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Embracing Muslims in a Catholic Land: Rethinking the Genesis of Islām in Mexico

This study presents a contrasting hypothesis concerning the genesis and development of Islam in Mexico than the one generally held across academic spheres and current historiography.

It demonstrates that Colonial and Early Independent Mexico and Islam may have as well known about the existence of each other. However, within the chronological framework in which the Viceroyalty of Nueva España lived and developed there were social hindrance, geopolitical imperatives and theological impediments and cosmovisions – in both sides of the Atlantic – that created the quasi– perfect circumstances for the Islamic tradition and Mexico not to really meet. This book provides new angles of study on the theme, and with it, new historiographical approaches.


Religious pluralism in contemporary Mexico differs greatly from that of its colonial past. When we observe Islām in this predominantly Catholic Latin American country today, we realize that it is an indivisible part of its rich sociocultural and religious mosaic. Its presence in the modern Mexican public sphere is intertwined in a web of transnationalism and also locally, and it is in the local that the most tangible and recent realities of Mexican Islām may be seen. But, was this the case also in Nueva España? Two main lines of reasoning emerge from the publications that have to do with the arrival and development of Islām in the Americas. The first locates it before the advent of Spain to the American continent, while the second positions it right after this event, namely, at the commencement of the Colonial era. However, I will argue that exploring the relations and attitudes between any of the three Abrahamic religions, both historical and theological, including confrontations and peaceful encounters, calls for detailed descriptions and renewed assessments of historical evidence written in the original languages of the protagonists, as well as an examination of the relations between the factors and the actors involved in the cases of study. Since such an effort provides an important tool for future research on the subject, it should be included in the methodological repertoire of the researcher. With this in mind, we see that Mexican literature on the theme, although thin, has undoubtedly certain strengths, yet it also presents important limitations on the question of Islām in Colonial and Early Independent Mexico, which makes it altogether arguable. Consequently, I argue that there is a need to challenge the present academic position, and present other points of view.

It is in this context that this book, which is a work of research, revision, and reflection, aims to reassess the genesis of Islām in Mexico. This is a challenging task, because evidence in the archives only illustrates the presence in Colonial Mexico of few and scattered individuals of suspected Islamic affiliation or of Arab and Muslim origin. While their arrival might date back to the earliest appearance of Spaniards in Mesoamerica in these archives, the existence of Islām as an organic religious system present across the historical spectrum of Colonial and Early Independent Mexico is a questionable matter and a historical postulation somehow difficult to sustain. Therefore, inferring that these disseminated-in-time-and-space personages of Moorish and, or of Islamic origin in Nueva España equals Islām, as a Novohispanic religious tradition per se, seems rather perplexing. Nor do the primary sources that I have examined demonstrate that their presence in the Viceroyalty of New Spain played a part in the construction of Colonial Mexican society. Historical records show that indeed the opposite occurs, namely, that those few individuals did not bring, guard, and transmit a religious tradition from the Iberian Peninsula to Mesoamerican lands which endured throughout Mexico’s Colonial period; but rather, those who reached Mexico, seem to have been absorbed into the modus vivendi of Novohispanic society. In this regard, Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, of Reed College, states, “Muslims neither came to America in large numbers at that time nor did they play a primary role in colonising the Americas.” This applies to New Spain as well, partly because their quantitative and qualitative input lacked the magnitude necessary to be the cause of such an effect. Consequently, the first challenge we encounter is the lack of substantial evidence. Despite this, in the historiography composed in Mexico, but not exclusive to it, there exists the idea of an Islām from the distant past that is deeply rooted in Mexican history. This Islām, which transcends time through historical occurrences, and is fed and revived by neocolonial European efforts during the second half of the nineteenth century until it finally reaches present day, prevails. But, does the evidence really point in this direction, or may we ultimately be permitted to perform a historical reconstruction to address this question?

Muslims are a minority in Mexico today, and their belief system is still, sadly, largely misunderstood. In part, the Muslim population of Mexico is the result of Islamic proselytism, and although it includes individuals of diverse backgrounds and occupations, it consists mostly of Muslim converts of Mexican origin. Camila Pastor de María y Campos of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) expresses Islamic proselytism in Mexican society as “the political economy of conversion in Mexico,” and explains, “in the Mexican case, converts are in fact populations subject to various marginalisations.” Additionally, proselytism in Mexico is often based on social platforms that tackle social marginalisations, but which also underline national traumas derived from the Spanish Conquest of México-Tenochtitlán (1519–1521). I will argue then, that as heirs to a country where the social ladder was built as racial and classists rungs, mainly due to the Estatutos de Pureza de Sangre (purity of blood statutes), Mexico still guards in its collective psyche the outcome of those crude social realities of its colonial past. Pastor de María y Campos makes a relevant point with regard to this:

La conversión permite a los musulmanes nuevos dar un paso fuera de estas ideologías locales; ofrece la posibilidad de circunnavegar discursos que los definen como subalternos al establecer un acceso directo a regiones lejanas y a los privilegios de la extranjería y lo cosmopolita por vía de la fe…..

About the Author

Jonathan Benzion is a PhD Candidate in Iberian and Latin American Studies at Sorbonne Université. His scholarly interests meet at an interdisciplinary intellectual carrefour that oscillates between History of the Middle East and Islamic and Jewish Studies, to History of Mexico and Iberian and Latin American Studies.

Table of Contents

Introduction: On Hispania, Islām, Mexico, and Religious Tradition

1 Imagined Communities: An Islamic New World in Pre-Columbian Times

2 Fiction in the Archives: An Islamic Tradition in the Viceroyalty of Nueva España

3 Taqiyyah, Fatwas, and Cédulas Reales: A Novohispanic Crypto-Islām between Paradigm, Folk Tale, and Faith

4 Hidden Heretics in New Spain: Myth, Legend, and Evidence of the Abrahamic Religious Traditions of Colonial Mexico

5 The Corps Expéditionnaire Français of Napoleon III and an Islamic Resurgence in Mexico (1862–1867): Reassessing the Question

6 Le Bataillon Nègre Égyptien and the Resurfacing of Islām in Mexico (1862–1867): Rethinking the Equation

Conclusion: A Reappraisal of Claims versus Evidence

Bibliographic Information

Title: Embracing Muslims in a Catholic Land: Rethinking the Genesis of Islām in Mexico

Author(s): Jonathan Benzion

Publisher: BRILL

Length: 264 pages

ISBN: 9789004510319

Pub. Date: Date:16 Feb 2022

Click Here to Buy the Book.

About Ali Teymoori

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