Early US Latina/o—-African‐American Muslim Connections: Paths to Conversion

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Early US Latina/o—-African‐American Muslim Connections: Paths to Conversion
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  Early U.S. Latina/o — African-American MuslimConnections: Paths to Conversion muwo_1327 390..413 Patrick D. Bowen  University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology Denver, Colorado  Introduction  1  W  hile the literature concerning Latina/o Muslims in the United States has beengrowing, much about them still has yet to be explored, including the history of those who converted through joining African-American-majority Islamicgroups prior to 1975 (the year of the formation of perhaps the first U.S. Latina/o Muslimorganization, Alianza Islamica). 2 This paper, then, aims at presenting a more in-depthlook at the historical growth of U.S. Latina/o Muslims in the context of their connection with African-American Muslims up to the early 1980s. I will begin by presenting atheoretical approach for understanding the religious conversions of Latino Muslims. Iassert that we must understand their conversions as rejections and/or redefinitions of dominant discourses. I will then move on to a discussion of the historical context of thesocial, cultural, and ideological connections of Latina/os with African Americans, which will help us contextualize the evidence for Latina/os becoming Muslim through African-American social networks. Because of Latina/o Muslims’ small numbers in theearly years and difficulty of accessing primary sources that might mention them, thefindings in this paper should be seen as tentative and preliminary, with the hope thatfuture scholarship will continue to shed more light. 1 I would like to thank Shafiq Muhammad and Juan Galvan for their insights as have I pursued my research. However, any errors in this paper are entirely my own. 2 Most of the treatment of U.S. Latino Muslims has been journalistic; academic writing on the topic is stillfairly minimal, and mention of Latino Muslims has largely only been in the context of other topics.Notable scholarly works that focus primarily on U.S. Latino Muslims include Hisham Aidi’s “Let Us beMoors: Islam, Race and ‘Connected Histories’,”  Middle East Report   229 (2003): 42–53; “’Verily, There isOnly One Hip-Hop Umma’: Islam, Cultural Protest and Urban Marginality,”  Socialism and Democracy  18/2 (2004): 107–126; and “Jihadis in the Hood,”  Middle East Report   224 (2002): 36–43; Bill Weinberg,“Muslims in the Americas Face Scrutiny,”  NACLA Report on the Americas   (2003): 25–27; Lisa Viscidi,“Latino Muslims a Growing Presence in America,”  Washington Report on Middle East Affairs   22/5(2003): 56–58; Edward SpearIt Maldonado,  God Behind Bars: Race, Religion, & Revenge   Ph.D.dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara. (Ann Arbor: UMI Publishing, 2006); and Hijamil A.Martinez-Vazquez,  Latina/o Y Musulman: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States   (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), the last of which is the firstbook to focus solely on U.S. Latino Muslims. © 2010 Hartford Seminary.Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148USA. 390  Before proceeding we must clarify three things. First, this paper will be examiningU.S. Latino Muslims since the early 20 th century. These individuals were probably not thefirst U.S. Latina/o Muslim converts, nor were they the first Latina/o Muslims in the areathat is now known as the United States. There is at least one confirmed conversion of aLatina to Islam in southern California in the early 20 th century as the result of the marriageof a Mexican-American woman to a Punjabi immigrant, and it is likely that there weremore at that time and place. 3 In addition, research into the history of pre-Columbianexploration of the Americas and of enslaved persons brought to the Americas has shownthat a number of these Iberian-connected persons (and many of African descent) wereMuslims, and that some of the slaves may have been brought to what is now the U.S. inas early as the 16 th century. 4 Besides a few clear examples, 5 there is little direct evidenceto prove that these Iberian-connected enslaved persons in the region now known as theU.S. were in fact Muslims. But, taking into account the locations from which they wereextracted, Michael Gomez has concluded that we cannot rule out the possibility,especially if we include Puerto Rico where, by it srcinally being colonized by theSpanish, all African Muslims there could be considered “Latino.” Nonetheless, there islittle evidence that the Islamic practices of any of these enslaved Muslims weremaintained up through the 20 th century. 6 This, however, brings up another issue: that of defining“Latino.”WhiletheLatinoAmericanDawahOrganization(LADO)includesinits“Latino” or “Hispanic” Muslim literature conversion stories from people who havecultural ties from Spain and Portugal to Malaysia, 7 there is some dispute within the“Latino” community as to who can or should or would want to identify as such. Early enslaved persons brought via Iberian traders, for example, were often forced by theircaptives to take Latin names in the interim between their captivity and sale to Americans — Should we count these people as “Latino”? 8 Similarly, members of variousIslamic-based groups reject such an identity (as we shall see). And of course, not all“Latino” Muslims even identify themselves as such, focusing instead sometimes solely ontheirreligiousidentityandsometimesontheirnationoforiginidentity. 9 Nevertheless,foranalyticalpurposes,IwillfollowtheleadofLADOandidentifyas“Latina/o”allwhomay self-identify as such and those who have an Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) cultural 3 Karen Isaksen Leonard,  Making Ethnic Choices   (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 130,n.36. 