SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – “We used to have the god of rain, the god of sun – lots of gods, until the Spaniards came and they imposed their god and blond saints on us,” said Manuel, with the bitterness of a man who feels shortchanged of his divinities.
At that moment, a summer downpour lashed San Cristóbal de Las Casas, setting in motion a confusion of shapes and colors as birds took flight from the rain and Tzotzil Indian women in purple dresses ran for cover. As Manuel, a young attorney of European-Spanish descent, mourned the ancient gods of this land of thick jungles and densely packed cities, a few miles away, just inside the periphery of San Cristóbal, Ibrahim Chechev, a Tzotzil and the leader of a local Muslim group, was honoring the solitary God of the Arabian desert.
It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and Ibrahim was supervising the meal the Chechev household’s women were preparing for the iftar, the fast break after the last prayer in the evening. He also pitched in, chopping some onions. When he was done, he went into his bedroom and came out with papers, then took them to the gallery of the courtyard to review. They were the Jumah prayers, used in the ceremony that would take place a little later at the musalla, a prayer hall a few yards down the road from his home. Asked if they would have any special meal for Ramadan, as is customary in Muslim countries, he said, “Yes, chicken tacos,” and broke into an infectious laugh.
There are now approximately 400 Muslims in Chiapas, a state in the south of Mexico bordering Guatemala, among an estimated 3,700 in all of Mexico. The small yet vibrant Muslim community in Chiapas is divided into three factions, including Ibrahim’s, comprised of approximately 100 members, mostly from his clan. There is disagreement over how Islam was first introduced to Mexico -- some say it was brought by Lebanese or Syrian immigrants -- and which Mexican state is its religious center. Chiapas does not have the most Muslims among Mexican states; in fact, it has Mexico's largest Protestant community, owing to a general drift among the locals to alternative religions. Chiapas is noted, however, for its strong ties to Muslims in Granada, Spain.
However these people came to be Muslim, and where they fall on the Islamic spectrum, is less important to Ibrahim's father, Mohamed, than what he considers the final station in his family's quest for God. “Mohammed is the last Prophet,” he said.
Ibrahim was just back in his hometown after three years of training at the Great Mosque of Granada, and his return had reenergized the Chiapas Muslim community. In less than 30 years, he, his extended family and the rest of Chiapas have experienced more religious conversions than the whole of Mexico since the conquest of the New World. Although the country went through phases of violent upheaval along the religious-vs.-secular divide, a convergence of factors has contributed to the proliferation of religious denominations and sects in the state. Today, only 58 percent of the population declare fealty to the Catholic Church, which previously had almost exclusive hold on Mexicans’ souls since Hernán Cortés set foot on Aztecan lands and scuttled his ships.
Few people outside of Mexico had heard of Chiapas prior to the sudden uprising led by a pipe-smoking rebel commander who hid his face behind a balaclava as he and his Zapatistas overran the local government of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and other municipalities in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Subcomandante Marcos, formally the spokesperson of the Zapatistas, said they were rebelling against misrule and mistreatment of Indians, who had been marginalized on their own land since the European conquest. According to Marcos, the rebellion was intentionally timed to coincide with the beginning of NAFTA because he considered the accord “a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico.” Marcos soon became an icon for liberation movements around the world, many of which were still reeling from the inglorious demise of leftist political and ideological currents associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Zapatista insurrection became a cause célèbre for the masses of disowned idealists in search of new utopias.
It also attracted Emir Nafia, or Aureliano López Yruela, as he was known in his Catholic life prior to discovering Islam in the 1980s. Nafia – now a member of the Murabitun World Movement and the leader of the Sufi order’s Mexican chapter – left his home in Andalusia, Spain, in 1995, and went to the jungle in Southern Mexico and patiently waited for months for a meeting with Marcos, which never materialized. He had sent a letter to the subcomandante urging him and the Zapatistas to join forces with the Murabitun and Islam. Marcos never responded, and it is not known if he ever read it. In fact, Nafia has at times disavowed the missive, but in a telephone interview from Mexico City – where he was on a business trip – he acknowledged he had written it, saying that his previous denials came in the dark days after the terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We, the Murabitun World Movement, invite you to sit down with representatives of the great nations of Chechnya, Kashmir, Euzkalherria [the Basques] and other nations at the forefront of the struggle against the tyrannical world banking order, and with whom we have a relationship of cooperation,” the letter said. “They have asked that we transmit their invitation to share now the effort in the struggle, in order to be able to enjoy together the pride of the final victory.”
This passage led to widespread claims of links to militants, though they were never substantiated. Nafia resents the wild rumors, but others, including San Cristóbal-based analyst Gaspar Morquecho, attribute them to Nafia’s occasional glibness. “He bluffed about it, that’s all there is to it,” Morquecho said with a laugh.
