A book about Alianza Islamica?

Discover the rich and incredible legacy of Alianza Islamica.

Set in the backdrop of the turbulent civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s, a budding wave of Latino Muslims began to emerge in the heart of Spanish Harlem, New York City. What began as a few teenagers with a passion for Islam would soon grow into a sweeping movement which would send shockwaves across both the Latino and Muslim communities.

Now, this profound and enlightening book seeks to unveil the unique story of the Alianza Islamica, artfully recounting the origins and formation of what would in a few short years rise to become the most influential Latino Muslim organization in America. Intertwining poignant personal stories with real excerpts of writings and radio interviews with its founders, this book provides a thorough and detailed account of Alianza Islamica’s history, exploring what it means to be a Latino Muslim in America.

As a powerful read for both devout Muslims and newcomers to the faith, or anyone who wants to learn more about the deeply interesting history of Islam in the Latino community, Alianza Islamica: Spanish Harlem’s Islamic Odyssey will speak to your soul as it brings to light the rich and vibrant legacy of this incredible movement.

Book cover for "Alianza Islamica: Spanish Harlem's Islamic Odyssey."
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Muslim Latino Prisoners: An Interview with Professor SpearIt

By Juan Galvan

Islamic Horizons

January/February 2020

Islamic Horizons recently talked with Professor SpearIt, author of American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam (2017) and professor of law at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

Professor SpearIt

He has taught for the Prison University Project at California’s death-row facility, San Quentin State Prison; taught corrections law at Saint Louis University School of Law; and serves on the advisory board of the Prison Program, which offers courses to both inmates and staff.

He is currently active in the American Bar Association’s Corrections Committee and its work to restore Pell Grant Funding for prisoners.

I.H. What can you tell us about Latino Muslims within the established Muslim prison communities?

P.S. A number of sources contend that Islam is growing among incarcerated Latinos. There are no reliable statistics about their number or denominational affiliation. I assume that a majority of them gravitate toward Sunni Islam, as is the case on the outside. I haven’t heard of any Latino Muslim-majority community in any institution, which suggests that their numbers are relatively small and most likely fold into the African American Muslim community.

I’ve heard of Mexican/Chicano gangs beating up converts for “betraying” the race. There are three factors at play here: (1) gang life often combines issues of race and religion; (2) their conversion is often accompanied by a cultural foray that provides direct insight into their cultural identity, including Arabic’s contribution to Spanish; and (3) a way to distance themselves from Christianity, especially Catholicism, and express their revulsion of its colonial legacy — including the penitentiary itself — in the Americas.

Religion sometimes inspires inmates to become educated and therefore better decisionmakers. Muslim prisoners have lower recidivism numbers than non-Muslims. One hopes that they will experience a similar success when transiting back into their communities.

Finally, we should start seeing more Latinos embrace the longstanding Muslim tradition of using the courts to sue prisons. Muslims generate the greatest number of religious complaints of any other religious group in prison. As more Latinos convert, I believe that we will see more Spanish surnames listed as the plaintiff.

I.H. What do you think about CAIR’s lawsuit, filed on Aug. 26 last, against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of three Muslim inmates — two of them Latinos — that alleges discrimination against Muslims in LA jails?

P.S. This is just one more case in the long history of violating the equal protection laws. In short, Latino Muslims are being forced to prove themselves the way African American Muslims did in the 60s and 70s — not because they are Latino, but because prisons continue to discriminate against all Muslims. Case law reflects the fact that incarcerated Muslims have always had to struggle to enforce their rights. The 1st Amendment says what it says, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims enjoy full rights. Although Islam has been deemed a “genuine religion,” prisons still classify some Muslim groups as SGT (security group threats), which means that they are disenfranchised of these rights altogether.

I.H. Are you familiar with the Latino Muslim Survey, which found that most Latino Muslims are female converts and that few Latinos embrace Islam in prison? Why do you think this is the case?

