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Between the Andes and the Caribbean:

Characterization of the Muslim Presence in Colombia

Diego Giovanni Castellanos

Anthropologist, Master of Arts in Religious Studies
Researcher National University of Colombia

This paper focuses on the current presence of Muslim communities in Colombia,
starting with the characterization on the Muslim presence in that country, and
presenting then a brief analysis of the phenomenon. This kind of work is necessary
because there is not available any work about the topic in English Language.
To do this, it initially presents an introduction to the main characteristics of these
communities and how the topic has been investigated. Next, there is a historical
introduction to the origins and development of the Islamic presence in this part of
South America, and then it presents an analysis of the major communities existing in
that country, according to socio-geographic contexts. So, the text first describes the
Islamic diversity of Bogota, the capital city. Then it analyzes the existence of a
network of Lebanese Muslim communities spanning the southern Caribbean. And
finally, the text presents the case of an Afro-descendant Muslim community in
Buenaventura, a port city on the Colombian pacific coast. The text starts with the
consideration that Islam, despite being still a minority religion in the part of the world,
is a complex social phenomenon characterized by a great heterogeneity in beliefs,
practices and social aspects.
Because the study of Islam in these region is a relatively unexplored topic, the used
information mostly comes from several seasons of fieldwork. However, where
necessary, I rely on literature dealing with Arabs and Muslims migration to other parts
of the continent.
Some authors have argued that the Muslim presence in the Americas dates back to

prehispanic times, but these hypotheses have not been corroborated (Kabchi, 1997:
39). For this reason, it can be said that the first data about the Muslim presence in
the case of Colombia, goes back to the sixteenth century, namely the colonial period.
It is worth noting that during that period those territories were under the jurisdiction of
the Spanish Crown, as part of the administrative entities of New Kingdom of
Granada, first; and later of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Until now, the early
presence of Muslims during this period, ranging from the sixteenth to the early
nineteenth century, has been established only through scattered data. There is not a
systematic study about the characteristics of the Muslim presence in that time
(Castellanos, 2010: 63).
Despite the prohibitions, the Moorish (name under which Muslims living in the Iberian
Peninsula were called) had different possibilities to reach the American continent. An
example of that occurred in cases like the expedition of Gonzalo Jimenez de
Quesada to the Magdalena River and the Colombian central Andes in 1537. On this
expedition, of 110 men of whom there is record of their place of birth, 31 of them
(28%), came from southern Spain, and generally in Andalusia. That region was under
Muslim power of the Nasrid dynasty until 1492. This case apparently was not an
exception, as in the 1540s expedition of Geronimo Lebron to the same region, 38
survivors of whom birthplace is known, 11, nearly a third, came from Andalusia
(Avellaneda 1993: 266). This possibility was confirmed in at least one case, during
the Spaniard expeditions which led to the conquest of the Muisca territory: "In the
second half of 1539, when Gonzalo Garcia Zorro was with Hernan Perez looking for
The House of the Sun, he not only lost an Arabic horse but died Juanillo, his Moorish
slave, too" (Avellaneda: 1995: 296).
In addition to the possible arrival of Moors, another possible origin of Muslims during
that period was the slavery, important basis for colonial economy, due to which
millions of Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas. While it is not possible to
establish the percentage of Muslim slaves in the case of Colombia, it is clear that it
was quite low compared with countries like Brazil or the United States. One particular
case happened in the mid seventeenth century, in Choco, located in the west of the
Viceroyalty of New Granada, as a slave census relates about two men, Andres Ali
and Mateo Mosumi, perhaps from West Africa, whose names could be identified as
Muslims (Granda, 1972).

However, as argued above, as more extensive research on the Muslim presence in

northwestern South America is pending, these are just isolated facts, and fail to be
framed in another context that the breach of the Laws of the Indies, which explicitly
prohibited the entry of Muslims, new Christians, or their descendants.
As in other American countries, the contemporary presence of Muslims in the case of
Colombia is related to Arab migration to the region, since the late nineteenth century.
However, most of those travelers were Maronite Christians and only a minority
professed Islam.
These migrations took place in times of economic, political and social crisis that
affected several of the provinces dominated by the Ottoman Empire during the
nineteenth century, producing significant displacements. These events affected not
only Christians of various denominations, but also Muslims and Jews (Karpat, 1985).
This situation of disturbance of social order, coupled with the emergence of new
possibilities due to modern means of transport, as well as the hope of improving
living conditions, led to waves of migration. While most Muslims chose to settle in
places with a majority of Muslim population, Christians tended to seek a better future
in the Christian West.
When analyzing migration from the Middle East to Latin America it can be perceived
that it has not been constant in the time, but there have been periods when flux
increased or almost stopped. Fawcett and Carbo (1992) argue that there was only a
great Arabic migratory movement to Colombia, which took place between 1880 and
1930. By contrast, Nweihed divided the Arab migration to Venezuela, Colombia and
Ecuador into three periods. One that runs from the last two decades of the nineteenth
century to the end of the First World War; an interwar period and, finally, ranging
from World War II until the end of the Lebanon War (Kabchi: 1997: 237). Although
these are useful periodizations, reflecting changes in the territorial and political
landscape of the Middle East, they do not necessarily reflect the Muslim population
flows to Colombia, which in Nweihed periodization, although it was not very
significant in the first two periods, it becomes important in the third.
Indeed, in 1948 began the Palestinian migration to different parts of the world,
including northern South America, after the birth of the State of Israel and the
subsequent crisis. However, in the Colombian case was numerically more important
the Lebanese Muslims that arrived from the seventies. This population movement
has not stopped completely and, in fact, has become more complex over the past

