The Latino Muslim Voice
The October-December 2009 newsletter features:
Quotes of the Month
Eyes of the Outsider
By Francisco Deleon
I looked at the Men who bowed in the day to the strange
7th Annual Hispanic Muslim Day
By Mariam Abbassi
The 7th Annual Hispanic Muslim Day – an event of recognition of Hispanic reverts of our community. The mission of organizing this event was to outreach and convey the message of Islam to everyone in the community of Muslims and the community of non-Muslims.
On November 8, 2009 more than 150 Hispanic Muslims gathered to celebrate and to remember the day of their reversion. We started the celebration with verses recited from the Glorious Quran by Sheikh Mahmoud. We acknowledged and appreciated the humbleness shown by the non-Arabic speakers. Brother Omar Garcia, a Muslim that was born into the faith, translated the verses into English and Spanish.
Dr. Abbassi’s welcoming speech was initiated by saying “I do not want to welcome you, as this is your center.” “Allah said, ‘Oh mankind! We have created you as male and female from Adam and Eve, and Allah has made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you in the Hereafter, (in the sight of Allah on the Day of Judgment), is the one who is best in conduct in this life.’”
“Lo! Allah is the Knower of your status and lineage. He is the Aware and knows of your works and standing in His sight. He is Aware of your inner thoughts.”
Dr. Abbassi ended his speech by expressing his happiness with which he experienced by witnessing the unity among the revert Muslims and requested their frequent visit, participation and support by their presence.
Imam Al-Hayek started his opening statement by explaining to the audience the importance of celebrating the great courage of those who embraced Islam in spite of all the discouragement, rejection, and hardships around. The imam said, “I also invited the non-Muslim attendees to learn, reflect, and to think seriously about God, and the meaning and purpose of life. Allah has 99 names but He is One and He is the Only One that we worship. Finally, I wish everybody a joyous experience with the program.”
Sheikh Yusef Maisonette briefly spoke of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and how he influenced the world with his preaching and teachings which were inspired by none other than Allah SWT. Although Muhammad was a mere human being, with a limited lifespan, he was honored and dignified by Allah (SWT) with His eternal and universal messages to humanity. He was a living example for all humanity. His message and mission was sent for all nations and tribes regardless of their race, the color of their skin, their ethnic background, or whether Arab or non-Arab.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was sent as a mercy to humanity. He is the one who protected our rights. He protected men’s, women’s, and children’s rights. He protected the relationship between neighbors and he established the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. He organized the relationship between the members of the family, showing us the duties we have towards parents. He prevented injustice and called for justice, love, togetherness and cooperation for the best. He called for helping the needy, visiting the sick, love, and exchanging advice between people. He prohibited bad manners and prohibited such actions as stealing, lying, and murdering. He is the one who changed our lives and manners for the better.
Sister Khadijah Rivera explained to the audience how Islam elevated women and gave them equal rights with men. Sister Khadijah asked the audience, “does anyone know when was it that the women in this country started to vote?” The answer was 1918. “Well, Islam gave women the rights to do as equally as men since the Quran was revealed.”
The sisters were listening closely while sister Khadijah told them of her experiences while travelling overseas. She said, “I felt as though I was a (piece of) luggage that was searched over and over (sic). Sisters this is not a hardship. This is a challenge. This is a Muslim woman’s identity and we are proud of how we dress.”
Brother Yusuf Rios, a Puerto Rican convert from the Philadelphia area, gave his talk on how important Islam is for the Hispanic community.
Brother Yusuf Rios was very adamant about his fellow Latinos rising up and taking control of their future. He described a world where Islam and dawah from within the Latino community would help them move forward. Brother Rios is currently very active in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and works closely with all groups seeking to expand Islamic knowledge.
How did I get into the fold of Islam...
“I stumbled onto Islam. A few years ago, perhaps around 2004 or so, I became interested in modest dressing and belonged to a Yahoo online group devoted to Christian modest dress. Every year, and you can almost set your watch to this, this group brought up the subject of head coverings. Christian head coverings for women… They did it again that year, right on schedule, too. This group is very specifically for Christian women.”
“In the summer of 2007, right on schedule, the head covering discussion started up again, and since it was summer and I’m a teacher and have lots of free time during the summer, I told them (that) I would spend the time and research it for them. Privately, I said to myself, ‘they are all out of their minds,’ but since I like to do research and I had lots of free time, I thought I’d try to be helpful (even though at the time, I thought that they were all out of their minds for wanting to cover their heads). But, if that’s what they wanted to do, (then) maybe I could help them. I had more time on my hands than most of them did because it was summer and I have no children of my own. In the summer, I am completely free…”
“The interesting thing that happened was that every time I tried to find information on head coverings, the only topics that kept coming up contained the word “hijab” and I had no idea what a hijab was. In fact, to me it sounded like something on the menu at a Turkish restaurant. Seriously – but I kept on digging for information on head coverings.”
“I ran into Baba Ali’s video on YouTube called “That’s Not Hijab.” This was the first time I’d heard a real, live, actual Muslim person speak and amazingly, he had a totally American accent. I’d say (he had a) California dialect – but there was nothing scary about this guy. He was just talking about things I recognized. The way people try to dance around rules, following the letter of the law rather than the spirit. The most amazing thing was that he didn’t scare me to pieces.”
“After that, I joined a Facebook group of young Muslims who were trying to write a script for another of Baba Ali’s videos. I joined their group very naively thinking that I was going to ‘help them’ write the script. Instead, I found myself in way over my head because all these kids kept leaving messages on the boards using Arabic words I’d never heard (of) before. So I started studying Islam in order to help those kids write that script. I had no idea what they were all talking about. Each Arabic word they used stood for a concept in Islamic teaching and I found that the more I learned about what they were discussing, the more interested I became in the tradition. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.”
