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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 13    Issue 7   16 - 30 September 2018

Mexico’s Indigenous Muslims

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Mexico, officially United Mexican States, is a federal republic in the southernmost part of the North America. It is the 13th largest state in the world in terms of graphical area, with an estimated population of over 120 million. Mexico City is the capital and Spanish is the official language. Mexico has a mixed economy based on agriculture, minerals, manufacturing and oil and natural gas. it is the world’s largest producer of silver, bismuth and celestite.

Mexico was home to some of the great early civilisations of Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, Toltec and Maya. The Mayan civilisation flourished between 250 CE and 900 CE. During the 15th and 16th century, Mexico was part of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec Empire was invaded and conquered by a Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes in 1521. The remnants of Mayan civilisation were conquered by the Spaniards in 1526, following which Mexico became a part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. The Spanish colonial rule over Mexico lasted for three centuries. A rebellion against colonial rule led by indigenous leaders broke out in 1821. In 1823 Mexico became a republic.

The Spanish conquest and colonisation of Mexico had disastrous consequences for the indigenous people. They suffered institutionalised discrimination and exploitation at the hands of the colonisers. Their resources were plundered and their farmlands expropriated by the colonisers and settlers. The Spaniards brought in certain communicable diseases such as smallpox, influenza and typhus, against which the native people had no immunity. In the 16th century, over five million natives were killed due to the smallpox epidemic. During the 300- year-long colonial rule, the population of indigenous people dwindled by nearly 80% -- from around 10 million to one and a half million. Following the massive decline in native populations, Spanish colonizers began importing African slaves to work on fields and plantations. Over a period of three centuries, millions of Africans were brought to South America. Slavery was abolished in most South American countries only in the closing decades of the 19th century. During the colonial era, large numbers of Europeans, Africans and Asians migrated to Mexico. The country received between 400,000 and 500,000 Europeans, between 200,000 and 250,000 Africans, and between 40,000 and 120,000 Asians.

Mexico’s population is ethnically diverse. The majority of Mexicans -- approximately 60 to 70% -- are known as Mestizos. The Mestizos are the descendants of people of indigenous and European ancestry. The native people or Indians account for around 15% of the population. Mexico has the largest indigenous population in Latin America. Mexicans of European descent make up about 15% of the population while the population of people of African descent or Afro-Mexicans is 1.38 million. The process of racial admixture in Mexico is called Mestizaje. Mexico’s national identity is based on the concept of Mestizaje.

The indigenous people of Mexico were converted to Catholicism by the colonisers. Today nearly 83% of Mexico’s population are Catholic and 10% of other Christian denominations, including Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists. Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world.

Evangelical preachers from the US are making determined efforts to lure the Mexican Catholics away from their traditional religion. This has given rise to tensions and conflicts between the majority Catholics and Protestant sects. During the past three decades, more than 30,000 Protestant Indians have been driven out of San Juan Chamula and hundreds of them have been attacked and even killed by armed Catholic groups.

For the past five centuries, Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Mexico. However, Protestant denominations have gained a foothold across large parts of the country. In 1970, Catholics comprised 96.7% of Mexico’s population. This percentage fell to 82.7% by 2010.

Since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the indigenous Mayans, Tzotzils, Chiapanecos and other indigenous communities have lived marginalised lives, facing poverty, destitution, malnutrition, discrimination and exploitation. Alcoholism among the indigenous Mexicans is widespread. The largest concentration of indigenous people is in the state of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, where they account for 27.2% of the population. Chiapas is one of Mexico’s richest state in terms of natural resources. Ironically, however, it ranks as the second most marginalised state in the country. A large majority of the indigenous people in Chiapas live a life of extreme poverty. Nearly half of the indigenous population reports no income at all, while 42% live on less than $5 a day. More then two-thirds of them suffer from high levels of malnutrition.

Muslims in Mexico

The small but growing population of Muslims in Mexico is composed of two main groups: indigenous communities who have converted to Islam during the past two or three decades, and recent Muslim immigrants from the Arab world, Turkey and other countries. The total population of Muslims in the country is estimated at around 5,000, out of which 4,000 indigenous converts.

