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"Latin America." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 22, 2022. <>.


"Latin America." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 22, 2022).

Latin America

Many Latin Americans associate Arabs (Muslim and non-Muslim) with turcos. The term refers to immigrants from the former Ottoman Empire who arrived in Latin America in the late 1800s and made their fortunes by engaging in unethical business practices. After al-Qaeda's devastating attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the word turco depicted Arabs, especially Muslims, as terrorists.

Despite these stereotypes, the highly diverse Islamic community in Latin America extends beyond Arabs to include Muslim immigrants and their children, diplomats from various Islamic countries, and a small group of converts. Latin American Muslims are both Sunni and Shi'i, and they form part of a growing pan-American Muslim consciousness in this predominantly Christian region. The Latin American Muslim Unity website claims that area Muslims number more than six million. Muslim communities are most prevalent in Brazil and Argentina, but Islam is also gaining ground in Mexico, Peru, Panama, Venezuela, and other countries.

A Volatile Beginning.

People of Islamic background were among the explorers, traders, and settlers who traveled to the Americas beginning in the late 1400s. Many Muslims, displaced by the Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492 , migrated to Portuguese- and Spanish-controlled parts of the Americas. The Christian governors in the colonies viewed the increasing numbers of Muslims as a threat to their authority, however, and had many of them killed. According to some Latin Americans who have recently converted from Catholicism to Islam, becoming a Muslim signifies a return to their Moorish origins and the nearly 700 years of Muslim rule in Spain.

The first wave of Muslims in Latin America consisted of slaves from the West African countries of Ghana, Dahomey (now Benin), Mali, and Nigeria. They were transported to the region between the mid-1500s and mid-1800s to work on Brazilian and Caribbean plantations. Although most of the African slaves converted to Christianity, some secretly maintained their faith in Islam. The second wave of Muslims in the region occurred in Guyana and Suriname. After the abolition of slavery, the British transported thousands of Indians to Guyana to work as indentured servants. A significant number were Muslims. Similarly, the Dutch settled thousands of Muslims from Indonesia in Suriname. The contracts for these workers stated that they could return to their homelands after completing five years of service. Many of them decided to remain in Latin America, however, because they did not earn as much money as they had expected.

At the end of the 1800s, Arab Muslims from Middle Eastern countries began to arrive in Latin America, seeking to improve their economic condition and to avoid being drafted into the Ottoman army. Most Arab Muslims had hoped to migrate to the United States, but strict immigration policies forced them to settle in Argentina, Brazil, or elsewhere.

Historically, Muslims in the overwhelmingly Catholic countries of Latin America were unable to preserve their religious beliefs, practices, and institutions. Since the 1970s and the beginning of an Islamic revival in the Muslim world, however, the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia have supported Muslims in Latin America by helping them build mosques and encouraging them to spread Islam.

Mexico's Muslims.

Current statistical information on the number of Muslims in Mexico is limited and in dispute. Some scholars have estimated that there are only about 1,000 Muslims in the entire country. In 1986 writer M. Ali Kettani reported that the Islamic community totaled about 15,000 people. Most Muslims are either Sunni or Shi'i, although Sufis, Qadianis, and some members of the Baha'i religion also live in Mexico. The Islamic community is largely concentrated in Mexico City, but small groups of Muslims are dispersed throughout the country. An active Shi'i community in the state of Chihuahua assists the Iranian Embassy by translating its literature into Spanish.

Most scholars agree that the first Muslims in Mexico were Arabs from the Ottoman Empire who arrived during the late 1800s. Early immigration records are incomplete, however, because the Ottoman government prohibited Muslim emigration, forcing many to leave in secret. Once they arrived in Mexico, many feared that admitting their religion was risking deportation. Preliminary research shows that the majority of Muslim immigrants settled in northern Mexico, primarily in the states of Coahuila and Durango, because the region had a reputation for religious tolerance and Muslims had established social networks in the area. Records also indicate that Shi'i families tended to migrate from Syria and Lebanon to Torreón, Coahuila.

Today, members of the first generation of Muslims in Torreón continue to observe many aspects of the Islamic faith. They know Arabic and can read the Qur'an, and they have generally maintained the custom of marrying first cousins. The children of the immigrants, by contrast, are familiar with the translated version of the Qur'an, and they are less likely to marry within the family. Many of those who marry outside the faith, however, have a Muslim wedding.

The Muslims of Torreón do not strictly adhere to the principles of Islam nor do they actively spread the faith in their community. Prior to the building of a mosque in the late 1980s, they gathered at a private home to pray and celebrate holidays. The Suraya mosque, completed in 1989 and granted official status as a religious association in 1993 , is not fully used.