twenty years, as discussed below.

In conclusion, the contemporary presence of Muslims in Colombia requires another
type of periodization, which should differentiate between a first predominantly Arab
and Christian migration period (1880-1930), in which the background of the first
Muslim communities were established; and a second period (1948-1990) framed by
the creation of the State of Israel and the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in which the
migration of Palestinian and Lebanese Sunni Muslims dominated. In our view it is
possible to distinguish a third term after 1990, in which the Palestinian and Lebanese
migration was reduced, while increase the arrival of Muslims from elsewhere in the
Islamic world. A third period is characterized by new conversions, leading to a raising
involvement of the Muslim communities in Colombian local issues. During this period
the Muslim communities were affected by World Trade Center terrorist attacks in
2001 and its consequences, but after this event the conversion rates even increased.
It is possible to categorize the various stages through which a Muslim community can
pass, in its development process as minority in the Latin American context.
First is the birth of the original group, which usually begins by continued immigration
of Muslim people to a country in which the majority professes other religion. This core
seeks to continue their traditional lifestyle, while struggling for establish and achieve
some success in the new social context. These cores can also be formed by
conversion processes, in which some new Muslims joined in a group, trying to
organize for make easy the religious practice while deepen the doctrine. In both
cases, the immediate concern is to seek a place in which to be able to meet on
Friday to pray together, and for discussing common issues. Whatever the case,
initially the group seeks a small space in a house or rents a place. Once that space
exists, the growth of the community often requires adjustment to accommodate to
other practices that are also part of Islamic life, such as funerals, marriages or fasting
in the holy month of Ramadan. These moments also reinforce the ties of the group
and lay the foundation for a true community life. For this reason, it is necessary to
designate who is more qualified to lead these tasks, as well as to ensure that
religious practice is correct.
In a second stage, the group becomes large enough to require a fixed and exclusive
place, which serves as a prayer hall, since at this stage is not possible (or necessary)
the existence of a real mosque. At this time raises the creation of an organization to
ensure the patrimony and the interests of the community of believers, thus

establishing an association. This usually consists of male born Muslims, heads of

household, but eventually the organizations can include women and new believers.
In the third stage the community has such importance that it manages to build a
mosque, and is appointed a person who serves as Imam, preferably in full time. He is
usually a religious specialist or a theologian from a Muslim country. At the same time,
they seek to educate children and youth of the community within the traditional
religious and cultural values, so they usually aim at the creation of an Islamicoriented school.
When a community reaches this level of consolidation, they often become a pole of
attraction or point of reference for other Muslims groups in nearby cities or minor
villages. Eventually may occur, but not necessarily, that the mosque become a center
of Islamization, carrying out Dawah work among interested local people, as well as
among academics and researchers (Deval, 1992: 29). This classification provides an
ideal scheme and does not imply that all communities in Latin America have followed
the same process, as many know rapid development and subdivision, while others
have not been able to develop and even have weakened over time.
A general aspect in Colombia is that Islam has been an urban phenomenon. At
present almost all the cities of first or second importance in this country have one or
more Muslim groups, some born in the seventies, but most of them stablished in the
last twenty years. Cities that have a greater Muslim continuity are intermediate cities,
ports and border towns, which due to their condition attracted the first wave of
migration. Among these in Colombia are Maicao, Buenaventura and Barranquilla.
However, the greatest diversity of Muslim groups exists in Bogota, the capital city. In
each of these cities there are several Muslim organizations or associations, usually
without a common origin and with no close relation between them. For that reason,
some religious interpretations and the idea of what it means to be Muslim can vary
widely. This is clear when examining the relations they have with the Muslim World,
the way they understand their identity, and what they consider "right" or "true" in
Islam. Although sometimes these differences can be valued as part of the richness of
the Islamic tradition, for others it can be in the future a source of debate and division.
Regarding the number of Muslims existing in Colombia, it is not possible to provide
reliable data. Firstly because neither any organization nor researcher has ever done
neither a count within communities, nor the census of Colombia collects information
on religious affiliation. For this reason the estimates are often carried out considering

