There are believed to be only a few thousand Muslims in Cuba, an officially secular, but largely Catholic country. The majority are foreign students or workers. Hajji Isa, formerly Jorge Elias Gil Viant, a Cuban convert and artist, and former librarian with the Arab-Cuba Union, a cultural organisation based in Havana, estimates that there are about 1,000 Cuban Muslims, both converts and descendants of Muslim immigrants.

“It’s a young community,” he says. “Muslims from abroad have been and still are a determining factor in the creation and development of the Cuban communities … Muslim students from African, Western Saharan, Yemen, Palestine and other Arab countries were a big influence in the 1990s, then later many from Pakistan.”

This, according to Isa, has meant that the small Muslim communities across the island have different characteristics, shaped by those who originally influenced them and local circumstances. As the number of Muslim converts grows, however, people are becoming more aware of Islam as a religion that’s also practised by Cubans. Small businesses, such as Hassan’s, help to bring more Cubans into contact with Muslims and also support the growth of the community.

“This has been a new field for Muslims and has helped them economically and to be able to support Muslim brothers,” Isa says.

Hassan Jan, 43, a Cuban Muslim convert runs a small printing business from his home [Sylvia Hines/Al Jazeera]
The front of Hassan Jan’s house where he prints documents in Santa Clara [Sylvia Hines/Al Jazeera]

Discovering Islam

Hassan’s path to Islam was an unexpected one.

Born Froilan Reyes, he had no religious leanings while growing up.

“I was brought up in the Cuban system,” he says. “I’d never even been in a church.”

A fun-loving party-goer, he worked as an audio technician at the University of Medical Sciences in Santa Clara and also did regular evening stints as a DJ.

This all changed in 2010 during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when he was required to work with a group of Pakistani medical students studying at the university.

In 2005, an earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir killed more than 86,000 people and left an estimated 2.5 million homeless.