Zapatista Uprising

A significant event in Mexico’s recent history, which is also linked to the spread of Islam, is the Zapatista Uprising. The Zapatista Uprising, which took place in 1994, was coordinated by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous left-wing libertarian-socialist political and militant group. The group is particularly influential in Chiapas. Zapatista, as it is generally known, was formed to represent and defend the political, economic and cultural rights of Mexico’s indigenous people. In 1994 the Zapatista Army declared war on the Mexican government and demanded work, land, food, housing, health, education, freedom, democracy and justice. There were violent clashes between the Zapatista fighters and government forces, in which more than 300 were killed. Following a ceasefire, the Mexican government was forced to introduce constitutional reforms that granted substantial political, economic and cultural autonomy to the indigenous population.

Shortly after the Zapatista Uprising, Muhammad Nafi (formerly Aureliano Perez), a Spanish convert visited areas such as San Cristobal and Tijuana, which have a heavy concentration of the indigenous population. Nafi is affiliated to the World Murabitun Movement, which was founded by Abdalqadir as-Sufi (formerly Ian Dallas), a Scottish convert to Islam, in 1968. The World Murabitun Movement is affiliated to the Darqawi-Shadhili-Qaditi Order of Sufism, which has its heartland in Spain.

Muhammad Nafi got in touch with some Zapatista rebels and invited them as well as the descendants of the Mayans and other indigenous communities to Islam. Inspired by his persuasive dawah outreach, scores of them embraced Islam. Many Zapatista rebels who converted to Islam saw the new faith as a superior alternative to Catholicism and capitalism. The number of converts multiplied within a few years. Nafi and his associates together with the converts built a mosque in San Cristobal in Chiapas. He also set up an Islamic organisation called Comunidad Islamica en Mexico.

A major Islamic organisation in Mexico is Centro Cultural Islamico de Mexico (CCIM), headed by Omar Weston, a British-born Mexican convert to Islam. The CCIM has built a fairly large prayer hall and a convention centre called Dar as Salaam in Mexico City. It also operates Hotel Oasis, which offers halal holiday packages for Muslim travellers. There is a branch of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order in Mexico City, headed by two women, Shaykha Fatima Fariha and Shaykha Amina Teslima. There is a small Salafi organisation Called Centro Salafi de Mexico.

There are now 12 mosques in Mexico, and half of them are located in Chiapas, which has a sizeable concentration of the indigenous population. It is significant to note that more than half of the converts are women. Indigenous Muslim women in headscarves are now a common sight on the streets of San Cristobal and Chiapas. Mayans and other indigenous groups which have embraced Islam find a refreshing harmony between some of their traditional values, such as the ethos that hold the family together, and Islamic teachings. Many indigenous Muslim women have crafted a distinctive blend of their traditional dress and Islamic moderate clothing.

The converts face deeply entrenched prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. They are often suspected of having links with extremist and terrorist groups. The Mexican government is suspicious of their motives and activities and has set up a surveillance system to keep a watch on their movements. Mexico’s President Vincente Fox has even said that the radical ideology of Al Qaeda has infiltrated into Mexican society, insinuating that the spate of conversions was linked to extremist ideologies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico’s indigenous Muslims are peace-loving and have nothing to do with extremism or violence.

Turkish Development Aid

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency TIKA has offered financial and material assistance to Mexico’s indigenous Muslims in order to help them tide over poverty and backwardness. The agency provides livestock and sewing machines to those Muslim communities – numbering around 400 people -- that survive on livestock breeding and selling clothes. Most of these people are concentrated in the rural areas of the state of Chiapas.

The agency also regularly delivers food aid during the month of Ramadan and organises iftar dinners in the villages. Since 2016 the agency has provided development aid worth $2 million. It also offered food packages, clothes, medicines, ambulances and rescue vehicles to the victims of earthquakes in Mexico in 2017 and 2018.

TIKA has donated funds for the construction of a health centre in the state of Oaxaca. The agency provided funds for the construction of schools in Chiapas and established two greenhouses in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City that offer food to 300,000 people in a year.

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