Even though I am considered a fifth generation from Guyana, South America, I must confess that I have little to no knowledge of neighboring Brazil except that it is a vast country that borders Guyana and every other country in South America except Chile. Brazil is home to the massive Amazon rainforest, part of which extends into Guyana and which is commonly nicknamed “the lungs of the world” as it covers an area of 2.1 million square miles, a vast tract of forest that sucks up carbon dioxide from global emissions and in turn produces the oxygen we need to breathe. Sixty percent of the rainforest is in Brazil.
Da’wah is not just words. Oftentimes it is through the way we interact with others
Questions About Islam and Muslims in Brazil
I always think of Brazil and other South American countries in terms of their Muslim communities and I wonder if they have masaajid (mosques). Is any Da’wah work going on in these places and if so by whom? What have their populations heard about Islam? Are the people biased against Islam and Muslims? Who are the native Muslims in terms of understanding and practice of their Deen?
Since most of South America speaks Spanish, and Portuguese in Brazil, I continued to have these questions and few answers as I concentrate on da’wah in the English-speaking environments of Guyana and the U.S. Yet I always hoped that one day I would be able to venture into the Spanish-speaking parts of my own continent and find answers for myself, by the grace of Allah SWT.
WhyIslam Heading for Brazil
In May of this year, Br. Farhan from WhyIslam, an ICNA project, reached out to let me know that a da’wah team would be going to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup; I immediately knew this was my long-awaited opportunity. This was my chance to see first-hand how Islam has advanced into the heart of South America and what, if any, da’wah goes on in this vast country of 202 million people, most of whom are Catholics. So without a second thought I replied that I would like to be part of the WhyIslam team.
I was pretty excited about the upcoming trip to Brazil but as the time drew near I had many “what ifs” popping up in my mind. Perhaps having second thoughts was because I was going to a strange land, not knowing what lay ahead. Or perhaps it was the Portuguese language and even though my knowledge of Spanish is fairly good, I wondered if it would be sufficient to maintain a dialogue, to give da’wah in an effective way. At the same, the media was covering the large demonstrations preceding the World Cup including strikes, acts of civil disobedience, and the harsh, sometimes brutal, reaction of the police to the protestors. But by the time we got there none of this was evident. Once the match begins, Brazilians are in football frenzy and grooving!
What is your Goal? ¿Qual é o seu objetivo?
Brazil, like many of the South American countries, is all about football. For them football is bigger than life itself. Hence, the theme WhyIslam chose for the da’wah campaign in Brazil was “What is your goal?” or as you say in Spanish “¿Cuál es tu meta?” and in Portuguese “Qual é o seu objetivo.” This was so appropriate as it opens up the question for a dialogue, seeing that the main “goal” for many was which player would score a goal for their country. In fact, one day as I was standing on a street corner handing out flyers, a Brazilian journalist approached me and asked me about the place or relevance of religion at the World Cup. So I had the opportunity to explain that beyond the goals on the field is a bigger goal of life that we should also think about, and while the worldly goals of sports and all of life’s activities will end and are short-lived, the real goal of life – to find meaning, purpose, and truth – is everlasting. I explained to her that the first goal is easier, requiring that one kick a ball to score a goal; but the second goal requires a lot more than just kicking a ball! It’s about life! What is the goal of your life? What happens beyond this life? Have you prepared anything for it? And thus my da’wah experience in Brazil began.
Da’wah at the Games
Most of our outreach programs were centered around the games. Whenever a match was played in Sao Paulo there would be a huge gathering and there we distributed flyers and had conversations with people. Whenever the Brazilian team was playing, the crowd kept pouring into the “Fan Fest Zone,” a free area not too far from the stadium where fans could watch the match on big screens. While most of the passers-by were Brazilians, we did run into a number of people from different parts of the world. We met several Muslims who had come to see the games. They were very happy to know that we were taking the opportunity to reach out to people with the message of Islam.
Our first stop was quite a remarkable one. It was Thursday June 19 and we had decided to go to an area where the WhyIslam team had been a few days before to pass out flyers. However there was lots of open drinking in the streets. As we began distributing flyers, one elderly lady came to us and welcomed us, but barely had she done so when she began in an evangelical style to preach that Jesus is the only son of God and that God so loved the world that He sent His only son. So I felt compelled to answer her claims and with my limited Spanish I joined her in the same evangelical style and began to proclaim loud enough for the surrounding people to hear, “El Dios es el más grande. Él no tiene necesidad de un hijo o una hija! Jesús es un profeta. Allah solamente es el Dios!” The meaning is “God is The Greatest. He has no need for a son or a daughter. Jesus is a Prophet. Allah alone is God!”
