The Latino Muslim Experience
By Edmund A. Arroyo
A Perspective from Chicago of the Latino Muslim Experience.
When talking with members of the Latino Community that have, by the mercy of Allah (SWT), embraced Islam, one finds some common factors. Regardless of their cultural background, most new Muslims can identify with an initial feeling of religious enthusiasm. The new Muslim wants to read every Islamic book, memorize the Qur’an, learn every dua, go to Hajj, and convert their family all in one year. All too often the ‘pre-Shahada’ person finds him/herself cornered in the mosque with a brother or sister that wants to teach the whole Qur’an in one sitting. The ‘pre-Shahada’ person finds himself bombarded with more information than he/she can handle regarding the prohibitions and truths of Islam.
Eventually, by the mercy of Allah (SWT) the person says the Shahada, and is greeted with great smiles and hugs from his new brothers in Islam. The paradox of this joyous occasion is that while the new Muslim entertains the thought of having all of his sins forgiven, the hardest part of the journey has just begun. As one of our respected scholars once said, ‘When you are a kafir, the shaytan doesn’t take you seriously, because you are like his puppet, easily controlled. But when you become Muslim, the shaytan fights harder than ever to regain that control, resulting in some of the most difficult trials.’ When you consider the social implications for the new Muslim, especially the Latino Muslim, this is most evident.
Islam seems to attract most Latinos by way of its rationality and its direct spiritual connection with our Creator. The Religion of simplicity, lacking grandiose rituals and murky doctrine, leads the Latino from worshipping saints and Mary (r.a.a), to worshipping the One God. Most Latinos are raised Roman Catholic, which can be distinguished from the Catholicism of European countries by its emphasis on Mary, or La Virgin de Guadalupe. Their religious traditions often seem to be based on faith alone, with a historical context often unknown to your average Latino. Through gradual study of Islamic doctrine, the Latino finds explanations in Islam that could not be provided by other religions. Other oases that provide nourishment in this journey include the history of Muslim Spain and the Conquest of the Native Americans. The Latino Muslim conversion can often be traced to this rediscovery of their ancestral roots. This is paralleled in the African American Community. As is the case for many Muslim converts, it is simply a matter of placing all of the facts on the table and discerning between truth and falsehood. The problem comes when the Muslim community doesn’t place itself as an option to the multiple-choice question.
About 60 percent of new Muslims mention a Muslim friend as being essential in their conversion to Islam. The Latino convert often rejects Catholicism years before choosing another religion. We find a lot of Latinos leave the Catholic Church and join the Pentecostal and Jehovah’s Witness faiths, both of which appear to offer a clearer definition of practice and ideology than Catholicism. When you consider this information, one must conclude that exposing the Latino to the religion of Islam will result in an increased number of Latinos embracing Islam. With a religion as powerful as ours, one need only to befriend and then demonstrate a better option. Our best Dawah would be accomplished by our actions. The next very crucial step is to welcome the New Latino Muslim into our Ummah.
An Arab brother once mentioned that they consider Islam to be the Latino Convert’ Amana (legacy) returning to them. Although not all Latinos can trace their roots to Spain, I mention this point not to distinguish ancestry, but brotherhood. All too often, the New Muslim walks toward the house of Islam with a group of Muslim brothers at his side, coaching and convincing him of his decision to accept Islam. However, as the new Muslim crosses the threshold into Islam, he finds himself very alone. He finds himself breaking his fast alone, praying alone, studying alone, and sometimes spending the Eid alone. This is in sharp contrast to the traditions of family, unity and community that the Latino is accustomed to. This struggle is compiled by the hostility of those family members that have little or no understanding of Islam, and the unwillingness of many Muslims to marry outside of their culture. Once the religion is embraced, invite the new Muslim to your home for Iftar. Call them to notify them of the Eid. Invite them to study the life of the Prophet (saws). Demonstrate the true brotherhood that Islam has to offer.
To establish a Muslim/Latino culture may take a generation or two, but the success will depend upon our perspective. We must strive to incorporate our culture by defining what Islam is and how our culture can adapt to it. This could mean cooking traditional Latino recipes with fish instead or pork. We must caution ourselves against a Latino Muslim identity of rules and prohibitions. The advice of Dr. Umar Farooq Abd Allah, will be useful in this cause: “Islam does not ask you to leave your cultural roots. It asks you to water them, and find what is beautiful in them.” May Allah (SWT) guide us on the straight path. May he guide all new Muslims to the truth. May He make us all among the ansar, strengthening the iman of the Muslim convert.