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The Early Muslim Experience in Brazil

The Early Muslim Experience in Brazil



By Siddeek Tawfeek - Islamonline.net_Doha 2011-03-29 13:38:10

The Centre for the Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies of Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Member of Qatar Foundation hosted recently Professor Michael Gomez of New York University who delivered a lecture titled “The Early Muslim Experience in Brazil”

Early Muslim Presence in Brazil

Professor Gomez started the lecture by pointing out that the first Muslims who arrived in Brazil were African Muslims who were transported to Brazil via the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th century. They came mainly from what nowadays are known to be the modern states of Benin, Dahumi and the Swahili coasts to serve in the sugar plantations, then later in diamond and gold mines. As slave-traders were Spanish and Portuguese, they understood Muslim culture and way of thinking because the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by Muslims for over 800 years. The Portuguese especially respected Islam, so it is not surprising that African Muslims were viewed differently from non-Muslim Africans. It is no exaggeration to conclude that Brazilian society was founded on the backs of Africans, among which some were Muslims. The biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, a Moslem exported from Benin in western Africa, provides the “only known Brazilian slave narrative”. Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua came from a family in Benin that can be associated with the Wangara network of merchants; his mother was a Hausa, from Katsina and his father possibly of Arab descent. These Muslims, whatever their more precise origins, were differentiated by slaveholders from non-Muslims. The history of Islam in Brazil, nonetheless, goes beyond the confines of Salvador, reaching Rio de Janeiro and other urban centers as well as rural areas.


Muslim Revolt in Salvador

It is striking that Muslims in Brazil would later on achieve a degree of renown entirely out of proportion to their actual number. The central part of this renown was the famous 1935 revolt in the city of Salvador. The revolt centered in Bahia in Brazil whose capital and port of Salvador was surrounded by an area of fertile, well drained wetlands that made Bahia one of the leading producers of sugar. Indeed, the period between 1814 and 1835 was one of incessant upheaval and rest, often the product of African discontent. It was with the 1835 revolt; however, that Muslim involvement became central to developments in the history of Brazil. The revolt involved as many as 500 African insurgents, and this provides an important insight into the state of affairs between Muslims and non-Muslims and, more specifically, suggests the extent of African Muslim antipathies towards African-born non-Muslim and Brazilian-born blacks. Concerning the former, very few non-Muslims who were imported from regions outside of Benin participated, and the participation of Brazilian-born blacks was similarly small. While such small percentages may indicate that it was non-Muslims who rejected alliances with Muslims, anecdotal evidence affirms that it was Muslims who rejected the non-Muslims. Yoruba Carlos, a slave who witnessed a lot of events, testified that “the Nagos who can read, and who took part in the insurrection, would not shake hands with nor respect outsiders. They even called them ‘gavere’: possibly a corruption of the Arabic word kafir meaning infidel or unbeliever. Likewise, those African and their descendents who converted to Catholicism were ridiculed by Muslims for going to Masses to worship a piece of wood on the altar because images are not saints. It would therefore appear that there was a considerable distance between African Muslims and the Brazilian-born of African descent, as the dynamic of Islam added another dimension to the general tension between African-born and Brazilian-born communities.

 Evidence of Muslim origins

Professor Gomez went on to say that, as the preceding indicates, part of Muslim aversion to non-Muslim hybrid Brazilians creoles had to do with religion, and with Catholic veneration of saints and extensive use of images. But perhaps even more important were the issues of the military and policing. Creoles formed most of the military, paramilitary and auxiliary forces used to enforce the servile estate, and could be counted on to subscribe to a nascent Brazilian identity by which they consistently sided with the slave-holders against both Africans and the Portuguese. Moreover, creoles disproportionately served as officials and personnel in jobs requiring efficient vocational training. It is no wonder then that while some testimony charged that the 1835 rebels planned to kill not only #CDDCEBs, but blacks and mixed race persons as well. 

Summary of 1835 Revolt

Professor Gomez summarized the actual events of the 1835 revolt as follows. Planned to begin on 25th January, a Catholic holiday that also coincided with the end of Ramadan, the insurrection was in fact largely over by dawn’s early light. Upon discovering the plan, authorities surprised the rebels on the morning of 25th January by attacking a group meeting in the basement of a two-storey house. Fighting broke out all over Salvador and after several hours, over seventy people were dead, and some of whom fifty were Africans, while an untold number were wounded. The ensuing investigation, from which a wealth of information on Islam in Bahia was garnered, consisted of over 200 hearings conducted in an atmosphere of widespread fear and panic. Concerned that other plans were in the making, authorities embarked upon a zealous prosecution of the captured as deterrent, a campaign that led to the execution, flogging, imprisonment or deportation of more than 500 persons. 

Revolt or Jihad

Being conceived as an urban rebellion, but considered jihad (holy war), that would quickly connect with those in the countryside, the brevity of that revolt means that its significance derives from its broader implications and potential. The analysis of the role of Islam in this revolt begins with the characterization that it was an overwhelmingly African-born movement of mostly Nagos, Muslim and non-Muslim under the leadership of Muslims. Bodies of dead Muslims after the revolt were discovered with copies of the Quran, books of duaa (prayers and supplications) that those rebels carried with them. Much of the evidence identifying these individuals as Muslim leaders of the revolt came from witnesses testifying against them, and an important source of information verifying Muslim presence in Bahia were the documents in Arabic which included copies of the Quran and duaa texts taken from the bodies of those slain the revolt. The Quran texts were either complete suras (chapters) or excerpts thereof Professor Gomes stated that, the first Muslims in Brazil preserved their religious culture. The pursuit of Islamic sciences was by writing and documenting contemporary records, besides learning the Quran and Arabic language. Moreover, the homes of personal businesses of free Muslims served as venues of worship and education. Furthermore, there was a lot of cooperation and co-existence as when the Englishman Abraham allowed his Muslim slaves to build a structure on his land that became perhaps the most important meeting place for Muslims in Bahia. Other Muslims rented rooms downtown Salvador to be later altered into masjids (mosques) where Muslim could conduct their religious practices in seclusion and privacy. Some of those mosques were expanded to form madrasas (schools). Finally, Muslim kept their distinctive dress and diet in Bahia. Muslims were distinguished by putting on skullcaps and eating halal

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