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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 and are also on a spiritual journey — and I mean small!
As an undergrad, 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. 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 Islam is a religion and not a culture and that not all Muslims come from the Middle East? 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.
As an Educated Latina I would like to introduce you to other Educated Latinas who on top of school life, motherhood and their careers are proud converts of Islam in this 4 part interview series; ‘A Latina’s Journey to 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 uneasy 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 as being 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, 5 times. Fortunately, she was not heavily injured. She was however hospitalized due to a massive concussion.
While 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. Yet 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 diverse city, she observed her friends during Ramadan and would listen to their many 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], I never had that as a Christian, other than when you went to church on Sunday,” she said.
She described her own personal experience, “As a Catholic there was no real structure or explaining to you of why you shouldn’t do those things, you never really learn.” Other non-Muslims can relate to Zainab’s experience with Catholicism as a mechanical system.
In 2009 she attended a friend’s wedding and as she was going to Mass, a familiar feeling from childhood rushed through her. She watched others go up for communion and was wondering had they all gone to confession but felt no real sincerity in the room? She remembered thinking “OMG I don’t want to be Catholic anymore.” Later on that day, she went home to get dressed for the reception and 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 2.
Coming back from a trip to LA in June 2009, Zainab felt a rush feeling and a sense of a confirmation that she was ready to take her Shahada. She took her Shahada by herself, as June 12th. “I knew nothing and had no guidance but God’s. I didn’t need confirmation,” she said.
The Ripple Effect
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 with 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 a different story but probably a similar one to many Muslim converts coming from a Christian background. He gave her the typical Christian response, ‘he will pray for her to come back to Christianity,’ she said. As time has passed her bond with her father has grown stronger. 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.
Being a Latina Muslim
For many Muslim women, one of the most recognizable features is the hijab. Unlike what most people are led to believe, it’s a woman’s choice; Islam does not force the hijab. 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.
“I pray at least 5 times of a day. Praying our 1st prayer at 3:45 am now, I would have never considered doing something like that as a Christian,” 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 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 and in the end, proclaim her newfound faith.