The only Zapatista recruit of the Murabitun was Ibrahim Chechev, by way of a Tzotzil community leader who had been instrumental in his father’s previous conversions from Catholicism to the Presbyterian Church and afterward to the Adventists. The man approached Ibrahim’s father, then known as Manuel, to bring him the Prophet’s message, but this time the senior Chechev turned him down. “You have already fooled me twice,” he said. But the friend insisted: “This Prophet came after Jesus Christ; he has the last word from God.”
Both Manuel and Ibrahim, his youngest son, were disillusioned with religion. The older Chechev had quit all church affiliations and veered into drinking. Ibrahim was disturbed by his father’s behavior: “Is this what Jesus Christ preached? That you mistreat my mom, that you drink?” Around that time, an uncle introduced Ibrahim, then 14, to the Zapatistas, and he started having regular contact with Marcos and the other revolutionary leadership.
He was a loyal Zapatista in the jungle, until one night in 1996 in San Cristóbal when his father told him to go see what all the fuss was over this new faith: “Son, you like trouble; go see what these people want.” So Ibrahim attended his first Muslim prayer meeting, led by Nafia at the complex of the Movement for the Da’wa – the name of the Murabitun organization in Chiapas. He fell in thrall with the new creed and that very night took the oath of Shahada, the first pillar of Islam: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
The youngest of the Chechevs guided the rest of the family out of 500 years of Catholic faith, followed by a brief evangelical phase, to Islam. “I knew absolutely nothing about Islam, I had not even heard the name,” he said on a recent afternoon during Ramadan as he got ready to walk to the musalla. Some 20 adults had gathered at the prayer hall, the women and children in the back. Mohamed Chechev, twice a pilgrim to Mecca, was proudly wearing his skull cap and reading aloud from a scroll hanging on the wall, with Arabic words rendered into Roman characters.
The imam that day was Daud Chechev, Ibrahim’s adoptive brother, just back from four years in Granada and Fes, Morocco, where he had pursued Islamic studies and became a hafiz, someone who can recite the Quran, the Muslim holy book, by heart. “My father adopted Daud and his sisters when [their] mother died, because his father’s new wife wanted the children out of their home,” Ibrahim said. “Love for a woman trumped love for his children.” Mohamed Chechev also has a second wife with two daughters from her previous marriage, thus assimilating the informal polygamy sometimes seen among the Tzotzils.
Daud prayed in Arabic and then translated some precepts into Tzotzil. “We only talk to Allah and only from Him we beg protection… He shields us from Satan’s whispers.” For those who had trouble memorizing the prayers, the solution was simple: “If you can pray, you pray; otherwise, you bow and touch the floor with your forehead.”
Despite the Islamic inroads in Chiapas, Carolina Rivera Farfán, an anthropologist at the CIESAS Anthropology Research Center in San Cristóbal, is not convinced there has been real conversion of core beliefs. “I don’t know if they are converting or simply switching their religious [affiliation],” she said in an interview.
All Tzotzil Muslims previously converted from Catholicism to Evangelical churches, and all are from San Juan Chamula, a traditionalist Catholic Tzotzil stronghold, a 30-minute drive from San Cristóbal, from which they were expelled in the 1970s over religious conversion and lands.
Tzotzil Muslims eventually split from Nafia, but Ibrahim is diplomatic about that. “I know my people… Nafia and his people fulfilled their mission, and now we have entered a different stage.” In a separate interview, however, Abdulhafid Chechev, Ibrahim’s brother, spoke of the European’s arrogance. “He started telling people to stop talking to their fathers if they didn’t become Muslim too, and things like that. We didn’t like it, and a few quit Islam altogether.” Abdulhafid added that when money started flowing in from Islamic groups in Persian Gulf nations, the Spaniards began leaving the Tzotzils out of the loop. “They would all go to a different room to discuss things among themselves.” In his interview, Nafia said the movement received aid from Islamic organizations around the world but not from governments.
Other than Nafia’s and Ibrahim’s groups, there is a third one, led by a publicity-averse Syrian known as Mudar, who is married to a local woman. They meet in the back room of a small and inconspicuous taco restaurant outside the working-class neighborhood of La Hormiga, which was mostly settled by Tzotzils after they were expelled from San Juan Chamula.
The presence of Islam in this corner of Mexico is a new chapter of the story that began with the conquest of the New World, but Chiapas is actually a field where Spain’s unresolved relationship with Islam is quietly being played out. The Murabitun order is based in Granada, the last Islamic stronghold to fall to the Catholic Monarch’s Reconquest of Spain in 1492.
Most Tzotzil Muslims don’t have that historical perspective on their new religious allegiance, but Ibrahim Chechev says it doesn’t matter. “Zapatismo had brainwashed us, but Islam transcends political ideology and ethnicities… My own wife is Spanish,” he said. “Islam is about the unity of the human soul.”
Nafia, however, is keenly aware of the historical significance and can’t help bragging about it.
“History is coming full circle,” said the Murabitun leader who introduced Islam to Chiapas. “The end of Muslim Spain as a political power and the beginning of the conquest of America are all part of the same historical moment, in the same place and with the same characters: Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the Americas was financed by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, who approved the decision at the Santa Fe camp, from where they were laying siege and planning the attack on Granada, the last Islamic stronghold of Muslim Spain.”
