Islamic Principles in the Development of Latin America
By Yahya Juan Suquillo
19 – 21 Rajab 1.424 Hijri
16-18 Sept. 2003 CE.
Given by Yahya Juan Suquillo, the Imam of the Islamic Center in Ecuador at the Fourth Annual Conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Curacao. Sponsored by I.S.E.S.C.O. (Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) & O.L.P.A.D.I. (Organización Latinoamericana para la Difusión del Islam).
Before the end of the second millennium CE, most scientists and thinkers in the western world have began to question their assumptions about the theory of evolution, faith in human reasoning, consumerism, scientific revolutions, secularism, and the weaknesses of communism and capitalism. The western world has been confronted with two bloody wars and continuously fears chemical and nuclear destruction. These problems confirm the degradation of basic human rights and values in the world today.
In addition to those major disasters, the world must wait for the long-term negative consequences caused by environmental destruction, the deification of the individual or collectivism, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the disaster called globalization, which is neocolonialism, cultural and commercial domination.
The contemporary global movement that is seeking to revive Islam as the solution to all problems has encountered much antagonism towards the renaissance of Islam. Proof of this is how many people falsely accused Islam as fanatic and terrorist after September 11. More than two thousand years ago, a group of people used the same false accusations against Prophet Jesus the Messiah (Peace be upon him) by ridiculing his teachings, and many people until this day continue to deny his second coming. Unfortunately, millions continue to be misled.
Most people from all over the world realize that many religious conflicts in the world, particularly between Islam and Christianity, often rose out of human excesses and the desire to stir religious passion to support political goals. Muslims must continue to provide the enlighten of spiritual guidance for needy brothers in humanity by conveying the example of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAWS) who never paid back persecution, insults, or injury with anger. On the other hand, Muslims must form an international organization with branches in each capital of the world to implement Dawah strategic programs as well as to properly address the defamation that could correct and inform their detractors.
In order to maintain worldwide peace, we all need to search for common ground. All human beings have “Fitri” features. Scientists, sociologists, and thinkers in the Muslim world should try to emphasize human nature as more spiritual than human in order to search for common ground and to view life as more than materialism. Because Latin American nations are rooted in Spain, they have much to recognize as common ground in Islamic heritage by virtue of somatic features, linguistic wording, family-oriented values, and so forth.
Islamic principles manifested in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Companions’ exemplary lives are essential for developing a peaceful and compassionate world. Because Islam’s most fundamental values are nurtured by a direct connection with the Creator, these values such as equality, solidarity, freedom, and justice can build the most tolerant and pluralistic society possible.
The General Perspective of Latin America
Avoid stereotyping Latin American societies.
One of the greatest mistakes is to stereotype Latin America as the tail of the American empire. Latin America is physically connected to the North American continent, that is true, but Latin American people are quiet different in history, in terms of religious values, culture, and motivations. Consequently, when Latin American is viewed as nation, it is a nation that has different goals, ambitions, traditions, and approaches.
Not only do the young generations of Latin American no longer aspire for the “American dream” as a lifetime goal, but also anti-American feelings are now deeper since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These facts are widening the socio-cultural division between these two cultures.
We must not think that since there is a very small conversion rate among Christians to become Muslims in Islamic states that there might be the same situation for Latin American people. This is another great misconception. The Latin American public, the common people, is clearly looking forward to a totally different spiritual change. Proof of this is that twenty to thirty years ago, Catholicism claimed almost 90% of the total population in Latin America whereas today the numbers are now only between 55% and 65%. Unfortunately, these societies do not know the alternative that Islam can bring to this global area.
Latin America is searching for its own identity.
At the beginning of the third millennium CE, Latin American culture is still searching for its own identity. The Latin America of today is in the process of identifying its political, social, economic, and religious identity.