the possible percentage of Arab descendants, although many of them are Christians.
This strategy also implies unawareness about Muslims from non-Arab countries, and
converts to Islam. However, a useful number can be established when estimated the
affiliation to Islamic organizations and the attendance to mosques, despite fieldwork
has shown that many Muslims do not join a particular institution (as is the case of
Muslim women), and even many more do not attend mosques regularly. Even with
these disadvantages, we consider that the number of Muslims should be around
16,000 in the case of Colombia.
Muslim Communities in Bogota
Compared with other Latin American countries Colombia has not been a country
where migration had especially importance. For this reason, although foreigners have
played a significant role in the modernization of the country, their percentage in
relation to the local population was always small. During the nineteenth century and
the first half of the twentieth century, the site of entry was usually the port city of
Barranquilla, on the Atlantic coast, from where they subsequently moved to other
regions. This same pattern was followed by the Arabs, and although initially they
tended to settle mainly in northern Colombia, by the early twentieth century they
reached Bogota, the capital of the country (Castellanos, 2010).
Indeed, to the twenties of last century some Muslims of Palestinian origin were
located in the center of the city, in search of better living conditions and of raise some
money with which to return to their homeland. In general they dedicated to trading,
and tended to locate both their homes and their businesses in the center of the city.
Initially the life of these immigrants was somewhat difficult, since they arrived without
knowledge of the local language or customs. However, due to the necessity, they
adapted fast in order to concentrate on trade and, when possible, to encourage their
family or acquaintances to travel and move to that cold city among the mountains, in
the interior of a country until then, many of them had not ever heard of it. For those
people who resolved to undertake this adventure, and finally arrived in Bogot, the
situation was somewhat simpler while other pioneers have paved the way and
because the ethnic and religious belonging. However, due to the small of their
number (no more than 200 individuals), and the lack of religious resources, these
early forms of Islamic religious life in Colombia gradually weakened to almost

nothing. On the other hand, the rural origin of some immigrants and even their
illiteracy, per se did not suggest a strong knowledge of doctrine or ritual. For this
same reason, and in order to avoid problems with the Christian majority, in this
period there was not a willingness to share the Islamic creed. Since there were no
religious teachers nor religious institutions, Muslims in the early decades of the
twentieth century focused on trying to undertake their daily practice, since the mere
fact of having copies of the Quran was in itself a rather difficult enterprise.
It was from the fifties that the increase in Muslim immigration renewed interest in
religion among the Arabs in Bogota. Furthermore, this new population had a greater
understanding of religious precepts, in part result of the sociopolitical changes taking
place in the Middle East in the Twentieth Century. By then, the picture of the Islamic
presence in Bogot began to diversify. Following the civil war in Lebanon (1975 1990), as well as a gradual but significantly greater integration of Colombia to the
international scene, Palestinians and Lebanese markedly increased in number and,
still being the dominant Muslim population in the country, were accompanied by
believers from other Arab countries like Egypt or Algeria, and later even from nonArab Muslim regions.
Simultaneously, the Islamic world was experiencing a rise of Islam as a religion
generate of identity and moral values, given the failure of many regimes based on a
nationalist paternalism that had not met most of the development and democracy
expectations of their populations. This phenomenon was reinforced by the victory of
the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both of which
occurred in 1979. The Islamic revival also came to Bogot, which led to the birth of
the first organized Muslim community.
The original intention was simply to give Muslims a place where they could make
common prayer and other rituals, and teach the Islamic doctrine. These efforts led in
the late 70s to the acquisition of a place near their shops, which was officially
designated as La Musala (prayer hall). This was the first step for the organization that
in 1979 was called Asociacin Benfica Islmica (Islamic Benevolent Association) in
Bogota. By this time the number of Muslims of local origin was virtually nonexistent.
Although some local people could be interested in religion, generally the only way for
someone to came in contact with Islam and then to consider the possibility of

