“Assalamu alaykum,” Yusef Sánchez says in greeting, meaning “peace be unto you” in Arabic, as he walks through the doors of the Muslim Cultural Center in the northeast San José district of Guadalupe. Bearded and dressed in loose and flowing Muslim garb, Sánchez is one of few Costa Rican converts to the Islamic faith. Active in their religion, he, his wife and baby son journey from their home in the central Pacific coast town of Jacó every Friday, the Islamic holy day, to attend meetings at the only mosque in Costa Rica.
The Muslim Cultural Center is a two-story white and blue building, decorated with a stunning minaret. Inside the center are offices, a courtyard and a large room used for feasts and events. Up a steep set of stairs is the mosque, intricately tiled and carpeted, where Muslims living all over the country gather to worship on Friday afternoons.
Sánchez estimates that he is one of 20 Ticos who make up a small portion of the country’s Muslim population, a tiny minority in a country that is 90 percent Christian. Like most Ticos, he was raised in a Catholic family, but, seven years ago, he began searching for something new.
“(The Catholic Church) just didn’t fulfill my expectations,” he said. “For a long time I looked at Protestant Christian churches but I still had doubts.”
It was during his spiritual search that a friend gave him what turned out to be a life- changing gift – a small book that outlined the five pillars of Islam, one of which is Salah, or prayer. At the time, Sánchez didn’t have any idea what Islam was, much less that it was the second largest religion in the world. He just knew that he liked the prayers written in the book and that he felt something unique when he read them.
“I always say that finding Islam was a miracle from God,” he said.
For Sánchez it is not enough to faithfully adhere to the basic beliefs of Islam. He wants to do more to illustrate that he is grateful for what he describes as the blessing of being led to his faith. He believes that he must show the world that he is Muslim by letting his beard grow and wearing a knit prayer cap called a taqiyah.
He says, “As a Tico Muslim I feel that I have the responsibility to bring Islam to other people, so I made my decision that people in the street would recognize me as a Muslim. Even if people make fun of me, it is with much pleasure that I am able to share Islam with them.”
Luis Mora, an architect from San José, is another Tico convert to Islam who also was raised Catholic. He accepted the job of designing and constructing the Muslim Cultural Center, and converted after becoming familiar with the religion. What impressed him most, he said, was the honesty and dedication of the Muslim people with whom he associated.
“I was more decided than ever to change my life from bad to good,” he said.
The hardest part about his conversion was breaking the news to his family.
“Fortunately I was still Catholic when my parents passed away,” he said. “But my siblings were startled and surprised. Now they are starting to accept me, little by little.”
Although only a handful of Costa Ricans were born Muslim, the country is home to an estimated 3,000 members of the faith who come from all corners the globe. A typical Friday worship service includes men and women from Germany, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, France and Palestine, among others. Sánchez’s wife is from the U.S. city of Chicago.
“In the mosque we are all equal,” explains Sánchez.
His belief in equality doesn’t end at the mosque doors, however.
“My responsibility as a Muslim is to respect everybody’s belief,” Sánchez says. Because he and his fellow Muslims in Costa Rica and around the world try to maintain an open mind toward other religions, they also hope for the same treatment. In a global society that is more permeated by misunderstanding and hatred than ever, the Muslim Cultural Center has been well received by its neighbors.
Dr. Abdulfatah Sasa Mahmoud, secretary of the center and a Palestinian refugee who has been living in Costa Rica since 1973, said, “We’ve never had any problems with our neighbors. It’s different here than in other parts of the world because Ticos are very educated.”
Mahmoud recognizes the stereotype of terror and violence that is associated with Islam in other parts of the world. He is adamant that the true meaning of Islam is the exact opposite.
“Islam doesn’t call for violence,” he said.
Muslims are known for their charity, giving to the poor as a penance for sin. During Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, this giving, called Zakat, is especially important in order to teach Muslims lessons of humility.
Mahmoud said, “Muslims should always be generous, but especially during the month of Ramadan.”
Ramadan ended this week with the celebration Eid ul-Fitr. Ramadan is a period of increased piety in which Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset.
“(As a Muslim) you fast from 4 in the morning until 6 in the evening … without even smoking or chewing gum,” Mahmoud said.
Because Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar it starts about 11 days earlier every year. This year it started on Aug. 12 and continued for 30 days.
Every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m., the center offers tours and holds a free class on Muslim culture. The center is located in Guadalupe, 700 meters north and 500 meters west of the tribunals; one block west of the Santa Mónica elementary school. Everyone is welcome.