The Church’s top clergy, affluent people, and state power stir together the destiny of the less fortunate. Latin American governments have lacked definite policies; and their lack of institutionalization has shown their lost opportunity to build up the strength of their moral and civic institutions to secure their insipient democracies during the last fifty years. The reality is that humanity attempts to deify itself either individually – as in capitalism (at the border of collapsing) – or collectively – as in communism (already collapsed).
Latin America is feeling very insecure and worried about its own future. The United Nation was unable to stop the Afghani and Iraqi invasion. The lack of justice for the Palestinian problem has left Latin America with many questions. Many Latin Americans are asking themselves, “What do we do? Where do we search for help?” Strong Islamic values can help determine Latin America’s own ideas, destiny, and history. Islamic values can stop the cultural and economic conquest called globalization that threatens to subjugate Latin America.
A brief analysis of Latin America’s major problems.
Latin America, like other areas, has its own political, social, economic, and religious shortcomings. Its decadent protectionist state model has been unable to adequately run the state and unable to stop rich and powerful people from influencing particular parties that benefit the elite. These states have also been unable to implement basic social services, comprehensive health insurance, and job opportunities for the less fortunate. The gap between the rich and the poor continually increases. The unstable Latin American countries have no knowledge of an optimal economic model that could follow. A need for real change exists.
Globalization has also played a role in influencing religious demography in the past decade. Dozens of various Christian sects such as Evangelist, Adventist, Baptist, Mormons, and non-denominational churches have recently gained thousands of followers in the religious terrain. Philosophies from the Far East and India are among the immense religious mosaic spectrum. This clearly means that Catholicism, the predominant religion in Latin America, has lost millions of adherents. Latin America is a fertile area for Islamic Dawah. There is a great need and opportunity for spiritual development in Latin America.
Islamic values already present in Latin American culture.
Measuring Latin American culture in terms of the development of Islamic cultural values is difficult except for a few aspects. One reason for the unawareness of Islamic cultural values present in Latin American culture is an educational system that does not mention that Islamic values influenced Latin American culture during centuries of Islam’s existence within the Spanish culture.
Consider the great Islamic architecture within some cities in South America. In Brazil, for instance, some old churches are decorated with Arabic calligraphy art carved by Muslim slaves that were brought to America. Major and minor vestiges of Arabic art are found in some Central American countries. Within Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, the popular Andalusian Spanish architecture style can be found, which was copied from Islamic art that Spaniard architects learned from Muslims. Typical mosque domes and arches were applied to churches throughout South America.
Quito’s historic downtown area is jam-packed with Andalusian Islamic architecture. Interior gardens that allowed uncovered women to enjoy the outside atmosphere without having to go outdoors can also be found. What is ironic is little presence is given to lavatories and personal hygiene locations at the Spaniard architect colony houses. While on the contrary, the relevance given to these places in the Muslim world are widely known – to help Muslims fulfill cleanliness needed for religious duties.
The influence of Muslims in the past was mainly based on major and minor concentrations of Muslim immigrants that took place in different areas of this vast continent. Examples of major Muslim immigration in a short span of a century can be seen in countries such as Argentina and Panama, which are Spanish-speaking. Major Muslim migration also took place in Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, which are English-speaking communities in Latin America. Brazil, which has a Portuguese-speaking community, holds the largest Muslim community in South America.
Hard working principles in industry, examples of honest trading and fine manners, architectural art, and typical Arabic food are no doubt part of the genuine contribution that our honorable Muslim ancestors helped in the development of Latin American culture. May Allah SWT reward them Inshallah accordingly. In this analysis, we are far from bringing justice to all the contributions of our Muslim ancestors. We must now decide what we can do for a better future!
The role of Muslim institutions
In the past
Muslim institutions in the past have failed to identify the potential of Latin American people to accept Islam. The true guidance comes from Allah SWT to whom He wishes. Although this is true, Muslims and Islamic institutions must work with a genuine strategic plan to promote the peaceful way of life that Islam teaches in His book, the Glorious Qur’an. Islamic institutions in Muslim countries can certainly exceed the challenge by working together with committed, Latin American reverts and current Latin American Islamic Centers and institutions.
