Islam in Brazil

Islam is practiced by over 200,000 Brazilians—making it the largest Muslim community in Latin America—most of whom are Arab in origin, with smaller but growing numbers of Brazilian converts. The Brazilian Muslim community includes both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Islam arrived in Brazil with West African slaves, including Hausa, Malinkes, and Yoruba. Muslim slaves were largely victim to the political circumstances in what is present-day Nigeria. Instability and war associated with the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate generated thousands of Hausa slaves, many of them rival soldiers. Muslim slaves were also captured during the internal wars of the Yoruba Oyo Empire to the south. However, early Brazilian Muslims were not solely representative of one or two ethnic groups, but many, including Africans who converted to Islam in Brazil.

Early Muslims met privately for prayer, to learn to read and write Qur’anic Arabic—notable during a period when most white Brazilians were illiterate—for spiritual guidance, and in some areas, to plan uprisings (such as the 1835 Malê Uprising). African Islam transformed under slavery, being forced to accommodate circumstances that made it difficult for enslaved Muslims to pray regularly or to observe religious dietary laws. Some slave owners forbade the practice of Islam entirely and punished slaves for teaching or learning Arabic. Nonetheless, a thriving community existed in the 1860s, as attested by a Baghdadi imam who settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1866 who estimated that Brazil had as many as 20,000 Muslims, most of whom were in Salvador. Over time, the population declined. Some African Muslims returned to Africa, while intermarriage, public education, Catholic syncretism and conversion to Catholicism and African-derived religions further diminished numbers.

The current Muslim population of Brazil is made up largely of Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian Arabs and their descendants with smaller numbers of African migrants and Brazilian converts. The first wave of Levantine Arabs arrived in the 1890s fleeing political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire, the majority of them Christian but many Muslim. Immigration peaked around World World II, and though it has slowed, Arabs continue to arrive in Brazil. Most live in São Paulo and operate thriving Islamic community centers and mosques. Though facing little friction overall, there are accounts of Pentecostals verbally harassing Muslims, particularly women wearing Islamic dress.

Sources:

Muhammad Abdullah al-Ahari, “The Caribbean and Latin America,” Islam Outside the Arab World, eds. Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlund (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 443-461.

Cristina Maria de Castro, The Construction of Muslim Identities in Contemporary Brazil (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013).

Cristina Maria de Castro, “Muslim Women in Brazil: Notes on Religion and Integration,” Gender, Religion, and Migration: Pathways of Integration, eds. Glenda Tibe Bonifacio and Vivienne S. M. Angeles (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 167-181.

Jon Tofik Karam, “Muslim Histories in Latin America and the Caribbean,” An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century, eds. Aminah Beverly McCloud, Scott W. Hibbard and Laith Saud (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2013), pp. 249 -

João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993).

See also: Brazil, Islam