Pioneers of the Latin American Muslims Conversion to Islam in North America
By Al-Hajj Yusuf Abdul Rahman Padilla-Alvarez
An early review of the beginnings of the first conversions of Puerto Ricans from the Latin American dispensation in North America into the religion of Islam from Newark, New Jersey.
My name is Al-Hajj Yusuf Abdul Rahman, I was born Jose Angel Padilla-Alvarez, in El Corozo de Boqueron, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico in 1954. My family migrated to New York then to Newark, New Jersey while I was still an infant. On the historical side, most Puerto Ricans migrated from Puerto Rico to New York where they settled and work. My uncles Antoline, Santos and another person by the name Fundador were the first Puerto Ricans to move from New York to Newark. My parents followed suit. My mother’s two sisters remained in New York and the other brother.
The early days of Newark seen many immigrants arriving from the post-WWII generation. Later on, each group took to various parts of the city; the Italians to North of Newark, the Portuguese and Polish to East of Newark, the African Americans to Central Newark and the Puerto Ricans to South Newark and surrounding areas. There were a small contingent of immigrants from Turkey residing in North Newark amongst the Puerto Ricans on 7th Avenue and further out. They even set up a Masjid but only for themselves, in the middle of a Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Newark. They were of no assistance in the spread of Islam as most were very old and semi-retired. Rahim Bab was the key person from that group.
I grew up in Dayton Street projects in South Newark, and later moved to Central Newark to So. 11th St. We did not live very far from Muhamed’s Temple No. 25 on So. Orange Ave., at the time. I must have past this place over a thousand times. The FOI members standing in front as guards of Muhamed’s 25 building had a notorious reputation as being the “crack troops” of the NOI. Newark was the first home of the NOI, the HQ was later relocated to Chicago, IL.
Later, I got to meet one of the son’s of their Minister in a private martial arts class. They lived 3 blocks from my home just off of 13th Avenue. He was the head instructor who had spent 8 years in Japan training in martial arts and attending school there. He was very pleasant and friendly with me and took to me as one of their own. The group experienced a split and his father was killed in front of his home and consequently his oldest brother took over the Ministry. The 3 defector murderers were captured by FOI members and were beheaded by someone in the group. Their bodies were found (but not their heads) just two blocks from my home (which later became the HQ for Bani Sakr and the Jaami) in an empty lot which in turn became the home of the state medical university. “He” preached to me some version of Islam but very fundamental and slanted.
Later on, I met some local Puerto Rican friends, blood brothers, not too far from my home by the names of Ruben and Tato Agosto. There was also a younger brother by the name of David and another older brother which I don’t recall his name, but David had moved to New York City, to the South Broadway area just adjacent to Chinatown, off of Canal Street with his sister. That area was known as Little Italy. It was where “The Godfather Part I” was filmed and the New York mafia was headquartered. David died at a young age as he was prone to gang warfare against the Tongs from Chinatown. He was eventually killed by them. The “Agosto Brothers” never converted to Islam. Ruben was the only supporter amongst the brothers and we were as one family with them. Ruben later in life suffered losing both of his legs from an auto accident. However, it was he who introduced me to the “Rios Brothers” in North Newark who turned out to be my distant cousins through their mother who was also a Padilla. I never met her husband, but his last name was “Room”, like the name of the Surah of the Quran referring to the Romans. This was an untypical Spanish name. Hispano-Roman for sure.
I recall meeting an African American brother by the name of Jaafar Abdel Mu’min / Lonnie Smith ( May Allah have mercy on him), and I forgot how we met but he in turn introduced me to another African American brother by the name of Faqir Lillah Abdul Rahim / Daniel Hicks (still living). Both preached to me about Islam. It was sometime after the death of my mother, around 1972 that Faqir took me to the State Street Masjid in Brooklyn, NY for Shahadah with the elderly Imam Hafiz Mahmud Maqbul (May Allah have Mercy on him). I believe he was Indian. The Masjid was formed by Shaykh Dawud who was of Haitian descent in 1933, they called it “The Muslim Mission of America”, he was elderly and still there at the time. He was famous for yelling out to the brothers before the Salatul Jumat, “I smell feet!!”. State Street was replete with many immigrant Yemenis’ and other Arabs at the time.