An example to follow
In Brazil, consistent Dawah work began in Londrina city about thirty years ago and has been outstanding because an Islamic organization in the Middle East appointed not only an individual but also a real Daiyah as a lifetime, continuing vocation. This comprehensive support marked an enormous positive difference for the creation of Dawah as a continuous progress.
Where minor concentrations of Muslims immigrants settled such as in Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and most Central American countries, the influence of Islamic values has been less significant, and these areas would certainly benefit from programs similar to the one in Brazil. Islamic world institutions can have a positive influence in all spheres of life by showing a unity of thought, a unity of Fatawah. Muslims in general can be a positive example.
Islamic principles can play a central and predominant role in contributing to the transcendence of human society. Islamic principles can assist Latin American in implementing much needed social, economic, educational, and political values, which when integrated in any government can bring about peace and harmony in the future to come, Inshallah.
How can this task be successfully achieved, Inshallah?
First, Tawakul -ala- Allah. Fully trust in Allah.
Second, Islamic institutions responsible for Dawah and the image of Islam must understand the human nature of the Latin American individual. They must identify their motivation and interests. It is very important to try to understand Latin American people analytically, objectively, and with an open mind. Major Dawah efforts should be concentrated among the non-Muslim people since the greatest human potential here in Latin America is the non-Muslims. Seminars, conferences, and comparative religious studies should be conducted in ways most appropriate. There is a need for growth of Islam, qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, we need more literature to be distributed, and we also need more good quality literature.
Third, various groups should work together with a dynamic media and printing press company to support Islamic Dawah work at all levels. Professionals from each field of mass communication (i.e. radio, print, television) as well as education and social science professionals should be coordinating each field of propagation.
Fourth, in order to achieve success in Latin American culture, all Muslims, Islamic institutions, and Islamic countries must correct the mental and cultural distortions derived from the attacks on September 11. One way would be to appoint commissions within every country to overcome problems of religious intolerance and the false accusation that Islam is a terrorist threat. Islam is not a threat to any nation or to global security, as communism was during the Cold War. Islam stands firm against terrorism.
Islam is not terrorism. Muslims as a whole are not terrorists. On the contrary, Islam prohibits terrorism as mentioned in the Quranic verses – 8:61, 10:99, and 16:126.
Fifth, sources of literature should present Islam in a more dynamic way emphasizing style and semantics. Literature should be presented in a proper context acknowledging that most readers may be non-Muslims with little knowledge about Islam and Muslims. Thus, information should be catered to each individual who is seeking the correct path. Literature should be reasonable and easily to understand. Literature should also be a source of guidance for committed Muslim workers. Sometimes subjects are presented too scholastically. People in Latin America are anxious to receive a response to a personal problem addressed in a simple way as opposed to learning theoretical subjects written in syllogism and that use complex epistemological approaches.
Sixth, Muslims must understand the importance of the Spanish language. Allah SWT allowed the establishment of a flourishing Islamic civilization in Spain for almost eight centuries. The Spanish language and culture are indebted to Islam as a result of the centuries of interaction among Islamic civilization and the Spanish culture. Resurgence of Islam will depend upon the utilization of the Spanish language as a means of communication in Spain, Latin America, and indeed, anywhere we may find Spanish-speaking people. Allah SWT promised that “strangers” would return Islam to all lands, inshAllah, and alhamdulila we find fertile ground for establishing Islam in Latin America and beyond.
US American Latino Muslim communities should be included in all Dawah programs and strategies because many Spanish speakers live there. According to the US 2000 Census, 32.8 million Hispanics/Latinos live in the United States. Recently, the US Census stated that there are now more Latinos in the US than African-Americans. The US Latino population is also growing very fast. The Latino population in the US is expected to grow to 63 million by 2030, and 88 million by 2050. By then, one out of every four US Americans will be Latino.
