Indigenous Mexican Converts

Imam Salvador Lopez Lopez (a.k.a. Muhammad Amin) performs zikhr, or remembrance of God, in a San Cristóbal mosque. Photo: Radio Netherlands Worldwide

In my recent post about the history of Islam in Mexico, I mentioned that Muslims in the country are generally concentrated in four cities: Tequesquitengo in Morelos, Torreón in Coahuila, San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, and Mexico City.

While Muslims in Mexico represent diverse Islamic denominations, Muslims in San Cristóbal de las Casas are different from the other groups in the country. For one thing, they’re all converts. For another, they’re mostly descendants of the Mayan and Tzotzil indigenous groups.

Although 50 percent of Muslims in Mexico today are convertsZidane Zeraoui, professor of international relations at the Technological University of Monterrey, tells me that Muslims in San Cristóbal de las Casas initially converted for economic reasons.

There were no Muslims in Chiapas 20 years ago. But in 1994, four Muslims from Spain moved to Chiapas and began to teach the natives about Islam. They opened small businesses in the town, and said that if the indigenous people wanted to work there, they would have to be Muslims. After about 5 years, there were about 400 Muslim converts. Converting for jobs is very common in Chiapas. We call it “religious immigration,” because people often have to change their religion to get jobs.

But in 2002, Zeraoui says the Spanish business owners and their indigenous converts clashed over cultural issues. For example, the Spanish told the converts they could not eat Mexican tortillas because they were not traditional Muslim foods. Rather, they were required to eat bread. The culture wars resulted in the Spanish Muslims beings expelled from Chiapas.

A mosque in Molina de Arcos, Mexico. Photo: Radio Netherlands Worldwide

With the economic incentives for conversion removed, most people believed that the converts would revert back to their previous religions. But they didn’t. In fact, they sent one of their leaders to Spain to learn more about Islam.

Tzotzil Muslims praying in the mosque (see photo above). Photo: Radio Netherlands Worldwide

There are now about 500 practicing Muslims in the region. They belong to the Sunni, Murabitun sect. Zeraoui says that in his interviews, people generally tell him that Islam has improved their lives.

When I asked them why they stayed Muslim, they told me, “with Islam, we don’t drink. Now our families are very strong.” One of the big problems among the native peoples in Chiapas is alcoholism, and now, because they’re Muslim, they can’t drink. They don’t spend money on alcohol, and it’s good for their families and their culture.

Last year, Al Jazeera wrote a story on the group and found the same thing. One of their interviewees, an indigenous Mayan named Salvador Lopez told them:

Before I was a bit of a drunk, but I changed my life. Now I work and look after my family, nothing else.

Do you think economic reasons are good reasons to convert? How do you believe Islamic teachings promote social stability and strong family ties? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

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