P.S. I would venture to say that Latinos view this more as an issue of cultural apostasy. Islam in prison is still viewed as a “Black religion,” so the infrastructure isn’t there in the same way. There is a legacy of Black prison converts, but not so much for Latinos. It’s different on the outside, where actual Latino mosques offer the type of support, resources and infrastructure that prisoners lack. We’re now are at the beginning stages, but I suspect that the numbers will keep increasing.

I.H. Do you think that African-American prisoners’ lack of da‘wah to Latinos is one reason why there aren’t many Latino Muslim prisoners?

P.S. Honestly, I think it’s more of an issue of the cultural constraints coming from Latinos themselves. Based on my correspondence with them, it seems that Black prisoners welcomed them and that prison was the place where some of the lessons of the Five Percenters, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, were translated into Spanish. Being Mexicano runs deeps, and for some this might seem to be incompatible with being Muslim.

I.H. Do you have any thoughts about “prislam” and Latino Muslims?

P.S. That term denotes the meshing of prison culture, gang attitudes, structures and mores with Islamic ideas. The current lack of Muslim chaplains creates space for prisoners to give khutbas and provide other services. Unfortunately, this opportunity is often twisted to advance criminal or other subversive behavior in the name of Islam.

This became more serious after 9/11, particularly because the feds’ refusal to let chaplains enter prisons created a leadership vacuum. State-level prisons often don’t have enough resources to hire qualified Muslim chaplains and thus must rely on community volunteers or prisoners to lead the services. I have advocated that prisons work with seminaries to turn interested prison converts into authentic Muslim chaplains; however, progress in this regard has been very slow.

I.H. Would more inmates convert if there were less prislam? Does the racial and ethnic segregation in prison result in fewer Latino Muslims converting?

O.S. And very quickly, yes. Latinos lack the natural groups within the Black prison community, where Islam is a prominent part. In some states like California, which segregate living quarters by race, it is much harder for them to enter the Muslim fold. I think that your question is right on.

I.H. Are there many White converts in prisons? If so, what’s their relationship with other Muslim prisoners?

P.S. Some Whites do covert, but to what extent this occurs remains unclear. I’ve heard of Aukai Collins (1974-2016), an Irish-American also known as Aqil Collins, who converted some time ago and authored My Jihad (2002). More recently Gregory Holt, a White Sunni Muslim imprisoned in Arkansas, won a 2014 Supreme Court case to grow a beard. He’s also involved in another case that’s before a federal appeals court. He is arguing that it’s unconstitutional to make all Muslims worship together because the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths are so different from Sunni Islam that Sunnis need their own worship space.

American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam (2017)

I.H. What kinds of resources are there for interested Latino prisoners?

P.S. State and federal prisons typically have libraries, many of which contain the Qur’an, the writings of Islamic scholars and other traditional works. Moreover, prisons usually have authorized distributors of religious materials — beads, oils and other items — that inmates can buy through authorized vendors. Prisons usually allow inmates to receive halal and other sharia-compliant foodstuffs from friends and family.

Schedules for formal religious services and other religious gatherings are usually posted. Some prisons insist that only Muslims can attend Muslim services, whereas others allow inmates to explore various faith traditions and attend multiple services during the week.

In addition, all sorts of courses, including Islamic and Arabic courses, can be done by mail if the prisoner can pay the necessary fees. I don’t know of any Latino Muslim community outreach efforts that specifically target Latinos.

I.H. What kind of resources would be beneficial?

P.S. Well, that may depend upon the prison system. For example, federal prisons tend to house immigration violators, more of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Thus, they would benefit from having more Spanish-language cassettes, books, magazines and so on.

Of course it would help if Congress reinstated Pell Grant funding for prisoners, for those funds could be used for vocational training and to train interested converts to become qualified chaplains and thereby fill in some of the leadership gaps both now and in the future.

Having access to the Internet would be a huge benefit, given the current dearth of available Spanish-language or Latino-directed materials. Prisoners cannot easily hit up Google, for prisons remain governed by archaic ways — including no Internet. Also, prisons could become more proactive by hiring qualified Muslim chaplains rather than relying on volunteers.

I.H. What would you like I.H. readers to know from your book?