“Finally, I thought I’d better read the Qur’aan itself because I was (just) getting lost reading all those thousands of hadith. I realized very early on that hadith are something better left to (the) professionals.”
“So, I borrowed my husband’s copy of a Qur’aan translation. A homeless man had given him a copy of the Yusuf Ali translation that’s published gratis by Saudi Arabia.”
“I would have stopped reading it too, if my husband hadn’t walked by one day where he found me grumbling.” He asked, “What’s the matter?”
“I told him that I was getting upset at the graphic descriptions of the punishments. At one point, my husband walked by where I was sitting and reading and he heard me grumbling, ‘These people are all nuts! What’s with all this punishment??!! Are they crazy? This is their idea of God? Molten metal poured down my throat or in my ear? Am I that bad that I deserve this??? This is all about fire and punishment!!! What is going on here???’”
“I asked my husband, the Episcopal priest, these questions. It all seemed pretty harsh.”
“Immediately, I saw a shift in my husband’s demeanor. Wives of clergy know when this shift happens. The man transforms almost instantly into The Priest or The Rabbi or The Imam. It’s a role change that I’d say the families of clergy are very familiar with, and its visible on the face of the person. So I saw my husband make that shift and saw him switch right away into ‘Pastor Mode.’”
Then he said, “Well, you have to remember that the fire is also a purification. When you get gold ore, you have to burn away the dross to reveal the gold.”
“Since that is also a very familiar Old Testament image and since this was my husband, whom I trust, telling me this – that it was okay – I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I guess you’re right. Okay, I’ll finish reading, then.’”
“By the time I reached the end of the English translation of the Qur’aan, I realized I had already been half a Muslim for a long while: “I bear witness that there is no god but God.” The second half came into play when I realized that the Qur’aan was the truth, and was the truth that so many of us who’ve been disillusioned by Christianity have been waiting for. What started it for me was when I read a line that strongly suggests that the male gamete determines the sex of a baby. When I read that line, it was as if I’d been sucker-punched in the gut by a very determined angel. That’s what it felt like – an angelic punch to the gut. Not painful but you know you’ve been punched in the gut and that this is the truth.”
“As I learned more about Islam, I found that it upholds Christian ethical and spiritual teachings in nearly every place except in those places where I’d felt that Christianity had gone astray on its own. Islamic teaching corrects those features that always felt wrong to begin with: Original Sin, the Vicarious Atonement, the Doctrine of the Incarnation, which is something that was fought over for hundreds of years, and is still being fought over in an intellectual sense. The inability to reconcile lines like, ‘of myself I can do nothing; all I have comes to me from the Father’ and ‘for the Father is greater than I’ with the doctrinal insistence on the divinity of Jesus. Islam cuts through this welter of confusion and mental torment by simply asserting that God ‘begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.’”
“Interestingly enough, Islam also corrects the strange insistence on a trinity of three male gods. ‘There is none like unto Allah’ and Allah SWT has no gender because Allah is not in the form of a created being, which usually do have gender. In other words, Allah is not a boy.”
“And oddly enough, the places where Islamic teachings diverge from Christians teaching are most often the very places where post-Christian scholars also diverge. Karen Armstrong’s spiritual journey seems to have taken a similar trajectory. She now calls herself a ‘freelance monotheist.’”
“I learned recently that the word ‘Sharia’ is related to the Arabic term for ‘a path to water.’ When you have been thirsty and hungry for a good many years, and finally find Islam and the truth, you get that right away.”
“There’s a wonderful gospel story about a man who was a seller of fine pearls. All his life he dreamed of finding the one perfect pearl, (one) like no other. It took him years and years (and) when he finally found it, he sold all of his other pearls just so he could purchase ‘The Pearl of Great Price.’ That is what Islam is to me: the Pearl of Great Price.”
Former Pastor, Sister Esmeralda Sandi on the right spoke of her conversion to Islam and how it changed her life. Sister Esmeralda converted to Islam two months ago.
Sister Esmeralda spoke of her journey through Christianity and how she understood the spiritual sense of Christianity but still felt that something was missing. She still felt a sense of emptiness. So she began to study Islam with some resources Sister Linda and Brother Omar gave her in Spanish. Finally, on one Wednesday afternoon she attended one of Sheikh Al-Hayek’s lectures and there she converted. She did her Shahada and then wondered, “that’s it?” As she began to practice, she realized that Islam was not only spiritual but also physical and little by little it began to play a role in her whole life – not just at night before she went to sleep. Sister Esmeralda now wears hijab and practices her deen faithfully, masha’Allah!
The Blessings of Allah
By Rebecca Abuqaoud
This committee of sisters included mothers interested in Islamic education for their children. This conference took place April 25, 2009 at 4:00 pm at the Muslim Community Center. The objective of this conference was to present an agenda that promotes Islamic education for Latina sisters and their revert Latino children. The committee of sisters for the conference also wanted to hear and exchange ideas with other sisters and mothers interested in Islamic education for their children. A journalist from the Chicago Tribune was present at this conference to listen to our discussion. Some of the mothers expressed that they would like their teenage children to learn how to avoid dating because it is a peer pressure in the public schools. They also wanted an environment where their children feel that they belong and fit in the group, because in the past some of them had negative experiences of not feeling welcome in certain Islamic places.
At this conference, we also discussed the importance of learning Arabic in addition to topics based on Quran and Sunnah. We decided to divide children into two groups according to age. One group of children would consist of 5 to 11 years old and the other group from 12 to 16 years old. Each group would have its own classroom. We also agreed upon a plan for the children's education. Afterward, we discussed how we would implement educational classes for the sisters.
