A Lifetime Of Reclaiming Our Islamic Heritage

By Yahya Abdul Latif Figueroa

Director, Alianza Islamica

Beginnings and starting points are always difficult to determine and become obscured in the pages of bygone days. How and when movements and ideas bloom is never easy to pinpoint.  Historical studies of the same period rarely agree on key issues. Nonetheless, the following lines hope to set the record straight on an important matter and provide an accurate picture regarding the spread of Islam among Latinos and the birth of the first circle that exclusively worked among Spanish speakers in the US.

The 1960s and 70s were decades of momentous turmoil and upheaval among minority communities in the US. It was the age of reclaiming lost identities, the assertion of ethnic pride, and the rediscovery of cultural roots. It was also a time of soul-searching and the discovery of new spiritual paths and religions. Small groups of minority American blacks and Latinos turned to Islam. These were the days of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyya, and the Ansarullah community, as well as the legion of American Muslims who embraced authentic Sunni Islam due to the influence of the late Malcolm X, rejecting Elijah Muhammad’s heretical claim to prophethood and asserting the belief in Muhammad (PBUH) as the seal of the Prophets.  Uniquely Sunni groups arose against this background giving rise to independent small communities working within their inner city neighborhoods. The most well-known were the Dar-ul-Islam Movement at Herkimer Place in Brooklyn and the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) in Harlem.

In 1987, a small Latino group of Muslims formed Alianza Islamica and its nucleus of members gathered and set forth a plan to incorporate and open a mosque/cultural/dawah center. During the decade of the 90s, its heyday, it had become a well-oiled machine, eventually establishing La Mezquita del Barrio, the first one of its kind we were aware of.

Alianza was born in Spanish Harlem, the very heart of the Latino community in New York City. It was no coincidence that Alianza took root in the very center of one of the oldest and most iconic Latino communities in the US.  From the very start Alianza sought to combat the social conditions faced by our people with the dynamic spiritual teachings of Islam. Based in the center of Hispanic intellectual and cultural life, Alianza was forced to participate in a bold and fresh manner.  Not only did we dialogue with other faiths but we challenged the various ideologies and social movements of the time presenting an Islamic alternative.

It was a spiritual cultural center aiming to revive and rediscover the soulful treasures of Al Andalus.  In its most successful period we served approximately 100 families, many of them single disenfranchised young people. Hundreds of other transients were touched profoundly as well. We believed that we had a special approach to Islam and that the cultural glory of Andalusia was extremely relevant to the needs of our people.  Many of our most supportive participants were non-Latinos as our center provided refuge for all seeking help. Our neighborhoods suffered from much of the dysfunction of urban life, discrimination and lack of opportunity, most often the product of discriminatory policies. Thus Alianza had a rare mission to present Islamic teachings against this very troubled background.

We sought to bring a down to earth vision of Islam, certain that this message could alleviate the problems we faced.  We offered family counseling and community support. Different courses presented the basic Islamic sciences, Fiqh, Quran and Hadith and classics of spirituality, especially those of Al Andalus. Due to the community we served, many came with troubled pasts. Alianza sought to serve this population and aid in the recovery of broken souls and families.  Wholesome companionship, brother and sisterhood distinguished our efforts.  For many, conversion to Islam had brought trauma to their families and we sought to fill that gap. We celebrated the Islamic holidays offering communal meals and joyous occasions for those with no extended families.  Conversions to Islam occurred regularly, and community life pulsed with all its customary trappings: communal prayer, weddings, and celebrations of birth and the solemnity of death. In addition, Alianza reached out to the Harlem community and participated in community affairs with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Alianza Islamica continued to function until 2005, long after 9/11, and for various reasons the center came to a halt. Many of the members recall fondly those “golden days” of our activities and long to become active once again, seeking a fresh start.

Nonetheless, Alianza is delighted by IslaminSpanish’s Centro Islamico and embraces it as an extension of our humble beginning. We hope it enhances the basic message of Alianza, as a force for the unique spiritual culture of historical Andalus and skillfully avoid the excesses and failures of many Islamic movements of our time.  We, also, hope that it forges a truly unique movement to transmit the timeless guidance of Allah, the Most High, as embodied in the paragon of books, al Qur’an, and the Sunnah of His Prophet (PBUH) among Latinos. Let us boldly proclaim our timely vision based upon our glorious past and new opportunities that are ours here in the US.

Finally, Alianza would like to acknowledge the inspirational debt owed to the early American Sunni, primarily African-American communities of New York; the Dar ul Islam Movement and the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, as well as the foundational influence of the DC-based Islamic Party of North America in our a special mission to the Hispanic community.

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