There is the mother who converted when she saw her son transition from a life of drugs and crime to one of prayer and faithful religious practice. Then there’s the story of the guy who met the woman of his dreams, moved to Kenya to pursue her, and converted in order to become her husband. Or there is the Marine who took the shahadah while stationed in Japan. There are former Pentecostals and Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and agnostics, atheists and Mormons; they’ve all converted to Islam. They are from Puerto Rico and Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador, San Franciso and San Salvador, New York, Newark, Miami, and Houston.
They are Latinx Muslims, one of the fastest growing religious communities in the U.S.
When I started learning from Latinx Muslims back in 2012 I was able to cobble together a few articles from scholars such as SpearIt, Patrick Bowen, and Hisham Aidi, read a single monograph (Hjamil A. MartÃnez-VÃ¡squez’s Latina/o Y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States), peruse blogs, and talk to leading Latina/o Muslims like Juan Galvan, Daniel Abdullah Hernandez, Mujahid Fletcher, Isa Parada, and Juan Alvarado to complete my research. The result was my master’s thesis Islam en Español: The narratives, demographics, conversion causeways, & conditions for community cohesion among Latina/o Muslims in the U.S.
At the end of my thesis, I wrote there was still a pertinent need to expand research in this area and in the quest for quality, comprehensive, newswriting and coverage, that students and commentators should provide more nuanced information about this important religious community. Over the last several years I have seen an increasing amount of new research, publications, and writing on the subject. It’s an exciting time to be in the field.
Just this year, five major publications have come out — or are on their way — that will help scholars and a wider public better understand the why, what, when, where, and how of Latinx conversion to Islam and how Latinx Muslims are shaping the American religious scene and impacting the broader Muslim world. Below I provide a brief overview, review, and comment on each of them before concluding with some ideas for the future, and some suggestions for how these might spur further research and consideration of Latinx Muslims in the U.S. and beyond:
1. Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam by Juan Galvan
I start with this text because it is both highly valuable and for me, it is highly personal. Since I first met Isa Parada at a masjid in Houston, TX and began learning from my Latinx Muslim teachers and friends I have remained humbly fascinated with Latinx Muslim journeys through the uncertainties of being “quadruple minorities” — Latinx in the Muslim community, Muslim in the Latinx community, Latinx in the U.S., and Muslim in the U.S.
This text, which I turned to in its draft form as a website and blog during my master’s research, not only presents general comments on the place of Latinx Muslims in the American Muslim story, but it also does the simple, but significant, service of presenting scores of stories from Latinx Muslims themselves. Readers listen to men and women from across the Americas who identify as Latina, Latino, Latinx, Hispanic, or Spanish-speaking tell their stories of reversion (or ‘conversion,’ Latinx Muslims refer to their conversions as ‘reversions,’ both because they believe in fitra — that human beings are born with an innate inclination toward tawhid [the oneness of God] and draw on their Andalusian roots to speak to the very Arab and Muslim basis of much of Latinx culture, language, and history).
Readers will enjoy how Galvan frames these narratives with his own historical, theological, and cultural commentary, but will be most impressed by the sheer diversity of stories and experiences of those who converted in prison or on their front porch, to those who reverted in Australia and Bolivia, and those who found Islam on Facebook, through Latinx specific organizations, their future spouses, in dreams, or even while smoking weed and drinking a 22oz. of Heineken. Not only does this text do well to let the stories stand for themselves and permit Latinx Muslims’ voices to be heard above all else, but it also provides a wealth of primary data for researchers and interested students looking to learn more.
2. American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam by SpearIt
On this point of conversions of prison, SpearIt presents an overview of prison culture in the U.S. with a specific focus on the role of Islam and Muslims within the system. The main point of this anthology is that “problems in prison are not isolated from society, and [prisons] are not neatly cornered off from society, but rather, are partners in toxic relationships with the communities to which ex-prisoners return.”
