Brazil is the largest country in Latin America. Although there are no official statistics, the Muslim population in Brazil is estimated to be approximately 1 million people, with a total population of more than 170 million. This number includes converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants. Brazilian converts make up for no more than 1% of this number, about 10,000 people. Therefore, within a population of over 170 million, the small number that make up Brazilian converts to Islam have very little power.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. However, in Latin America, and specifically in Brazil, this is not the case. Why?
One could argue that this is due to the strong influence of the Catholic Church. Brazil is considered to be the largest Catholic country in the world. However, a closer look proves that this is not true. Despite its strong presence, Catholicism has been losing followers in Brazil to other religions.
The argument has also been made that it is due to the Latin culture, which encourages Brazilians to always be playing, dancing and engaging in activities that are not lawful in Islam. As such, it is assumed that Brazilians simply aren’t fit to be Muslims. This is generally the excuse used by those responsible for Dawah work in Brazil for their failure. It is, of course, not true. Brazilians are, by nature, very religious and have in the past been an easy prey to all sorts of innovative religious movements. So, what is really happening?
Through the statement of sheikh Khalil Saifi, coordinator of the Center of Divulgation of Islam to Latin America, we can easily identify the real problem. The Center is located in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in the most important state of Brazil: Sao Paulo. Its president is Mr. Mohammed Saifi, a Lebanese immigrant who came to Brazil several years ago. Mainly his relatives and close friends compose the Center’s staff. In an interview with “Istoé” magazine, one of the most important magazines in the country, sheikh Khalil Saifi said: “Our main concern is to attend to the Muslims who descended from Arabs to help them preserve their link to their language and culture.” And, continuing in his statement: “The Brazilians who come to us come through the contact with Muslims out there.” Based on such statements, we are lead to conclude that a group of persons, who are supposed to make “Dawah,” have decided who has the right to be Muslim or not.
When a Brazilian decides to go against their “plans,” he or she is treated as an intruder in the Arab-Muslim community. All his/her misbehaviors concerning religious teachings are highlighted and pointed out, even if the same mistake is occurring among the Arab-Muslims. Normal mistakes due to lack of experience in the religion are presented as “proof” of an “incapacity” to practice and understand the religion. Little attention is given to the fact that the right teachings are not easily available to converts.
The new converts then have to fight alone against the criticism of his/her family, friends, the Brazilian society and worst: fight against the criticism of their own fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. The feeling of isolation leads some to abandon Islam after a while. Others keep insisting and all these difficulties just increase their faith and search for knowledge.
For those who persevere, they face another problem – the lack of good books about Islam available in the Portuguese language. The other Latin people are Spanish speakers and can depend on good works translated to Spanish. However, Brazilians are the only Portuguese speakers among Latinos and this fact increases their difficulties. The Center of Divulgation of Islam to Latin America provides the few books available. The books that have been chosen for translation are often of poor content quality. When a good book choice is made, a bad translation often destroys the work of its author. And even these few and badly translated books are difficult to find.
The lack of interest in spreading Islam is quite clear when one observes that the institution which is responsible for “Dawah” not only in Brazil but in all Latin America, doesn’t maintain a website about Islam. When such a resource is available nearly for free to everyone and day-by-day more and more Muslim individuals and institutions are using the Internet to inform about the Islamic teachings, this attitude is undoubtedly proof that the Center fails to fulfill its most vital function.
Brazil: A Muslim History?
Next April, Brazil will celebrate 500 years of its discovery, and a major controversy is surrounding the event. In traditional Brazilian history, the discovery of the country is attributed to a Portuguese navigator named Pedro Alvarez Cabral. New historical sources however, seem to offer another fact: that the discoverer might have been a Spanish navigator.
More and more historians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, are becoming aware of the strong Muslim presence in the early Americas. Many evidences of the Muslim presence in Brazil, including inscriptions with the name of Allah, have being found. In the language of the Native Americans, words of Arabic origin have been identified, and even the names of some Brazilian cities which were supposed to be related with the native American language, seems to have Arabic origins. If all this information is confirmed and introduced officially as part of Brazilian history, it means that faithful Muslims were the first ones to discover Brazil more than 500 years ago.
Also, through the Muslim slaves brought from Africa, we can easily identify the influence of the Islamic culture, although greatly distorted nowadays. This is especially evident in the northeast region of the country.
All of this proves that Islam is not an alien to the Brazilian culture. It’s indeed an important part of it. Presenting Islam to the Brazilian people in a comprehensive manner is important not just to preach one religion; it is also to help them to restore their original culture, carefully erased due to political and religious interests in the past.
Unfortunately, political and personal interests in the present coming this time from Muslims themselves seem to be preventing or at least delaying such tasks. Let us hope and pray to Allah that faithful Muslims of the present could “rediscover” Brazil and give to its people the chance to know the beauty and wisdom of Islam
Maria Moreira is a Brazilian convert now living in Egypt. She has worked with the Muslim Beneficent Society of Rio de Janeiro, giving speeches about Islamic teachings, women and family. She also taught an extension course entitled “The Changing Situation of Women in Arabic Society Through the Quran,” at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. You can visit her website at http://www.geocities.com/islamicchat.