic Islamic organizations such as the Latino American
Dawah Organization, established in 1997 by converts in New York City.
Today the organization is nationwide.
The growth in the Hispanic Muslim population is especially prevalent in New
York, Florida, California and Texas, where Hispanic communities are largest.
In Orlando, the area’s largest mosque, which serves some 700 worshippers each
week, is located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood.
A few years ago, it was rare to hear Spanish spoken at the mosque, says Imam
Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Today, there is a growing demand for books in Spanish, including the Koran, and
requests for appearances on Spanish-language radio stations, Musri says. The
mosque offers a Spanish-language education program in Islam for women on
“I could easily see in the next few years a mosque that will have Spanish
services and a Hispanic imam who will be leading the service,” Musri says.
The two groups tend to be family-oriented, religious and politically
conservative, Bagby says. Many who convert are second- and third-generation
The two groups also share an interest in social issues such as immigration,
poverty and health care.
Earlier this year, Muslims joined Hispanics in marches nationwide protesting
immigration-reform proposals they felt were unfair.
In South Central Los Angeles, a group of Muslim UCLA students a decade ago
established a medical clinic in this underserved area.
Today, the nonreligious University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic
treats some 16,000 patients, mostly Hispanic, who see it as a safe place to seek
care without fear for their illegal status, says Mansur Khan, vice chairman of
the board and one of the founders.
Although the clinic doesn’t seek Muslim converts, Dr. Khan sees Hispanics taking
an interest in his faith because it focuses on family, he says.
One volunteer nurse founded a Latino Islamic organization in the area.
Another Hispanic woman told Khan she felt drawn to the faith because of the head
covering Muslim women wear. It reminded her of the Virgin Mary.
The trend is a sign that Islam is becoming more Americanized and more indigenous
to the country, Bagby says.
As Republican positions on issues such as immigration push Muslim Hispanics and
blacks in a less conservative direction, Islam could move in the same direction.
Muslim Hispanic and black involvement in American politics could demonstrate to
Muslims worldwide the virtues of democracy, eventually softening
Bagby believes the Osama bin Ladens of the world are a small minority, and most
fundamentalists are moving toward engagement with the West.
“The more Hispanics and other Americans (who) become Muslim, the stronger and
wider the bridge between the Muslim community and the general larger American
community,” Bagby says. “Their words and approach have some weight because they
are a source of pride for Muslims throughout the world.”
García left Colombia to study international business in the U.S. Always
religious, she considered becoming a nun when she was younger. But her Catholic
faith raised questions for her. She wondered about eating pork when the Bible
forbids it and about praying to Mary and the saints and not directly to God.
In the U.S., she befriended Muslims and eventually converted to Islam. Her
family in Colombia was supportive.
Today, she says her prayers in English, Spanish and Arabic, and she eats halal
food in keeping with Islamic beliefs.
“It’s the best thing that happened to me,” says García in soft, broken English.
“I never expected to have so many blessings and be in peace like I am now.”