conversion, was during overseas travels, or for close relation with some Arab
In the 1990s significant changes began for the Muslim community in Bogot, until
then of Palestinian majority. At the same time that Muslims from other parts of the
world began to settle in Bogota, the number of Colombian converts increased
significantly. This, of course, meant the growth of the community and thus, the
emergence of views increasingly diverse. One of those changes was in relation con
appearance of Shi'a Islam, inexistent until the eighties. By the nineties, the Shiite
presence increased, initially for the arrival of some Iranian and Lebanese people, as
well as for increasing of Shiite Islamic propaganda and publications, sponsored by
Iranian organizations. Since during that time the Islamic literature, although it had
been increasing still remained insufficient, some Muslims in the city saw with
pleasure the arrival of this new study material. Also during this time Colombia
established new diplomatic relations with Muslim countries, which facilitated to new
Muslim converts the opportunity to contact and even for study in quranic schools or
Islamic universities. These experiences influenced the approach to Islam of some
believers, who introduced trends and schools of thought previously unknown in the
country, such as Salafism, Sufism and Shi'ism.
Similarly and more notoriously, the number of Colombian Muslims from began to
increase. Those conversions, by its low number made possible that almost all
Muslims in the city knew each other, but eventually began to increase in number and
diversity of interpretations. It was in the nineties when Sufis movements, no all of
them inside the Muslim orthodoxy, began to attract some middle class Colombian
In recent years the trend of growth and diversification as presented in the previous
two decades has been strengthened. New groups of immigrants settled en Bogot,
often looking for business or education. These include Indonesian, Turkish, Pakistani
or Western African Muslims. At the same time conversion increased, particularly
since 2001, when the presence of Islam in the media made familiar to local people
issues of the Muslim World. At other level, the same situation contributed to
academic spaces for analyzing the Muslim World in the Colombian universities,
especially in Political Science faculties.

All those phenomena have led to the creation and separation of new Islamic
organizations; many of them disappear after a short existence, but it is possible to
identify four groups that have achieved continuity and recognition.
Islamic Benevolent Asociation Mosquee of Bogot
The main Islamic center remains the one created by the Arabs in the seventies,
which administers the Mosque Abou Bakr Assidiq, which is the main mosque in the
city. This Muslim community has been headed for several years by Sheikh Ahmed
Tayel, and although they are identified as Sunni, they are not affiliated to any
madhhab (school) in particular. As a result more than five hundred Muslims in Bogota
recognize it as the institution that identifies them, although the normal attendance
barely reaches a hundred believers.
Because the Arabs have funded most of the Islamic activities such as the
maintenance of the Musala, the publication of books or pamphlets, or the
performance of evening dinners during Ramadan, the Colombian Muslims was long
excluded from taking decisions. Although today the Colombian converts have gained
importance and are notoriously active, a protectionist air persists among Muslims by
birth, not only Arabs, but those problems are changing rapidly.
Al Qurtubi Studies Center
It is a Sunni institution of Da'wah and developing of Islamic knowledge, existing since
2012. Is directed by Lyes Marzougui, a French citizen of Tunisian origin. In this place
not only academic work is done, but it has a prayer room and authority to issue halal
Confession Islamic Center of Bogot
This group of Salafi tendency officially disbanded in 2007 of the Islamic Benevolent
Association, although the differences had begun several years earlier. In that year,
thanks to contributions of some Muslim Turks, they bought and adequate a house for
religious purposes, which was renamed "Istanbul Mosque. This community is lead by
Carlos Sanchez, a Colombian who embraced Islam more than two decades ago,
although the office of Imam is usually exercised by other Muslims.
Shia Organizations

The Shiites, who constitute a minority, are often involved in many religious activities
with the Sunnis. However, in late 2007 through the joint efforts of Colombian and
Iranian Shiite Muslims, they instituted al - Reza Mosque. In this building they perform
all their religious observances except Friday prayers, to which they usually attend the
Mosque of Bogot. In addition to the meetings on Thursday for recitation of dua
Khumeil, they commemorate the festival of Ashura, meetings are held and study
days, and anniversaries such as the Iranian Islamic Revolution. The mosque is run
by a council of Colombian and Iranian Muslims, and is supported by funding of nongovernmental organizations in Iran. Other Shiite center have been established with
support of the Iranian Ahlul Bait organization.
Islamic Cultural Center
This center is dedicated to spreading knowledge about Islam and the culture of
Muslim countries, so it cannot be considered a Muslim community by itself. It was
founded in 1993 by a group of Colombian Muslims, but was strengthened in 1999
when Julian Zapata and Fanny Ochoa took the leading of the center after coming
back from studying in Iran. Undeniably the Islamic Cultural Center has played an
important role by providing a more accessible image of Islam through their work with
universities and in interfaith dialogue. In recent years this center has participated in
public forums for discussion about the rights of religious minorities in Colombia, and
in discussions and consultations with the State in that area.
Fethullah Glen Movement
Fethullah Glen is a movement of Turkish origin, which has been established in Latin
America during the last ten years. Currently it has offices in several Latin American
cities, such as Bogota, Medellin, Caracas, Santiago, Chile, Mexico City, Buenos
Aires and Sao Paulo. These offices usually created as schools of Turkish culture, as
well as facilitators of trade relations between Turkey and entrepreneurs in the region.
However, all members are followers of Hoja Efendi Fethullah Glen, so they develop
a strict Islamic life and they quickly established relations with the Islamic communities
in the cities where they are located, without actually forming their own Islamic
centers. In the case of Bogota, they established the first the first academic center in
2005, and after that they achieved presence in several public and private universities.

