The Muslim population in Brazil rose 29.1% from 2000 to 2010, according to the last Census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The community rose from 27,239 to 35,167. In the same period, the population of Brazil rose by 12.3%.
The greatest concentrations of Muslims coincide with the largest Arab communities: the state of São Paulo in the first place, followed by Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. But all units of the federation have people who said they follow the religion.
To Cláudio Crespo, a researcher at the IBGE, the growth in the number of Muslims may have taken place for several reasons, including births, conversion, migration and even an improvement in the system of collection of information for the Census. “It may even be all these factors,” he said.
An example is that of foreign trader Leandro Massud, aged 35, who converted to Islam during the period. Born in São Paulo, with Lebanese Christian grandparents on his father’s side, he sought greater contact with religion to seek his origins.
“The interest was born in a Trip to Lebanon, in 1999, with my father and my brother. I felt a strong connection with that land,” he said.
From then on, Massud sought more information about the country, Arabic, culture and religion. He also explains that he was given a copy of the Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, translated into Portuguese, at the Wamy, an organization for promotion of Islam.
He started studying alone, but then “one trillion doubts arose” and he decide to visit the mosques of São Bernardo, in Greater São Paulo, where he currently lives, and that of Brás, in the central region of the city of São Paulo, as well as the Wamy itself.
Years went by before he decided to convert, or “revert”, as the Muslims say. Massud stated that he saw in the religion the possibility of a more peaceful life and one of greater self-knowledge.
“Today I am more disciplined, more connected to family, more adapted to people, and I live life much more peacefully,” he pointed out.
“I did not abandon my old friends, I continued relating with those with whom I already had contact, but I added new people to my circle,” he added.
The businessman often travels to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on business, and makes use of the opportunity to visit mosques and talk to the local followers of the religion. Next year he plans to go on Umra, the small pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, and later to the Hajj, the largest Muslim pilgrimage.
Married and the father of Tariq, who is about to turn two, Massud hopes that the boy shall follow Islam. “Tariq has been going to mosques with me, to events [of the community], like the feast for the closing of Ramadan. I have been pulling him [towards the religion]. We gave him an Islamic name. He will have free will, but whatever I can do to bring him [to the faith], I will try,” he said.
In the case of migrations, Crespo, of the IBGE, said, for example, that Brazil has become more attractive to foreigners since the richer nations started suffering with the financial crisis, in 2008.
Apart from that, the presence of relatives and friends simplifies the choice of a new place in which to live, after all, Brazil has been a traditional destination for Arab immigration since the late 19th century.
Among those moving to the country over the last decade is Islam Shaheen, aged 36, born in Alexandria, Egypt. The owner of a logistics company in his country, he married a Brazilian who had converted to Islam, to whom he was introduced by a common friend. “I was not planning it [moving to Brazil], but I got married to a Brazilian…” he said.
Shaheen, graduated in accounting, came to São Paulo in 2006 and got a job in the quality control area at the Brazilian Halal Food Center (Cibal Halal), a certifier of products made according to Muslim law, where he works to date. “I was fortunate to find a job in a Muslim company,” he said.
To him, the difference in language was the main problem faced when he arrived. “I sought people who spoke English, but it was hard,” he said. “I spent a year watching TV so that I could learn,” he joked, adding that after learning the basics he sought Portuguese lessons.
The father of a four year old girl, Shaheen said there are few mosques in São Paulo and that they are far from each other. It is sometimes hard to maintain traditions.
In Ramadan, for example, the holy month for the Muslims, in which they fast during the day, he sometimes has to break tradition and eat something during the day, as it is not possible to get to the temple in time for the traditional community meal at sunset, Iftar.
According to the IBGE, among the Brazilian Muslims, 21,042 are men and 14,124 are women, most live in urban areas, 29,248 are white, 1,336, are black, 268 Asian, and 4,300 mulatto. A curious fact: 15 Indians said they are Muslim, as against 24 in 2000.