Back in Newark, while remaining in the home of my parents (just my brothers and sister stayed there) I welcomed Jaafar to stay with me. Not long after my conversion another Puerto Rican brother by the name of Faruq Abdul Alim RA (Jose Hernandez) accepted Islam, I came to know him through Jaafar RA and after him another by the name of (Yahya Abdul Kayyam RA (Juan Garcia) accepted Islam, he came through Yahya (RA). Both of them accepted Islam within 1 year of each other. Yahya RA and I go back to the Young Lords Party of Newark, which was headed by Ramon Rivera, before we, Yahya RA and I were Muslim. Some time afterwards I was informed by Faqir Lillah, because he spent lots of time in New York City, that he met another Puerto Rican Muslim by the name of Ibraheem Gonzalez RA (May Allah have Mercy on him). I did not actually meet Ibraheem RA until much later on, maybe several years at a function we were sponsoring in Newark. He later went to Egypt and spent more than 10 years there then returned to the states.
This is where it starts getting interesting. Both of my brothers left home, one got married and the other set out for Vietnam. I had the place to myself along with my sister. There was lots of intrigue going about the Muslim communities in New Jersey and New York. I decided to join up with Kamil Wadud RA community when one day we had the Saudi Council General pass through; he gave me that look, as if to say, I was in the wrong place. I had no idea that he was associated and good friends with Al-Hajj Heshaam Jaaber RA. It truly became a world of spies. Kamil was accused of working with the CIA(?) I thought those guys operated overseas, not domestically. There were all sorts of suspicious plots and underground stuff going around.
Sometime later, Faqir Lillah came to us and told us that he met a Shaykh from Elizabeth ( another town just next to Newark) who had been there for quite some time. He was Al-Hajj Heshaam Jaaber RA. We met him and found a very eloquent speaker and “believer” who had been exposed to the Muslim’s atrocities under the French occupation in Algeria and had fought in that struggle against the French. Al-Hajj Heshaam RA had an affinity for the Saudis at the time and was instrumental at organizing the various groups in the Newark area; Baitul Khaliq headed up by Abdellah Yasin and Deenullah Masjid, headed by Al-Hajj Akal Karam RA. Al-Hajj Heshaam RA had spent an additional 11 years in the Muslim world before returning to the states. Nonetheless, he had a small house close to Port Elizabeth, on Magnolia Street that we called “the Jaami”, as a functional place of prayer and gathering. We frequented “the Jaami” many times even in the worst of the bitter winters. There were many occasions that the house did not have any heating oil during the freezing winters, only an electrical floor heater and the water was ice-cold for the purpose of wudhu. Al-Hajj Jameel was the keeper and maintainer of “the Jaami”, living there with his young family. We met many African American brothers that had spent 4-5 years in Mecca and had returned for a brief moment before heading back, many of them stayed temporarily at “the Jami”. There were many others that traveled to Saudi and Egypt and remained there never to return. Brothers such as Al-Hajj Hasan who returned to Mecca and Abu Bakr Siddiq who took his very young daughter to conclude his life in Egypt. Shuaib Muhaiman stayed in Mecca for 7 years with his family but also returned.
What turned out to be very interesting was that Al-Hajj Heshaam RA was part of an older African American group that had its roots in the founding fathers of modern African American Islamic offshoots ( Elijah Muhamed, Marcus Garvey (?), Daddy Grace ( I don’t know if the last two were the same people) of the Moorish Science Temple, and there was mention of a Father Divine as well. There was a photo on a wall of one of the survivors at the time that showed quite a few African Americans along with Ustaz Muhamed Ezaldeen RA dating back to the early or mid 1930’s).
