Islamic and Hispanic cultures intermesh as Muslim community grows
By SPENCE KIMBALL, Brownsville Herald, August 08, 2009
McALLEN — Islam came to Dante Peña late in life.
Peña grew up in a Catholic home under the influence of his deeply religious mother. His Catholic faith played such a central role in his life that he decided to become a priest.
But Peña felt unfulfilled after he completed his studies at St. Anthony’s Seminary in San Antonio. He abandoned his ambition to join the priesthood and drifted through years of spiritual malaise.
That drift continued until a friend recommended a book about Sufism, a mystical Islamic sect that seeks the presence of divinity in this life. Peña admired the Sufis devotion to God even as they carried out their daily routine.
"I wanted to be totally consumed by the presence of God no matter what I was doing," he said.
As Peña’s interest in Islam took root where his Catholicism had fallen flat, he opened the newspaper and read an article about a new mosque on Elsham Road in Edinburg.
He went to the mosque and decided to become a Muslim three weeks after his visit. Peña said the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, for the first time when he was 56 years old.
"I thought, ‘Wow, Islam has come to me,’" he said.
And it has come to the Rio Grande Valley.
The region’s Islamic community now numbers about 200 predominantly Sunni families who worship in four mosques in Brownsville, Edinburg, McAllen and Weslaco.
Mohammed Farooqui moved to Edinburg in 1984 to accept a position as an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas-Pan American. He was the institution’s first Muslim faculty member.
Five other Muslim families lived in the Valley at that time. They gathered together and held intimate prayer services in the privacy of their own homes.
Farooqui and the other families dreamed of having a more formal building for worship. That dream came true in 1993, when they converted a self-service laundry in Weslaco into the Valley’s first official mosque.
Their community has since grown well beyond those humble services in private homes and local laundries.
Muslims move here to take advantage of job opportunities in health care, business and education, Farooqui said. And they mesh well with the region’s conservative, family-oriented culture.
"Latino culture is very close to our culture," said Assad Al-Ahoob, a pediatric cardiologist at the Pediatric Heart Clinic, 5506 S. Jackson Rd., Edinburg. "We intermingle easily."
Farooqui felt secure in the Valley even after 9/11, when many Muslims across the country felt uneasy about how their neighbors would view them.
He took the initiative and began educating the public about Islam to prevent misconceptions from being spread. He has given more than 100 lectures at schools, colleges and various religious organizations since the attacks.
People are welcoming, but Muslim life in the Valley still has its challenges.
"Traditional foods are not easily available," said Zafar Anjum, director of the mosque in Brownsville. "In a small town it’s very hard to find the things we need."
But Farooqui believes prospects for the future are good despite these minor hardships. He expects Islam to become an increasingly public, important part of the Valley in the future.
And just as Muslims like Farooqui feel at home in the Hispanic-majority border towns of the Valley, Peña feels at home with Islam.
"It’s a blessing," he said. "I’m gaining a whole community in place of nothing."
Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Belief in the oneness of God (Allah)
2. Five daily prayers facing Mecca, the Muslim holy city.
3. Care for and donations to the needy.
4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan.
5. Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca for those who are able.
Major divisions of Islam:
Sunni Muslims 85 to 90 percent of Muslim world.
Shiite Muslims 10 to 15 percent of Muslim world.
Shiite Muslims believe Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed, while Sunnis accept Abu Bakr as his successor.