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The Familiar Made Strange:
On Latinx Reversion to Islam

Harold Morales
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Morgan State University

On a warm cloudless summer afternoon, I headed out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles where numerous carne-asada picnics where being held by various Latinx families and communities. I made my way to the agreed upon location where a piñata hung from a tree, where the smell of halal tacos rose from public grills in a small cloud of smoke (no chorizo, carnitas, al-pastor, or other pork meat), and where a small group of Latinxs (no more than thirty) faced toward Mecca to pray on the Los Angeles hills above Dodgers stadium. The experience was filled with troubled memories, the familiar made strange and the strange familiar. An itinerate accordion player made his way up toward the fiesta hoping to liven the solemn mood with his Norteño sounds, but suddenly stopped and tried and make sense of the familiar and yet somehow strange scene before him. A young man held up a string of jet black beads, not a rosary, but filled with baraka—spiritual blessings—nonetheless. They spoke of their old lands, of Mexico, Guatemala, and beyond. But they also spoke of more distant lands, of Al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, a lost memory now regained.

***

Latino Muslims (as many have chosen to self-identify) have been forming organized communities since the 1970s, and since then, the memory of Al-Andalus has been a central aspect of their complex, diverse, and fluid identity narratives. For some, this memory acknowledges those Muslims who for generations knew Al-Andalus as home, and who left an indelible mark on the Spanish language and customs; these same customs crossed over the Atlantic and into the so-called New World, and which were forced upon the ancestors of Latinxs who now find themselves in the U.S. For these, Al-Andalus is a progenitor of Latinx identity that should be celebrated rather than forgotten. Al-Andalus is often also a response to accusations that Latinidad is abandoned when Islam is embraced. Instead, it is a proclamation that not only can one continue to be Latinx even after embracing Islam, but that Islam is historically and culturally familiar to all forms of Latinidad. Al-Andalus is also claimed as a gift to the U.S., a model for convivencia, of how Muslims, Christians, and Jews thrived then and can now while in co-existence with one another. And for a few, Al-Andalus is also a reminder of their Muslim ancestors' imperial violence and xenophobia. The memory of Al-Andalus thus carries multiple meanings and is deployed for diverse reasons. Most notably, it is a hermeneutical framework through which Latinx conversion, or rather, reversion to Islam is experienced and a literary trope through which it is narrated.

Latino Muslims are often asked why they chose to convert to Islam. In response to this question, and as a way of trying to propagate Islam as an act of piety, many have written short autobiographies about how they came to embrace Islam, which they call Reversion Stories. This narrative genre has played a pivotal role in the development of Latino Muslim identity. The stories are titled "reversion" as opposed to "conversion." They are framed as a return to something familiar rather than as a turning to something new and foreign. Reversion stories are filled with broad themes, such as how the community deals with feelings of estrangement. They reframe the spiritual nature of Latinxs and pull a forgotten past into the present in order to help shape a new identity, a new way of being Latinx, Muslim, and American. Though the term reversion often refers to a historical-cultural return in Latino Muslim discourse (a reclamation of lost or forgotten histories and the cultural practices that emerge from them), it may also refer to an ontological return—a return to an original nature or disposition.

In a 1992 interview, historian of Islamic Spain T. B. Irving described his embrace of Islam through the language of "becoming" while critiquing the terms conversion and change: "I became a Muslim (never changed, never was anything else, just as the Prophet says) in the 1930's in Toronto. Please don't call me a convert because that implies change, and what did I change from? I became a Muslim only in the sense that at a point in time I realized that was what I was." Irving rejected the term conversion on the grounds that it is foreign to Islamic language and Islamic formulations of human nature. Saul's conversion in the book of Acts 9:1–19 is often described as a drastic 180-degree turn, a transformation in nature from sinner to saint. Irving rejected this concept because he rejected the suggestion that humans have a sinful nature that can be transformed into a godlier one. His nature, Irving believed, had not changed. He was born a Muslim, was raised as a Christian, then realized—or remembered—that his nature or ontology had from birth been that of a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God. It was a remembrance and return to the straight path rather than a conversion of his nature to a new one.