At that time Sister Nahela, our Spanish-speaking team member, and Br. Fayed and his wife, Sister Bia, our Portuguese-speaking team members, began a deeper conversation with the woman, gently but confidently refuting her proclamations. In the end she was silent, looking very thoughtful and surprised at what had just taken place. While this was going on, some men who were drinking at a bar began to gather around us. Even though it was a little intimidating, we continued handing out our flyers. It took some time, but I came to realize that people are genuinely interested in knowing about Islam. I expect that the men from the bar have listened to these evangelical speeches countless times and now they were willing to hear what “the newcomers” had to say.
The Fan Fest Zone
After a while we went to the Fan Fest Zone on another side of the stadium and there we began handing out flyers at a very fast pace. Every time we gave a flyer we would say “obrigado” meaning thank you or “muito obrigado” thank you very much. With these two phrases and a smile we handed out thousands of booklets and flyers and the da’wah campaign was off and running in Brazil!
There were a few incidents at the Fan Fest Zone that are worth narrating here. First there was a Brazilian gentleman with whom we were engaging in some discussions. He had a bottle of beer in his left hand and all of a sudden during our conversation with him his beer fell out his hand and the bottle broke. The guy was kind of shocked and bewildered as if some power had just pushed the bottle from his hands, plummeting it to the ground where it broke. It was almost as if Allah SWT’s words and beer could not be with a person at the same time. Another amazing incident that took place within the same hour was praying Salaatul Maghrib and Eshaa at the Fan Fest Zone. It was crowded with thousands of people walking by and lots of drinking was going on. Also the security was very intense. It was time to pray Maghrib and so we decided that we would look for a fairly clean place (which was hard to find) on the pavement and do our Salaah there, even though there was a Masjid nearby. Earlier that day we tried to get into the Masjid to pray Zuhr and Asr Salaah but it was locked and we ended up praying in a nearby parking lot which was far from clean. So right where we were seemed the best choice.
As we were looking for a possible area to pray, two brothers happened to pass by and gave me salaams. So I told them to join us, that we were about to pray our Maghrib Salaah. Just then I mentioned that we had to pray on this dirty pavement because the nearby Masjid is closed and we did not know who to contact to have it opened. They said that they were the ones in charge of the Masjid and they had the keys. They were very happy to open the Masjid for us and alhamdulillah they did. This was finding an oasis in a desert; the luxury of restrooms, wudhu, a clean place to pray, away from the noise and chaos of a drinking, boisterous crowd. We could only conclude that you make one step to serve Allah SWT and He SWT makes the way easy for you.
When we engage with the people and listen to their narratives and the struggles that they deal with each and every day, we can offer them words of comfort, hope, and truth
Da’wah in Liberdade (Little Japan)
The next day was Friday and after delivering the Khutbah in Arabic at Sao Paulo’s main Masjid, Abu Bakr Assiddik (translation in Portuguese using the head-phones), we headed for a busy junction called Liberdade in the heart of Sao Paulo. There we were joined by the British da’wah team. This area is known to be home to the largest Japanese community in the world, outside of Japan. There we had a lot more interaction with the crowd. What was noticeable was that the majority of the Japanese people did not accept any flyer from us and the majority of Brazilians took the flyers and booklets and at least interacted with us. One lady said that she heard that The Qur’an is recited like a song. So I had no choice but recite to her Suratul Fatihah in the middle of Liberdade so that she could hear the recitation of The Qur’an.
After several hours of handing out flyers with the same obrigado and a smile it was time for Maghrib and Eshaa Salaah. This time there was no nearby Masjid so we had no choice but to hit the pavement. One of the brothers called Adhan and the police kind of made sure we prayed undisturbed. So when the Salaah began, a little crowd gathered to see this rare sight: people in a row standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting; all in the same sequence with the sound of Allahu Akbar! I was told that several people took out their phones and took pictures of us and some videoed the prayer. When we were done praying, some more flyers were distributed to the lookers-on. That evening Br. Fayed and Sister Bia invited us for a traditional Brazilian dinner. Needless to say that it was absolutely delicious and a reminder of my own Guyanese cuisine with yuca (we say cassava in the Caribbean) and organic beef in a soup form and the highlight was a passion fruit mousse. Saturday we spent at the center where Sh. Rodrigues, a native Brazilian, had classes for new Muslims. Each one of us introduced ourselves and shared some of our experiences and encouraged them to be firm in their Deen. Most of us spoke in English while sister Bia and Br. Fayed translated.
