Brazil Empire Through the Eyes of an Arab Imam

Book cover

This is the only known record of the outlook of a Muslim Arab into the
Brazilian society in the 19th Century. It has become a book called “Foreign
delight in all that is surprising and marvellous: a study of a Baghdadi trip”
and is being launched today, October 24, at Itamaraty Palace, in Brazilian
capital Brasília.

The work is a commented translation of a manuscript written by Imam Abdurrahmán Al-Baghdádi, born in Baghdad and brought up in Syria, commenting on his three years living in Brazil, from 1865 to 1868.

The translation, commentaries and analysis, by professor Paulo Farah, of the University of São Paulo (USP), were brought together in just one volume that includes the text in three languages: Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish.

The book is the first in the South America-Arab Countries Library, an initiative launched during the Summit of South American – Arab Countries, which took place in May 2005, and it was edited by the national libraries of Algeria, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and by Ayacucho Library, in Venezuela.

“I believe that the book is a very important source not only to understand the Arab and Muslim presence in Brazil, but also to other areas of study, like linguistics, history and geography, among others,” said Farah.

Although it was written exclusively in Arabic characters, the manuscript has words in several languages, such as Turk-Ottoman, Persian, Greek, French, Portuguese and Tupi (a language of south American natives), with which Al-Baghdádi made contact during his studies and travels.

Farah mainly points out the importance of the work for the social study of slavery in Brazil. For most of the time he was in the country, the Imam lived with Muslim slaves coming from Africa, among them survivors of the Malê Revolt, a slave revolution that took place in 1835, in Salvador, capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.

“This helps us understand a little more about the mechanisms of slavery in Brazil, the daily life of slaves as seen by someone who lived intimately with this reality and had access to such information,” stated the professor.

Apart from a religious authority, Al-Baghdádi was also a scholar who studied literature, jurisprudence, theology, Arabic and Persian. Therefore, more than observations about religion and society, the Imam wrote reports about the fauna, flora, culture and political organization of Brazil.

Coming form the Ottoman empire, which at the time dominated a large share of North Africa and the Middle East, the author also saw the country in the eyes of someone used to ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. “He showed an outlook of someone who respected a plural society,” stated Farah.

All of these factors made Al-Baghdádi’s report different from those of European and North-American travellers at the same time. On speaking about the social structure of Brazil and about imperial bureaucracy, for example, he analyses the prohibition, at the time, of non-Catholic religious practices and the way this influenced the daily life of slaves, with clandestine praying, and in the organization of these people. According to Farah, as a religious man, the Imam tried to point out the grandeur of the divine work in Brazil.

“(The Muslims of Pernambuco) have a strong inclination towards the magic squares, geomancy, numerology and the mystic sense of Arab letters. Due to this, they hide less than (the Muslims) of the first cities (Rio de Janeiro and Salvador), as the Christians trust them very much and believe in what they show in their intentions,” stated the Imam in one of the passages of his manuscript. During his stay in Brazil he lived in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife.

About the Brazilian state, Al-Baghdádi points out: “It is a territory that belongs to South America. It was won by the sons of Portugal, who made a great effort to raise and embellish their constructions and architecture. After that, they named one of the sons of their king to rule the country. But he took over (the government of Brazil), opposed his father and became independent from him.” The stretch refers to Emperor Pedro I, who proclaimed the country’s independence in 1822.

On speaking about the taste and appearance of Brazilian fruit, the Imam compares them to those existing in the Middle East, among them pomegranate, dates, grapes and walnuts.

“In this country there is a tree the size of the walnut tree, or even better, it is larger. It has fruit greater than a pumpkin, hanging on the trunk and on the thick branches of the tree. The external part is similar to the skin of a crocodile and the interior, to an eye, it looks like a pomegranate, although the seed is like a date’s, and inside each seed there is a similar nucleus (to the seed). Its taste is similar to that of a sweet made out of flour and honey,” he explains in this text, probably referring to the jackfruit tree and the jackfruit.

Al-Baghdádi arrived in Brazil on a vessel of the Ottoman Empire coming from Istanbul. He was originally intended to travel to Basra, part of modern-day Iraq, but he decided to stay after hearing about the Muslim presence in the country.

“On the second day, officers of our Islamic military forces travelled to inspect this magnificent city (Rio de Janeiro), and then, when I went to the port to contemplate the images and faces, a black man came up to me and said ‘as-salámu alaykum’ (‘may the peace be with you’, the traditional Muslim salute). He reserved this salute to me alone, and not to other people, as my clothes included a turban and formal attire attesting to my education,” reports the Imam.

According to Farah, after three years in Brazil, Al-Baghdádi started his return trip. He visited Lisbon, Gibraltar, Algiers and Alexandria, went on his pilgrimage to Mecca, visited his family in Damascus and finally reached Istanbul. And it was in a library in the Turkish city that the Brazilian professor found the original manuscript.

Farah found a reference to the manuscript for the first time around 10 yeas ago, when he lived in Syria. Three years later, after research in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, he found the document in Istanbul. “The narratives of the trip interested me very much. When I find something that generates interest I go after it, to see if the original interest is confirmed,” he said.

And it was. When found, according to the professor, the manuscript was in good conditions. Written in flowery language and even poetic in some stretches, the document took seven years of work from the date it was released by the Turkish library to its publication as a book. Farah dedicates great study to documents written in non-European languages, and he even has a collection of them.

Of Arab descent, Farah, aged 35, is a graduate and post-graduate professor at the college of Philosophy, Letters and Humanities at the University of São Paulo.

He is also the director of the Arab Studies Center at the University and of the South America-Arab Countries Library. He has already written other books, like “Islam, a glossary of Islamic terms” and “ABC of the Arab World”, a book for the teaching of children.

He has also translated publications like “Midaq Alley”, by Naguib Mahfuz, the Egyptian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who died last year.

Farah lived in Syria, Egypt and Kuwait for five years. In his trips, he has been to all 22 Arab countries.


“Deleite do estrangeiro em tudo o que é espantoso e maravilhoso: estudo de um relato de viagem bagdali” (Foreign delight in all that is surprising and marvellous: a study on a Baghdadi trip)

By Paulo Daniel Elias Farah

Edited by the national libraries of Algeria, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and by Ayacucho Library, of Venezuela

Trilingual volume (Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish) 480 pages

Anba –


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