Growth of Islam: Latin America

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SOME three-four million Muslims live in Latin America and over 50,000 of them are Hispanic. Majority of Muslims there have roots from Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. There are large Muslim populations in Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. Mosques and prayer houses can be found in all major cities.

Islam in Latin America began with Muslim journeys to the continent even before the arrival of Columbus. Evidence of this early contact is based on world maps produced by Muslims in the early 16th century. Later, during the voyages of Columbus to the New World, some Muslim Moors are believed to have accompanied him, fleeing persecution in the Iberian Peninsula. In Brazil, the importation of African slaves during the colonial period accounted for a substantial influx of Muslims into the continent. Little is known whether these early Muslims were able to maintain their faith.

The Islamic influence on regional architecture and culture between 1600-1800 CE is still visible today in cities such as Lima, Cholula and Guatemala City. Lima, the capital of Peru, is famous for its Tapadas Limenas or Covered Women in Lima. During the 18th Century, there was uprising of Muslim slaves (Brazil201835).

Since late 19th century, Arabs first began to immigrate from the Middle East to Latin America. The descendants of these immigrants are still found today in significant numbers. Further, emigrants from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine increased during the mid 20th Century after Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its surrounding areas. These Muslims were largely merchants and became influential in local trade. Many have even held leading positions in government.

In the 1980s, many who had previously lost touch with their Islamic roots have been turning back to Islam. Over the last 25 years, increasing numbers of Catholics of Hispanic and Indian American origin have been accepting Islam. Local mestijo and indigenous people are embracing Islam in larger numbers.

In the 1990s, majority of Da’wah activities were spearheaded by reverts (converts) to Islam. Each year more students from Latin America complete their Islamic studies at institutions around the Muslim world.

Influential Arab Muslims did play an important role in setting up Islamic centres. But now the spread of Islam has been taken forward by Hispanic Muslims. Converts in Mexico run majority of activities.

Colombian Dawah Center

One of the Islamic centers in Latin America is the Colombian Dawah Center, situated in the area of Dos Quebradas in the city of Pereira. Pereira itself is located in one of the main coffee growing regions of Colombia. Its central location and easy access to other parts of the country make it an ideal location for the establishment of an Islamic center.

The first mosque in Pereira was built in 2007. It is the focal point of the Muslim community, and serves as a center for Islamic learning and social gatherings. Some of the activities and facilities at the Colombian Dawah Center include:

  • Baraka Cafeteria, which serves halal food for Muslims;
  • Islamic classes that teach basic aspects of the religion;
  • Hosting regional Islamic conferences and Da‘wah workshops;

The Center aims to become self sufficient in due course so that it can fund its own activities. It does not want to be dependent on external bodies for assistance. The key focus is on developing an Islamic center that caters to the needs, culture and sensitivities of the local people.


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