Two decades later: The Muslim Indigenous community from Chamula, residents of San Cristobal de las Casas
By Gaspar Morquecho, 19 May 2016
Twenty years ago a group of Tzotzil families from Chamula, residents of San Cristobal, decided to profess their faith in Islam and their belief in the oneness of God. This conversion meant abandoning Christianity and the Church which had for more than 500 years guided the religious practices of the indigenous communities in Chiapas. The Book and the readings changed. The Koran took the place of the Bible. Twenty years on, there is no doubt that Islam has established itself in Chiapas. The Muslim families from Chamula live it day by day. They belong to the “Ummah”, the community of Muslim people around the world.
From the original founding group, Sufis of Hispanic heritage from the Murabitun World Movement (MWM), three more communities have emerged: the Al Kautzar community; a Sunni community under the guidance of Mudhar, from Syria; and the Ahmadia community which is overseen by a young Muslim brother from Chamula, Ibrahim Chechev. The four communities are located in San Cristobal de las Casas. Nearby in the village of Teopisca, Salim has begun to establish a Sufi school, Nagsbandi.
Nafia arriving in Zapatista territory
Oddly enough, this group of indigenous families from Chamula were not the intended recipients of the message of Islam. The visitors from Murabitun were interested in talking with the rebellious indigenous communities of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
The rebellious indigenous Zapatista roar (January 1994) was heard loud and clear in other parts of the world and it got the attention of a range of people and groups: politicians, religious folks and civil society, military and intelligence agencies, journalists from around the world, non-governmental organisations and other agencies, groups making up social movements like ones working for alternatives to globalisation … and let’s not forget the adventure-seekers. Notable people have also come to San Cristobal de las Casas: winners of the Nobel prize, writers, artists, and researchers. Zapatismo caused a commotion felt by nearly all sectors of Mexican society.
The messengers from the Murabitun World Movement (MWM) found themselves in this social rainbow. MWM was founded by Sheikh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, and this group of western Muslim brothers arrived in Chiapas with the mission of making contact with the Zapatistas and taking them the message of Islam. Aureliano Pérez Yruela – Nafia – came from Spain accompanied by a Mexican brother Sidi Ahmed.
On 6 February 1995, the MWM emissaries held meetings with the then major Moises and commander Tacho in San Pedro de Michoacán, a Rebel Zapatista municipality. This day they sent their “first message and greeting” to Subcomandante Marcos. Midway through 1995, in a document 13 pages long, directed at the Zapatista chief, the Muslim brothers of Hispanic-heritage invited consideration of the following:
“We, the Murabitun World Movement, invite you to sit with representatives of other great communities like Chechnya, Kashmir, the Basque Country who today are in the vanguard of the struggle against the tyrannical global banking order, (…)”
Ahmadya Centre in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
The message from MWM to the Zapatista chief was explicit: "(…) the struggle for the freedom of all people must be under the flag of a transformative Islam, following the message revealed and brought to us by Mohammed the last of the prophets, the liberator of humanity.”
The document finishes with a radical slogan: “Victory or death!” and is signed “Murabitun World Movement, Mexican community.”
It is unlikely that the Murabitun messengers had any response from the rebels, which may have contributed to their change in plans.
In the second half of 1995 the Spanish Muslims by chance got to know Salvador, an indigenous man from Chamula who belonged to the Council of Indigenous Representatives of the Highlands, Chiapas, which was founded in 1988. Most of the membership were non-Catholic Christian people who had been expelled from their communities for their beliefs. Salvador was a trader and he sold bananas in the San Cristobal de las Casas city market. Salvador went to a meeting called by Amado Avendaño, then Governor in Rebellion in Chiapas.
“I went to a meeting at Amado Avendaño’s house. Aureliano and Ahmed were there, and they heard about the Indigenous Market project. As I was leaving I spoke with Aureliano who invited me for coffee … and that’s how we got to know one another, and became friends. For three or four months Aureliano spoke to me about Islam. In 1995 I began to practice and then in 1996 I converted to Islam. They were organised as Sufis and later I understood they were from the Murabitun movement and that they were looking for people.”
Salvador was the first convert to Islam from Chamula, and he then became known as Muhammad Amin. Nafia immediately honoured him as the first indigenous emir. Amin pulled together the core group of Tzotzil people who would be initiated into Islam and become the foundation for the construction of a the Murabitun community in San Cristobal de las Casas. In 1998 there were Muslims living in the neighbourhoods of La Hormiga, Nueva Esperanza, Palestina, Revolución Mexicana, La Selva, Natividad and El Molino de los Arcos. These are humble squatter settlements, and the residents are by and large indigenous people expelled from San Juan Chamula. “La Casa Grande” in the Molino de los Arcos neighbourhood is used as a mosque. On Fridays some 200 believers gather to pray and spend time together. Numerous members of the Chechev family have joined the Murabitun community.
Mosque in Chiapas.