P.S. That American prisons are an important piece of American Islam. Although the total number of Muslims in this country is small, the impact of Islam behind bars is the stuff of legend. In fact, prisons are an important part of Islamic history in America. As more Latinos learn about the history of Muslim Spain and other cultural links, Islam’s impact will continue to grow. I believe that Latino Muslims, following in the footsteps of their African American forbearers, are slated to usher in an Islamic renaissance behind bars.

Juan Galvan (latinomuslim.com), editor of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, advocates for including Latino Muslim voices in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He encourages Muslims to learn more about this specific minority identity.

My Interview with Juan Galvan

By Anastacia A. Parks

  • What ethnicity are you?

I am Mexican-American. I’m third-generation. I was born in Texas. I live in Illinois now with my wife and three sons. My wife is Albanian-Brazilian. I must live in one of the most diverse households in the U.S.

  • What religion did you grow up into?

I was a Roman Catholic then became an atheist as an adult before choosing Islam. I don’t hate people of other faiths or no religion at all. I wish the best for everyone and treat everyone the way I want to be treated.

This photo was taken in Turkey, Texas when Juan’s father was a cotton ginner.
  • When did you convert to Islam?

I embraced Islam in June 2001. When 9/11 happened three months later, one of my non-Muslim friends said, “Well, you sure picked a horrible time to become a Muslim.” Life isn’t a popularity contest. I’m going to follow what I believe.

  • What was the main reason you converted to Islam?

I chose Islam because of my love of Islamic teachings especially the belief in the Oneness of God. I read a lot about Islam and loved what I learned. My conversion story can be found in my book Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam.

  • What do you think Islam offers Latinos that other religions do not?

Islam offers the Latino community a unique identity that is unlike that of any other religion. Islam has broadened my awareness of Latino and Muslim identity. I no longer believe that all Latinos are Catholics as I did as a little boy growing up in a small town. Islam is for everyone. I’m blessed to be a Muslim.

  • Over the past five years, there has been a surge of young Latinos converting from Christianity to Islam. What do you think has inspired this transition?

Islam and Muslims in the U.S. receive more visibility than ever before thus, Islamic information is more accessible and less social stigma is attached to leaving one religion for another. I think young Latinos are also attracted to Islam because they see a need for it within our community.

  • For many Latinos who were originally Catholic is this a difficult transition into becoming Muslim?

Becoming a Muslim can be a difficult transition for new Latino converts. Because Muslims can make the transition easier, new Muslims should look for those with genuine Islamic manners. New converts must have patience with themselves and others. New Muslims shouldn’t be expected to learn everything in one day.

  • Being Latino what keeps you motivated and devoted to Islam?

Knowing I’m pleasing our Creator keeps me motivated. I help many people come closer to Islam or help reinforce their beliefs and that helps keep me motivated, too. The Quran is also important in my devotion. I wrote a book full of my favorite verses so non-Muslims would understand what Muslims love about the Quran. My book is titled “And One of His Signs…”: Quran Verses that Softened my Heart.

  • What is the main reaction you get from the public when you inform them you are both Latino and Muslim?

The public is usually surprised to learn that I am both a Latino and a Muslim. Many Americans have never even met a Muslim and then they meet me. Islam doesn’t ask everyone to be the same. I am who am I am.

Anastacia A. Parks earned her Bachelor of Science in Cultural Anthropology and is currently a Masters student of History at UNC-Charlotte.

HHM Feature – Juan Galvan, Raising Hispanic Muslim Experiences

SEPTEMBER 27, 2019 BY NBAMUSLIMS

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nbamuslims/2019/09/27/hispanic-muslims-juan-galvan/

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month,  NbA Muslims, in collaboration with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, will feature Latinx Muslims engaged in progressive work inside and outside of US Muslim communities. This week, we profile Juan Jose Galvan, who has highlighted Latinx Muslims and advocated for appreciation for and inclusion of their unique cultural experiences in Muslim spaces and narratives.