Unanimously, we decided to have classes from 4:00 pm until 6:00 pm every Saturday of the month with breaks in the middle of summer, during the winter, and during the month of Ramadan. As a result of this conference, classes for children and sisters began on Saturday, May 9 at 4:00pm at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) located at Elston Avenue. It is important to mention that classes for sisters were held at the MCC from 2003 until 2007, and a program for children began more recently but was discontinued due to lack of volunteers and teachers. However, there were programs during special occasions such as Ramadan and Eid.
Brother Aviva spoke about the importance of fasting during Ramadan by engaging the audience with questions. He also gave a brief historical presentation on Islam in Spain.
The program concluded with everyone enjoying a delicious potluck dinner. In addition to all the children, all the sisters, mothers, teachers, and special guests came together to eat.
Alhamdulillah! All the glory and praise be to Allah SWT. This has been a very blessed year because the sisters and children came together to learn and live in an Islamic environment.
We also had a picnic during the summer. We came together for Iftars at different houses during the month of Ramadan. And, recently, we had an Eid ul Fitr celebration on Sunday, October 4.
May Allah SWT greatly bless the committee of sisters who organized the various programs. It has been beautiful to see the cooperation, communication, participation, and commitment that were needed to achieve the programs. Although the programs were prepared to bring sisters together, the greatest purpose of all that we do will continue to be to serve and please Allah SWT.
La Fiesta de Eid 2009 en Chicago
Por Rebecca Abuqaoud
El pasado domingo, 4 de octubre del 2009, se llevo a cabo una vez más la tradicional fiesta de Eid familiar en el MCC, Muslim Community Center, de la avenida Elston en Chicago. El evento empezó aproximadamente a las 4:35PM. Esta vez con la participación especial del hermano Abdullah Clark, quién abrió el programa con un dua (suplica personal) y luego compartió con un tema islámico y entre los puntos que trato fue del porque los musulmanes celebran el Eid-ul-Fitr, la fiesta del fin del ayuno del Ramadán.
El hermano Abdur Rahmán hizo la traducción de la presentación del hermano Abdullah al espanol. Fue una presentación bilingüe, en inglés y espanol. Cuando llego las 5 de la tarde, se hizo una pausa del tema para realizar la oración del Aser. Después de concluir la oracion del Aser, se continuo con la presentación del tema.
Luego de concluir la presentación del hermano Abdullah Clark, se hizo un reconocimiento especial para los ninos de diferentes edades quienes habían ayunado durante todo el mes de Ramadán. Los ninos fueron premiados recibiendo sus Certificados de Reconocimiento por esforzarse en el ayuno. Ellos también recibieron regalos. Cuando se les llamaba a los ninos por su nombre, la audiencia aplaudía con emoción. Seguramente que sus mamas y papas estaban muy orgullosos por ellos. Este segmento de entrega de Certificados de Reconocimiento a los ninos fue muy emotivo que seguramente quedará en las memorias de los ninos que lo recibieron y quizá sea de incentivo para otros ninos también.
Después de la entrega de Certificados y regalos a los ninos, se hizo un dua para concluir el programa y continuar con la parte social y tan vital "" ¡la hora de comer! Esta vez, las hermanas tuvieron un descanso en el cocinar. Pues se acostumbraba que cada hermana o familia traerá un platillo para compartir en la festividad de Eid con excepción de la hermana Raquel que trajo unos tamales mexicanos deliciosos. La hermana Luzdari que es chef profesional hizo el platillo principal que fue arroz con pollo. Fue un platillo exquisito acompanado con ensalada de papas y ensalada verde. Y, por supuesto no podía faltar los refrescos y el café para saborear mejor la comida. Fue un momento de convivencia para las hermanas, hermanos y los ninos quienes lo disfrutaron. Algunos aprovecharon este momento para tomarse fotos y llevarse los recuerdos.
Después de disfrutar de la comida exquisita, llego la hora divertida para los ninos y era el momento de romper la pinata. Cuando los ninos vieron que traían las pinatas ellos se juntaron, algunos hermanos y hermanas se acercaron para poner en orden a los ninos. Se les pidio a los ninos que se pongan en fila y asi ellos tuvieron su turno de golpear a la pinata. Y, así ellos empezaron su algarabía, uno a uno iban tirando el bate a la pinata hasta que se debilitó y cayó los caramelos y dulces. Cuando se cayó la primera pinata, los ninos corrieron y se amontonaron en el piso para recoger sus dulces. Y, así ellos felices colectaban sus caramelos y los ponían en unas bolsitas para guardarlo. Lo mismo hicieron con la segunda pinata, la golpearon y cuando cayó los caramelos, ellos se lanzaron al piso y apresuradamente recogieron sus dulces del suelo.
La fiesta del Eid duro aproximadamente hasta la hora de Isha. Fue un día innolvidable, de regocijo y jubilo para muchos y especialmente para los ninos quienes lo disfrutaron. También se veían las madres felices de ver a sus hijos gozar en la fiesta. Se vió muchos rostros sonrientes.
Primeramente gracias a Aláh SWT que se tuvo este evento muy lindo y bendecido. También cabe destacar que se hizo posible gracias al gran esfuerzo de una comisión de hermanas, quienes apoyaron, coordinaron, y se reunieron para realizar esta festividad de Eid. ¡Alhamduliláh!