Lebanese Communities in the Caribbean

In the northern South America and the Caribbean there are several Muslim
communities of Lebanese origin who have close contact with each other. As such,
they constitute a network of commercial links spanning several cities in Venezuela,
Colombia, Panama, and even Brazilin. But in addition they are part of a group of
families with close kinship relations, and frequently coming from the same places. As
such, they are the most important Muslim presence in the region.
These communities originated in the migration movement caused by the beginning of
the Lebanese Civil War, which devastated the country between 1975 and 1990.
While some are Shiites of southern Lebanon, most of them are Sunnis from the
Bekaa Valley region. Initially this migration was focused to major port cities such as
Barranquilla, Margarita Island or Colon, but subsequently extended to less
conventional places for migration, such as Maicao in Colombia or Valencia in
Venezuela. Today they have extended to virtually all populations with significant
commercial activity in the Caribbean, and their presence is recognized even in the
Triple Frontier, between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. This happened because
trade was a growing economic activity in the region, and in this way the newcomers
could avoid the conflicts involved in monopoly for agricultural or mineral resources,
that is the source of social tensions in countries of the region. Thus, with the
spreading of violence in the Middle East, many Lebanese farmers began to leave the
country, and knowing the Christian experience of the early twentieth century, some
decided to travel to the Americas. These travelers established the originating nuclei
and supplied the travel, accommodation and rapid economic integration of their
family members who went after them. This success caused each family tended to
specialize in a specific sector of trade: textiles, footwear, or household appliances.
This also allowed them to reproduce to some extent their traditional way of life, so
they created communities where Islam has been seen as a strengthening element of
ethnic identity.
Indeed, one of the main features of these communities is their endogamic tendency,
as Lebanese families often intermarry, preferably with people from the same town.
For this porpoise they have maintained a close relation with other Lebanese people
in Caribbean cities and with their original families in the Bekka Valley. This was

possible by both transportation and communication available today, and for their
relative economic success, at least compared with the local population. Such
success helped them to maintain their independence from institutions and
governments in the Middle East, so they tend to focus on their own interests, in which
the perpetuation of the family is often the main goal. Each community has also
sought to create their own religious and educational spaces, following organizational
models that have become common among them. Every group has an Islamic
association that brings together a representative group of male, heads of household,
usually the most prestigious among each community. Those organizations take
decisions regarding religious and cultural activities, maintenance of the local mosque
or the Islamic school, collaboration with community members, and administration of
the resources paid by the community for such purposes.
From the moment they arrive, the Muslims were characterized by refusing to give up
their traditions and religious beliefs, so they built masalas, and later Mosques.
Looking for ways to educate their offspring in Islamic and Arabic values, each
community tried to create its own Islamic institutions, mainly mosques, schools and
Islamic centers. Thus, from the 80's they began to create institutions that represent
them face the Colombian society. For instance, in 1985 came into operation the
Colombian-Arabic School "Dar al - Arkam" in Maicao, and in 1997 the mosque,
"Omar Ibn Al - Khattab". From that time, mosques were also built in San Andrs (An
Noor), Colon (Centro Cultural Islmico), Valencia (Honorable Mezquita de
Jerusalem), and Barranquilla (Omar Ibn Affuan).
However, a clear objective of these communities was also the use of religious
discourse in order to ensure the reproduction of ethnic values. For this reason,
religious leaders engaged in each of the centers almost invariably come from the
Islamic University Al - Azhar, which avoids recreate the tensions that exist between
local populations in Lebanon. However, it is exceptional that some of the sheikhs
become proficient in Spanish, a language spoken by most of the Latin-American
population, placing a serious obstacle to any process of Dawah. Thus, while for an
inhabitant of cities such as Caracas or Bogota Islam is a universal religion, for the
inhabitants of the small cities where Muslims are predominantly Lebanese, Islam is a
religion for Arabs.

This type of positions has led to a tendency to politicize religious speech when
addressing Middle East issues, which has led to misunderstandings when such
opinions are known outside the community. One of the most commented was about
possible links between Lebanese communities and terrorist groups in the Middle
East, as is the case of Hezbollah. Some sensationalist or ideologically involved
media has also speculated about the possible presence of terrorist cells of al - Qaeda
in border towns like Maicao (Zambelis, 2006). However, apart from a couple of
isolated cases, reports are so far unproven, despite its recurrence in some media,
particularly in the Internet (Kermon, 2009). However, it is clear that Arab identity and
Lebanese nationalist discourse play an important role in everyday life, being
transmitted at home, and reinforced by Islamic institutions such as the schools and
the mosques. The boundaries between ethnicity and religion are blurred and the
sense of migrant minority is maintained through several generations.
This is not to say that there have not been changes. After more than four decades of
existence, the Lebanese Muslim communities have generated significant adaptations
that have led to the creation of hybrid identities where national discourses of Middle
East and Latin America, are merged according to contexts, interests and
opportunities. The individuals are part of social networks which at times allow them
choose to identify themselves as Lebanese and Arab, as costeos (Caribbean
people of northern Colombia) or as Latinos. Of course, the grade of identification
with each of these categories is given also by the economic and social success
within the community. The mix of Arab and Muslim values has helped these
communities to establish social status differences. Indeed, maintaining customs, and
beliefs are different from the bulk of the population has served them to appear as an
elite, as there is an economic capacity behind this situation.
Those who fail to achieve a successful position into the prevailing socio-economic
model can negotiate their identity by appealing to other realities. That is the case of
some few Arabs of low income that, while recognized as such but by failing to marry
women of their community, look in the larger society around them for new social
relations that complement those that they failed to build among their countrymen.
The identity also plays a role in the aspiration for travel to the ancestral land and stay
there temporarily or permanently, even though they are considered Lebanese-