Galvan is the editor of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam and served as the executive director of the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) from 2005 to 2013. He was the editor of its online newsletter, The Latino Muslim Voice, from 2002 to 2012. Through his role as the editor, he actively contributed articles to the newsletter, including Jesus and the Virgin Mary in Islam and FAQs about Latino Muslims. In his career, he has actively written about various Latino Muslim events, organizations and leaders. Juan manages the LatinoDawah.org and HispanicMuslims.com websites. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems (BBA-MIS) from The University of Texas at Austin.

Galvan advocates for the inclusion of the Latino Muslim voice in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He pushes for increased visibility of America’s Latino Muslims in religious publications. Juan has assisted dozens of students, professors, and reporters with research and has provided access to the Latino Muslim community through interviews and his writings. He has spoken at various Islamic conferences and developed a growing national reputation as a content expert on the Latino Muslim community through newspaper interviews and publications.

Galavan authored Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam and the recently-released “And One of His Signs…”: Quran Verses that Softened my Heart.

When did Latino Muslim conversion begin to grow in the U.S.?

Following the tragedy of 9-11, many people came to learn about Islam for the first time. People wanted to know, “Is this Islam? What is Islam?” Many wanted to know why the attacks happened. So, millions of non-Muslims went out and purchased books about Islam, visited mosques, and heard lectures on Islam. Most Americans came to separate Islam and the greater Muslim community from those responsible for the 9-11 tragedy.

Some people came to hate Islam, and some people came to love Islam. Many people at least began to respect Islam. Largely, these adopted views depended on the information they read, heard, or watched about Islam. Many people studied Islam and liked what they read and then converted. I met a lady that said that she first started reading about Islam because she wanted to confirm that Islam was evil. After reading a lot about Islam, she converted to Islam! Many people returned to their churches, synagogues, and mosques while others came to churches, mosques, and synagogues for the first time. And, of course, we should not forget all the people and organizations that reached out to their neighbors for the first time.

Latino Muslims have been converting to Islam since before 9-11. The Latino Muslim community has consistently grown annually. I do not know how many Latinos embraced Islam after 9-11. Some Muslim organizations have stated that the Latino Muslim community tripled or quadrupled after 9-11. Like many other Americans, many Latinos embraced Islam after learning what Islam was really about. 

In 2017, Dr. Gastón Espinosa, Dr. Harold Morales, and I released the results of the Latino Muslims Survey (LMS) in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion. According to the report, the growth of conversion rates among Latinos in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon though individual Latinos have been embracing Islam since the 1920s. Over 74 percent of LMS respondents reported having embraced Islam in the past fifteen years (1999-2014). Only 4 percent of Latino Muslims surveyed reported they were raised as Muslims. 

What are some parts of the country with the highest number of conversions? 

The size of the Latino Muslim population within a particular area typically corresponds to the size of the overall Muslim population within that area. For example, an area, whether city or state, with numerous Muslims, usually has more Latino Muslims than an area with fewer Muslims. You can find Latino Muslims in all major cities within the United States. The largest numbers of Latino Muslims live in cities with large numbers of both Latinos and Muslims, resulting from interactions between members from both communities. Cities with the greatest numbers of Latino Muslims include Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Chicago. 

The number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information about religion. Estimates range from as low as 40,000 up to as high as 250,000. No precise numbers exist regarding the size of Latino Muslim populations in any specific cities or states. In Texas and California, most Latino Muslims are Mexicans or Central Americans. On the east coast. Latino Muslims are usually Puerto Rican or Dominican, which is not surprising considering the dispersion of the Latino population within the United States.

According to the LMS study, the states with the highest concentrations of Latino Muslim participants were California (19%), Texas (15%), New York (12%), New Jersey (11%), Florida (7%), Illinois (5%), Georgia (4%), and Pennsylvania (3%).  The LMS survey found that most Latino Muslims are women (73%), were born in the U.S. (62%), and come from diverse countries of origin, even though a majority trace their ancestry to Mexico (31%) or Puerto Rico (22%). 

What are some the common reasons Latino Muslims convert to the faith?

