Amazing Brazil

Brazil has around 40 mosques, most of them in the state of São Paulo

The Muslim Beneficent Society inaugurated the first Islamic temple in Brazil in 1955. According to the entity, Muslim immigration to the country gained strength in the second half of the 20th century.

Giuliana Napolitano

São Paulo - Every Friday the streets near the first mosque established in São Paulo (the most industrialized city and in Brazil, and capital of the southeastern state of São Paulo), almost 50 years ago, become packed with cars. The residents and businessmen in the region know it is the Muslims living all over the city coming for their weekly prayers.

The Muslim Beneficent Society (SBM) inaugurated the mosque in 1955. According to the current entity president, Ahmad Aref Abdul Latif, this was also the first Islamic temple in Latin America. Brazil now has around 40 mosques.

Mosques maintain the Islamic tradition among Muslims living in Brazil. One of these traditions is the Friday prayer, at 12 o'clock.

On Friday October 24, around 300 Muslims went to the mosque. Generally, the number is smaller, but this was a special day as it preceded Ramadan. Due to the Ramadan fast, the meal that is always served after the Friday prayers has been cancelled, but it is still necessary to pray.

Catholic immigrants

Brazil currently has the largest Arab community outside the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, estimated at over 10 million people. Immigration began at the end of the 19th century, and consisted mainly of Lebanese and Syrians.

Contrary to what would be expected, though, most Arab immigrants are Christian. According to the president of the Brazilian Superior Council of Islamic Affairs, Moustafa Mourad, the number of Muslims living in Brazil is currently only about 2 million.

Ahmad Latif, of the SBM, says that, in the beginning, Arab immigrants arriving in Brazil were mostly Christian. In the second half of the 20th century, a greater number of Muslims started coming. About half of them established themselves in São Paulo. The state concentrates the largest part of mosques in the country: only in the capital, there are five, and another ten in the countryside and on the coast. In the city of São Paulo, the SBM also maintains a school and an Islamic cemetery.

"Charity work is also one of our tasks, we make donations of clothes and food to the poor", states Latif. "We want to keep the Islamic community united in Brazil", he adds.

Adapting to a minority

Following Muslim traditions in a country that is mostly Christian is not easy. It is similarly not easy to be a Christian in a mostly Islamic nation.

Ramadan is an example. Whereas in Islamic countries restaurants, bars and cafes are closed during the day throughout this 30-day period, and eating, drinking or smoking in public is not allowed, the same does not occur in Christian countries, making the process harder.

Another difficulty is going to the mosque every Friday - a normal working day. The daily prayer ritual may also be a problem depending on the company you work for.

Women also face the common stereotypes. "Being different is never easy", summarizes Hania Souheil Houssami, 28, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and came to Brazil at the age of three. "Many people believe that Muslim women are ignorant and submissive. There are a series of stereotypes. We always have to prove them wrong".

Maybe the largest cliché is related to Muslim women working outside the house. According to the Holy Koran, it is the man's responsibility to support the family. Women have to take care of the house and children. This does not mean, though, that women are not allowed to work out of the house and that men cannot help at home.

Before starting to work for one of the largest banks in Brazil, Hania, who graduated as a librarian at one of the most important universities in Latin America, the University of São Paulo (USP), and intends to get a masters degree in the area, says she clearly felt prejudice. "When you go to job interviews, you realize that the interviewer looks at you with different eyes", she says. "But not everyone is like this. In general, I can say that Brazil is a very welcoming country. Most times diversity is respected", she points out.

Proof of this respect is the fact that, before working for the bank, Hania had spent six years working as a librarian at the Albert Einstein Israeli Hospital. It was there, incidentally, that she started using the Muslim veil.

"I remember that when I decided to wear the veil, my boss asked me: 'Will it interfere in your work?' I answered that it would not, and she said there would be no problem", states Hania.

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