The growth of the Murabitun community was made possible through the establishment of various guilds, that is to say, the same productive economic structure that the Muslims introduced in Spain. One of the first guilds was the bakers and the opening of La Alpujarra restaurant. Following that came the carpenter’s guild and the seamstress guild. All workers, men and women, receive a weekly economic “support” (300 Mexican Pesos) and food during the work day. The Murabitun established a Development Centre for Muslims and founded the first madrassa in the southeast of Mexico. In 1998 the Muslims of Spanish-heritage registered with the Da’wa Mission as a civil association.
It’s important to highlight that it is the work done by the Muslim women which has created the foundation for the Murabitun community. In addition to being woman-mother-wife, they are involved in the bread production, baking bread for sale, and for their restaurants. The women also prepare other food on the menu. They also do the daily cleaning and shopping. They prepare the food for all the workers in the guilds, and those who join a meal after prayers in the mosque or Islamic religious holidays. Women are the ones responsible for shaping other women into indigenous, Islamic women. Mothers have the responsibility of raising daughters and sons in ways prescribed by Islam.
At the beginning of 2000 the Murabitun began their expansion plans. In the city of Comitan they established another Murabitun venue, however they had the first of their splits, leading to the formation of other Muslim communities in San Cristobal de las Casas. The Chechev clan would be a central protagonist throughout this process.
Demonstration in support of Palestine.
The root of the division was the rigidity of the Emir in the conduct of the Murabitun community. Nafi was authoritarian and disdainful, he expected: a) the Muslims to leave their homes and live in the Cultural Centre for Muslim Development; b) that children would stop going to public schools; c) that indigenous Muslims would cut off contact with “kafirs” (non-Muslims) and their families; d) to Nafi the Bible, Christians, tortillas and the Indigenous way of life were “shit”.
For six years the indigenous people heard that there was no Muslim community in Mexico other than the Murabitun. Yahia, a young Muslim from Chamula, met by chance some other Muslim people in the city of Puebla who told him about the Islamic Cultural Centre of Mexico, founded by the Sunni Omar Weston. At that first meeting, Yahia invited Ismael, a Sunni, to San Cristobal de las Casas. Yahia’s growing closeness to the Islamic Cultural Centre of Mexico and the arrival of Ismael irritated Nafia. Abdul Haqq, a Chamula Muslim, gives his version: “When Ismael arrived, Nafia didn’t speak to him, and he treated us poorly. Aureliano said to us that only Muslims could be in this place, and if we weren’t then we should leave.”
These tensions led to the separation of a group of Chamulas from the Murabitun community and the strengthening of their relationship with the Islamic Cultural Centre of Mexico, which then founded the Al Kautzar community, the first indigenous Sunni community in Chiapas. A good number of the Chechev clan formed the base of this community.
To unite the community, the Murabitun organised two pilgrimages (hajj) to Mecca, this way the pilgrims achieved one of the five pillars of Islam. In March 2001 25 Murabitun community members of Hispanic and Chamula heritage went on hajj, and 22 people went in February 2002. Without a doubt the greatest impact of hajj was felt by the indigenous pilgrims. They left their country for the first time, and some of the women had never travelled beyond Chiapas, and there in “God’s land” they gathered together with millions of Muslims from all over the world.
Meanwhile on 17 March 2003, the Chamula Sunni community Al Kautzar received a Tabligh delegation, whose mission was to strengthen the group’s faith to Islam. The delegation was made up of a Mexican person of English heritage, a Spaniard, a Pakistani, a Nigerian and a sheikh from India. In the Al Kautzar mosque the Chamula Muslims and the Tabligh visitors prayed in Arabic. The imam spoke in English, and it was translated into Spanish and Tzotzil, thanks to Yahia’s interpreting. In this little space, borders disappeared.
In the second half of the decade 2000 to 2010, Muhammad Amin built another mosque in this place and called it Al Medina. Another group of families who had also separated from the Murabitun community came there to pray. In this mosque there were some 200 Chamula Muslims. In May 2011, Andrés Patishtán Pérez – Mujaheed, who was originally from San Juan Chamula and had studied with the Sunni community in the United States for more than 10 years was elected emir of his community. Mudhar, a Sunni Muslim of Syrian origin, came to them and assumed the role of Imam, the religious guide of the group. In 2012 they left the Al Medina mosque and began to pray in the home of a Chamula Muslim located in the Tlaxcala neighbourhood.
In 2006, part of the family of Hajj Idris – Imam Murabitun – returned to Granada, Spain. Joining them was the family of Ibrahim Chechev, a young Chamula Muslim married to Yanna, a young Spanish woman. In Granada, Ibrahim continued his training in Islam, and travelled to South Africa where he met Sheikh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, a guide of the World Murabitun Movement who reiterated the mission of bringing Islam to the Chamula community in Chiapas. In 2012, Ibrahim and his family returned and established the Molino de los Arcos, which is how part of the Chechev clan continued to follow Murabitun without subordinating themselves to the emir Nafia. The family’s return reunited most of the Chechev clan and they prayed in the Al Kautzar mosque.