Americans. They arrive to Lebanon with foreign customs, but despite this they exert
some influence because of their number and economic resources. This occurs
through the efforts of most families for maintain the Arab identity and Islamic practice,
so often they send their children to live a few years with relatives in the Middle East.
There, they can come to be familiar with traditional aspects of their culture but, as we
saw, they introduce foreign elements to the region, such as tropical music, Latin food,
and sometimes expressions of Spanish language.
Within this network of independent communities, the most significant are:
This town, located 12 miles away from Venezuela, has the largest Muslim population
in Colombia, with about 4,000 members. The community is important, not only for
their institutions, but because has become one of the main places for the arrival of
new Arab migrants due to its location near the frontier of the two countries, and
because the opportunities for legal and illegal trade between Colombia and
Venezuela. In this sense, for many Lebanese Maicao represents a "training school"
from which to learn the local business and social environment, for later start lucrative
businesses in other cities of the Caribbean.
Indeed, Lebanese Muslims were able to integrate into the local mechanisms of
economic production, structurally related to illegal activities, achieving prosperity,
particularly through the smuggling. The way to justify this type of activity ranging from
asserting that they are not affecting a Muslim society, to not mention the fact for is
considered a banned topic.
The first Muslims arrived to Maicao in the late seventies, after which they sought to
organize their community by establishing an Islamic organization and finding a place
to perform prayers. In the mid-eighties a house was adapted to be used as of prayer
room (Musala), and in 1987 they founded the Colombian-Arabic School Dar alArkam. In the mid-nineties, thanks to the prosperity of the Muslim community of
about seven thousand members in that time, they began the construction of the
Mosque Omar ibn al - Khattab. At the time it was the largest mosque in Latin
America, but subsequently it was surpassed by the mosques of Buenos Aires and

Because Maicao is a border town, this didnt permit the community to become the
main center of Islam in Colombia. However, it is undeniable the weight it has had on
the development of Muslim communities in minor towns in northern Colombia and
Venezuela. Such is the case of Santa Marta, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Valledupar,
Bucaramanga, Punto Fijo or Valencia, where many Arabs of Maicao moved for
business, and eventually established independent associations.
San Andres
San Andres is a Colombian island in the Caribbean, near Nicaragua. The Muslim
community of San Andrs originated in the mid-seventies by Lebanese merchants of
Bekaa Valley, coming from Panama. After an initial success by which they achieved
a leading role in trading, their number began to increase. But due to the small size of
the Island in the eighties, the Colombian government imposed limits on the arrival of
new migrants. That measure directly affected the Muslim community, which since
then sought to maintain a stable number, but with strong relationships with Colon and
Maicao. Currently there are located close to forty families with right to remain. They
built the mosque Al Noor in order to maintain their religious beliefs and transmit Islam
to their descendants. However, the nature of San Andrs as cultural and biological
reserve, in addition to the easy monitoring of the island authorities, have led them not
to engage in any proselytizing, so that conversions are virtually nonexistent.
Santa Marta
Founded in 1987, the Islamic Benevolent Association of Santa Marta purchased a
house to adapt it as a mosque. Later, the arrival of Palestinian and Lebanese
Muslims allowed improvement and briefly increased the importance of the
organization. However, since the late nineties migration to other cities and relaxation
in the practice of Islam by part of some descendants of the founders, has prevented
the intergenerational transition. For this reason, the Muslim community in Santa
Marta has the distinction of being one of the few that is not growing but, the contrary,
shows serious signs of weakening, which may eventually lead to its demise. This
may be due to commercial constraints of Santa Marta, a predominantly tourist town,
compared to other cities in the Caribbean.
Punto Fijo

