From Cross to Crescent

Why Latinos are increasingly converting to Islam

As a girl in Catholic school, Khadijah Rivera dreamed of becoming a nun despite the fact she feared Jesus. She was frightened by her church’s bloodied statue of Christ nailed to the cross and was plagued with fear when receiving communion. “When I used to put the host in my mouth,” she says, “I never bit it. I let it melt because I was afraid to bite the body and blood of Christ.” Years later, as an adult, she says she has now gotten over these fears and learned to love Jesus more. The reason for her change of heart? Rivera converted to Islam.

According to Rivera, who founded PIEDAD, a Latino Muslim organization based in Tampa, Florida, with over 300 members nationwide, Latino Muslims are on the rise. In America, they are close to 100,000 and growing, more than doubling their numbers in less than a decade.

Rivera says reading the Koran played a role in her conversion. “Here’s a book that explained to me in a logical matter why we’re on earth,” she says. “What we’re suppose to do and where we go afterward. All the questions you could ask are answered in the Koran.”

Now, as a Muslim who wears the hijab, or headscarf, Rivera, 56, says she doesn’t fear Jesus because she understands him. “I don’t see him as God, but as a man who was a messenger of God and a special prophet.”

A Supportive Forum

Latino Muslims can be found in sizable numbers in metropolitan centers where large populations of both Latinos and Muslims reside, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Miami.

LALMA (Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association) is one of the several Latino Muslim organizations in California. The organization began eight years ago with five members and now has over eight times that amount and still growing. LALMA offers not only Spanish speaking educational classes on Islam but also a supportive forum for Latino Muslims.

Marta Felicitas Ramirez, the leader of LALMA, says that she came to Islam through much soul-searching, study and by privately reciting the shahada (“There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger”) and witnessing immediate answers to her problems.

The 9/11 Factor

According to the Harvard University Pluralism Project, statistics show that there has been an increase in conversions to Islam in the US since 9/11. Many Latino Muslims attribute this to the media focus on Islam in the wake of events like 9/11 and the Iraq war. They believe that due to the extensive media coverage, people grow curious about Islam, check it out and often find truth in it.

Ramirez contends that for many of these traditionally Catholic Latinos, their conversion is eased by the fact that they don’t have to abandon their love of Jesus and Mary because both are highly regarded in Islam. The Koran dedicates an entire chapter to Mary.

Jesus, Mary and Islam

Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, says that there is more written in the Koran about Mary or Jesus than Muhammad. Turk says it’s also important to remember, “Muhammad came with the final brick for a beautiful building.”

“Statistics show that there has been an increase in conversions to Islam in the US since 9/11.”

In short, Turk says that Muslims believe that Jesus was born from a virgin birth, performed miracles—including healing the sick and raising the dead—and was the Messiah (a man chosen by God to lead the Jewish people back to God’s ways).

However, there are major differences. Unlike Christians, Muslims don’t consider Jesus divine or believe he rose from the dead. They also don’t believe in the idea of inherited Original Sin and that a divine atonement had to be made by a God-Man to bridge man’s eternal separation from God. According to Islam, Jesus was one of many prophets sent by God to turn mankind back to the ways of the Almighty. Muslims believe that Muhammad was God’s last prophet.

Leaving the Faith

Some believe that the conversions of Latinos from the faith of their ancestors isn’t motivated by theological issues. “The reason why some Latinos are leaving the Church for Islam is they never really understood Catholicism,” argues Fr. Lawrence Seyer at the University of Southern California’s Catholic Center. “They have a very cursory understanding of it, but what excites them about Islam is the discipline—no alcohol, a more structured prayer program and great sense of community.”

Nevertheless, Seyer adds that if these converts are seeking the truth and can find it better in their new group than in a dysfunctional Catholic group that they left, then maybe in the end, they will be better off. “But what we might at least hope for,” says Seyer, “is that they will explore this new faith, learn from it and then realize the wisdom they always had in the Catholic Church and come back home.”

Fr. Bill Delaney, senior priest of St. Agnes Church in South Los Angeles, which sits only a few blocks down from where LALMA often meets, says the reason why some leave is because they are not involved enough with their own parish. “It’s all about getting people connected,” says Delaney.

At St. Agnes—which is over 90 percent Latino—that connection is made through a 300-member charismatic prayer group that meets once a week. Delaney says that any Catholic who experiences one of their high-charged services will see another side of Catholicism that will draw them closer to their faith and Catholic community.

Trouble with the Trinity

In the two years that Turk has been Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center, he has seen over 100 converts to Islam and a majority of them have been Latino Catholics.

His experience suggests there may be more of a theological basis to these conversions than some might think. According to Turk, when Christians—Catholics in particular—were asked why they wanted to convert to Islam, without exception they said they had always believed in God but never could make sense of the Trinity and felt that Islam just made more sense. “There is no leap of faith in Islam,” says Turk.

“I always felt that ‘God the Father’ in the Trinity was the real boss and whenever I prayed, that’s who I had in mind,” says Ricardo Pena, a Latino convert to Islam living in Chicago. Pena says that as a devout Catholic, he never believed that Jesus was God. The Islamic idea that God is absolutely one—with no parts—and that Jesus is not God but a prophet just made more sense to him.

Pena was further attracted to Islam when he learned that it embraced Moses, Abraham, Adam, Eve and other biblical figures. “After hearing that, I was completely blown away,” says Pena. “How is it that they believe in ‘our’ prophets? I thought Islam had nothing to do with Christianity or Judaism.” Pena wanted to learn more.

After studying Islam for seven months, Pena, along with his brother, became a Muslim in 1995. But when Pena told his parents, they didn’t take it too well. “We broke the news to them at about 8:30 or 9 PM one night and didn’t conclude the dramatic fallout until four in the morning.”

Today his family is much more accepting. In fact, his older sister and her husband have since converted to Islam as well. “We are still hoping for our parents, though,” says Pena.