The Muslim Center de México (MCM), located in Mexico City, functions as an umbrella organization for Sunni Muslims throughout the country. Its members have developed a comprehensive program to teach the public about Islam. With support from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, the MCM rents a large home in Mexico City that serves as a prayer hall. Between 80 and 100 men of all nationalities attend the prayer service. Employees of the embassies of various Islamic countries, including Algeria, Egypt, and Indonesia, occasionally participate in MCM activities. The Shi'i community of Mexico City receives support from the Embassy of Iran. The embassy sponsors an annual book exhibition and holds conferences on Islam.

In 2002 the Houston Chronicle reported that between 200 and 500 Tzotzil Indians had converted to Islam in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The Sheik Hamden Bin Rashid Al Makoum mosque near San Cristóbal de las Casas hosts approximately 40 Tzotzil families who converted to Islam from evangelical Protestantism. Esteban López and Aurillano Pérez, immigrants from Spain and founders of the Muslim community, are members of the Murabitun, a largely European group of Muslims who adhere to Sufism. Most Muslims dismiss them as a cult, and the Muslim Center de México notes that approximately one-half of the recent converts have broken away from the Murabitun and are seeking support from legitimate Muslim groups in Mexico City.

Slavery and Struggle.

The history of Islam in Brazil dates to a period between the 1500s and 1700s, when a small group of Mandika slaves who had converted to Islam were brought from Africa. The first large influx of African Muslim slaves arrived in Brazil during the early to mid-1800s. Primarily Hausas and Yorubas, they were forced to work in mines, on cotton, coffee, and sugar plantations, and in cities. The slaves gained notoriety for their involvement in a series of more than 20 revolts in Bahia, a sugar-producing province in northeastern Brazil where the majority of Muslim slaves toiled.

João José Reis wrote about a Brazilian Muslim slave uprising in Salvador, the capital of Bahia. In 1835 hundreds of Muslim slaves poured into the streets of Salvador to confront soldiers and armed civilians in an attempt to win their freedom and return to Africa. Muslim preachers, who had promised to protect their followers, led the movement. After almost four hours of fighting, the rebellion was crushed. Nearly 70 slaves died, and 500 received punishments that varied from the death penalty to whippings, imprisonment, and hard labor. According to Reis, the Muslim slaves were united by their shared faith. Nevertheless, the brutal repression disrupted and dispersed the Muslim community. Islam did not gain a following among African Brazilians, who developed a religion that mixed Catholicism with African tribal traditions.

Today the majority of Muslims in Brazil are the descendants of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the country after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ). According to an article in The Economist (November 3, 2001), approximately one million Muslims live in Brazil. The country has about 30 mosques. The International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World newsletter reports that there are eight mosques in the city of São Paulo, seven of which are Sunni. Despite the large population of Muslims in Brazil, the Islamic community lacks books about Islam in the Portuguese language.

According to Brazilian historian Andre Gattaz, Muslims in this predominantly Catholic country are hesitant to admit their faith. Only 22,000 admitted to being Muslim in the 1991 census. Although 10,000 Muslims reportedly live in the Foz do Iguacu area, only about 200 attend Friday prayers at the mosque. Foz do Iguacu is located in the region where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet, an area that has been linked to Islamic terrorists.

Speculation and Suspicion.

According to Mujamad Hayer , director of the Office of Culture and Islamic Diffusion, there are between 650,000 and 700,000 Muslims in Argentina. More than one-half of the Muslim population is of Syrian descent, and therefore, most follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Notably, former president Carlos Saúl Menem , whose family was from Yabrud , Syria , converted to Catholicism, but his son Carlos Jr. identified himself as an Argentine Muslim. Carlos Jr. died in 1995 and was buried in an Islamic cemetery, symbolizing the importance of religion among Muslim immigrant families in the country.

The Islamic Center of Buenos Aires has tried to promote a moderate version of Islam in this country of almost 38 million people, most of whom are Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, Argentines and others regard the Islamic community with some suspicion. In 1982 members of the Shi'i minority established their headquarters at the A'Tauhid Mosque with funds from the Embassy of Iran. After July 18, 1994, this group came under scrutiny for the bombing of the community center of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (known by its Spanish initials, AMIA), which resulted in the death of almost 100 people. Although many speculated about local connections that would implicate members of the Islamic community in Argentina, no one was ever charged with the attack.

According to the Latin American Muslim Unity website, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia reportedly donated between $10 and $15 million to build an Islamic Center in Argentina. Some view this move as questionable after the 1994 AMIA bombing and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 , which killed 29 people. See also Ahmadi; Baha'i; Shi'i Islam; Sunni Islam.

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