Islam in the Slums

This is a guest post written by Hasan Shahid, doctoral student in Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown University. He served as Ammar’s interpreter for this trip, taking excruciating measures to accurately translate the many jokes of Brazil.

The Favela

Favela Cultura Física.

A growing number of people have converted to Islam in recent years in Brazil. According to local Muslims and media reports, conversions to the religion have contributed significantly to its spread in the country. A musalla (prayer space) in a low-income neighborhood in Greater São Paulo is one example of the increasing adoption of Islam among Brazilians.

Kaab embraces Juninho. He became Muslim less than a month ago. Even though he lives 15 minutes away from a mosque, he frequently makes the 3 hours trip to visit the musalla community

Kaab embraces Juninho. He became Muslim less than a month ago. Even though he lives 15 minutes away from a mosque, he frequently makes the 3-hour trip to visit the musalla community.

Ammar and I traveled to Embu das Artes, a city located about 27 miles from downtown São Paulo, on Saturday, June 13, to get a glimpse of this unique Muslim space, which is apparently the only one in Brazil in a favela, an urban slum. Excited about our trip, we took a bus from close to one of the metro stations, which took us to a bus terminal located just minutes away on foot from the musalla. Door to door, the total travel time was about an hour and a half.

Kaab met myself and Hasan at the bus station

Kaab and I crossing the street shortly after leaving the bus terminal

We arrived at around 3 pm, and after stopping by a grocery store, we found the young man who was to take us to our destination. But soon after we started following him we ran into the person we came to see: Kaab Abdul, accompanied by a friend of his. From there we began walking to Mussala Rahmah, trekking up the steep, narrow street. The neighborhood was full of life, with children playing and adults conversing.

Kaab was accompanied with Marco. Marco is a friend of Kaab. He's not Muslim, but enjoys Kaab's community activities.

Kaab was accompanied by his friend Marco. He’s not Muslim, but he enjoys Kaab’s community activities.

Soon after arriving, Kaab, Ammar, and I prayed asr in congregation. We then proceeded to the third floor, where our host and his family reside. That’s when we began to learn about the humorous and down-to-earth leader’s life and his goals for the small (about 20 individuals) but growing community.

We walked up the stairs to Kaab's house

We walked up the stairs to Kaab’s house

A former rapper, Kaab embraced Islam in 2008 after hearing the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, online. The sound of it had an intense impact on him, and he started researching Islam on the internet, eventually befriending a Muslim man in Egypt through MSN Messenger, who helped teach him about the religion. Instead of going to a mosque, Kaab took the shahada via webcam, guided by his new mentor, who even sent him three books on Islam in Portuguese from Egypt.

I never asked him about his vest, but he definitely talked and asked us if we know Malcom X

We never asked him about his vest, but he definitely asked us if we knew about Malcom X

Islamic concepts influenced his music, but after having conflicting views on mixing hip hop with his newly adopted religion, Kaab decided to leave his rap career behind and now only performs poetry with no instrumentals under the name Fragmentos de um Muçulmano (Fragments of a Muslim).

He was also quick to joke. He showed us his tattoos, though, he's not proud of them. He did get them after he became Muslim, but he didn't know that Islam forbids Tattoos

Quick to joke, he showed us his tattoos, though he regrets his decision. He got them after becoming Muslim, but he didn’t know at the time that Islam forbids tattoos.

Today Kaab focuses much of his time on the musalla, which is almost entirely made up of converts. He faced many difficulties during his transition to Islam, especially due to having limited access to information about the tenets of the faith, and he does not want others to face the same situation. The closest mosque is about three hours away by public transportation, so the space he created is the only one available for Muslims in the area. Furthermore, he believes that there is a significant cultural gap between converts and Arabs, who make up the majority of Muslims in Brazil, and sees the musalla as a place where converts can come together and develop their own identity. A staunch supporter of the spread of Islam, he also hopes that more people in Brazil discover and embrace the religion, especially those from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rafik is 23 old. He studies Islamic jurisprudence. He does not live in the favela, but enjoys the community here.

Rafik is 23 years old and studies Islamic jurisprudence. He lives in a different city in Greater São Paulo, but he goes to Embu das Artes because he enjoys the community at the musalla.

When asked about his goals for the musalla, he responded that he hopes one day that it will expand to include an Islamic school and then a full-fledged mosque. Perplexed, Ammar asked Kaab why he wanted to build a school before a mosque, and, anxious, he grabbed Ammar’s arm and pointed to the homes on the hill, saying that it is important to educate children about Islam first before creating a place of worship where people don’t know about their faith. We were both struck by his way of thinking, as the prevailing idea among Muslims in the U.S. is to build mosques first and then Islamic schools second.

Though Kaab's welcome was warm and cheerful, his daughter was at the musalla and she was not impressed

Though Kaab’s welcome was warm and cheerful, his daughter who was also at the musalla was clearly not impressed

As the night progressed, more and more people entered the musalla and Kaab’s home, attracted by the excitement surrounding the wedding of two members of the community as well as the arrival of a camera crew from the Brazilian television network SBT, both of which took place the following morning. Ammar and I stayed overnight, sleeping on the floor of the prayer space, but unfortunately we could not stay for the wedding. We were, however, able to stay for the delicious late night churrasco (barbeque).

But once it was up and running, Kaab led the grill continuously. The food that came off the grill went into a plate with farofa. We cut up the beef, and just eat as we grill

Kaab led the grill continuously once it was up and running. The meat that came off the grill went onto a plate and was mixed with farofa.

We left shortly after fajr, accompanied to the bus terminal by three brothers that we had spent time with the night before. Despite my sleepiness, I knew we had a fascinating story to tell the world.

Kaab danced and joked around. Here he was taking over my sleeping spot in the musalla

Kaab danced and joked around. Here he was taking over Ammar’s sleeping spot in the musalla.

Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.

For more information, visit our page about this journey.