Slipped inside a strip mall across from Exposition Park where the smell of incense mingles with Arabic swirls on the wall, Muhammad Gomez absorbs the message of Allah. Sitting beside him in this storefront Islamic center, Domy Garcia raises her hand and asks why she and other Muslim women are obliged to cover their heads with the hijab. Mariam Montalvo takes diligent notes at the Sunday afternoon Islamic lesson with the holy Koran by her side.
Here at the ILM Foundation, a new Islamic movement is being born. Yet it lies far from Mecca, where the faith was founded more than 1,400 years ago. And the language of choice for this group of Islamic followers is not Arabic. These Muslims worship Allah in Spanish.
Montalvo, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1996, left the Catholic faith three months ago, frustrated by what she called contradictions within church teachings and preoccupation with the saints. After research and contemplation, she took the shahada, the simple declaration of faith by which one becomes a Muslim.
I had a lot of problems with the church. One Bible says one thing, and another Bible says something different. Then there are people who call themselves Catholics and drink and smoke, said Montalvo, 21. With Islam, it was so pure. I found there were no intermediaries. Everything goes straight to God.
If you were inclined to believe that most Muslims are Arabs, you would be wrong. Over the past 10 years, Islam has become one of the fastest-growing religions, with an estimated 1 billion adherents worldwide and 6 million followers in this nation. About half of the Muslims in the United States are African American converts. But, in recent years, Islamic teaching has begun gaining acceptance among members of the Latino community. Though precise statistics do not yet exist, Islamic leaders estimate that there are at least 15,000 Latino Muslims across the nation.
Last month, about 30 Southern California converts founded the Latino-Muslim Movement with the intent of educating Spanish-speaking Muslims and spreading Islam to other Latinos. After meeting informally for the past seven years, the group appointed officers and elected to meet at the ILM Foundation once a week.
Scores of Latinos throughout the country--specifically in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Miami--have fled the church of their birth and embraced Islam as their newfound faith.
In New York, a group of Puerto Rican Muslims opened an Islamic center in the heart of East Harlem called Alianza Islamica, where hundreds of Latinos have converted since 1992. The center, the first of its kind, includes a small mosque where the Friday sermon is heard in Arabic, English and Spanish. Islam has adherents throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as well, with especially strong followings in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Panama.
Reymundo Nur, a Panamanian who became Muslim at the age of 12 and studied Islam in Saudi Arabia, helped organize the Los Angeles group. Two years ago, Nur co-founded a national nonprofit organization called Asociacion Latina de Musulmanes en las Americas, which focuses on translating Islamic books and literature into Spanish.
He said one of his group's main projects is translating the Koran into contemporary, conversational Spanish. At least two Spanish translations of the Koran exist, but Nur said they use a more formal, Castilian Spanish.
There have always been Latino Muslims. It's only now that they're coming to the forefront, said Nur, vice president of the Latino-Muslim Movement in Los Angeles. We have a strong Islamic legacy, and people are rediscovering that part of their heritage. Many learn about it and say, 'Hey, I have more of this in me than I ever realized.'
Islamic ties to Hispanic culture date back to 711, when the Muslim general Tariq ibn Zayid conquered Spain, and the Christian Visigothic domination of Roderick came to an end. Under Moorish rule, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted in Spain. Conversion was encouraged but never forced. Because the Arabs did not bring women with them, they took Spanish wives, and within a few generations the Muslim population was more Spanish than Arab.
For the next 700 years, Al-Andalus, as the Muslims refer to Spain, enjoyed an era of political and cultural splendor, becoming one of the most intellectually advanced countries in medieval Europe. Islamic influence penetrated almost every facet of Spanish life, especially music, architecture and literature.
But, gradually, Christian armies advanced. After the fall of the last Moorish stronghold in Granada in 1492, the cross replaced the crescent on Spain's minarets and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled. Many Latino Muslims in Los Angeles see their conversion as a return to their Moorish roots.
Today, Southern California has the third-largest concentration of Muslims in the country, including 58 mosques and Islamic centers in Los Angeles County.
Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are monotheists believing in one God known as Allah. They revere biblical prophets including Noah, Isaac, Abraham and Moses. Jesus is also considered a prophet, but unlike Christians, Muslims do not accept him as the son of God. Muhammad is believed to be the last prophet to whom Allah revealed the Koran.
For former Catholics like Guadalupe Martinez, 26, it is this comprehensive set of beliefs that makes Islam appealing.
In Islam, there is no separation. You accept the Torah and the Bible, said Martinez, who converted in 1997. We love Jesus, we dress like Mary. It's like we're putting all the faiths together. It really touched me.
In Catholicism, there are just so many ways to go. Why am I going to pray to the saints? she added. When we find Islam, we don't have to waste energy. It's like if I call the operator to get a number, I waste energy. But with Islam, I have the number. I get connected directly to God.
Along with the formation of more Latino Muslim organizations, conversion stories have begun burning up the Internet.
Ali Al-Mexicano, a 25-year-old Pomona computer technician, created his own World Wide Web page account of how he became Muslim that includes the first time he read the Koran.
It was so clear and written in a simple, understanding way, he said. "It just hit me. This has to be the truth."
Though Al-Mexicano family accepted his conversion, several other young Latinos who have begun searching outside the traditional confines of Catholicism have found conversion to be a heart-wrenching affair, often tearing families apart.
A 1998 Georgetown University study of people ages 20 to 39 found that 8% of the Latinos had joined another denomination or religion. Of those, at least 65% left for evangelical Protestant groups, Pentecostal churches or Mormonism. A smaller percentage accepted other religions, including Islam and Buddhism.
Some relatives see conversion to other faiths as rejecting family and tradition.
Domy Garcia said her family in Mexico was confused and upset by her decision to leave the church. The Buena Park mother converted to Islam two years ago after rejecting the religion she said was forced on her Mexican ancestors. Undeterred by her family's reaction, Garcia said her main concern now is raising her children as Muslims and introducing more Latinos to Islam.
My family just would not accept it. They said, 'What happened? You've changed so much,' " she recalled. But it's all right, because on Judgment Day, my family won't be able to help. It will be God.
The Latino-Muslim Movement meets every Sunday afternoon for discussions at the ILM Foundation, a community center managed by Saadiq Saafir, a prominent African American prayer leader, or imam.
About 2 p.m., Elizabeth Chawki, a Native American who is fluent in Spanish, usually begins the sessions, which have focused on women, preparation of food, marriage and Islamic divorce. Despite the perception that all Muslims are Arab, Chawki said, converts see the distinction between religion and ethnicity.
This is about pure religion, not culture. We still eat our tamales and frijoles," said Chawki, referring to some Latino dishes served after the discussions.
Gomez, a native of Nicaragua with no prior religious affiliations, said it was after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X that he began to explore Islam. Like several other converts, Gomez spoke with resentment about the Catholic Church's involvement in Latin America.
Viewing Jesus as a prophet and a political leader, and not a God, made more sense to me, he said.
The Latino-Muslim Movement also aims to bring together Muslims regardless of race. At a recent meeting, Saafir reflected on the emerging phenomenon of Latino conversions as similar to the time when African Americans began accepting Islam 50 years ago. In allowing the group to use the Islamic center, Saafir hopes to tear down the barriers that divide blacks and Latinos.
We all realize that we're Muslim first, Saafir said. This religion is going to bring us together.
"Inshallah, he whispered. God willing.
* This article appeared in the L.A. Times Monday, March 15, 1999