When we hear the term “minority,” our minds often think of race — and many of us are confounded within the boundaries of this term. This past year, and really, this past decade, I have been thinking of the minority in terms of religion. For many of you who are still in college, especially your undergraduate career, you can agree that the college experience tests you mentally, emotionally and physically. You are thinking about grades, GPA, internships, post-graduation, etc., while also trying to enjoy the journey. This past year, I have noticed a small number of students who on top of all these things are on a spiritual journey — and I mean small!
I just finished my second year in college and this past semester, my number one priority wasn’t grades or finding a summer internship, it was finding my relationship with God. I am Salvadoran-American, first generation American and a first generation college student. In my household, aside from education, faith has always been a priority. My family is Roman Catholic and they wouldn’t have it any other way. I used to think the same way until I began researching Islam. This December, I began to read the Qur’an in an attempt to convince my Muslim friends that Christianity was the truth. I had a surprise in store for me! The Qur’an shared a lot of the same beliefs and values as the Bible, which only fueled my research that much more. Since then, I have come across many Latino converts who once were in my shoes — in the learning stage.
What if I told you that many Latinos are finding a place in Islam? A 2007 study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that Latino Muslims accounted for an estimated 4% out of a total of about 2.5 million Muslims living in the United States. I would like to introduce you to other Latinas who, on top of school life, motherhood, and their careers, are proud converts of Islam.
Latina Muslims, Si Se Puede!
“I am still very proud of my culture. Maybe I don’t go salsa dancing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty of my island, of my parents and grandparents,” Ismail said.
Zainab Ismail, Puerto Rican- American, was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. She attended Pace University in New York and spent most of her adult life in Brooklyn. Most of her faithful followers and fans know Zainab as the online Muslim Latina fitness guru. Zainab is the Vice President of Nadoona Health, Fitness, Life: “Changing the world, one calorie at a time!”
“I was already that person in the non-Muslim world — before I became Muslim, I was a celebrity personal trainer,” she shared.
Every month for 5 years, her job as a personal trainer gave her the luxury of traveling to Los Angeles, CA. She reminisces about her favorite spot, Santa Monica, with the exception of the traffic on the 10 highway.
Attraction to Islam
Fifteen years ago, Zainab found herself in a fitness competition alongside her male Muslim friend who told her she needed to change the way she dressed. He then gave her a Qur’an to read. She only read 2 pages before she put it aside.
In 2002, she was given the opportunity to go abroad to teach other personal trainers. Although travel was an uneasy topic post-9/11, she took her chance to go to Hong Kong and then Malaysia. “Oh wow — there’s a lot of Muslims. I thought they were Asian,” she laughed. She didn’t realize until later that she had arrived during the holy month of Ramadan.
“It was quiet during the day, and at night the city came alive,” Zainab said. This experience was then subconsciously imprinted on her — although momentarily, she paid no attention to it.
In 2005, she was competing in a Biathlon where she described she was in the best shape of her life. It was during this time that she experienced a car accident where she flipped her SUV across the highway, the Belt parkway, five times. Fortunately, she was not heavily injured. She was hospitalized due to a massive concussion, however.
As she was in care, the administrator of the hospital, who doesn’t come and see anyone, wanted to witness the person who survived such an accident. Off the record, he told her, “‘I don’t know what you believe in, but if you believe in God, you find out what His mission is for you and you go and do it’,” she said. In 2005, she was too busy being a celebrity trainer and didn’t pay much mind. “But it was another thing implanted in my subconscious,” she said.
Living in New York City, a highly diverse area, Zainab observed her friends during Ramadan (the holiest month in Islam) and would listen into their multitude of conversations. “They would talk about the Bible and Islam, but not in a way they talked about religion. They just talked about the Bible and what is told based on the Qur’an,” she said.
Converting to Islam
“There was a certain warmth I was attracted to,” she said.
“There is nothing that I can describe as walking to a fellow Muslim and saying assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you],” she said.
In 2009, she attended a friend’s wedding and as she was going to mass, a familiar feeling from her childhood rushed through her. She watched and observed others as they received their communion. While she was observing these people she couldn’t help but wonder, were they receiving their communion with sincerity? As a Catholic, we are supposed to confess our sins before we can receive communion, a practice I myself remember from childhood, as Zainab does. She wondered if they had actually gone to confession. She wondered if there was any real sincerity in the room that day.
Seeking that sincerity within herself, she was empowered later that day as she went home to get dressed for the reception – when she Googled: “how to become Muslim”.
“That’s it, just say the Shahada? [Confession of the Muslim faith, the first pillar in Islam] Wow,” she said. She then called her friend to share the news, “I am thinking of taking my Shahada.” The next day, she visited a local mosque and the local bookstore where her friend stacked her up on books. From these books, again — she only read a page or two.
Coming back from a trip to LA in June 2009, Zainab felt a rush of an implanted idea and a sense of a confirmed feeling that she was ready to take her Shahada. She took her Shahada by herself, as June 12th marked her 4-year anniversary of becoming a Muslim. “I knew nothing, and had no guidance but God’s. I didn’t need confirmation,” she said.
Now she is a trainer in the Muslim world. In this world, there are only a handful of well-known trainers, she said, and she is the only Latina with her level of education in movement coaching, personal training, and nutrition, due to her background and experience in her previous non-Muslim world. She is now able to help people that might not have interacted with her before, given the different circumstances.
Being a Latina Muslim
For many Muslim women, one of the most known features that attract the eye is the hijab. Unlike most people are led to believe, Islam does not force the hijab on any woman — it is a personal choice. Zainab is one of many women who chooses to wear the hijab, and wears it proudly.
“We only fear the unknown, and you can’t trust the news about anything. The media chooses to teach you what they want you to know, they aren’t trying to give you a better viewpoint,” she said.
Because Zainab lives alone, she didn’t mention the big news to her family for a couple of weeks. In fact, she decided to wait until the following year to deliver the news to her father in person, who is a Pentecostal Christian and an assistant Spanish pastor in Orlando, FL.
“My mom has always been supportive. My brother, on the other hand, was initially selfish in thinking— as he was only concerned of losing me during Christmas, which was important to him,” she said. However, “Since then he is my biggest supporter and we have grown closer than ever before,” she said.
Her father was another story, but probably a similar one to many Muslim converts coming from a different background. He gave her the typical response of: He will pray for her to come back to her origins, she said. But as time has passed, her bond with her father, too, has strengthened. They always share quality father/daughter time through workouts during her visits to see him in Orlando.
“Other than being on the same team of Christianity, I am a better daughter, friend, and sibling,” she said.
Although she wasn’t raised in a “typical” Puerto Rican environment — at the end of the day, “I am as Puerto Rican as anyone on the island!” she laughed. You can still find Zainab making her platanos and eating her abuela’s food.
“I pray at least 5 times a day. Praying our first prayer at 3:45 am now, I would have never considered doing something like that,” she said.
“Being a convert, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s a comfort and a mercy. People usually don’t even say hi to each other — but Muslims are sure to greet each other,” she said.
After embarking on what looks like a 15-year spiritual journey, Zainab is a very proud Muslim who doesn’t hesitate in sharing her story with others. It’s amazing how she disregarded some of her early encounters with Islam to only in the end proclaim her newfound faith. What journey do you find yourself on these days?