Nafia predicts a resurgence of Islam, and he sees what's happening in Chiapas as a harbinger. “When I left for Mexico, there were only a handful of Muslims in Spain, and now they are numbered in the millions,” he said. Nafia, who renounced his Spanish identity and describes himself as Andalusian, added, “German philosopher Ernst Jünger said that every great historical epoch starts with a new religion, and we believe that a new era is being born in Latin America, marked by the rise of Islam. The Christian Catholic era has expired. The world is coming to the end of a disastrous era and the beginning of the Islamic one.”
Islamic theology and German philosophy coexist in a strange marriage in the discourse of the Murabitun, whose founder, Abdalqadir as-Sufi, freely quotes the existentialist Martin Heidegger to illuminate points of Quranic doctrine. This eclecticism is not as unusual as it may seem. Born in 1930 in Ayr, Scotland, to an ancient Highland family, Ian Dallas – as-Sufi’s name in his pre-Muslim life – converted to Islam in Morocco in 1967, following a career in acting that included appearances on the BBC and Federico Fellini’s movie “8½,” in which he played the role of “Il partner della telepata.”
Granada reporter and former Murabitun Tomás Navarro finds it a bit too eclectic, disparaging the movement as a “sect.” If they were Christian, he said, they would be comparable to the Branch Davidians of Waco. “The real Muslims, native Muslims or the Arabs of Andalusia, are not buying it; that’s why the Murabitun only capture converts, preying on weak people and going to places like Chiapas to confound simple-minded peasants.” As-Sufi, he said, “is a child of the Seventies: He went to India with the Beatles and to Morocco, had psychedelic drugs and saw Allah, or what he thinks is Allah, and has been peddling his vivid imagination to feeble people ever since.” Navarro no longer belongs to any religion. “I’m a 27th-generation Ladino, and absolutely secular.”
Professor Alan Godlas, an expert on Islam at the University of Georgia, does not believe the Murabitun to be a cult. “They are a genuine Sufi order, and you are now beginning to see some people who were Muslim by birth joining them,” he said. “The reason they don’t have a larger following is the effort by conservative Muslim kingdoms and governments to combat Sufism.” As for Murabitun’s affinity with German philosophy – in which Navarro sees shadows from a sinister past in Germany’s mid-20th century – Prof. Godlas explains it as an attempt “to bridge for the Western mind the more obscure complexities of Sufism.”
San Cristóbal’s three Islamic groups recently came together for the funeral of Suleimán, Ibrahim’s grandfather and the oldest Muslim of Chiapas. While they have cordial relations, the more affluent are those in the Movement for the Da’wa, led by Nafia and the other Spaniards, who are building a mosque and a new complex on their large plot in the Ojo de Agua neighborhood – also settled by former Chamulas – with a tall tower at the entrance that local Muslims have confused for a minaret. The Da’wa also have a number of bakeries and restaurants as well as a carpentry shop and a library in the city, all named La Alpujarra.
Every name in the Murabitun is loaded with symbolism: Alpujarra are the Andalusian mountains, where some Granada Muslims fled after the fall of their city, and where they staged the last Moorish uprising in the late 16th century. Murabit or Murabitun originally described a member of a Muslim community in North Africa who lived in fortified monasteries.
At one of the Murabitun’s restaurants, Aisha, an Andalusian woman with intense blue eyes and an explosive temper, looked displeased when asked if she spoke Arabic to read the Quran in the original language of the Revelation. “It is not one of the pillars of the faith,” she said, going on to list them: the shahada, declaring there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His prophet; the salah, the five prayers a day; the sawm, fasting during Ramadan; the zakat, the giving of alms, and the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
She made clear this was not going to be an opportunity to discuss an unspoken sixth pillar.
Conversion has been an essential part of Islam since it started expanding by the sword and otherwise from the Hejaz, the Saudi region where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located. It is said that Mohammed urged his followers to spread the creed all the way to China but not beyond. In a world we now know to be round, it really does not matter whether Mexico is beyond or before China; what matters is that there is no sanctioned way back from Islam, which considers conversion to another religion apostasy.
As the Chiapas Muslims await the completion of their first mosque, there are no muezzins calling for prayers from minarets in the wee hours of the day. For now, the city’s roosters fill the void: In the distance late one afternoon, one rooster began to call, and soon the Chechevs’ henhouse joined the choir.
Ibrahim, just back from the musalla, surveyed the gathering clouds and turned to smile at his young son, who was playing with a little insect. “A praying mantis,” Ibrahim said.
Per Ramadan custom, he was avoiding unnecessary activities after nine hours of fasting and had one more prayer to lead that evening, so he politely declined to talk about divisions within Islam between Sunnis and Shias. “We are a Sufi order,” he said, referring to the mystic branch of Islam. “It’s a black insect, standing on a black stone in the immensity of the night.”