4 For a discussion of evidence on pre-Columbian Muslim exploration and possible inhabitance in the Americas, see Abdullah Hakim Quick,  Deeper Roots   (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1996), chapter 2. 5 For example, Mahommah Gardo Baquadqua. See Allan D. Austin,  African Muslims in Antebellum America   (New York: Routledge, 1997). 6 Michael A. Gomez,  Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas  (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 13, 18–20, 128–35, 144–52. Also see Jane Landers,“Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,”  The American Historical Review   95/1 (1990): 9–30. 7 Patrick D. Bowen, “US Latina/o Muslim Conversion Narratives,” paper presented at AAR Rocky Mountain Region, April 2010. 8 Gomez, 129. 9 Bowen, “Narratives.” E   U.S. L  /   — A  -A   M   C  391 © 2010 Hartford Seminary.  heritage connection from the Peninsula to Malaysia. Of course, because sometimes wecannot know if persons deceased or inaccessible may have this connection, our findingscannot be exhaustive, but can only provide a sense of what has taken place. Finally,along the lines of identity issues: many traditional (Sunni and Shi ‘ i) Muslims do notconsider such Islamic-based groups as the Ahmadiyyas and the Nation of Islam (NOI) tobe “Islamic.” Furthermore, some groups which have clear ties to other Islamic-basedgroups, for example, the Five Percenters/Nation of Gods and Earths, do not considerthemselves “Muslim.” However, because these groups developed out of a conception of  what it means to be “Muslim” and have for a long time served as the means to introducemany individuals to Islamic concepts and practices before they converted to moretraditional Islamic groups, I will also include them in the present study and leave thereligious designation of their Islamic-ness to members of the groups themselves. Religious Conversion and Rejection and/or Redefinition of Dominant Discourses  Whiletheideaof“religiousconversion”mayseemstraightforward,oftenitisnotclearfor several reasons, beginning with the fact that there is not and has not been even auniversal consensus of what the term “religion” means. 10 Does “religion” only refer to aparticular set of practices? An experience of feeling connected with that which istranscendent? The amount of one’s piety or devotion? An institution that requiresexclusive devotion? A particular set of beliefs dealing with ultimate meaning? — And if itdoes refer to some beliefs concerning ultimate meaning, can we easily distinguishbetween“religion”and“ideology”?Furthermore,evenifweweretodecideonaworkingdefinition of “religion” — say a somewhat cohesive set of beliefs and practices whichrevolve around an understanding of ultimate meaning — identifying “religious conver-sion” might still be difficult. 11 Does “conversion” require the adherence to a religion thatis different from the family or cultural background from which one emerges? Does itrequireaprofoundemotionalortranscendentalexperience?Doesitrequireanimmediateand complete turn to the new religion, severing all other “religious” ties? In an age of pluralism, with church-hopping and spiritual seeking 12  — or even just considering the 10 For important discussions on the topic, see, for example, Jonathan Z. Smith,  Imagining Religion:From Babylon to Jonestown   (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Wilfred Cantwell Smith,  The Meaning and End of Religion   (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963); Mark C. Taylor,  After God  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); S.N. Balagangadhara,  “The Heathen in his Blindness . . .”  (NewYork:E.J.Brill,1994);Masuzawa,Tomoko, TheInventionofWorldReligions   (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2005); Vincent J. Miller,  Consuming Religion   (New York: Continuum, 2005). 11 On problems surrounding the idea of “religious conversion,” see A.D. Nock,  Conversion   (London:OxfordUniversityPress,1961[1933]);ZebaA.Crook, ReconceptualisingConversion   (NewYork:Walterde Gruyter, 2004); Lewis Rambo,  Understanding Religious Conversion   (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). 12  Along the lines of Wade Clark Roof’s  A Generation of Seekers   (New York: Harper Collins, 1993). T   M   W    •  V    100  •  O   2010 392  © 2010 Hartford Seminary.  frequent job and home relocation and subsequent identity and meaning system changesone must make with these 13  — how can we satisfactorily define “conversion”?One way out of this potential quagmire is to take note of the approach of RichardBrent Turner who, instead of focusing on the ideas of “religion” or “conversion” inhis analysis of “Islam in the African-American Experience,” follows Charles H. Longand examines the  signs   and  significations   of Islam among African-Americans. 14 Long understands the debates over the concept of “religion” (and we can safely assume he would include “conversion” as well) to be debates and power strugglesover the use of particular signs/discourses. 15 In short, “religions” can be seen assymbol systems — discourses —, even if they are other things as well (e.g. anexperience of the transcendent). In fact, we exist, inescapably, in a world of discourses; not just of “religion,” but of “science,” “rationalism,” “race,” “ethics,” etc. And human beings, whose only way of communicating with each other is throughsymbols/signs/discourses, are forced to deal with the discourses in which their worlds are embedded. Of course, some discourses have more power over others,especially those controlled by people with the economic and physical power toinstitute theirs, and their discourses usually benefit themselves. Thus we see a riseof a racist system that put white Europeans (who had gained dominant economicpower in the 16 th century) hierarchically above brown- and black-skinned individu-als; European ideas of religion (Christian, individualistic, text-based, adaptable toscience) were raised as the standard; European normative cultural behaviors andthought patterns became normative “sanity;” and modern European-derived con-cepts of group unity — “nations” — were also elevated to the status of normative.However, there is a level more foundational than that of the discourse: the systemicstructures which actually shape the discourses. These are what Michel Foucaultinvestigated in his “archaeologies.” 