Why people choose Islam depends on the individual you ask. Many Latinos will just say that it is through Allah’s mercy and guidance. In our LMS report, we include the following table that shows the results of some questions we asked survey respondents. The Islamic belief in monotheism/Tawhid (95%) is a “very or somewhat influential” factors in Latino Muslims’ decision to embrace Islam. Other highly influential factors included the practice of daily prayers (76%), the Islamic belief in prophethood (75%), the racial/ethnic equality called for in Islam (74%), and the practice of charity/zakat in Islam (71%).

In the LMS report, we concluded that the high conversion rates of Latinos to Islam are largely due to a heavy emphasis on proselytism (dawah). We supported this finding by the fact that 40 percent first heard about Islam from a friend, 13 percent from a spouse or future spouse, and 8 percent from a family member, while only 4 percent first heard about Islam from a radio or television show, and 3 percent from an Islamic website. Roughly a third (33%) of the LMS respondents reported trying to convert others to Islam regularly; 11 percent did so every day; 10 percent once a week or more, and another 12 percent once a month or more. This focus on personal dawah helps explain the Latino Muslim growth between 1999-2014.

Because of a commonly held misconception that Islam was “spread by the sword,” many non-Muslims find it hard to accept that Latinos convert to Islam primarily because they fall in love with the teachings of Islam. Belief in Islam is a matter of the heart and mind. People also continue to associate Islam with polytheism or paganism when in reality it is the purest monotheistic religion. When you read the news, people seem to convert to Islam for every reason but belief. Many new Muslims often point out reasons that may have initially attracted them to Islam, and rather than putting these reasons into their proper perspective as part of the journey, they attribute them as the catalysts for conversion. Media coverage often overlooks the Islamic message of hope, love, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, Islam is seen as a foreign religion from a faraway land, and its followers are also seen as foreign and therefore, strange, different, and distant. Islam has many similarities with the other Abrahamic faiths that attract many non-Muslims. However, if Islam were exactly like other religions, non-Muslims would have no reason to embrace Islam. People are attracted to Islam because it is different. That is where the beauty comes from. I hope my book Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam fights against this anti-Islam mentality. In my book, Latino Muslims from all walks of life discuss their conversion to Islam. 

Are Latino Muslims integrating their cultural identities into their new faith experiences? How?

I strongly believe that the central role of the family is the most important aspect of Latino identity. The problems found in Latino families may be similar or maybe even the same as those in other communities. Different families have different problems. For example, a Latino immigrant to the United States may have a large, supportive family in her native country, knowing all their cousins, aunts, and uncles. These people are very important to them. If something happens, the family is there to help. However, this may change when moving to the US. They may question common values held in their home countries’ cultural identities and find themselves with little family support if any. Their family members experience a lot of stress and hardship. Problems they never imagined may occur. Families in Latino culture is very similar to how it is in Islam. Many Latinos are looking for a way to protect their family life and see Islam as a way of returning their family to its proper place in society. Islam takes what is beautiful and makes it more beautiful. 

Most Muslim converts effortlessly adjust to their relationship with their family embracing their Muslim identity. No one wants to be the outcast. One of the worse things new Muslims can do is to alienate themselves from their family. Converting to Islam does not mean cutting ties. After becoming a Muslim, you are still a member of your family. Your mother is still your mother, and your father is still your father. Love towards your family is natural and unconditional. You should be kind toward your family. You should obey your parents and elders as long as their advice does not contradict the teachings of Islam. Embracing Islam is an opportunity to teach your family and friends about Islam. Know that they have a right to reject Islam if that is what they want. Also, know that you cannot take part in haraam, or prohibited, activities. Integration is not about rejecting everything about your culture. I still love the food I grew up eating but eat nothing that contains pork. These are important considerations for all Muslim converts integrating their cultural identities into our new faith.

What are some unique challenges facing Latino Muslims inside Muslim communities in the U.S.?