Of Dios... Latinos Embracing Islam
By Sara Hassan
The Message International
The soft lilac headscarf compliments her matching outfit and her light complexion. Her face rests at peace as she concentrates on her prayer, her lips moving softly to the memorized Arabic words. She kneels and prostrates in the front line of several rows of a culturally diverse group of women at the Omar Ben Abdel-Aziz mosque in Queens, New York. When the prayer ends, she happily bounces around the room chatting with the others, addressing each one as sister. “I feel like I belong,” she says. Marlene Lillo-Smith, 44, says she enjoys being in the company of other Muslims. She converted to Islam in November 2001, not too long after the attacks of September 11.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Lillo-Smith is one of the many Latino converts to Islam, accounting for six percent of 20,000 Muslim conversions in the United States, according to one 2002 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). And Muhammad Nimr, Director of CAIR’s Research Department says that, “It is absolutely true that there is a growing number of Latinos converting to Islam,” but there is not much documentation or research that has been done on the topic.
“Latinos began converting to Islam in the early 1970’s through their exposure to the Nation of Islam,” says Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, the Coordinator of the Muslims in New York City project, conducted by the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. The Nation of Islam is a sect of Islam that began in the 1930’s promoting Black empowerment over Whites. It was embraced by people like Malcolm X, who later rejected it as not mainstream Islam, which promotes equality among all races. Cristillo says that although Latinos were not active members of the movement, their first exposure to the religion was because of contacts with the group.
And that silent trend has not abated as a result of September 11, 2001. “There has been a dramatic interest in obtaining material in Spanish, especially the Qur’an, but also secondary sources of information,” said Edina Lekovic, Communications Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Los Angeles bureau. She says interest for these materials have skyrocketed. “Over the last two decades, there was a steady increase, but there was a sharp turn upwards in demand after September 11.” Lekovic says that this could have happened because after the attacks “the greater public became very interested, or suspicious, of Islam, causing extra examination; and that included the Latino community.” She says that in the current context, one of the primary motivations that draw Latinos to Islam is the commonalities, such as family values, shared between Latinos who are rooted in Roman Catholicism and those who follow Islam. “They feel comfortable within the same structure and there is a lot in common minus the Trinity,” said Lekovic. She also said that it is a religion that judges people based on their deeds and work for mankind rather than salvation. And another means through which many Latina women come to Islam is through marriage. Lekovic says that in her Los Angeles community, she knows about a dozen couples who fell in love and married, thus exposing the women to Islam.
For many people, the attacks made them re-examine their faith and some new Muslims were even shaken by its impact. But for Marlene, who left a strict Roman Catholic background to become a Muslim, the negative publicity engulfing Islam caused her to embrace it all the more tighter and use her faith to make her stronger. Like Marlene, there is a group of Latino converts who are holding fast to their new faith after the attacks, despite the negative images linking Islam and Muslims to terrorism.
And when Lillo-Smith converted, she wanted to defend her new faith from the negative images it was gaining. She says that the accusations that were made were blind attacks on Islam. She felt that people were looking for a culprit without trying to find rational explanations to what happened. Marlene says that many people spoke out of ignorance and trashed the religion without trying to learn about it or find out what the Qur’an really says. “One person brought up Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, who had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks of September 11,” she said. Her faith was solidified because, through all the negative propaganda and anti-Islamic sentiment, she realized that most of the accusations made by people were false and stemmed from ignorance. Marlene says that those who did try to learn the facts about the religion realized that Islam is really a religion of peace and does not authorize what happened, and that the negative allegations turned out to be baseless and false.
Before she came to the United States, Lillo-Smith was raised in Santiago, where she was born to a middle class family. She was a member of the YMCA and part of a very religious family. As a member of the YMCA she would visit hospitals, help kids with their homework, and educate youth about Christian principles. But the strict doctrine that dictated her life at home somehow did not strike the right chord within her heart. “I started to feel disenchanted with the Catholic faith, with all the red tape they have and bureaucracy, and some things they couldn’t give me answers to, because I’m always asking questions, why is this, why is that?” she said. She said that she often reached many topics where she would reach the end of her answers. Lillo-Smith moved from one dried well to another as she started to experiment with other religions. She tried Buddhism and received literature from the Bahai faith, “but it didn’t click with me,” she said. Then she tried Spiritism, a Brazilian religion that believes the living communicate with the spirits of the dead. “Besides everybody being nice, they didn’t bring anything to me either,” she said. She eventually embraced and stayed with Islam.
She, herself, had originally been exposed to the religion through marriage. But she was not fully rehearsed in this new religion she had embraced. She thought she could find answers to Islam through her new Moroccan husband. To the contrary, his non-religious practices became a hindrance to her learning. After taking the Shahada, the first step to becoming a Muslim by declaring that “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” she tried to implement the other tenets of the religion. She started praying five times a day. And she even fasted the entire month of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, for the first time while she was with him. She was expecting a difficult task, but she was shocked by her stamina. “It was something really easy for me and I was really surprised,” she remembers. “I liked the entire idea, the entire purpose of it.” But instead of helping her to progress as a Muslim, her husband became an impediment to her growth.
“He wasn’t a practicing Muslim,” she explains. “He was really the opposite, he was very bad.” He would tell her that he was going to the mosque, but that she could not go with him because he said women were not permitted to go to the mosque. Marlene was not expecting such an answer and did not know what to make of his orders. She felt curtailed and shortchanged by the situation. “I was really upset by that because I was searching and looking for something and he never opened that door for me,” she said. But Marlene found out later that her husband had good reasons for not taking her with him. He was not attending the mosque at all, but rather was drinking, smoking, and partying.
