The paths of Islam in Brazil

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No. edition 2309 | 21.Fev.2014 - 20:50

The paths of Islam in Brazil

Increase in the number of mosques in the country, of sheiks who now speak Portuguese and Brazilians at the top of the hierarchy of Islamic centers explains the expansion of Muslims in Brazil

Rodrigo Cardoso (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

When Mr. Wilton José de Carvalho decided to approach the Islamic culture, the soteropolitano (resident of Salvador, Bahia), he could not imagine that he would gain a prominent place among Brazilian followers of the Prophet Muhammad - about 1.5 million. Practicing Catholic, Carvalho was introduced to Islam by a friend in 1990.  Since then Yussuf, as he is now called, the friend, the other four Brazilian and three Africans began to gather and offer prayers in a small rented room in the downtown of Salvador, on a street in evocative name: Mosque. Four years later, the group moved to a commercial property sold to an Arab. Thus, the Islamic Cultural Center of Bahia was established in 1994. At the institution, initially Yussuf was the asset manager, then the vice president and, since 2010, he is the first Brazilian to command it. Stories like Yussuf’s reveal the transformation which Islam has been going throughout Brazil. Specialists consider a religious phenomenon of the fact that more and more Brazilians ascend to the top of the hierarchy of Muslim entities. "In some cities, such as Recife and Salvador, Islamic centers that were historically presided over by Muslims of Arab origin now have Brazilian occupying the post," said the Syrian Sheikh Jihad Hassan Hammadeh, who chairs the ethics committee of the National Islamic Union (Uni) ....



A Carioca (resident of Rio de Janeiro) Karina, 28 years of age, was reverted to Islam at 14 and never stopped wearing the veil: 
"I'm not forced to use it"

Yussuf, 53, was elected as President replacing an Egyptian, who held the position for eight years. Supervising the telecommunications area, the soteropolitano wears the Islamic dress Jalabia to pose for the ISTOÉ photographer and explains that he works in the entity on voluntary basis from 9 am to 6 pm, when necessary. The Muslim Yussuf now works to build the first mosque of Bahia. "We will open an account in a bank to receive donations. We have a thousand square meters of land, "he says. "I could not win the presidency if there was not an expansion of Islam in progress represented by Brazilian reverted Muslims." For the followers of Islam, all are born Muslims and return to God is called a reversion and not a conversion, which for them, it would be the act of migrating from another religious denomination. Yussuf is right. In about ten years, the number of mosques, according to Uni, jumped from 70 to 115. During the same interval, the number of Sheiks who speak Portuguese has tripled. And it does not stop there. Brazilians not only rose to the top of the hierarchy as well as established Muslim institutions and also have erected new religious spaces. "In the Northeast, Islamic entities are being created by Brazilians to join the religion whose adhehesion to the religion does not come from birth," says anthropologist Paul Hilu, who heads the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF). Islam, a religion that arrived in Brazil through the hands of the Mouriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity) of Portugal in the sixteenth century, is becoming less and less a mystery in the Brazilian minds because the ground for its growth has never been so fertile. "There are 94 Islamic institutions here today. In 2002 there were 58 and in 1983, 33 ", says the researcher Paul Hilu, from the UFF.


Manaus, for example, raised a mosque just three years ago. Where there is no possibility of erecting temples, the community finds a way to propagate religion. Four months ago, a former evangelical Cesar Mateus Rosalino today under the name of Muslim Kaab Al Qadir, has built a Mussala (meeting room) in the slum called Cultura Física, Embu das Artes, in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, where he lives. The site, which was named Mussala Rahmah, Muslim Kaab displays a beard worthy of a true Muslim and receives approximately 20 people at some meetings. The site has featured even with the presence of a Mozambican Sheik. "We struggled to get a space here because there is no possibility for our brothers to cross the city to go to the nearest mosque which is three hours away," says Kaab, who enrolled his son in a Turkish school this year. The 10 year old boy, named Bryan Luther King, goes deep on intensive Islamic studies. "He wants to be the first Muslim doctor," his father says proudly.

PIONEER : Yussuf, 53 years old, is the first Brazilian to chair the Islamic Center of Bahia.

To Franciros y Ferreira, coordinator of the Group of Anthropology in Arab and Islamic Contexts, the higher frequency in the use of Portuguese in the daily lives of mosques, Islamic organizations and mussalas, is one of the main factors driving the advancement of religion. "There are leaders speaking and teaching Islam in Portuguese.This helps in the understanding and dissemination of religion”, says the professor of anthropology at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of São Paulo (USP). Sheikh Jihad, 48 years old, works in São Bernardo do Campo, one of the largest Muslim communities in Brazil, and is one of 15 religious leaders who speak fluent Portuguese. One Friday afternoon, after making due obeisance at the Abu Bakr Assidik Mosque, surrounded by approximately 300 Muslims, including men and women, children and elderly, he explained to ISTOÉ that formerly Portuguese language was not adopted because the Sheiks landed in Brazil coming from an Islamic countries with the will to return to their homeland one day. "That did not encourage them to devote to the Portuguese language. Currently, the approach to language is higher because most who come to Brazil intend to settle here”, he says.

EXPANSION: A crowded Mosque in São Paulo (above) and Kaab, the Muslim community leader (below) 
who inaugurated a Mussala (prayer room) in a slum


The Syrian Jihad, one of 15 Sheiks here that dominate the Portuguese

The reality today points to an evolution. There are 7 Brazilian Sheiks in the country.Ten years ago, there were 3. In all states of the federation there is a Mosque, Mussala, charity or a Islamic society cemetery. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, there is one of the first communities to conduct sermons in Portuguese and not in Arabic. Islamic practice in Brazil currently derives from the Arabic Middle Eastern immigration of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. This whole movement through which Islam has passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought forth distorted reports on Islamic culture as well as a great curiosity about the religion. Many reverted were Brazilians who came out of economic stagnation in search for more information about the Muslim culture. This is what happened with the Rio sociologist, Karina Arroyo, who closed her ties to Islam after the terrorist attacks attracted the spotlight to religion. At 14, she has opted for reversion and started attending an Islamic community, took lessons in Arabic and learned the teachings of religion. Today, at age 28, married to a Muslim and mother of two, she wears the hijab (veil) through the streets of Rio de Janeiro because she wants to be recognized as Muslim. "I'm not forced to use it. A woman actually feels more valued by covering the body”, says Karina. The use of this piece of clothing without any fear of being dressed as a  Muslim has grown in the country, a reflection, according Franciros y Ferreira, from USP, due to a greater knowledge of Islamic doctrine and expansion of religion. "In 2008, about 60% of the women wore the veil. Today, between 90% and 95% of them do”, she says. "Every ten reversed, seven are women”, explains Sheik Jihad. "There are people who reverts to me by phone, WhatsApp".


Such methods are possible because, to adhere to Islam, one needs only to utter three times to a caller: "There is no God but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger". Okay, here's a new Muslim. From then on comes the practice, such as the five daily prayers, charity to the needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan, pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Mecca at least once in life, if the Muslim has physical and financial conditions. But that's another story ...

Photos: Eduardo Zappia; EDSON RUIZ, Gabriela Bilo / Futura Press; Rafael Hupsel / Ag. Istoé

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