Islam in the Dominican Republic Although it has become one of the most controversial religions of the 21st century, there is much intrigue and misinformation surrounding Islam. The political realities associated with the religion have forced many who have had limited contact with Islam to form, at times, disingenuous and misguided opinions about it. It has become an unfortunate reality that when conversations about Islam are initiated, many wary eyes raise eyebrows in concern, fearing that television images will soon become a reality in a restaurant near you. But nestled away from the grim images we see on the daily news, in one Santo Domingo’s nicest neighborhoods, is an inconspicuous mosque, which is the antithesis of anything you have ever thought Islam to be and for many, is a representation of all the good values and virtues that Islam can offer.

This, for those who don’t know, is a reference to the Círculo Islámico de la República Dominicana (CIRD) and its mosque, where followers gather to pray and share in Muslim values and teachings. The mosque is a meeting place for the small Muslim community in Santo Domingo and though their numbers aren’t nearly as great as their Christian or even Jewish counterparts, their presence in the DR is long-standing and deserves to be recognized. Islam in the DR is a link to the nation’s colonial history, and also reflects the country’s multi-cultural growth and continued acceptance of groups, regardless of origin.

History of Islam in the DR
It may come as a surprise to many, but the history of Islam in the Dominican Republic began with the importation of African slaves during the DR’s colonial period. Spanish conquistadors, led by Christopher Columbus, landed on Hispaniola in 1492, and by 1502 had entered into slave trading. Historians have established that the presence of Islam was already substantial in West Africa during the 16th century, and this was where early colonizers bought most of their slaves. The Wolof Muslims from West Africa is believed to be among the first group of slaves transported to the New World. As the slave trade grew, colonizers imported a new group with its own customs and beliefs, such as Islam, to the New World. The presence of West African slaves with Muslim ties would quickly be seen as problematic. Resistance by the slaves was first recorded in 1503 when Nicolas de Ovando wrote to Spanish Queen Isabella requesting that she prohibit further shipments to the colony of people with connections to Islam. However, the demand for slaves was so strong that no one heeded the Spanish governors pleas’ to stop importing Muslims. Although these new imports to the Americas arrived with a rich and ancient culture, repression and forced conversions into Catholicism gradually diluted the original cultural, identity and religions of the remaining Muslim slave inhabitants on Hispaniola.

Wolof slaves stopped being imported from Africa in 1522 after the first large-scale slave revolt in the Americas was led by a group of Muslims. The revolt occurred on the sugar plantation of Admiral Don Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus. By 28 December 1522 the slaves reached the cattle ranch of Melchior de Castro, but the success of the revolt was limited. Eventually, the slaves were met by European militiamen, and the revolt was subsequently thwarted. This revolt would mark the end of Muslim importation on the island and would guarantee a diminution of the Muslim presence for years to come.

Present day Muslim Community
Though there would be a lag in the establishment of a substantial Muslim community in the DR, the reemergence of the religion came about during the immigration of Lebanese and middle easterners to the DR during the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the migration of Muslims was minor, to say the least. Through migration Islam's religious seeds were once again planted in the DR, but the religion would not grow. Most Middle Eastern immigrants to the DR were Christian and the small number of Muslims that did migrate went on to convert to Christianity over the years. It would not be until migration of students to the DR during the latter part of the 20th century that Islam would once again reemerge in the country. The DR became an attractive educational offer for many students from India, Pakistan and the Middle East and with them they brought their cultures and customs. In this simple way, Islam would reassert itself in Dominican culture. Although most people in the DR practice Roman Catholicism, the Círculo Islámico de República Dominicana has slowly helped spread Islam in this country. The Muslim community includes a mix of local converts, international students studying in the DR and expatriates who have maintained their faith while in the county. Speaking with CIRD member Saad Mashkoor, the CIRD doesn’t recruit members, but is open to educating anyone interested in Islam or answering questions of faith for curious minds.

The Muslim community in the DR is still fairly small and it has been almost impossible to determine how many Muslims in fact live in the country. Some estimates indicate that only 0.02 percent of the population or 2,000 individuals are practicing Muslims, although other statistics place the number between 400-700 followers, with a reasonable estimate reaching 1,000 Muslims in the DR.
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