Marlene, however, makes the distinction that she does not equate her circumstances with her husband as a representation of Islam. She says that the religion was not to blame for his actions. She says that she can see the difference that occurs between practicing and non-practicing Muslim men. She feels that those who practice Islam like it should be followed naturally tend to be more respectful to women, especially to those who wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. She says that the patriarchal aspect of Muslim men come more in the form of over-protectiveness they shed over the women for their well-being. Lillo-Smith says she noticed this change in her husband and his friends when they started to reacquaint themselves with their religion and become better Muslims. She noticed that “as more practicing Muslims, men behave as better husbands and fathers. They discover new respect even for their mothers.” Marlene says she enjoys the fact that “women have more rights under Islam than I could have in my country in the Christian religion.” If a woman chooses to work, she is not obligated to share her money with her husband. Today Marlene says she is even able to talk to her husband about Islam and both of them are learning together. “Now he is really willing to teach me anything and pray by listening to the Arabic over the phone and transliterating it into her own combination of English and Spanish. She would then tape the passages to the wall in front of her to read while she performed the physical prayer until she finally memorized the passages. She also requested products and information from WhyIslam.org. They sent her a package for first-timers that included a hijab, a prayer rug, a Qur’an in Arabic and Spanish, prayer beads, and some literature about Islam.
By November 2001, she was ready to become a Muslim on her own accord, not like the haphazard way she did at the time of her marriage. Sitting at the computer, she said, “I felt like I was ready.” She performed the Islamic ritual of ablution, wore her hijab, and sat on her prayer rug and recited the Shahada, this time from the heart. And this was not long after September 11, 2001. She recalls the huge publicity Islam received “bad and good, all over the world, and then Islam became known to everyone.” She said the attacks depressed her, especially because she had worked at the World Trade Center from 1995 to 1999 as the Executive Assistant of General Managing at Commerce Bank, the third largest German bank.
When she had gone home to Santiago to visit her family after the attacks, she was not even embraced with a warm welcome from her own family. “They were outraged,” she said. They thought it was just another phase in her search for a permanent religion. Of all the outlandish ideas Marlene had experimented with, they never expected that she would stick with what they viewed as the most extreme religion of all the choices. She said the bad publicity of Islam in South America made many people afraid of the religion. “In Chile people are not open-minded. They’re really prejudiced,” she said. “They will welcome you as an outsider, as a tourist, as someone that won’t have an impact on their culture, but once you decide you want to be a part of it and change things over there, they’re going to reject you.” Marlene said that her mother would not accept any conversion, but with her decision to accept Islam, her mother also feared for her daughter’s safety in the midst of that society.
Her mother was also concerned that Marlene would influence her sisters, Helia and Veronica, or her brother Enrique, or even her nephews and nieces. Her father had passed away in 1996. The family was especially concerned that she would influence the children because they look up to her as the only aunt that lives outside of the country and who is also a godmother to many of them. Veronica and her husband, who have four children, even asked Marlene never to pray in front of their children. Marlene said it makes her feel really sad that “they don’t want them to see me doing it because they will copy me, and they don’t want that.”
And back in the United States, Lillo-Smith says she faces constant discrimination. As a student at New York University, she says she felt the discrimination in her grades after 9/11. She said that she was on friendly terms with one of her professors and they would often leave the classroom joking and chatting. But after September 11 things changed. “The first time I came to class in my hijab, the professor wouldn’t talk to me,” she explained. Then she said she noticed her grades dropped to B’s and C’s. “Not because I deserved it,” she said. “In fact, I was studying even harder.” When she confronted her professor and asked him why he was lowering her grades, he responded with, “Because I can.” She says she even tried to tell somebody else about it, but that “people who make waves get pushed aside.” In the classroom she says that “everybody in the class moved away. I was completely ostracized.”
Marlene stopped wearing the hijab not too long afterward. As a result of September 11, because the discrimination had been worse when she would wear the headscarf, she says that it makes it more difficult for her to find a job. Her Spanish accent does not indicate that she is a Muslim, but when she covers her dark brown hair with a scarf, it makes her stand out more as being different. “Right now I need to work,” she said. “And I need to work quickly because I’ve been out of work for almost four years and I have a huge debt, plus my student loans, and I fully support my mom on my own.”
Despite all these challenges, Marlene did not leave Islam and says she is happy to be a Muslim. “I think that Islam is a difficult religion to follow,” she said. “I believe it’s not for weak people. And it makes you stronger in many senses.” And this strength is what kept her from giving up on the religion. Learning more about the religion gave her a sense of empowerment.
Since September 11, the rest of the Muslim community is becoming aware of a Latino Muslim presence. “There definitely is a growing number of Latinos converting to Islam,” said Mahbubur Rahman, Editor-in-Chief of The Message International, a magazine produced by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
The Latino Muslim community in the whole tri-state area is at the Islamic Center of Passaic County and the North Hudson Islamic Education Center in Union City, New Jersey. They both have a large Latino Muslim population. “I’ve noticed that since 9/11, there was a wave of Hispanics reverting to Islam at this center,” said Yousef Abdallah, the Outreach Director. “Since then, there has been an average of one person a month accepting Islam.” One of those people is Linda Rodriguez, 29. She is also Puerto Rican and came to the United States to live in Brooklyn at the age of 16. She became Muslim in January 2002 and had been studying Islam for a while. “After 9/11, I saw how Muslim people were being somewhat attacked,” she said. She thought she could help the Muslims and the non-Muslims make sense of what happened. And she used her Spanish to make the bridge between the two religions in the Latino community. Her five-foot-nine-inch slender frame gracefully bends over the desk in Yousef Abdallah’s office as she translates his English dictation into Spanish for a flyer. Translating literature into Spanish is how she volunteers at the mosque. And she, herself, attends classes every Saturday morning at the mosque to learn Arabic.
And there are other Latinos who are part of the New York City Muslim community. At first Khadijah James, 24, did not agree with her husband; she only just supported him. But now Khadijah wears the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and prays five times a day. The neatly wrapped white cloth compliments her slender face as she speaks in a soft voice. Her husband is currently in prison and decided to convert to Islam while he was incarcerated. And now she visits her husband in prison every two weeks.