16 Foucault observed that the structures of how discourses and the physical powers of discipline were ordered in the Western worldbegan changing in similar directions at roughly the same time: in the early-to-mid-17 th century (what Foucault calls the “Classical Age”) and then in the late 18 th  –early 19 th century (what Foucault calls the “Modern Age”). In short, as knowledge progressively became more ordered (e.g., the use of   taxa   and  mathesis  ) and thus more able to be“gazed” and analyzed and then disconnected from a dependency on the world’s (and its 13 Stefano Allievi,  Les Convertis a L  ’ Islam   (Montreal: L ’ Harmattan, 1998), 22–23. 14 Richard Brent Turner,  Islam in the African-American Experience   2 nd ed. (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 2003), 2–3. 15 Charles H. Long,  Significations, Signs, Symbols and Images In The Interpretation Of Religion  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 2–8. 16 His main monographs are  History of Madness,  ed. J. Khalifa, trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalifa(Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2006 [1961  Birth of the Clinic,  trans. A. Smith (New York: PantheonBooks, 1973 [1963  The Order of Things   (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970 [1966  The Archaeology of Knowledge,  trans. A. Smith (London: Routledge, 2001 [1969  The History of Sexuality: Vol I,  trans. R.Hurley(NewYork:PantheonBooks,1978[1976]); DisciplineandPunish, trans.A.Sheridan(NewYork:Pantheon Books, 1977). E   U.S. L  /   — A  -A   M   C  393 © 2010 Hartford Seminary.  signs) divine srcins ( divinatio  ), we also see that the structures of regulating andunderstanding human lives also became more ordered and opened to the gaze of those who possessed the knowledge to order things. These deep structures became soembeddedinWesternculturethateventhosewhodidnotpossessthepower/knowledgestill participated in its exercise. For example, even for those who would, as we see with African-American Muslims, rebel against certain discourses like the superiority of Christianityandwhiteskin,theystillfeltobligedtousemodern-styleformsof“logic”and“science,” and were clearly disciplining themselves with their rigid intellectual and moraldiscourses. It should be noted here that while Foucault downplayed connection of thesefundamentalstructurestomaterialconditionsinordertodistinguishthesedeepstructuresfrom the more superficial layers of “ideas,” 17 he of course recognized their importance. 18 In fact, Foucault’s Classical Age and Modern Age coincide almost perfectly with the world-historical shifts identified by Marshall Hodgson as the “Western Transmutation”and the “Technical Age” which were the result of increasing contact between people andthe raising of the levels of control of materials on a worldwide level, as well as theincreasing destructive capability of modern armaments which forced people into urbanareasanddevelopcapitalisticmeanstocreatethekindofwealthnecessarytocompeteinaworldinsuchastate. 19 ThepointthatIamstressinghereisthatthepeoplewhoareoftenthe subjects of oppressive discourses and disciplining structures have not only to engagethosediscourses(signs),buttheyalsomustnegotiatethesesignswiththemodernworld’smaterial realities and its disciplining powers. What this means is that, with the spread of highlevelsoftechnologicalinnovationinthemodernage,andsincethelate19 th century,therelativematerialprosperitythatbroughtincreasedeaseoflivingforallbutthepoorestof the people, the individuals who do not favor the dominant discourses (and they may think this way because of access to a variety of new ideas due to an increasing spread of information that may reveal the contradictions between particular dominant discourses — e.g., the juxtaposition of racism with the doctrine of equality of all people) were now intellectually and physically capable of challenging those discourses, though limited inpart by the disciplining structures. Thus we witnessed the challenging of dominantdiscourses, famously done in the writings and actions of the anti-colonialist nationalindependenceactivists,suchasAimeCesaireandFrantzFanon(bothofwhosevisionsof the world rejected certain dominant discourses, but certainly abided by others, andsupported disciplining systems). 20 Therefore, because of the history of the 20 th century U.S.inwhichmaterialprosperitybroughtrelativehighphysicalandintellectualfreedom, 17 Foucault,  Archaeology  , 48. 18 Foucault,“Power/Knowledge,”in PoliticalPhilosophy:TheEssentialTexts, ed.S.M.Cahn(NewYork:Oxford University Press, 2005), 512, the key statement being: “They [his “archaeologies”] are precisely anti-science. Not that they vindicate a lyrical right to ignorance or non-knowledge: it is not that they areconcerned to deny knowledge . . .” 19 MarshallG.S.Hodgson, VentureofIslam   vol.3(Chicago:UniversityofChicagoPress,1974),176–204. 20  Aime Cesaire,  Discourse on Colonialism,  trans. J. Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000[1950 Frantz Fanon,  Black Skin, White Masks,  trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008 [1952 The Wretched of the Earth,  trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1961]). T   M   W    •  V    100  •  O   2010 394  © 2010 Hartford Seminary.
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