When most people think of Brazil, images of Carnival, soccer, and beaches likely come to mind. All three are alive and well, and recent changes to Brazilian culture may add new visual associations with “the land of happiness.” While still not widespread, Muslim women wearing headscarves and men dressed in long djellaba robes are becoming an increasingly more common sight among the vast array of peoples and cultures that make up Brazilian society. Islam, predominately concentrated in São Paulo, is growing throughout Brazil, but it is anything but new to the eastern shores of South America.
The 16th century witnessed the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with Portuguese colonizers sending approximately 3 million slaves to what is now Brazil alone. Most of these people were taken from West Africa, and Brazil housed more African Muslim slaves than any other country. The Yoruba people—an ethnic group spread throughout West Africa—made up the majority of the Muslim slaves in Brazil. Many were involved with the founding of capoeira—an art form that combines aspects of martial arts, sports, and dance, created in the syncretic and intercultural environment of Bahia in response to the violence and oppression from slave owners.
Muslim slaves in Brazil have also been recognized for their integral role in the resistance movement with hundreds taking to the streets in 1835 in one of the largest urban slave revolts in the Americas. In response to the revolt carried out by Muslim slaves, authorities sought to eliminate any Muslim unity and forced conversions to Catholicism throughout the 19th century. Thousands were prevented from practicing their faith, but as late as 1910, it was estimated that 100,000 Afro-Muslim Brazilians remained in the country.
Due to the migration of over 10 million Arabs throughout the 20th century, millions of Brazilians of Lebanese, Syrian, and other Arab descent live in Brazil’s major cities. The large majority of Arab Brazilians are Christian, with 15% or so of Muslim origin. Like many Muslims around the world, thousands of Muslim Brazilians recognize their Muslim heritage, but do not actively practice their faith.
The recent growth of Muslim Brazilians is not from immigrants, but largely from Catholic Brazilians and those of other non-Muslim backgrounds (Protestantism, Spiritism, and no religious background). Rio de Janeiro has been home to the majority of new Muslims, with an estimated 500 families living in and around the metropolitan area. Brazilian Professor Paulo Pinto estimates the total Muslim population in Brazil to be 1 million, a slim percentage of Brazil’s approximately 200 million people. As of now, the Brazilian Government does not officially count Muslims in the census, placing Muslims, Buddhists, and other minorities in the “other” column—almost 2% of the population.
In discussing the relationship of Islam’s modest practices with Brazil’s flamboyant culture, Pinto said this: (1:11-1:25)…
We have a tendency to believe that the Brazilian lifestyle with its sexuality and liberalism would object to the rules of Islam. But in fact, there are many conservative and moral and sexual codes that regulate behavior here in Brazil.
Some of the recent converts have come to Islam through the influence of hip-hop in favelas—densely-populated neighborhoods in and around large Brazilian cities, infamous for high rates of drug-related crime and violence. Many black Brazilians are learning more about their African Muslim heritage and making associations with some of the difficult conditions that they are currently facing.
Despite the pervasive characterization of Brazil as a bikini-clad, monolithic nation, the past 500 years of its history have been filled with a variety of influences from almost every continent, and have made the world’s fifth most populous country one of the most diverse on the planet. The recent increase in practicing Muslims is another addition to its ever-changing character, and add yet another flavor to this widely-loved nation.
Do you associate the trans-Atlantic slave trade with Afro-Muslim Brazilians? Do you agree with Professor Pinto’s research suggesting that Islamic lifestyles are compatible with contemporary Brazilian culture? What do you see as the unique issues facing Brazilian Muslims? Please share your thoughts below.