The Muslim community of Punto Fijo, a port city in the Venezuelan state of Falcon,
was formed from its origins during the eighties by Lebanese Arabs who mostly
belonged to the Muslim community in Maicao. While the relative proximity of both
towns stimulates easy transit, which causes that many still consider themselves as
part of both communities, the daily necessity have led them to organize and build a
mosque in a relatively short period. Built in 2008, Punto Fijo mosque has dome and
minaret, but the latter is more decorative than functional.
In Buenaventura, the most important port of Colombia on the Pacific Ocean, exist
one of the most unique Muslim communities in Latin America. This singularity is
given first by the fact that it is conformed, not by migrants, but entirely by local
population converted to Islam, and their offspring. Secondly, for being one of the few
places in Latin America where the Muslim community is predominantly Shiite. And
finally, because that is the only Muslim community conformed entirely by African
descendants. These characteristics are not accidental but are due to the way in
which the problems of local people related with the processes and possibilities
affecting Islamic movements in different parts of the world during the twentieth
century. Over five decades of existence, in Buenaventura Islam has been based on a
particular reading of different Islamic discourses in the effort for vindicate their status
as ethnic minority.
Many of the problems of Colombian black population refer to the ignorance of society
about their history, cultural tradition and social reality, in a context in which
predominance of European values created aspirations of physical and cultural
whitening. Current Afro-Colombians are descents of Africans enslaved who arrived in
the territory of what is now Colombia during the colonial period (15th to 18th
centuries). They worked mainly in gold mines and in agricultural work on plantations.
Once gained their freedom in the nineteenth century, much of this population
organized into small independent communities, dedicated to subsistence economy
on the banks of rivers and the coasts of Colombia. However, the significant changes
that Colombia suffered during the twentieth century, caused both by the central
government's reforms and for the greater integration into the global economy, led to
increased migration of rural population to cities to serve as labor salaried workers. In

a general sense this change involved a period of intense cultural change in which
new values were adopted, more in line with the mechanisms of representation and
participation offered by the ideas of homogenization of the nation state. In the case of
Afro-Colombians, those ideals not only did not represent their reality and aspirations,
but in fact did not seem to offer a place in society, condemned them to exclusion
invisibility. However, the increased literacy, and the tensions of the modern world
societies encouraged the beginning of social struggles and the quest for recognition
of rights by this population.
In the case of Buenaventura, the status of the city favored the rapid raising and
organization of the port workers, who soon established connections with other groups
and other realities. Thus, in the search of their own discourse, alternative to that
offered by mainstream society, they began to recognize the struggles of other
members of the African Diaspora abroad. Thus, the process carried out by groups in
United States, such as the Black Panthers, Black Power or the Nation of Islam,
reached the town. For this reason, the stage was set so that when the in the early
sixties members of those movements arrived to Buenaventura, there was an
audience for the dissemination of ideas of the vindication of black people.
Thus, the origins of the Muslim community of Buenaventura goes back to the arrival
of African American members of the Nation of Islam, working on cargo ships,.
Especially one, called Mustafa Esteban Melendez of Panamanian origin, spent all his
time remaining in the port on each trip he made, to preach about the need of
vindicate the rights of African descendants. This message had some success and, in
1970, the first converts of Nation of Islam established the first Colombian Muslim
organization. The dynamics of the movement, with its ideology of black pride,
achieved the sympathy of a population which, at that time, did not have any
possibility of integration in the education system or similar mechanisms that enable
them to improve their life conditions.
Because the absence of Muslim migrants in the port, the people of Buenaventura did
not have an Islamic point of reference with which compare their practices, and the
creation of a Muslim community was largely an act of improvisation and adaptation.
Given the fact that during the sixties and seventies the information they could access
was quite limited, joined to the fact that the Nation of Islam movement does not

represent a traditional Muslim trend but a mixture of diverse elements, the ability to
access the Sacred Quran or classical Islamic sources was close to zero during the
early years. For this reason, during this period the membership of the community was
more discursive, and was not based in the knowledge of a particular doctrine or ritual
practice. On the one hand there was the idea that of when enslaved, their ancestors
had lost their true culture and identity, and these were mainly Islamic. In this sense,
being a Muslim meant confront the discourse of the ruling elite and the Christian
religion, which had favored the domination, while dignifying the black person by
showing their true potential. To do this, meetings were held to discuss the problems
of local population, like the violence and exploitation to which they were subjected,
and to prepare collective action in order to achieve recognition of their rights. On the
other hand, there was no certainty about how to perform the prayers, they did not
know too much about things like fasting and feeding, and almost nothing about
Islamic law. In fact, the only copy of the Quran they had was in English, so any
person with that ability of reading English language was chosen as religious leader.
A few years later, thanks to an almost exponential growth, they could lay the
groundwork for what would be the oldest Muslim community in the country with over
two hundred members. The Islamic Community in Colombia, established in 1974,
was the first Muslim organization to achieve legal recognition in that country.
However, that did not means a substantial improvement of living standards, and the
lack of trained leaders, coupled with the weakening of relations with the United
States when Melendez retired, led the group to a moment of crisis in the early
eighties (Castellanos: 2014b). While some even travel to the U.S. in search of the
"true Islam", others sought new sources of knowledge that allowed them to continue
with their religion, which they refused to lose so easily. Thus, during those years
some tried to establish relations with Sunni Muslim communities elsewhere in
Colombia or abroad.
However, the support was, if not null, at least reluctant. The peripheral location of
Buenaventura, coupled with the distrust of some Arab Muslim communities for their
past affiliation to the Nation of Islam movement, led some people to close their doors
to them. For this reason when some signals of help came from Iran the community
decided to accept this direction. Since the initial purpose of the community was to
have their own leaders, Iranian support was crystallized in scholarships offered to