Khadijah James is a student at New York University and is obtaining her Master’s in Direct and Interactive Marketing. She was born in the United States and lives in Brooklyn, but her parents immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. She and her two older brothers were raised Roman Catholic.
James met her husband many years ago, since he was friends with her brother Anyori, 29. They started dating several years ago when he was accused and convicted of robbery. While he was in jail, Khadijah mentioned to her parents that she wanted to marry him. They told her to wait and did not approve of the idea. In the meanwhile, she secretly married him in prison. “My parents didn’t know until a year after we got married. I was still living in the dorms, so it was easier to keep it a secret from them,” she said. “Marriage is a big thing and I’m sure my parents wanted to be a part of it.” Her parents are just hoping that he turns out to be a good husband because they feel that he might be acting a certain way because he is in prison right now.
During his time in prison, Khadijah’s husband learned about Islam from people involved in Muslim outreach programs to people in the prisons. When he accepted the religion, Khadijah still was not too sure about it. She started to learn from her husband about it and at first had her doubts. But her doubts with the Roman Catholic religion pushed her to learn more. James says she could not understand the concept of Confession in Roman Catholicism where your sins could be forgiven by telling them to a priest and saying the “Hail Mary.” “Who gave the priest the authority and how was it ordained,” were some of the questions that James had. She always believed in a more direct connection with God. And when she started learning about Islam, in some of the practices she says, “I saw as restrictions, but later they made sense for the well-being of society.” This concept at a time when some Islamic practices are being challenged by individuals and groups around the world.
For James, she says that the hijab was not an issue for her when she converted. She saw the logic behind the headscarf being a form of modesty and thus did not raise any questions about it. Her questions dealt more with issues like polygamy. “At first I thought it was unfair that men could have up to four wives, but that women could only have one husband, “ she said. “Later on I realized that there is a place for that.”
But James says that although she does know that Latinos are converting to Islam, she does not participate in Latino-only Muslim gatherings. “I think part of the reason is because of Islam’s multicultural aspect.” She says that the few gatherings she attends on the NYU campus consists of Muslims from all over the world. She says that especially in New York City, there are no specific gatherings that she is aware of that caters only to Latino Muslims, and she feels that it is a result of the fact that there are so many Muslims from so many countries that there is no need to section off into small groups.
For James, the events of September 11 did not illicit direct discrimination from others, but she says that she, herself, feels differently when she is in public as a result of the attacks. “I was more self-conscious of how I would be viewed by others,” she said. “I was only randomly checked one time at the airport, but when I am in the subway and they make the announcement to report any suspicious activities, I always wonder if people are thinking about my presence.” And when the Northeast blackout occurred in the summer of 2004, she had to walk home from NYU to Brooklyn. She thought about how others would view her with a headscarf if it was another attack. “I didn’t think like this before,” said James.
Another reason that Latinos are drawn to Islam is because of the connection to their own cultural history to Islam. Although Roman Catholicism is now deeply rooted in Latin America through the forces of colonialism, Latinos can trace their heritage back to the early eighth century when Spain existed under Muslim rule. The Berber army brought Islam from Morocco to Spain through the Straits of Gibraltar in 711. The place was known as Andalusia.
Islam flourished in this region for about eight more centuries. With this rule came Islamic traditions and government, as well as, art and architecture that can still be seen in structures like the great mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra at Granada. Perhaps when Latinos discover, or maybe even rediscover their Muslim ancestry, they will be drawn to explore more about the religion.
My Hispanic Muslim Legacy
By Khadijah Rivera
What Islam means to me: To be qualified is to know GOD?
I was raised as a Roman Catholic from a very strict and practicing Hispanic family. To even think of leaving the aristocratic Catholics was considered a sin. Actually having been raised by nuns in private schools taught me that one did not have the luxury of questioning the Bible or even the Catechism that was engraved in our memory banks as children. I once had the audacity to ask my teacher why we did not study the Bible; her answer was a blunt, "You might misinterpret it." As an adult I once asked the very same question of priest, and once again I received a similar response. In other words, they had led me to believe that only qualified officials of the church teach and understand "God's Word." How sad, I thought; soon after I began to search for an answer.
The strongest component of Catholicism was the belief in the Trinity. It believed that there were three gods of equal weight in the heavens, and that upon birth we inherited a mortal sin. So, right from the start we were sinners and needed repentance or a sacrament to clear away this sin. As a parent it was hard not to question if the smile of innocence behind an infant could hide a deadly sin. What if the infant died before performing the Catholic rite of Baptism? Did that mean he/she would go to hell? And if Jesus Christ had not died in the cross for the sins of man, did that mean that we would all have fire as our ultimate destiny?
Reverting to Islam would be complicated by my childhood training that Jesus Christ was my savior and salvation. To pray to anyone but him would be blasphemy. I therefore studied several religions when I left my church and its rigid teachings. But they were all Christian and not much different from the original one. Of course they all believed that the papal aristocracy was nonsense and I praised them for that. But they could not justify Jesus Christ in a sensible nor logical manner. Point in fact: ask three Christians of different denominations to explain the Trinity or better yet, ask them if Jesus is the son of GOD. Ask them what version of the Bible they read, and you will also find astonishing variations. I actually turned away from religion completely for many years and became a leftist. I left the religious dogma and found a replacement.
A replacement to religious dogma?