I appreciate the love and support we receive from other Muslims. Many mosques, Muslim organizations, and individual Muslims actively work with Latino Muslims on projects hoping to strengthen the Muslim community. CAIR, ISNA, MAS, and ICNA have programs geared specifically for Latino Muslims. ICNA/WhyIslam is a noteworthy example. Because Islam is a universal brotherhood, I deal with every Muslim as an individual and avoid stereotypes that can endanger our relationship with one another. Some raised Muslims have negative stereotypes about Latinos. Some people raised as Muslims think all Latinos are promiscuous and incapable of becoming a ‘real’ Muslim. Often, the different Muslim communities in the U.S. aren’t too sure how to relate to one another. 

We all share our religion but we don’t all share the same connected histories. Latino Muslim history differs greatly from African-American Muslim history, for example. The Muslim communities are not all the same. Although you may feel welcomed at your mosque, it doesn’t mean a Latino will feel welcomed there. According to the LMS findings, three-fourths (77%) of those surveyed reported that Latino Muslims face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes (48%) or sometimes face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes by Muslims who are not Latino (29%). Only 15 percent reported that they do not face or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes by non-Latino Muslims.  

Latino Muslims want to feel accepted and treated as equals. One reason Alianza Islamica was founded in the 1980s was that Latinos were constantly asked not to speak Spanish at the mosques they attended. The Bani Saqr, a mostly Puerto Rican Muslim community, was founded in New Jersey in the 1970s under the leadership of a well-respected African-American imam. I also encourage you to learn about the history of the Punjabi Mexican-Americans in California. The Latino Muslim community has been a bridge between Muslim communities because we can relate to both the native-born and immigrant Muslim communities through our common experiences. “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” – Quran 49:13.

What are some challenges facing Latino Muslims in Hispanic communities and the broader society? 

Eighty-four percent (84%) of LMS participants reported that Latinos Muslims face discriminatory attitudes (63%) or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes (21%) by Latinos who are not Muslim. Many Latino non-Muslims genuinely believe that Islam is bad for the Latino community. They may be concerned with other Latinos leaving their “original culture.” But what is original culture? Latinos can’t define culture by religion because our ancestors were from all different religions. Many Hispanics think leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should reevaluate how we traditionally define culture. Although some people define culture as something static, I think defining culture as a dynamic process is more accurate. The current Latino culture is merely today’s Latino culture. If in a hundred years from now most Latinos are Muslim, the typical Latino would consider Islam inseparable from the Latino culture. Islam sets the framework and direction that the Latino Muslim culture takes. Accepting Islam means rejecting some old ways, accepting some new ways, and adapting when necessary. I am a Latino American and a Muslim. There is no contradiction in my identity. 

Hispanic Heritage Month occurs annually from September 15th to October 15th. It celebrates the history, presence, and contributions of all Hispanics and Latinos in the United States and highlights the diversity of the Latino community. In the U.S., citizens have opportunities to interact with people from all nationalities, cultures, and religions. We live in the most diverse country in the world. Many people are not very supportive of diversity when it comes to Latino Muslims though. Many Americans do not appreciate all the cultural and religious diversity found in the United States. However, negative stereotypes are constantly challenged in our diverse society. Americans have been blessed to share their different beliefs, experiences, and perspectives. Latino Muslims are a great American story. 

Note: According to a short survey I conducted last year, most Latino Muslims do not like being referred to as Latinx. Please forgive me if I have offended anyone.

Article – Why the stories of Latinx Muslims matter

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Why the stories of Latinx Muslims matter

Ken Chitwood

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. Martínez-Vásquez’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:

“In this book, Harold Morales follows the lives of several Latino Muslim leaders from the 1970’s to the present, and their efforts to organize and unify nationally in order to solidify the new identity group’s place within the public sphere. Based on four years of ethnography, media analysis and historical research, Morales demonstrates how the phenomenon of Latinos converting to Islam emerges from distinctive immigration patterns and laws, urban spaces, and new media technologies that have increasingly brought Latinos and Muslims in to contact with one another. He explains this growing community as part of the mass exodus out of the Catholic Church, the digitization of religion, and the growth of Islam. Latino and Muslim in America explores the racialization of religion, the framing of religious conversion experiences, the dissemination of post-colonial histories, and the development of Latino Muslim networks, to show that the categories of race, religion, and media are becoming inextricably entwined.”

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.

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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.