some persons to study, first in Argentina, and then in Qom, in Iran. One of such
people was Carlos Valencia Potes. Under the leadership of Sheikh Munir Valencia
the community consolidated, sign of which is the existence of its major institutions:
The Mosque and the Silvia Zaynab Islamic School.
While the Muslim group originally consisted of individual converts, over the years
friends and families also adopted Islam and eventually came to constitute mixed
families of Muslims and Christians, and even completely Muslim. By the nineties
there were a second-generation Muslims who were educated from childhood
according to Islamic values. Thus, although the main part of the community (then of
500 members approximately), identified as Shia, still is possible to find remnants of
the previous stages of the community. Thus, some members of the group never
abandoned the ideals of the Nation of Islam, and adopted Shiism in a timid way, and
even a few rejected it completely. At the same time, some few Sunni members exist
Since the nineties, this Muslim group entered a new stage as a mature community, in
the sense that they have well organized, permanent institutions that respond to basic
religious needs of its members. The mosque, called "Islamic Cultural Center: City of
the Prophet", with a capacity for 60 people, was built in 2000. Currently it has a
prayer room, a library, a kitchen, and serves as headquarters of an Islamic online
radio station. Silvia Zaynab Institute, meanwhile, offers education from kindergarten
to elementary school for a low-income population. Although the religious orientation
of the school, only a sixty% of its students are Muslim. The rest of the students learn
about the foundations of Islam without necessary being part of the community.
The vitality of the community is also manifested in the continuity of Islamic practice
despite the migration of its members. In many ways, Buenaventura is a satellite
population over Santiago de Cali, the regional capital. It is common for people of
Buenaventura traveling to Cali for college or to seek new employment opportunities.
This is true also for Muslims, who when settle in the new city, they maintain contact
with their leader in Buenaventura. However, over time their numbers were increasing
and in recent years gave rise to Al Kauzar, his own prayer room, and to a small
Islamic school. At present there are about a hundred Muslims who are still
considered part of the community and respecting the authority of the Sheikh of

Buenaventura. In Cali there is a small Sunni community of about ninety people

gathered at the mosque an- Noor. While there is a mutual recognition between the
two groups, the Shiite tradition of Afro-Colombians and their ethnic identity, are key
factors in differentiating among the two groups.
Concluding Remarks
Almost all the studied communities have a continuous growth, which however is not
exponential. This growth is due to several factors, including migration, growth of
Muslim families by birth of new members, and conversions.
It is clear that Islam, like any other religious phenomenon, is not presented as an
ideal phenomenon but develops over time around a large body of political, social,
legal and ritual traditions; which are part of what might call "Muslim cultures." Each of
these cultural backgrounds supports Islam as a viable worldview that create solutions
for many collective and personal issues. For this reason, there is not only one but
many of these Muslim cultural contexts, who otherwise are not isolated from each
other or with respect to those of other societies, religions and political systems.
Thus, the processes that led to emergence and consolidation of Muslim communities
in this area of the world necessarily imply adaptation, experimentation, and
negotiation phenomena; between different worldviews and value systems. Through
this process, existing communities cannot be understood as mere islands of the
Middle East in Colombia, but as cultural mixtures. The result of the kind of relations,
tensions and opportunities posed by globalization.
Despite their importance and visibility in Colombia, Muslims remain a small
percentage of countrys population, and are characterized by a high degree of
dispersion of the territory, making it difficult in many cases to achieve joint actions
that seek to benefit them. However, in general we find young communities, which
began their activities in pursuit of conservation and strengthening of Islam since the
seventies and even more recently.
As noted in the development of this work, the emergence and development of Muslim
communities in Colombia are due to different causes. But in the process of
consolidation, they share common problems that have to do with their degree of
acceptance and recognition by the larger society in which they live; as well as with
their efforts in defining their uniqueness as Latin-American Muslims.
For this reason, rather than pretend to show the topic as a completed process, this

text sought to present a general description of some important characteristics of

Muslim communities in Colombia. The article tried to emphasize their dynamic
character, which leads to the need to value them as new social realities that enrich
the religious experience of the continent.

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