In November 2013, Sheikh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi held his annual gathering in Cape Town, South Africa. A newspaper report highlights this event taking place:
“(…) travelers of all races and from all over the world have gathered together, from Indonesia to Mexico, they have come via numerous European countries and Africa. These people carry the same light and the same science and are the brave defenders of the “Din” and “sunna” in this time of turmoil and conflict for Muslims: Mouley Murtada Alboumashouli, the Sheikh of the “tariqa” (school) in the Maghrib, Kalat Maghouna, Morocco; Sheikh Abdalhaqq Bewley and his wife Hayyah Aisha Bewley, from Norwich, United Kingdom; Sheikh Ali Laraki from Morocco and resident in Leicester, United Kingdom; Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal, from Dar es-Salam, Tanzania; Sheikh Muhammad Amin Fakier, from Cape Town, South Africa; and Sheikh Muhammad Kassbi, imam from the Great Mosque in Granada, Spain.”
At this meeting, Sheikh Abdalqadir as-Sufi appointed Sheikh Mouley Murtada as the head director of the tariqa (school) Qadiri-Shaddili-Darqawi and his first action was to name as a Sheikh Hayy Nafia Perez Yruela: “emir and pioneer of Islam in Mexico, who over the past 15 years has called Latin American people to Islam and through these efforts hundreds of new Muslims, mainly families and whole clans of indigenous people from Chiapas have joined the family of Allah.”
Once back in San Cristobal de las Casas, Sheikh Nafia Perez Yruela called Ibrahim Chechev to visit. The young man came with his brothers and Sheikh Nafia greeted them all. He let them know that he had been named “Sheikh of Latin America” and because of that they had to obey him. This attitude drove the Chechev to separately definitively from the Murabitun and continue their lives with the Al Kautzar community.
In August 2014 the Chamula Muslims from Al Kautzar expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people. Men wore “djellabas” (long loose-fitting outer robes) and the women were veiled. They marched from the Plaza de la Caridad to the Plaza of the Cathedral, walking down the pedestrian street Eclesiástico. Their demands were: “Peace for Palestine”. Other placards read: “the Muslim Community of Chiapas is with Palestine”, “Palestine, the world cries for you”, “Stop the genocide”, “No more murders of the innocent. We want peace.” After the solidarity march, they gathered for the noon prayer (Zuhr) in the plaza, almost in front of the cathedral of San Cristobal de las Casas. It was the first public demonstration and public prayer of the Chamula Muslim community in this city named after the Dominican friar Las Casas.
At the end of 2013, Ibrahim made contact with David, a Muslim from the Ahmadia community. Ibrahim Chechev and his wife Yanna travelled to London and participated in the 47th International Annual Convention of the Muslim Ahmadia Community. In December 2014, a group of Tzotzil Chamula Muslim families from the Al Kautzar community, with Ibrahim as head, attended the Annual Convention of the Muslim Ahmadia Community in Guatemala City. This event marked the breaking of the weak ties with the Sufi Muslims of the Murabitun World Movement and their formally joining the Sunni Al Kautzar community that the Syrian brother Mudhar guides. At the root of this break-up is a certainty that the Ahmadi movement is “apostate and heretic.” The Muslim World League, at the 1974 annual conference, declared the Ahmadi community was not Muslim.
The Ahmadi movement was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad 23 March 1889 in India, and currently the movement has a presence in 195 countries in Africa, North and South America, Asia and Australia and Europe.
Ibrahim Chechev’s slide towards the Ahmadia movement led his cousin Yahia Chechev to stop him from praying in the Al Kautzar Sunni community mosque. Ibrahim Chechev and the Ahmadi community returned to what was the first mosque located in the neighbourhood of Nueva Esperanza. On the front of the building they have hung a big banner which reads: “Ahmadia Muslim Community,” “Love for all”. The paradox is that this place of prayer is almost in front of the new big mosque constructed by Sheikh Nafia, the Muslim of Spanish descent who two decades ago brought the message of Islam.
Amid these rearranging relations the presence of the Naqsbandiya Sufi Muslims was weak in Chiapas. Jalil, a North American Sufi from the Naqsbandiya school, lives in Teopisca. In San Cristobal there is Salim, a Tzotzil man educated by the Murabitun who then had further training in Argentina, the headquarters of Naqsbandi in Latin America. At the beginning of 2015 the Argentine Sheikh Adbu Rauf, a Sufi Naqshbandi leader, arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas with a “message of peace.” The meeting, “journey to the heart”, was attended by Yamaluddin, the Mexico City Sheikh and the Tzotzil Brother Salim, and without a doubt they intend to establish a presence there.
In August 2015, Muhmmad Chechev -Ibrahim’s father – and Mrs. Munira travelled to London to take part in the 49th Annual Convention of the Ahmadia Community.
In the Sufi communities of Murabitun and Naqsbandi, in those of the Sunni Al Kautzar and the Syrian Mudhar, and in the Ahmadia community, Islam is recreated. There are 200 to 300 Chamula Muslims – everyone from men, women, young people, girls and boys – in the Muslim communities.
Photos: Gaspar Morquecho Archive
Translation: UK Zapatista Translation Service