The ontological framework of reversion stories is drawn from the theological concept of fitrah, which in some formulations is understood as a natural or pre-cultural disposition to believe in the Oneness of God. As HispanicMuslims.com explains: "…we Muslims believe people are born Muslims. Our parents and society are what make us choose other religions." Drawing from this formulation of human nature, and on a literal translation of the term "Muslim" as one who submits to God, some Latino Muslims argue that all humans are born as Muslims and only stray away from their Muslim nature as a result of various cultural forces. The Latino-therefore-Christian paradigm is then accused of causing Latinxs to stray away from their "original Muslim nature" and toward devotion to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other Catholic saints. Reversion narratives thus attempt to liberate individuals from the Latino-therefore-Christian paradigm while framing an embrace of Islam as the remembrance and celebration of an original human ontology that can be forgotten or ignored but not transformed.

The discursive relevance of reversion rests largely in its ability to address accusations that Latinx and Muslim identities are somehow incompatible. Reversion stories emerged within historically specific contexts in which Latinx and Muslim identities are too often represented through negative stereotypes. Latinxs who consume racialized mediations of Muslims as dangerous enemies often accuse Latinx Muslims of self-degradation, as trying to opt out of the Latinidad. Muslims who consume essentialized mediations of Latinxs as beer drinking, pork eating, and licentious have conversely accused Latinxs of being incapable of being good Muslims. These accusations on both sides are often tied up with questions regarding Latinx and Muslim natures, a perceived incompatibility between the two, and a perceived inability to change such natures.

If it is granted that race-religion is a type of nature that cannot be changed and that Latinxs who embrace Islam are attempting to change their Latino-therefore-Christian nature, then Latino Muslims are susceptible to accusations of being inauthentic. Although such accusations rely on formulations of human ontology that are exceptionally problematic, they are accusations that Latino Muslims nevertheless experience and narrate. In response, one Latino Muslim reported in a 2005 Los Angeles Times article: "They ask why I want to change my culture. I tell them I'm changing religion, not culture. I still eat tortillas." This response relies on a categorical separation between religion and culture and expresses the Latino Muslim experience of being critiqued as either inauthentic Latinxs, inauthentic Muslims, or both. To address these alienating experiences, the logics of reversion maintain that Latinx and Muslim identities are compatible, that an individual can be both at the same time precisely because all people are seen as ontologically Muslims even if they don't realize or celebrate this aspect of their nature.

Despite its unique and responsive characteristics, there are several concerning aspects to the logics of reversion. Many Latino Muslims worry that suggesting that all humans are born as Muslims may inspire greater hostility toward their communities. They also point out that various traditions affirm Muslim identity through specific, orthodox expressions of one's submission to God. Further, it is troubling that the logics of reversion fail to directly criticize the general practice of essentializing identities. In its ontological formulation, the logics of reversion actively promote the existence of an immutable human nature, while condemning deviation from this essence as unnatural and immoral. Its historical-cultural formulation is less problematic in that it relies on contextually contingent events rather than on a priori and contested propositional definitions of humanity. If, however, historical-cultural formulations of reversion claim that Islamic Spain is a more appropriate origin narrative for Latinx identity than Catholic Spain, then it is also guilty of essentialization. Why not instead identify Visigoth or Aztec religio-culture as more appropriate origin narratives for Latinx identity and for remembering, celebrating, and practicing in contemporary life? If Catholic Spain is rejected on the grounds that it was a foreign culture imposed on to their "New World" ancestors by force, then why not make the same claim regarding the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces? The problem with identifying the origin of Latinx identity as either Catholic Spain, Muslim Spain, Visigoth Spain, or with precolonial Aztecs, Mayans, or some other group, is that that this flattens a much more complex story that can and should be told about identity.

***

After nearly a decade of working with and writing about Latino Muslims, I received word that the final revisions to my manuscript were completed and that the approved digital files were being sent off to be printed. I pondered this news while on a road trip to Niagara Falls with my family when a Latino USA podcast on Dodgers stadium began to stream into our car. The mention of this land below the hills of Elysian Park conjured up for me fond memories of my childhood, of Fernando Valenzuela, and of a now distant land. But when shaken vigorously for covered up secrets, the memory also revealed a sense of loss and pain, of a once thriving Latinx community bulldozed away into a mostly forgotten past. Like the numerous stories that were shared with me while working with diverse Latino Muslim communities, and like so many other experiences in life, the moment was filled with troubled memories, the familiar made strange and the strange familiar.

Harold Morales is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Morgan State University. His book Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority was released by Oxford University Press in February 2018.

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