According to the 2001 “Mosque in America Report,” there is an estimated traditional annual growth of 20,000 converts in the US each year. Of these converts, 63% of converts were African-American, 27% of converts were White, and 6% were Hispanic. There are 6 million American Muslims, but only 40,000 are Latino Muslims. Using these figures, Latino Muslims only make up 0.6% of the US American Muslim population. These figures are now dramatically changing. Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the US, and at the same time, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US. The victory of Islam in the US depends upon Allah SWT bringing together the fastest growing minority group and the fastest growing religion.
Seventh, Islamic principles contribute to religious freedom, tolerance as well as formative sociopolitical principles. The Quran directs Muslims to find common ground with other religious communities. This common ground is expressed as a mutual respect for each religious community’s freedom and autonomy. In other words, no community has the right to impose its way of life on other religious communities. Furthermore, the Quran states that force has no place in religious matters.
Rulers and other groups are not above the law. These basic principles of justice and goodness are framed on human rights principles and maintain each individual’s dignity.
Eighth, Islamic principles contribute to economic growth in South America. Almost no Latin American country knows that Islamic principles prohibit interest on loans. Because interest has many downsides, Latin America could certainly benefit from interest-free methods for raising needed funds. Perhaps, the worse consequence of interest has been the establishment of virtual colonies in various parts of Latin America. Foreign investments are also very much needed and appreciated in this side of the world.
In western societies, economic development is primarily about increasing income in hopes of seeking material advance. The Islamic concept of economic development is broader, because Islamic principles acknowledge the importance of morality and social responsibility, which western economic concepts inherently need. Muslims work to increase their income level or to save money, but most important, their work should be done with the intention of pleasing Allah. The Quran 62:10 states: “When the prayer is finished then disperse in the land and seek the bounty of Allah, and remember Allah much that you may prosper.”
Nineth, Islamic Education. There is a great need for full scholarships for new Muslims, men and women, young and adult, from pre-kindergartens to universities for all levels of Arabic and Islamic studies. These studies can be in an actual classroom setting or distance learning. The scholarships should cover room and board when needed.
Islamic education should not only focus on educating only Muslims. Many non-Muslims are sympathetic to Islamic ideas and values. Although they may disagree on certain points, they may agree on the bigger picture, and Muslims in academia may also positively impact non-Muslim thought. For example, students from American educational institutions planted American ideas all over the world many years ago. Those with the ability to afford the price of an American education would later hold government positions within their own countries, and their American mentality would affect their decisions and views.
Similarly, investing in Islamic education can surely be a real plus in introducing Islamic values to the masses. Such knowledge will help Latin Americans see Islam as a solution rather than something that is foreign. By sharing our knowledge, new generations will reach power, and they will help establish more social and economic stability in Latin American.
As Muslims, we are conscious enough to remind ourselves that our way of life, Islam, is not materialistic. From the beginning of Islam to the golden years in Al-Andalus, the current Muslim standards of life have always been compared to those that existed in earlier times. Islamic achievements have always been based on higher standards of spiritual and moral values, which result in a balanced way of life.
Within forty years of his life, our Prophet Moses (AS) eradicated the slave mentality from the Jews. Within twenty-three years of his life, our Prophet Muhammad (SAAWS) rid the Kaabah of idols. The short time periods just mentioned can be an inspiration for a new Islamic Renaissance to develop in today’s world. In this sense, contemporary Islamic thought must be the same as during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAAWS): dynamic and flexible depending on circumstances but firm, harmonious, and following the sources of legislation: the Glorious Qur´an and the Sunnah.
Let’s pray that we continue to establish Islamic values and principles Inshallah in Latin America and the whole world. Let’s be the means in which Islam is renewed in all lands, the way Allah’s mercy appeared to all mankind.
Yahya Juan Suquillo
Imam del Centro Islámico del Ecuador