The Middle East and Cuba Unified by Religion

Muslims are overcoming cultural differences in Cuba, where integration and cultural exchange are celebrated

October 19th, 2016
Giulia G. Angelini, CD News

Cuba could become the new centre for religious diversity and cultural diplomacy as the Muslim community flourishes in the country’s capital, Havana. This small community is helping to promote new knowledge about cultural diversity. 

While the Islamic community in Cuba is still small, it is currently in the process of developing. Cultural relations between the Middle East and Cuba have a long history, and the two regions have engaged in cultural exchange for many decades.

The Spanish Conquistadores first brought the Moors from Andalucía to Cuba as slaves in 1593. For centuries, both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East were fascinated by Cuba because of its rich sugar trade, which was the first source of income for Cubans.

The majority of those who moved from the Middle East to Cuba moved to the capital, Havana, while the rest moved to Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, also known as the city of the revolution and the former capital of the island.

There are currently only a few thousand Muslims living on the Island, and due to the cultural differences between Cuba and the Middle East, Islam is not reaching many Cubans yet.

Cuban Muslims also meet various challenges, from Cuban cuisine to the Cuban rum culture. Rum is available in all Cuban bars and supermarkets but forbidden in Islam. Muslims also cannot consume pork, which is a very popular food on the island. Furthermore, many supermarkets lack Middle Eastern products and have only recently started to import halal chicken, which is too expensive for most Cubans.

Among the challenges faced by many Cuban Muslims is the existing Cuban religious identity. Christianity has strong roots in Cuba, where 85% of people are Catholic. Catholicism plays an important role in everyday life in Cuba, as it does in many other Latin American regions.

However, Shabana Jan, a Muslim living in Cuba, explained to Al Jazeera how people in Cuba have an interest in Islam and show an understanding of the culture behind it. Questions about her clothes and headscarf are common, she said, but they give her the opportunity to create a better understanding of Islam among Cubans.

Many Cuban Muslims own their own businesses as restaurants, where they serve mainly vegetarian food and don’t serve alcohol. According to Khaled, a Cuban Muslim, this is not a problem in Cuba, where people are open to change and are willing to try new things.

Even though the differences between Cuban and Islamic culture are present and visible, Cuba is proving itself to be a new centre for cultural exchange and the integration of new traditions.


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