When South Florida’s approximately 100,000 Muslims on Friday begin observing Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic faith, one of those who will be celebrating is Aisha Kanar.
Kanar, whose family fled the Cuban Revolution when she was 5, was raised in a Roman Catholic family. Growing up in Hialeah, she attended St. John the Apostle Catholic Church and graduated in 1971 from Notre Dame Academy, formerly an all-girls’ Catholic high school. She had thoughts about becoming a nun. But as she studied more about Catholicism, Kanar grappled with key tenets of her faith: the Holy Trinity, confession and celibacy of priests and nuns.
“I started asking questions and couldn’t get many answers,” said Kanar, who converted to Islam more than 20 years ago.
Kanar, 58, will observe Ramadan, a monthlong period of fasting from dawn to dusk, at Masjid Miami Gardens, a mosque that is increasingly seeing more Hispanic Muslim members. Indeed, Kanar is one of an estimated 3,000 Muslim Hispanics in South Florida. Overall, the number of Muslims living in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties has grown from about 70,000 10 years ago to more than 100,000 today.
“The Hispanic Muslim community is very well integrated into the Islamic-American community. They go to the same mosques, celebrate the same feasts and holidays and have the same beliefs that the Muslim community around the world has,’’ said Oubay Atassi, 58, who grew up in Argentina and whose father was an ambassador to Syria. He lives in Doral.
“We have big families,” said Nezar Hamze, director of the South Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), referring to the growth in South Florida’s Muslim population. He described Muslim Hispanics as a “minority within a minority.”
Much of the growth among Hispanic Muslims comes from Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile have large populations of residents with Arab ancestry. Chile is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians. Brazil has an estimated 10 million people of Arab descent, including more than seven million Lebanese. Atassi estimates that 80 percent of South Florida’s Hispanic Muslims come from migration, with the remaining 20 percent stemming from conversions.
The growth can be seen in South Florida’s mosques and Islamic schools. Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach is expanding, while mosques in Pembroke Pines, Miami Gardens and Kendall, among others, have steadily grown. Masjid Al Sultan Sallah Deen on Griffin Road in Fort Lauderdale is also popular with the Hispanic Muslim community, South Florida’s Muslim leaders say.
Shaikh Shafayat Mohamed, the imam at Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines, expects 600 to 700 to attend services Friday, about 200 more than the average turnout. Of those, Mohamed estimates about 40 to 60 will be Muslims of Hispanic origin, with most being Catholic converts from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Ecuador. Most of those who convert are usually younger than 35, he said.
Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, 45 , was driving through his hometown of Vega Alta in Puerto Rico when a mosque perched on a mountain cliff piqued his curiosity.
“I was on a spiritual search, and something clicked,” said Ruiz, who said he had been a “non-practicing Catholic.’’