Meet the Indigenous Muslims in Maya Heartland

The Mexican state of Chiapas is considered the heartland of the indigenous people tracing their ancestry to the great Mayan civilization. A small Muslim community has been forming over the last few years made up of mostly indigenous Tzotzil people who converted to Islam from Catholicism.

The Muslim men in this area are distinguished by their prayer caps, or kufis, and the women by their hijabs which take the form of traditional Maya shawls.

Locals say the conversions to Islam began in the late 1980s, around the same time Mexico’s Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas, as institutions including Christianity and capitalism came under increasing criticism.

According to the last census, some 83 percent of Mexicans are Catholic. And although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Mexico’s 120 million population, a disproportionate number are indigenous clustered in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, a highland city in Chiapas that mixes both Maya and Spanish identity.

“People gave us a weird look when we converted, they thought we were terrorists and were scared of us,” said Mustafa, a member of the nearby Ahmadia community. “But with the passage of time and our own actions, that opinion has changed,” he added.

Umar, an indigenous former evangelical pastor, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and now serves as a bridge between local Christians and Muslims.

“Ours is a monotheistic religion,” he said. “But we don’t worship saints.”

55-year-old Mohamed Amin explained the main reason behind his conversion to Islam: “I like to be clean and change my clothes,” he said. “This is a clean religion and that’s what originally drew me to it.”