He, Shaykh Al-Hajj Heshaam RA was the National Imam for the AAUAA – Adeenulllah Al-Jamia Ummiya Al-Arabiya Al-Islamia. I am not sure the incorporation date but it goes as far back as the early 1930’s (or maybe earlier) under the leadership of Ustaz Muhamed Ezaldeen RA. He spent 10 or more years in Al-Azhar University , Eqypt. It was during the time of Kamil Ataturk and the pre-fall of the Khilafat. He, Ustaz Muhamed Ezaldeen RA (as the story goes) had traveled to Turkey to organize along with other Muslims an insurgent group to undermine Kamil Ataturk’s attempts to eradicate the Khilafat. Which would put an end to 683 years and the longest any Muslim nation has held the Khilafat of Islam; the central Islamic religious/political power. Their efforts were not successful and they had to flee Turkey “by foot” back to Egypt. The Model-T Ford was not invented then, I believe. He eventually returned to Newark and while preparing a place for prayer he stepped on a nail and caught gangrene and eventually passed away. Daddy Grace also returned to Newark as well as Elijah Muhamed and each went their own ways. I had the opportunity to meet the some of the original remaining brothers that were still alive but in their senior years, Al-Hajj Hadi Bey RA, Al-Hajj Sayyid Ahmad RA and others in a small farming town in South New Jersey called Elm, in Hammonton County where they set up the AAUAA headquarters. The AAUAA platform was Islamic and the racial identity of the African Americans was that of the Arab race as taught to them by Ustaz Muhamed Ezaldeen RA (which takes some explaining), thus they ( the first, second and third generations) classify themselves as such until this very day.
I preached to the Rios Brothers, my cousins and they were my first converts. First Luqman, then Isam, Jamal then Muhamed, and then a family friend or relative named Huma RA, and many others followed through this chain of relationships. We made no open public dawa efforts. We grew organically from within. Others began to come into the ranks. We were young, but we “believed”. Unlike metropolitan and cosmopolitan New York City and Brooklyn with millions of diverse people and cultures, Newark on the other hand was a small city of no more than 350,000 people, very porous and it seemed as if everyone was related or connected to others in some way or another. There was not an alley, street or corner that I did not know or had not walked down.
As we grew and expanded into the predominant Catholic/Pentecostal tightly knit Puerto Rican community, other non-Muslim Puerto Ricans began to take notice and we were not liked, liked, or distantly respected, or not respected at all. There were too many ties of relationships via blood and friendships that were binding everyone together (Muslim and non-Muslim). It was a powder keg. Some traditional families had become divided through religious lines.
We had non-Muslims community pillars both political and business through our previous relationships that kept everyone at bay. Except for a few distant areas of the city, Newark was predominantly a massive ghetto. The legacy of post-Mayor Adonizio (Italian) corrupt government, post 1960’s riots and everything that was criminal that you can imagine was flowing throughout the Newark ghetto. It was ranked as the nations number 1 murder capital. It was truly the law of the jungle for survival. So, it was not improbable, nor impossible not to admit converts into our tight Puerto Rican Muslim community that were known prior, as “bad guys” for lack of better words. “Conversion was a matter of Shahadah, but transformation is a matter of time.” So there it was, weapons of all sorts flowed back and forth; buying, selling and brokering and the non-Muslim Puerto Ricans were well aware of it. It was the equalizer. Early on, when it was just a few of us, my relatives, myself and a few friends; someone had breached the subject of having an Imam and since I was the one who made the call to Islam they looked at me and decided at that moment to appoint me as their Imam. I had no idea what all of that was about and what I got into. I found out years later, after I had relocated to Texas how much I was lacking by way of everything. I spent the following 18 years in Dallas at the IANT, under the Hanafi Turkish scholar and Imam, Dr. Yusuf Kazaki.
Al-Hajj Heshaam RA was inspirational, eloquent and convincing. If you don’t know the name, he was the Imam who presided over Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz’s (Malcom X) RA eulogy and burial, drabbed in pure desert Arab abaya and ghutra; when it was not fashionable to do so.
There was too much going on to recollect all the events and details. Al-Hajj Heshaam RA was a very clever man. He suggested to us that we call our community by Bani Sakr. We didn’t give it too much thought, although it was very uncommon and Arabic in nature, we collectively decided to go along with the name. I can’t recall if the organization or community, Bani Sakr, as we knew it was ever incorporated. Then guess what? Not much later on, we got the word that the Rabitat Al-Alim Al-Islami (World Muslim League based in Mecca) was going to set up an office in New York City and the first Secretary General and UN representative was Dr. Ahmad Hussien “Sakr”. What a coincidence! He was clean cut and very sharp, but he didn’t have a plan according to sources. So we prepared a well thought out plan that laid out a national organization based on the Majlis Ash-Shurah, from national, to regional, to citywide based on the Islamic community concept. Eight years later they held the 1st General Assembly meeting of the Shurah Council and we were not invited. I went to see who of the 300-400 delegates at the hotel were and what I saw appeared to be not very religious business people drabbed in expensive suits. That event was held in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Appreciation and thanks was finally rendered 16 years later by Dr. Ahmad Hussein Sakr himself at a conference in Chicago, IL. , while addressing a group of 1200+ Muslim leaders from around the world on the post-Mecca massacre that was sponsored by the Saudi government, where 400+ pilgrims were killed by Saudi security forces just a couple of days prior to the Hajj season. Supposedly most of them were Shias, but many too were Sunnis as they marched together in a procession denouncing the Kufar. He was known to the brothers and certain circles as “Big Head”, solely because of the size of his head. Other than that he was a very nice and humble brother. I was residing in Texas at the time of the Chicago occasion.
