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A synthesis of what is and what has been the relationship between the Arab world, the Muslim world and Brazil, the non-Arab country with more than citizens of Arab origin
Very small premise
I used the words “The Arab and Islamic world in Brazil” rather than “Arab-Islamic” precisely to underline the split nature of the two realities, which will however both be dealt with in this article. I would like to specify it because they often associate automatically, but, for everything concerning South and Central America, it would be a serious mistake; in fact the very many Arabs who came here were mostly Maronites, Orthodox, Druze and only a small part of them were Muslim (and among them there were both Sunnis and Shiites).
On the contrary, the historical presence of Islam in these lands is mostly attributable to Indian and Indonesian workers (as in the case of Suriname) or even to African slaves purchased by the Portuguese for their plantations. As always, I will try to follow a mostly chronological narrative by combining the two stories but I repeat: they are two different stories that are joined here.
The arrival of Islam
Islam arrived in Brazil around 1550, the year in which Portugal did more than ever to bring slaves from Africa; many of these were of Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups, peoples who had already known Islam and who refused to renounce it under the new masters. This meant that, paradoxically, the faith was strengthened in the area, also going to proselytize the Indians, decidedly more benevolent towards the slave religion than towards that of the Conquistadores. Over time, a very large Yoruba-speaking community had formed in Bahia which led to a solid relationship between Muslims and those who followed Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that reformulated elements of ancient Yoruba beliefs, giving life to a a real community force that will prove decisive for the history of the city.
In 1831, Pedro I of Brazil, after a series of harsh confrontations with the Brazilians, had decided to abdicate and entrust the throne to his son, Pedro II, who was literally just born. This will cause the whole country to suffer an infinite series of revolts and counter-revolts aimed at capitalizing as much as possible a moment of general chaos and among these there was also that of the “Malês”, the Afro-descendant Muslims who by now represented a real force in Salvador de Bahia and about 78% of its inhabitants (although it is likely that both Muslims and Condomblé are in these figures). The revolt began in 1835 and, although organized down to the smallest detail, failed miserably due to a tip received by the Brazilian authorities the day before. The government, terrified by an eventual independence similar to that conquered by Haiti, repressed all forms of uprising in an extremely hard and brutal way, forever changing its relationship with Islam, disadvantaging it more than ever and pushing many slaves or Afro- descendants to forced conversions. This event, however, not only was not erased in any way from the collective memory of the country, but also became a decisive turning point for the relations between slaves and masters. In fact, more and more people will bring the question into the public debate, so much so that after about 15 years slavery was abolished.
The arrival of the Arabs
Arab immigration to Brazil began steadily from 1890, at which time the growing problems within the Ottoman Empire prompted many citizens to try their luck in the “New World”. The overwhelming majority of these migrants came from Lebanon and were Maronite and Melkite, which allowed the new arrivals to integrate very quickly into the Brazilian socio-productive fabric, having no faith problems with most of the locals. Although most of these migrants were of peasant origin, most chose to move to large towns and to pursue a career as a street vendor (which in fact is said in Portuguese ” mascate“); initially they will focus mainly on the trade of fabrics, but over time they managed to gain an important role also in industry and politics.
Impossible not to mention personalities such as Michel Temer, Brazilian president before Bolsonaro, Fernando Haddad, challenger of the current local head of state, Mario Zagallo or Carlos Ghoshn, businessman who recently made a lot of talk about himself as CEO of Nissan and Renault; but also realities such as Habib, the historic brand of Brazilian restaurants, or many other activities that derive from Arab migrations in the country should also be mentioned. It’s impressive, among other figures, the one relating to the number of politicians of Arab origin, which in Brazil would be equal to 10% of the entire ruling class; it is no coincidence that Bolsonaro declared in 2019 that “Brazil is an Arab state“.
Islam in Brazil today
To date, the Brazilian state with the highest percentage of citizens with these origins is Mato Grosso do Sul, but the city with the highest number of Muslims in percentage at the place is located in Foz do Iguaçu, where Muslims are 2, 18% of the population, while the one with the highest number in absolute is San Paolo, where however it represents 0.07% of the population. It must be said in the whole of Brazil there should be about 150 mosques and 94 institutions including schools, libraries and the like. To date 83% of Muslims claim to be “white”, 12% “pardo / mixed blood”, 4% Afro-descendant and the remaining 1% are divided between Asian-descendants and Indians.
At the moment, most of the faithful are men, but every year there are thousands of conversions and the latter mainly concern Brazilian women.
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