Islam in the Dominican Republic
Although it has become one of the most controversial religions of the 21st century, there is much intrigue and misinformation surrounding Islam. The political realities associated with the religion have forced many who have had limited contact with Islam to form, at times, disingenuous and misguided opinions about it. It has become an unfortunate reality that when conversations about Islam are initiated, many wary eyes raise eyebrows in concern, fearing that television images will soon become a reality in a restaurant near you. But nestled away from the grim images we see on the daily news, in one Santo Domingo’s nicest neighborhoods, is an inconspicuous mosque, which is the antithesis of anything you have ever thought Islam to be and for many, is a representation of all the good values and virtues that Islam can offer.
This, for those who don’t know, is a reference to the Círculo Islámico de la República Dominicana (CIRD) and its mosque, where followers gather to pray and share in Muslim values and teachings. The mosque is a meeting place for the small Muslim community in Santo Domingo and though their numbers aren’t nearly as great as their Christian or even Jewish counterparts, their presence in the DR is long-standing and deserves to be recognized. Islam in the DR is a link to the nation’s colonial history, and also reflects the country’s multi-cultural growth and continued acceptance of groups, regardless of origin.
History of Islam in the DR
It may come as a surprise to many, but the history of Islam in the Dominican Republic began with the importation of African slaves during the DR’s colonial period. Spanish conquistadors, led by Christopher Columbus, landed on Hispaniola in 1492, and by 1502 had entered into slave trading. Historians have established that the presence of Islam was already substantial in West Africa during the 16th century, and this was where early colonizers bought most of their slaves. The Wolof Muslims from West Africa is believed to be among the first group of slaves transported to the New World. As the slave trade grew, colonizers imported a new group with its own customs and beliefs, such as Islam, to the New World. The presence of West African slaves with Muslim ties would quickly be seen as problematic. Resistance by the slaves was first recorded in 1503 when Nicolas de Ovando wrote to Spanish Queen Isabella requesting that she prohibit further shipments to the colony of people with connections to Islam. However, the demand for slaves was so strong that no one heeded the Spanish governors pleas’ to stop importing Muslims. Although these new imports to the Americas arrived with a rich and ancient culture, repression and forced conversions into Catholicism gradually diluted the original cultural, identity and religions of the remaining Muslim slave inhabitants on Hispaniola.
Wolof slaves stopped being imported from Africa in 1522 after the first large-scale slave revolt in the Americas was led by a group of Muslims. The revolt occurred on the sugar plantation of Admiral Don Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus. By 28 December 1522 the slaves reached the cattle ranch of Melchior de Castro, but the success of the revolt was limited. Eventually, the slaves were met by European militiamen, and the revolt was subsequently thwarted. This revolt would mark the end of Muslim importation on the island and would guarantee a diminution of the Muslim presence for years to come.
Present day Muslim Community
Though there would be a lag in the establishment of a substantial Muslim community in the DR, the reemergence of the religion came about during the immigration of Lebanese and middle easterners to the DR during the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the migration of Muslims was minor, to say the least. Through migration Islam’s religious seeds were once again planted in the DR, but the religion would not grow. Most Middle Eastern immigrants to the DR were Christian and the small number of Muslims that did migrate went on to convert to Christianity over the years. It would not be until migration of students to the DR during the latter part of the 20th century that Islam would once again reemerge in the country. The DR became an attractive educational offer for many students from India, Pakistan and the Middle East and with them they brought their cultures and customs. In this simple way, Islam would reassert itself in Dominican culture. Although most people in the DR practice Roman Catholicism, the Círculo Islámico de República Dominicana has slowly helped spread Islam in this country. The Muslim community includes a mix of local converts, international students studying in the DR and expatriates who have maintained their faith while in the county. Speaking with CIRD member Saad Mashkoor, the CIRD doesn’t recruit members, but is open to educating anyone interested in Islam or answering questions of faith for curious minds.