This is where the name Bani “Sakr” originated from and why. It was not from a creative moment from anyone in our community. It was a play on the new MWL Secretary General and UN representative. My best guess was that we were supposed to get warm and fuzzy “Rico Suave” style with the new brother in town, the man with the money. I seen him years later after at his Islamic Center in California with Mustafa Calendario Cervantes, a Mexican brother whose grandfather was Coronal Calendario Cervantes who was an officer in Pancho Villas liberation army. We had been sponsored by IFFSO, a branch of Rabitat (MWL) through their Ugandan representative Dr. Omar Kasuli, to give dawa in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico; Mustafa’s home town was in Angostura, further down the coast. A hand full of friends of his became Muslim.
As we were making almost daily rounds to “the Jami”, Al-Hajj Heshaam RA had also impressed us with his use of the word “Lord”, referring to Allah with the words “Young Lords”. We knew there was no religious relation to the two.
The Young Lords Party was socialist based and the top tier promulgated free-sex amongst their followers and even sharing of each other’s wives. I even heard through the grapevine from a very reliable source that this went well with the rank and file, but when it occurred with the ladies and wives of the Ministers, it didn’t go so well. Some say this was the cause of the breakup of the Young Lords.
Nevertheless, I don’t know what I was thinking, or what we were thinking about, but this too, had something to do with the decision to go on with the name Bani Sakr.
Later or before, Al-Hajj Heshaam RA decided to have what I called an “Imam Crash Course”. I don’t think it was more than a dozen classes. After that crash course, I gave my first khutbah at “the Jaami”.
Looking back, there was a small riff between ourselves and Brother Jaafar RA, we parted ways and 4 years later he was found murdered with multiple stab wounds. We were very sure who did it but the murderer fled the state never to be seen again. Time passed by and Brother Faqir drifted into the shadows as events unfolded and played out. Al-Hajj Heshaam RA was inducted into the ranks of the Muslim World League as a speaker. The Iraq-Iran war kept him also busy as a news journalist for Islamic Press International, interviewing the Arab and Muslim Ambassadors.
In time, some, while we were struggling to stay together, of the undesirables that came into the community earlier began to create mischief in the greater community of Newark and drew condemnation from the non-Muslim Puerto Ricans, demanding who was responsible for this group. There seemed to have been unnecessary deaths over bad business deals among certain individuals not really close to Bani Sakr’s core community people. But the name was implicated. All fingers pointed at towards me. I had to clean up a lot of mess I didn’t create nor wanted to get involved with. It was not my responsibility, but I managed.
I can’t remember the number of years we lingered loosely together, but precious time and the informative years were passing quickly and frustrations mounted and began to emerge amongst certain individuals within the Bani Sakr core. There were many broken promises from so-called Muslim and Arab funding sources, outside support groups and internal disputes about the actual goals and direction of Bani Sakr, all of this began to surface. At the time, it was a free-for-all in the greater U.S. Islamic community at ripping off other Islamic communities funding proposals. Even funding earmarked for Quran publishing seemed to have disappeared in the middle somewhere. The Arabic speaking brokers were obtaining funds from Saudi and other international Islamic organizations and absconding with the badly needed monies directed to the struggling communities. Indigenous American Muslims were always looked upon as second hand Muslims. Latin American Muslims in North America were nothing to be given consideration to. We just didn’t count or seem to exist. This attitude is still prevalent even unto today to some extend simply because the Latin American Muslims are not properly represented in a unified way. So, as the fastest growing population conversion wise, with as many as 2 million Latin American Muslims and the majority women, there leaves much room for abuse by the other Muslim communities, especially to the unknowing new converts. You can expect back room, no state marriage license, no blood tests, downloaded bogus marriage certificates and close friends of the groom as representative witnesses. It’s very common in the states. Solutions and an information dissemination system should be looked into to address these abuses.
