MIAMI – Ask Melissa Matos why she converted to Islam, and you’ll likely get an answer that spans 13 centuries.
She may refer to seventh-century Arabia, where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed received the Koran from the angel Gabriel. Or she might describe Islam’s golden age in medieval Spain. Or she’ll recall Sept. 11, 2001, when fear and curiosity drove her to read about Islam on the Internet.
Matos, who comes from a family of Seventh-day Adventists from the Dominican Republic, has answered the question countless times since converting to Islam in April. She now covers her hair, prays five times a day, and is observing Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and reflection.
“Sometimes it does get a little difficult,” said Matos, a 20-year-old political science student at Florida International University who lives with her parents in Miramar. “I feel alienated from my family and my old friends, but Islam is so beautiful, it’s worth it. And with Ramadan, I’m just doing it by myself, just me and God.”
Though they make up a small fraction of the nation’s 6 million Muslims, Hispanic women converting to Islam are exerting influence beyond their numbers, teaching Spanish-Arabic classes, forming Hispanic-Muslim organizations and distributing Spanish translations of the Koran.
Matos, for one, is organizing an FIU lecture series this semester on the religion’s little-known history in Latin America, including two lectures in Spanish, she said.
Some have founded support networks. Piedad, a network of Muslim women that seeks to educate Spanish-speaking communities about Islam, had 50 members when it was founded in 1988; it now has more than 344 nationally. Other groups, like the Latino American Dawah Organization, which was formed in 1997, promote the legacy of Islam in Spain and Latin America.
“It’s a movement that is growing, particularly in urban areas,” said Manuel Vasquez, a professor of religion at the University of Florida. “It’s part of the cross-fertilization that’s occuring among immigrant groups.”
There are some 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States, according to a spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America. The largest populations live in New York, Texas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, American Muslim organizations say.
Jameela Ali, 26, became a Muslim seven years ago after she dreamed she was praying in a mosque filled with light. Her mother, who is from Peru, had converted to Islam several years before. Now her brother, 22, and sister, 21, have converted.
“You feel a much closer connection to God,” said Ali, who lives in Pembroke Pines and teaches two other Hispanic Muslim women to read and write Arabic. “You give up everything of your old lifestyle – your old clothes, you’re not going to clubs, you’re not drinking, you’re not smoking.”
Islam’s growth among Hispanic women may result from the broader Muslim outreach following the 9/11 attacks, said Aisha Musa, an assistant professor of religion at Florida International University. American Muslims responded by opening their mosques to outsiders and distributing pamphlets about their religion.
Sofian Abdelaziz, the director of the American Muslim Association of North America in Miami, said his group often gets requests for the Koran in Spanish. In the last several years, they’ve given away more than 5,000 Spanish translations of the Koran to South Florida mosques and prisons, he said. They also hand out Spanish brochures about women in Islam. Hispanic converts in urban areas say it’s become easier to find like-minded communities.
“It’s so great to meet other Latin people because we all know each other’s backgrounds,” said Fatima Narvaez, 30, who converted in 2002 and now studies Arabic with two other Hispanic women on the weekends.
But convincing families that conversion is the way to go hasn’t always been easy.
“They think I’ve rejected my way to salvation because I don’t believe Jesus Christ is the son of God,” Matos said of her parents, who are Seventh-day Adventists.
Roraima Aisha Kanar was raised Roman Catholic by her parents, Cuban exiles who settled in Miami in 1959. Kanar, 52, considered becoming a nun before converting to Islam at age 22. Her parents, devout Catholics, didn’t want their grandchildren to be raised Muslim, she said.
“It was very hard to know that my own mother didn’t respect my belief,” said Kanar, who with her husband raised their three children as Muslims.
But others have found support from their families. Narvaez, who lives with her grandparents in Davie, was worried they wouldn’t understand her new dietary practices. Islam forbids pork and meat that isn’t halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic law.
“With Puerto Ricans, there’s pork in everything,” said Narvaez, who works in marketing. “But they accommodate all my issues and cook halal food for me.”
Ali said she’s renounced aspects of Hispanic culture that conflict with her beliefs, like cooking with wine or eating pork.
But she still marks Christmas with her Peruvian family and cooks South American dishes.
“Islam is a way of life, but you don’t suddenly have to start listening to Arabic music,” said Ali. “We still keep our heritage.”