In my college years I opened up to a radical way of saving the world. I believed that if we could promote change in the political realm, then we could bring equality and economics that would ultimately change and save the physical world. I was an American activist going from marches to study groups of Dialectical Materialism, Maoism and Socialism. All this journey proved was that I was still empty for it left a gap in my very existence. I had one thing in common with the Christians and one thing opposite the ones I was attempting to emulate: "I loved God!" I just needed a vehicle to surrender.
For years I watched closely the events in Iran and yet the student movement that I was following could not afford me a way to make change in that country. I joined student marches and met with like-minded idealists. While we sat in brainstorm sessions planning our next poster spread in Manhattan, an old man sitting on a rug in Paris dictated a revolution. He told the dictator Shah of Iran to leave because he was coming back to Iran and guess what, he left! I began to study this man's political assessment, but the more I read about what he proposed to resolve in Iran the more I understood the religion of Islam. At no time was I looking for a new religion as I was a diehard Christian who was not even practicing. But this became a turning point in my life. I had to evolve as a human, in order to evolve as a Muslim.
Surrender to GOD
On October 22, 1983 I took my vows of submission as a Sunni Muslim with sincerity to ONE GOD. Allahu Akbar (God is great). I have been a practicing Muslim for over twenty-two years and have never regretted it. In fact, in the face of tyranny and prejudice I have become stronger and more resolved to not only raise a family of Muslims but also to become a Da'iee and spread the good word [of Islam] among Hispanics. After the tragedy of 9/11, many Muslims removed their veils for fear of assaults. I was destined to die as a Muslim if need be, for my only defense was faith! Alhamdulilah (all praise be to God), neither did I remove the veil nor hide. I stood up and went on live television to speak to Hispanics on Telemundo on the noted Christina Show from Miami. I had become a modest but resonant Muslimah. Rather than rollover, I made an uproar about the injustices done to Muslims.
The faith of Islam has brought me strength in the face of adversity and an inner peace which I never had. It was not difficult for my extended family to accept my new found faith. But for my immediate family it was very difficult. I lost all my non-Muslim friends that I had grown up with, but found an extended family in Islam. I no longer pray to a saint in order to request intervention with Jesus Christ. I now understand that if I follow the true teachings of all the prophets and the Ten Commandments that there can only be ONE GOD. "Thou shalt not bear false gods before me." Therefore, my destiny with Islam is fulfilled. I worship Allah directly, as it should be.
Casa De Paz Helping Refugees
By Aboobaker Ebrahim
March 24, 2009
Sister Amira and Dr. Riyad Taha are the founders and current owners of Casa De Paz, Inc. Located in the heart of Dallas on Phoenix Drive close to the sprawling Presbyterian Hospital Complex, Casa De Paz is surrounded by apartment complexes occupied by refugees and immigrants from all over the world.
“Well, I have been working in the refugee neighborhood of northeast Dallas for about ten years. At first we used to visit the refugee apartments using our cars only. Then when a very large population of Somali Bantu's were arriving in Dallas, we rented office space in order to assist the new families because it was going to be impossible to visit all the apartments," said Amira Taha talking about the beginning of the center. "There we assisted the families by helping them with food stamp applications, Medicaid applications, reading their mail, organizing the community, etc.”
She continues and states with strong emphasis on fulfilling the needs of the refugees “We also had classes for children on the weekends by teaching Qu’ran, Arabic and Islamic Studies. On Friday's we had the Jummah prayer. These programs were very successful and the surrounding Muslim community in the larger masjids provided some funds, some food and other types of support.”
The Muslim refugee population has grown into a large community in Northeast Dallas. Many of these refugees are from Burma. The first thought by sister Amira was that an Imam was required to teach the children and conduct regular prayers at the Casa de Paz. The Tahas purchased a condominium nearby to house the Imam and have retained the services of Imam Abdul Magid from the Burmese refugee population.
“He is a certified Imam by a council of ulama scholars from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Burma. He is hafiz al Qur’an and holds a distinguished certificate in Hadith. He makes the Friday khutbah and has established the five daily prayers at the center” said founder Dr. Riyad Taha who specializes in Internal medicine and Cardiology and is a well known community member who is ever vigilant in ensuring the success of the center.
In November 2005, Eid al Fitr a fire engulfed the center and the building burned all the units were destroyed, four were badly burned and two were severely water damaged. The building had to be bulldozed the ground cleared and was completely rebuilt under the Tahas supervision. During the week the units are used for English classes taught by Catholic Charities. On Friday's Jummah prayer are held and on Saturday's and Sunday's there are classes for about eighty students of Qur'an, Arabic and Islamic Studies. The name Casa de Paz was chosen for the center because the neighborhood is forty percent Hispanic and was perfect for Dawa within the neighborhood.
Sister Taha explains “We want to be known in the neighborhood as true neighbors and not an isolated center for foreigners and are engaged in neighborhood activities and participate in opportunities to meet people around the neighborhood.”
Casa de Paz is comprised of two community rooms which are used as a masjid and classrooms to teach adults and children. There are also wudu areas and kitchen. Sister Taha eagerly pointed out the fig and grape trees planted in the back yard. Casa de Paz is entirely owned by the Tahas with four condominiums surrounding it, one on the first floor and three on the second floor. These are rented and the proceeds are used to offset the expenses for Casa de Paz.
Despite the enormous challenges and barriers encountered by sister Taha she is always optimistic that things will get better. Over the last decade she has built a strong relationship with Catholic Charities, Refugee Services of Texas and the International Rescue Committee. She welcomes all volunteers and has a wish list for a shoe rack, a Mini van for the Burmese community, a phone, fax and website for the Casa de Paz Center. She also is seeking assistance from an Attorney to register papers to establish Casa de Paz as a 501c3 tax deductible entity and will be grateful for some Physicians to attend to the illnesses of the refugees.
