LATINO IN A SHALWAR KAMEEZ: “WHOA I’M A MUSLIM”

          When I was in middle school, I remember reading a story book about Tariq bin Ziyad, the general of the Muslims who had conquered Spain in 711. These Muslims later became known as the “Moors” after the reconquest of Spain by Christians. The Moorish influence on Spain was tremendous - everything from language and architecture to dance and art was affected by Islam and Arab culture. When I learned Spanish in high school, I found out that the Spanish term for the word “there” is “alla” (pronounced “aya”) because when the Spanish Muslims pointed to the sky they said “Allah.” The locals assumed they were pointing out that something was there in the sky, hence the adaptation of the Arabic word for God to the Spanish word for “there.”

          The Moors seemed pretty neat to me. So I was disappointed to find out that no Muslims lived in Spain anymore. Though the Moors had intermarried with the Spaniards, the practice of Islam in Spain had ended. Most of the Spanish Muslims had been thrown out under the Spanish Inquisition along with Spanish Jews. The remaining non-Christians converted to Christianity to save their lives. The Christian extremist movement ended a great period in world and Spanish history of multicultural and multi-faith cooperation and achievement.

          Yet I was not the only one who had a sense of regret over the Spanish Muslims and the greatness of Islamic Spain. John Cordero was a high school student in Florida when he became intrigued by hip hop lyrics about Islam. He had moved from Caracas, Venezuela to the United States with his mom when he was 12. When he first moved, a few kids made fun of the way he talked and dressed, being different from those who were born here in America. But he learned English and was like almost any other Hispanic high school student. He listened to Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, Erik B and Rakim and other Muslim rappers in 1992: “It sounded good, so I wanted to find out what they were talking about.”

          His curiosity took him a few years later to meeting some 5 percenters, whose militant doctrine did not quell his thirst. The 5 percent doctrine holds the black man as god-like and considers Islam a science. The world is divided into white and black people, with those who are clearly not white but not black either considered black. John felt alienated and confused by 5 percenter theory: “I’m not black. I’m not white. Where do I fit? It’s either black or white, no in between. It didn’t make sense.”

          John was back to where he started - a displaced Latino - and began studying all world religions. He was shocked to find that important aspects of Christianity are based on pagan Roman rituals, adopted to the practice of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine and others in the Christian hierarchy so as to make the transition for the masses from paganism easier. He was frustrated: “I had to get to the source, and it had to make 100% sense to me.”

          He gave Islam another look because he was curious about how Islamic beliefs originated. He was surprised to find that the Qur’’an has been preserved since the Prophet Muhammed’s time in its original form. He also had abstained from eating pork because he had learned that the pig was a dirty animal and possibly harmful to human health. The more he read of Islam, the more Islam made sense to John. He found that the 5 Percenters’’ doctrine did not represent true Islam. “Once you study the teachings of the Prophet, you’ll see that he’ll say that the Arab is not better than another person. Muslims come from all over the world.”

          The espousement of racial equality was a major draw for the little boy who had come from Venezuela not speaking English and teased on occasion for his background.

          Attracted now even more to Islam than ever before, John looked up in his local Miami phone book for a mosque and found one. That day at the mosque, John felt very calm and found the mosque pleasantly quiet. After discussing what his understanding of Islam was, the Muslim man he was speaking to asked him if he was ready to become a Muslim. John knew he wanted to be Muslim and took the shahada, changing his life and taking on the Muslim name Abdur-Rashid. He left the mosque in silence, aware that he had committed to a new lifestyle. As he showered afterwards, as the Muslims at the mosque advised him to do upon conversion, he felt a high he had not experienced before, the joyful realization that he was now a Muslim: “I went to work, and I was on a high. I was like whoa, I’m a Muslim.” Rashid had become one of the estimated 40,000 Latino-descent Muslims today in the United States.

          Rashid, as he is now called by his Muslim and non-Muslim friends, never saw the Muslim who witnessed his conversion again, but he returns to the same mosque often, like a twenty-first century Moor re-tracing the steps of Spanish Islam. Like the Moors, Rashid, who is 24 years old and an undergraduate student in Journalism at Florida International University, practices among Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds, the majority of whom are Pakistani at his Miami mosque. Before he had taken shahada, he had never known of Pakistanis, mainly because the Pakistani community in Miami is insulated. Soon, he became accepted among the Pakistani-American mosque-goers. “My best friends are Pakistani,” says Rashid, pointing out that they taught him a great deal about Islam and also that his core group of friends includes Arab-descent and African-American Muslims as well.

          Some of the older Pakistanis sometimes give Rashid odd glances: “Every once in a while, they are like ‘‘Who are you?’’ A lot of them are really surprised that I’m Hispanic and Muslim.” The younger generation and most of the other mosque-goers have be-friended Rashid: “The ones that are my age, we can totally relate on a lot of levels.” Like every person who has encountered Pakistani culture, Rashid has been the beneficiary of the “Please eat” attitude. He says, “They [Pakistanis] are generous and hospitable. They always welcome me into their home. They always want me to eat. They are very kind. I’ll ask for one glass of water, and they’ll give me two. I wonder if this is part of Islam or if it existed before Islam. They’re always checking up on me and looking out for me.”

          His new Pakistani friends have given him many shalwar kameez outfits, which he finds very comfortable and wears to Jumaa prayers sometimes with a kufi prayer cap. Of Pakistani food, Rashid says, “At first, it was too spicy for me, but now I love it - roti and kabob and chai, basmati rice, chicken tikka. I love rasmallai.” Rashid has even begun speaking a little Urdu, having learned from his friends including such basics as “Aap kaa haal kya hai?” which means “How are you?” Rashid speaks the Urdu he knows in an almost perfect accent, prompting his Pakistani landlord to call him “’’like his own son.’’”

          Today in the United States, we American Muslims, Pakistani and Latino and of many other racial backgrounds, have the chance to re-create the grandeur of Islamic Spain. In our own practice of Islam in a non-Islamic country, among Muslims of diverse backgrounds and also among those of other religious faiths and backgrounds, we peek through the eyehole on the door to greatness. As Rashid reminded me, the Qur’an was given to all humankind for all time with no preference or favoritism for a particular race or class. American Muslims, in all their colors, live these principles of the Qur’an as the Moors did, celebrating the benefits of multiculturalism and multi-faith diversity.

Courtesy of Pakistan Link, reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.


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