Against, and alongside, what he posits as a poisonous prison system he showcases the spiritual journeys of many Muslims who convert while incarcerated. Significantly, he includes an exploration and analysis of Latinx Muslims — their conversions, their communities, and their central importance in telling the story of Islam in the U.S.
3. 40 Sayings of Prophet Muhammad by Daniel Abdullah Hernandez
One of the more significant voices in my research has been “Imam Danny.” He is a scholar, an inter-religious leader, and a friend. His tireless efforts at understanding, communicating, and sharing Islamic theology are well appreciated by many Muslims — Latinx and otherwise.
His most recent project is a labor of love that also opens up a window into the influence of Latinx Muslims in the process of Islamic theology in the U.S. and abroad. Not only have Latinx Muslims been producing works, and translating works into, Spanish over the last 40 years, they have also been creating new works in English. Imam Hernandez’s efforts at translating and collecting 42 hadith, reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other early Muslims, on the five pillars of Islamic practice (confessing the faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and the hajj pilgrimage) are quick, practical, references for intentional Muslims. More than that, they are another prime example of indigenous knowledge production and leadership among Latinx Muslims who are making an impact on their religion in the U.S. and abroad. It is evidence that Latinx Muslims are not only being shaped by the global umma (Muslim community) but also shaping it with their words and deeds.
4. “Latino Muslims in the United States Reversion, Politics, and Islamidad,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion by Gaston Espinosa, Juan Galvan, and Harold Morales
This journal article lauds itself as the first large-scale survey research on the demographics of the Latinx Muslim community and the question of why Latina/os converted to Islam. There has been important research conducted in this area, but as they note it has largely been limited to smaller numbers in particular cities and without any consistent methodology. As they wrote, “This study seeks to help fill this gap in the literature by analyzing the survey results of 560 Latino Muslims across the U.S.”
What they provide is the most comprehensive picture of the general make-up and sociological contours of the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. They also make a critical interlude by discussing the idea of “Islamidad” — a distinct Latinx Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Latinx and Muslim.
5. Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority by Harold Morales
This book, which comes out in April, is a highly anticipated and pioneering monograph that, “examines how so-called ‘minority groups’ are made, fragmented, and struggle for recognition in the U.S.A.” To do so, it focuses on the story of, “Latino Muslims [who] celebrate their intersecting identities both in their daily lives and in their mediated representations online.”
While I have yet to get my hands on this book, the publisher’s description gives us an overview:
As is evident from the above, research from, and on, Latinx Muslims is on the rise. The above provides valuable fodder and necessary provocation for further research and understanding by broader Muslim, American, and Latinx populations. Reflection, writing, and research is getting deeper and wider and that’s a good thing.
Of course, to be more cognizant, and fine-tuned, in researching Latinx Muslims, researchers have to ask the right questions in a community that is still growing, emerging, and solidifying itself. Future research must be deeper and broader still, more thoroughly theoretical in its approach, and perhaps focused on some of the following suggested areas for further research:
- more understanding of, and from, Latinx Muslim women who provide a rich, unique, and gendered place and perspective within a community where they are the majority;
- investigations of specific Latinx influence on Islamic doctrine and Muslim practice in the U.S. and abroad;
- further exploration of the accents and considerable transnational lives of Latinx Muslims. I am aiming to provide more on this in my own dissertation research with Puerto Rican Muslims and in my forthcoming book from Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press on Islam and Muslim communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Certainly, there is more left to discover about the nuances of this community’s narrative and how they fit into the global Muslim picture. Yet, the above works help provide a firm, and comprehensive, foundation for this further research.
Just 100 years ago the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. scantly existed, if it was present at all. Today, Latinx Muslims have the opportunity to shape Islam and Muslim communities in the U.S., in Latin America, and across the globe with their particular accent on its theology, practice, and expansion and via the various media of global communication and contact between multiple cultures and communities. The above works showcase how this is already happening and why it matters.