The misdirection of Bani Sakr was that it was lead into and took on the form of a “movement” as opposed to a “knowledge focused” seeking and learning community. Our religion is one that is focused on seeking knowledge, the kind of knowledge that gets us closer to Allah.
I surmised that after the demise of Bani Sakr as an active community that what was needed was a transformational and educational effort of Islamic Ta’leem and Tartib of 10 years at the minimum of intensive teaching and learning to fully develop the minds, psychology and souls of the North American Latino Muslims. Much was missing. Nationwide there was no framework, nor infrastructure for Islamic institutional learning. It finally came, but came too late for many.
Dissolution began to take root. The fallout was eye-witness. Excessive problems mounted up. There was uncalled for lost of life due to careless and irresponsible individuals which tarnished the image of the group as a whole.
In a matter of time, Bani Sakr slid into disorganization and many began to disburse. Everyone began going their individual way, away from the community altogether. Many strayed back to pre-Islamic lifestyles and out of Islam completely. Some died honorable deaths and others that strayed died non-honorable deaths as my cousin Isam put it.
Few individual brothers were prospering while the greater portion of the community was suffering financially both as a group and with their individual families. Newark for the most part did not offer economic growth opportunities for its population. It had a stagnant economy. Without a strong family support structure, for some, the door for hijrah had opened. That was the road I took. I eventually left Newark and headed south to Texas where I started over. I had made the Hajj while I lived in Texas but with the brothers from Elizabeth, New Jersey. I went to Mecca again the following year for Umrah by myself.
There were other Muslim characters in our midst that were not Puerto Rican. Abdel Malik was an Italian who eventually moved to New York for greater exposure. Omar RA the young African American only member who was amongst us almost daily and until the end. I can’t think of anyone else that was not Puerto Rican that was part of the original group outside of Jaafar RA and Faqir. Hussein RA, my ex-brother-in-law was half Italian and Puerto Rican. His dad was Thomas “Tommy Gun” Dela Monica. That’s what they called him, but I’ve never ever seen him with a gun.
My personal view is that we need to stop looking outside of our own Latin Americans for guidance and leadership. Every community in America had sought leaders from among themselves. There surely are notable scholars in the states, but we have them too, and can cultivate our own as well. We have been around long enough and seen enough to know the correct way to teach and to move forward as Latin American nations. Most of us who have survived the early pioneering years and have lived to have fulfilling lives ever how far and much Allah has taken or given us to know, must ponder that there is a Divine reason why we are still around. Why have to find out what that is and lay down a better foundation and road map for our unique situation(s). We are not just Muslims as in Anglo or African American Muslims. We represent “countries”. We have our roots in distant lands. Our histories are tied to Islamic Spain and before that. It is not complete without it. We need to encourage our youth to make hijrah to the Islamic universities of Al-Azhar and others in the Maghrib. I personally do not subscribe to the Saudi fire brand of extreme, rigid and hard-line Wahhabism.
The jurisdictional (mazhab) tradition of Islamic Spain was that of the Maliki mazhab, but any of the traditional mazhabs are good enough, as, they were from amongst and the closest to the first generation, thus closer and purer to the source of knowledge and faith.
In the Muslim minds of West and North Africa, Spain is considered the Maghrib, and is still considered as part of the Maghrib, and has never been separated from it.
Of course, there is much to the story of Bani Sakr. There were many good times and experiences. There is no doubt, too many to recall. It’s possible if I were to circulate this document around to the surviving founders that they too can contribute their own version and experiences, because we lived it. The proof of Islam is reflected in our lives and in our continued devotion to Allah and for the love of the Prophet SA for showing us the way, the upholding of his Sunnah and whose examples we assumed as part of who we are today and will always be until we meet Allah again, Muslims.
I am of the belief and certitude that we can outshine collectively many of the other national communities in the states and other parts of the Americas through the example of a strong brotherhood and sisterhood unified by cultural similarities and language, in purpose and as “one people” in Islam.
Allahu Waliyul Taufiq
Al-Hajj Yusuf Abdul Rahman Padilla Al-Maliki Al-Arabi Al-Andalusi At-Tijani