Buenos Aires, Argentina
Until fairly recently, Islam historically made little headway in establishing footholds in the Americas. Sizeable Muslim communities can as yet be found in only three countries: the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Of these, the Muslim community of Argentina is the smallest; and yet it is home to the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, the largest mosque in Latin America. Buenos Aires is also the headquarters of the Islamic Organization of Latin America. For both of these reasons, Argentina is poised to become one of the most important centers of the Islamic faith in the Western Hemisphere. Though it has yet to become a true pilgrimage destination, Buenos Aires is nevertheless quickly growing into one of the most popular destinations for Muslim travelers in the Americas.
The early history of Islam in Latin America is sketchy at best. The exploration of the New World began in the same year that Islam was banned in Spain, and there is little evidence that Muslims fled to the New World as the Jews did. Nevertheless there are stories about Muslims that accompanied Spanish Conquistadors to the Americas, largely in the capacity as slaves, such as Estevanico. In any event it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of Muslims settled in the New World prior to the large-scale trafficking in slaves from Africa, and most, if not all, of these earliest Muslims were absorbed into other religious populations.
Beginning in the mid-16th century, large numbers of African Muslims began arriving on European slave ships. Most of these ended up in Brazil, though many other smaller communities were scattered among the Spanish possessions of Central America and the West Indies. Not surprisingly, these communities were surpressed by the Catholic authorities, and African Muslims were often treated more roughly than their Christian and Animist fellows. Nevertheless, by the dawn of the 19th century, there were probably at least several hundred thousand Muslims living in Latin America.
Throughout the colonial slave period, Islam became rallying point of hope and defiance for African slaves. The one of the largest slave uprisings in Latin American history, the short-lived Bahia Revolt of 1835, was essentially a Muslim rebellion. It was quickly crushed, and soon afterwards Muslims all over the New World were subject to forced conversions. Perhaps less than a hundred thousand were left all told by the beginning of the 20th century. However, these have since been joined by significant numbers of new immigrants arriving from the Middle East.
Beginning around the time of World War I, many Muslims, largely Arabs, began fleeing persecution at the hands of the Ottomans. Large numbers of these wound up in Latin America, notably in Brazil and Argentina. In the century since these immigrants began to arrive, the Muslim population in Latin America has swelled from about a hundred thousand to somewhere between two and three million. Though these still represent less than one percent of the entire region’s popoulation, new arrivals and converts suggest that Latin America is one of the most important new frontiers of Muslim expansion. The recently completed King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires is symbolic of this new era.
The King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center is the largest mosque in Latin America and, depending on how it is measured, the largest Muslim institution in the New World. Completed in 2000, it was constructed as a gift of the Saudi government on land donated by the Argentinian government after a visit to Saudi Arabia. Architecutrally it is strictly modern, and though it is impressive for its size and landscaping, it has been somewhat criticized for its somewhat sterile appearance, particularly the strange minarets, which look more like prison towers.
Despite the outward aesthetics, the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center offers one of the best Islamic experiences in the New World. The mosque’s artistic prayer hall with its low silver- and glass-dome makes up somewhat for the exterior. Also inside is Latin America’s newest, and undoubtedly destined to be one of the finest, Muslim seminaries, as well as a cultural and information center meant to teach visitors about the Islamic faith.
The King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center is located on a site donated by the Argentinian government a few miles outside of downtown Buenos Aires. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, the latter for informational purposes. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.ccislamicoreyfahd.org.ar (official website)
The list of major, or even lesser, Islamic sites in Latin America is relatively scarce. Nevertheless there are a few worth mentioning, including the Headquarters of the Islamic Organization of North America, also located in Buenos Aires. The most prominent mosques in South America outside of Argentina are the Masjid Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ibrahim in Caracas, Venezuela; and the Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab in Maicao, Colombia.