“The refugees are part of my extended family” says sister Taha “they are resilient and hard working and any assistance rendered by the surrounding Islamic Centers and Mosques is always welcome and well deserved.”
Dr. Taha ever present at his wife’s side comments that “We will continue with our mission at the Casa de Paz to provide refugees and other immigrants of the Dallas area with the tools that they need to lead independent, productive and dignified lives and to become contributing members of the Dallas Community.”
Aboobaker Ebrahim is a LLM graduate from Southern Methodist University School of Law.
Interview with Samantha Sanchez and Juan Galvan
By Saraji Umm Zaid
The Message International
Samantha is a poet, writer, teacher, da’iyee, mother, and wife. She is one of the original co-founders of LADO: The Latino American Dawah Organization, and wrote her master’s thesis about Latinos and Islam. She was one of MuslimPoet.com’s “Poets in Residence” from 2003 to 2004.
Juan is a writer, husband, soon-to-be daddy and da’iyee who lives in San Antonio, Texas. He has written extensively about the emerging Latino Muslim community. He enjoys encouraging cooperation among ethnically diverse Muslim communities.
Saraji: What is the goal and purpose behind LADO?
Saraji: There are estimates that the number of Latino Muslims has doubled, or even tripled since LADO was founded. Do you think national organizations give enough attention to the Latino community?
Samantha: I think that in the years since the founding of LADO, more attention has been paid by the major organizations such as ISNA and 877-Why-Islam, an ICNA project. However, more can always be done. I see it being done more on a local level than nationally. Groups in Chicago, Texas, and here in our own backyard in New Jersey have recently held open houses for Latinos to learn about Islam. I applaud these efforts.
The MSA’s have also recently become part of the local efforts. For example, New York University and Columbia University have had iftars and events that included Islamic history about Spain or speakers of Latino descent. Some of the dawah material is written well but it is often merely translations. I think it would come best from Latinos themselves.
Saraji: Are average Muslims open minded about Latinos or do they hold negative stereotypes about Latinos that may keep people away from Islam?
Samantha: I think that the majority of the Muslim community is open minded about Latinos and in fact intrigued that someone of Latino descent would choose to be a Muslim. There are always those who look down on converts as not purebred no matter what their stock, but thankfully, these are few and far between. I believe that community leaders should do more locally, having Latino converts speak at local mosques to explain a bit about Latino culture so that in turn this will help dawah efforts to the Latino community.
Juan: I agree with Samantha. After converting to Islam, Muslims would ask me, “What is your race? Where did you come from?” After telling them that I’m Latino or Mexican-American, they’d look at me with confusion. Although I am brown-skinned, they knew I wasn’t from their country depending on the Muslim, and I wasn’t African-American or an Anglo-American. This occurred most often with recent immigrants. We’ve all gone through good and bad experiences. Personally, I am grateful for all the Muslims who taught me about this beautiful religion.
Saraji: Do stereotypes of Arabs, Indians, Muslim, etc. exist among the Latino population? Is it preventing them from exploring the message of Islam?
Samantha: Strangely enough, I personally have not run into many Latinos who think that badly of Arabs or Muslims. I am sure there are some. I would suppose that the only way to cure this malady is for Latino Muslims to be more vocal in the media particularly on television. Perhaps if Latinos were made more aware of their own roots and they could hear from one of their own who is a Muslim, such stereotypes would disappear or lessen at the very least.
Juan: I remember, after hearing of my conversion, my dad responded in Spanish, “What is that?” Then, after I explained a little about Islam, he responded, “Oh, like the Arabs?” Muslims and Latinos don’t know each other. There’s no telling about the opinion of two people toward one another when they don’t know each other. Latino Muslims have been very successful in introducing the Muslim and Latino communities to one another.
Saraji: Samantha conducted the first comprehensive study about Latino converts. Are you still planning to publish it as a book?
Book Release: Latina/o y Musulmán
Latina/o y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States
By Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez
Latinas/os are the fastest growing “minoritized” ethnic group in the United States and Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the U.S. It is therefore no surprise that the Latina/o Muslim population is one of the fastest growing communities in the U.S. As a minority within a minority, the ways in which Latina/o Muslims construct their identity is not only interesting in itself but also of interest for how they challenge traditional understandings of U.S. Latina/o identity. This book explores this process, focusing particularly on the way in which cultural memory is dis-covered through religious experience and how this memory becomes the foundation for constructing and understanding U.S. Latina/o identity.
Though magazine articles have explored the social location and identity of U.S. Latina/o Muslims within the larger Muslim community, this is the first book to formally research the way Muslims construct their U.S. Latina/o identity. Thanks to a grant from the Research and Creative Activities Fund at Texas Christian University and a Junior Scholar Grant from the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies, for two years I visited U.S. Latina/o Muslim groups across the U.S., my interviews focusing not only on individuals’ reversion (conversion) stories and the reasons behind those decisions, but also and mainly on the way Latina/o Muslims see themselves within the U.S. Latino community.
Given the absence of major academic research exploring U.S. Latina/o Muslims, these Muslims’ voices have been mostly absent from discussions about U.S. Latina/o identity. By bringing their voices to the forefront of these discussions we begin to change how we understand the role of religious experience within the process of identity building. The book’s greatest contribution is its exploration of how U.S. Latina/o Muslims use cultural and historical memory to construct their identity. Furthermore, since Latina/o religious experience in the United States up until now has largely assumed Christianity as the de facto religion, this work brings a whole new angle to studies in this area. Finally, Latina/o y Musulmán lays the broader analytical foundation for how the religious experiences of non-Christian U.S. Latinas/os shape the process of identity construction.
Available for purchase online at WipfAndStock.com.
Division: Pickwick Publications