I arrived in Brazil expecting to meet a few Arab Muslims or visit a few mosques and find a typical immigrant community like what I experience in the U.S. That didn’t happen. Stories far more beautiful and enriching took place.
Muslims in Brazil are in a state where they are proud of their faith and more concerned about sharing their belief with people than defending it. Though the general public has limited knowledge of Islam, Brazilians hold no prejudice towards Muslims despite the infiltration of rhetoric echoing American Islamophobia. Moreover, despite a trend of Brazilians changing their name when they become Muslim, they are very much proud of their cultural and national heritage as Brazilians. Almost all agreed that what they love about Brazil is its tolerance, hospitality, acceptance of others, and just happy attitude to life.
Kaab, a community leader who when asked about culture said, “I don’t really care much about culture. My culture now is my relationship with God and caring for the community.” Despite his self-image, the memories of him leading the Churrasco (BBQ) night screamed Brazilian culture in my mind.
I learned about spirituality, and experienced meditation like I never had before. The relentlessness by which the Muslims I have met seek to learn about their faith despite the challenges they face in that pursuit humbled me. I was humbled because I have taken for granted all the opportunities available to me to learn without obstacles.
Some of these Muslims and their stories are below:
Claudio is a gentleman with a heart-warming smile. He is the president of the Islamic Center and Inter-Religious Dialogue and Inter-Cultural. It’s a relatively new center, not yet a year old. The center is associated with the Hizmet movement, which focuses on civil service.
When I asked Claudio what Islam meant to him, he said it is finding paradise on earth by having both clarity and paradise in his heart.
Leandro is an impressively knowledgeable 26-year-old Brazilian lawyer. He speaks more than 5 languages including Arabic. He knew, with the correct pronunciations, all the cities I am visiting in China. His first encounter with Islam was in 1998. He was collecting World Cup cards and was intrigued by Arabic letters. Although his first introduction to Islam was through Arab culture, lately he has begun immersing himself in Turkish communities and culture. For him, Turkish communities have a clearer distinction between religion and culture and are more accepting of converts like himself.
To Leandro, Islam means three things. It means a serenity and comfort at heart. It means a way of life through connecting with God. And, lastly, it means a balance that he references with a short verse in the Quran, “Thus We have made you a middle nation.”
Leandro then quotes his favorite verse from the Quran, “As for those who have faith and do righteous deeds, there will be an everlasting reward for them.” He loves this because it is a reminder that not only does he need to believe in the faith, he needs to act and do well to his community.
His favorite thing about Brazilian culture that he maintains as a Muslim is the hospitality of Brazilians and their family values. He also thinks that Brazilian culture loves and appreciates food and he loves to maintain that as Muslim.
Yousuf is a graphic designer. When asked what it means for him to be a Brazilian Muslim, he said he finds it reinforcing to his spirituality. It is as if his faith is a white dot in a sea of darkness which encourages him to focus on protecting it. For him, it is part of the Brazilian culture to have a strong guiding faith, regardless of what that religious belief is. “Brazilians have faith!” he says.
To become Muslim for Muhammad, a former rapper, is to be able to see again. To be a Brazilian Muslim means a challenges for him to learn more about his faith and religion. Mohammed’s favorite teaching of the Prophet that most embodies Islam for him is, “The strong is not he who can take down a brother. The strong is the one who holds and controls his anger.”
Mohammad loves the humble, down to earth, and easy-going nature of the Brazilian culture. The ease by which I got to know him despite the language barrier was a testimony to his embodiment of the culture he loves.
Filipi is a young man who had a quick start on life. He was married at age 15, became Muslim at 19 and later divorced at 19 as well. He’s now 21 years old and has two children. To Filipi, to be a Muslim Brazilian is to struggle every day. But, he thinks Brazilians are amazing for their hospitality and acceptance of others.
I met Adnan very briefly. He was born in Brazil but grew up in the Netherlands. He recently moved back to Brazil because he was ready to reconnect with his roots. “Brazilians are the best! And, I love being Muslim. This can’t get better. For me it’s the best of all worlds. It’s having the best culture and best faith.”
Khalil is of Arab heritage as his grandparents moved to Brazil over 50 years ago. He’s extremely thoughtful and has clearly studied a lot of philosophy, ideologies, and sociology. He is discouraged by communities’ tendencies to associate with a particular group, association, or school of thought. He is just Muslim. He finds himself requiring a rational and logical framework for his life, which is not necessarily in line with faith or organized religion. At the end of the day, his faith, values and Islamic beliefs are his very own identity.
Rafael (not his real name) is a proud Brazilian from the Bahia region. He does not really identify with the region’s history of Muslim slaves. He emphasized that he arrived at his beliefs through an intellectual process. The hardest thing for him when he became Muslim was how he drifted away from his old friends because their interests were no longer similar. For him, being a Muslim is a way of life. Islam explains the reason for which we are alive. He asked for his picture not to be published. He’s finishing law school, and would like to maintain a low profile.
Yunus is Palestinian. He’s quick to tell you his story, which is tangled with the Palestinian history. I met him after the Friday prayer. He told me about leaving Palestine in 1968 after the war. How he had enough money in the bank to buy a brand new car in cash. He was a tailor in Palestine and when he came to Brazil he had to do some odd jobs here and there. He talked a lot about politics and the history of the Arab region, like many of the older Palestinian generation.
I was excited to continue talking to him. However, I was saddened quickly when Yunus’ brother showed up and told me that Yunus’ memory does not serve him well. And soon he would start repeating the same stories again and won’t remember meeting me shortly later. He assured me that his brother Yunus would be fine, and that he knows the area and how to get around. Yunus lives with his wife, who’s Brazilian, not far from the mosque where he comes and goes often on his own.
As it turns out, Yunus did in-fact arrive almost 50 years ago. Abdul Hamid told me that of the original community he knew from that time, only one or two families remain. Abdul Hamid lives in a different city several hours away. Despite this, he comes every Friday to see his brother at the mosque.
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.