The Muslim community in the DR is still fairly small and it has been almost impossible to determine how many Muslims in fact live in the country. Some estimates indicate that only 0.02 percent of the population or 2,000 individuals are practicing Muslims, although other statistics place the number between 400-700 followers, with a reasonable estimate reaching 1,000 Muslims in the DR.
The Círculo Islámico was the first fully established mosque in the Dominican Republic. The mosque is located in the center of Santo Domingo, about a five-minute walk from the National Police Department and UNIBE University, easily accessible to Muslims from around the city. In the past there were mosques around the city, known in Arabic as mobile mosques, but there was never a place where Muslims could go and worship until the current mosque was built. CIRD director Mashkoor tells how there was a small mosque on Pedro Lluberes Ave. in Santo Domingo about 10 years ago. He explained that there was the need for a mosque in order to accommodate the growing number of Muslim students in the DR, but the funds to purchase the land were limited, until one day a prayer was answered. A Muslim gentleman, only named as Foutory, heard about the need for funds to purchase the land and asked how much money was needed. He wrote a check right there and then. The land was bought and once again, when the time came for construction, Foutory opened his heart and his wallet and helped build the mosque. Currently, the mosque runs on donations from followers. The simple installations of the mosque don’t require much, but simple things like power, water and maintenance must be tended to and this is where the small community of Muslims chip in with what they can. Many followers provide as much time and resources as they can and network in order to provide the mosque with enough to keep it running. The mosque is open daily for the five prayers (salat) and offers classes on Islamic studies for ladies and children on weekends. The center also holds Ramadan and other Muslim-related activities.
Adding to the work the mosque does within the local community is the foundation of the Al-Foutory consultation office, which Mashkoor explains, provides free medical consultations to anyone in the community. In the back of the mosque is a small doctor’s office where community members can get free check-ups for their ailments and in some cases they may also receive free medicines. Mashkoor says that every other week a cardiologist comes to the center and checks on patients. He says that at times the doctor might not be able to diagnose a problem or might not have the tools or expertise to treat a patient so they call on other doctor friends in the community and send sick patients their way. What’s more is that when a patient is referred to a private clinic, the doctor may do it as pro-bono work and won’t charge the patient. Mashkoor credits the giving nature of the mosque as part of the values instilled in him by his religion.
Speaking with one of the brothers who frequents the mosque, Jose Caba, provided a great deal of insight into the historical connections between Islam and the DR. Jose explained that his family originally migrated to the DR from the Middle East. As a child growing up in New York he had no idea of this and like many thought he was “just” Dominican. At one point, though he didn’t explain when, he became interested in tracing his family history and learning about his past. This personal journey brought him into contact with Islam, which was part of his cultural heritage, and he converted in 1974. Jose speaks of the beauty within the religion, and says that this is what made him fall in love with Islam. He speaks of the respect that he has for his wife and community and explains that it his faith that has driven him to be a better person. Jose travels back and forth between the US and the DR and mentions that he gets suspicious looks, especially in the US, but in the DR the looks are more curious than anything else. He jokingly adds that sometimes walking down the street, Dominicans will joke that he must be hot because of the traditional garb he wears, as well as his long beard, but adds that other than that he is respected in the community and that Dominicans have never shown any concern about his religion.
Islam has had a long, yet quiet history in the DR. Through its many emergences and re-emergence it has left some traces on the Dominican cultural map, but very few could point these out. Still, Islam is an interesting part of the DR’s past and present and will continue to be an interesting part of its future. As students continue to venture to the DR in search of educational opportunities and as the virtues of this culture and religion become intriguing to curious minds, the religion will continue to grow. The debate about Islam has not begun in this country and the hope is that once the religion appears on the social radar those who engage in it will disregard television images and particular views and allow the local members of the religion to educate on the nuances of Islam. Will we see the emergence of twenty new mosques in the DR in the next ten years? Who knows, but what is certain is that the existence of Islam in the Dominican community adds to the wealth of culture that this country already provides.