Muslims in Brazil

A culturally vibrant minority

Brazil has a very small Muslim population, but it is one with a long history. The ancestors of many of today's Brazilian Muslims arrived in successive waves of immigration from Africa and Europe, later also from Syria and Lebanon. As Ekrem Güzeldere discovered, they are now a well-integrated minority

Brazilians pride themselves on their tolerant diversity. "Todos irmaos" – we're all brothers – says Sales Cordeiro on the journey from the bus station to the city centre. Sales has been living in Jundiai for 40 years. Like many others, he came from the impoverished northeast of Brazil to the boom region around Sao Paulo. "The different religious communities live alongside each other in peace, whether Catholics, Protestants, Muslims or Buddhists," he says. "It's not a problem here."

However, knowledge about Islam is apparently limited. When I ask to be taken to the mosque, the taxi driver asks which religious people go there. When I reply "Muslims," he says: "Ah, then I know where it is."

The mosque is visible from quite a distance, with its large minaret and domes. Construction was completed in 1991. It's located on a busy junction; there's a Protestant church just across the road, and a Volkswagen dealer right next door. Friday prayers are about to begin. The muezzin turns to face the mihrab and starts the call the prayer, which is also transmitted outside via loudspeakers. There are around thirty men in the main hall of the mosque and five women up in the gallery, but many more people arrive during their lunch hour: there's a continual coming and going. By the time the prayers finish, the congregation has increased to 50. The mosque can hold more than 300 worshippers.

African slaves and European exiles

The first Muslims to come to Brazil were Moors, who were driven out of Portugal in the early sixteenth century. The second groups arrived not long afterwards, but for the next four hundred years almost all the Muslims in Brazil were African slaves. Most of them lived on the coast in the nation's first capital Salvador, or in the second capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Interior of the Jundiai mosque, seen from the gallery. Photo: Ekrem Güzeldere
A long history: The first Muslims to arrive in Brazil in the 16th century were African slaves. The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia is renowned as the biggest urban slave rebellion in the Americas. It had far-reaching consequences for the Muslim slaves, many of whom were forced to convert to Catholicism

When the Ottoman ship's imam Abdurrahman Efendi landed in Rio on an errant Ottoman battleship in the year 1865, he was surprised to find Muslims in Brazil. They in turn were astonished at the existence of white Muslims. Because these slaves were forced to practice their religion in secret, their knowledge of Islam was extremely limited.

"The women are no different from the Christian women, and walk about openly," Abdurrahman Efendi wrote. "For the Muslims here tobacco is regarded as prohibited, but alcohol as permitted. (…) They believe that you can only become a Muslim through the payment of gold coins." These are just some of the anomalies Abdurrahman recorded in his travel journal, which he composed in 1871 after spending five years in Brazil. He lived for three years in Rio, one year in Salvador and one in Pernambuco. Abdurrahman's final assessment was a sober one. "I am utterly exhausted by the woeful situation of the Muslims," he wrote. "If you add to that how much I missed my friends, I was compelled to return."

Assimilation of Arab Muslims

Much has changed since then. These days, Abdurrahman Efendi would probably no longer complain about the woeful situation of Brazilian Muslims. Some 45 years after he retured the Ottoman Empire, large numbers of Muslims began migrating to Brazil. They also came during World War One, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, fleeing the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

This also marks the start of the story of the Muslims in Jundiai. "There were Muslim families from Lebanon and Palestine here more than 90 years ago," explains the imam, Ahmad Amine El Orra, following Friday prayers. "The descendants of these Muslims still constitute the core of the local community, but more than 90% are now Brazilian citizens, and barely half of them understand any Arabic."

El Orra came to Sao Paulo from Lebanon in 1970. He followed his brothers, who had travelled to Brazil earlier to seek their fortunes. El Orra has been active in the Jundiai Muslim community since 1981. At the time, they used to meet in a private apartment to pray. Now he just comes out here for Friday prayers: the rest of the week he lives and works in Sao Paulo. El Orra, who has no formal Islamic-theological education, begins his sermon in Arabic before switching to Portuguese.

View of the mihrab of the Jundiai mosque. Photo: Ekrem Güzeldere
Immigration from the Arab world: During the First World War, many people fled to Brazil from Syria and Lebanon – not only Muslims, but also Arab Christians. Both groups are considered to have been assimilated into Brazilian society. Some small Shia communities now exist alongside established Sunni communities, and a small but growing number of Brazilians are also converting to Islam

While starting at a very modest level, Islam is one of the fastest-growing religious communities in Brazil. There are, however, huge discrepancies in the numbers. According to the official census statistics, in 2010 there were 35,167 Muslims living in Brazil. In the year 2000 the figure was 27,239; in 1991 it was 22,450. This suggests that Muslims represent less than 0.02 per cent of the Brazilian population. By contrast, Muslim associations such as the National Union of Muslim Associations (UNI) claim that there are 1.5 million Muslims in the country; however, it is not clear how they arrive at such a high figure. And even if this number is correct, it still represents less than one per cent of the population.

Small minority

So Muslims constitute a tiny minority in a nation best known for Carnival, permissiveness, scantily-clad women and stiff alcoholic beverages – even if much of this is projection rather than reality.

"That is certainly difficult," the imam complains. "You can compare it to everyone swimming in one direction, and only the Muslims against the tide. In this context, Islam is like a small clean plant that must be nurtured and tended, so that it is not trampled underfoot and can continue to flourish."

The number of mosques and institutes is also growing in parallel with the Muslim population. The first mosque was consecrated in Sao Paulo in 1952. In 2005 there were still only 70, but today the UNI counts 115 mosques around the country. Investigations by the UNI in collaboration with universities from Rio and Sao Paulo also show that Islam here is undergoing a perpetual process of "Brazilianisation". In 2003, 50 per cent of Muslim immigrants in Rio de Janeiro were still from the Middle East. However, this fell to just 15 percent in 2014. The statistics are similar in Salvador and Sao Bernardo do Campo.

For this reason, it is becoming increasingly important for imams to have a good command of Portuguese. The UNI says there are now 15 of them, seven of whom were born in Brazil.

As for the UNI itself, this too is a relatively recent development. It was founded eight years ago in the Sao Paulo district of Bras. It aims to improve the organisation of Brazil's Muslims, as well as communication over the country's vast distances.

Ekrem Güzeldere

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Edited by Charlotte Collins/Qantara.de

© Qantara.de 2014

More on this topic
Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.