Da’wah in the Favelas (Slums)
The next day was an experience in da’wah that was a unique Brazilian experience that. It was da’wah in the favela. Favela is the term for a slum in Brazil and very often one can find these slums near upscale urban areas, in such close proximity that on one side of the street there are multimillion dollar high-rises and on the other side are slums with open sewerage, little or no utilities, poverty evident everywhere, and the potential for crime in every corner. Indeed we were told before entering the favela that we needed to be very vigilant because in some of those areas the police have no presence. Only Br. Boonaa and his camera man, Br. Adnan, were allowed to film and only at particular places and when permission was granted. We met Imam Kaab who by himself established a Musallah just at the entrance to the favela. He informed the “leader” of that particular favela that a group of people wanted to go around and distribute flyers after which they would hand out food boxes to the poor and needy. This was in collaboration with Br. Irfan Khurshid from Helping Hand. So with our trust in Allah SWT and taking our precaution, we went door to door handing out flyers and booklets on Islam and to anyone we met in the street. The favela was set on a hilly region of the city, apparently typical of most of the favelas. The “leader” himself met us and went around with us as if he were part of our team. Wearing a gold chain with a cross around his neck, he took us to the nooks and crannies of the favela. The streets were so narrow that two people of any size would find it difficult to pass. The smell was far from welcoming, but with pleasure our team went from door to door to spread the word of Allah SWT.
Most people we met had smiles on their faces. SubhanAllah! What a miserable life people are forced to be in while the country prospers! One wonders what government would deprive so many of its citizen from participating in the prosperity. But this is reality, not only in Brazil but so many places around the world. We went higher and higher up the hills until some of us thought it was becoming very hard physically to go on. But with trust in Allah SWT and the motivation from each other we all climbed until we reached the top. Then we finally returned to Imam Kaab’s house and Br. Irfan organized the distribution of the food boxes.
Our Taxi Driver Takes Shahaadah
Imam Kaab prepared a humble yet delicious meal for all of us. Just after the meal our taxi driver, Carlos, who had been observing us from day one, decided there and then that it was time for him to take the Shahaadah. He observed how we put aside fear to deliver Allah SWT’s message and how we helped the poor in the favela. He felt that this religion must be true. It was a special moment. You think back at all those stories of the Sahaabah (RA) who prior to their acceptance of Islam were in a state of kufr (disbelief) but just by observing the Muslims they joined the ranks and became the most upright of Believers.
We prayed Salaatul Maghrib and Eshaa at the Musallah of Br. Kaab after which we engaged in some reflections on Br. Carlos’ Shahaadah and it was very emotional. For many of the brothers and sisters there, it was a humble reminder of their journey from kufr to eman, and the challenges and joys of being Muslim. We were all touched and every one of us cried. Br. Carlos said that he was observing us from the first day and even though he understood very little of what we were saying, just by our behavior and kindness he felt this must be the right way. SubhanAllah! It brings us to another reality check that da’wah is not just words. Oftentimes it is through the way we interact with others. This is such an important lesson for us to learn, especially living amongst non-Muslims.
Like Carlos, many people in Brazil are ready to listen to the message of Islam and I think that we are somewhat obligated to go and let them know what Islam is. It is Allah SWT who changes the hearts but our job is to deliver the message. Only Allah SWT knows how many of those people to whom we gave flyers and booklets may one day accept Islam and if by His Qadr, they do not, they cannot stand before Him on the Day of Judgment and say that they never heard about Islam.
Two Incidents – One Uplifting and One Not So Much
Let me start with the “not-so-much-uplifting” incident, the only down moment in Brazil, and ironically it happened to be with an Imam at one of the first masaajid built in Latin America. We visited this masjid the day after Br. Carlos took Shahaadah. While we were basking in the beauty of the masjid, the Imam appeared and very rudely asked us who gave us permission to enter. We introduced ourselves and I mentioned that Br. Carlos had just taken Shahaadah the day before. The Imam’s next remark was quite disheartening. He asked in a rude way what could Carlos know about Islam to become a Muslim. Then he questioned me as to where I studied about Islam and for how many years. When I told him seven years, he immediately did a “one up” on me, stating that he has studied for 26 years. At that point we realized that we were not welcome there. Ironically, the day before a gang leader graciously and respectfully escorted us around the slums to do da’wah; and the very next day a Shaykh who studied Islam for many years all but kicked us out of Allah’s house of worship. These were teaching moments, reminding us that a man of the streets, without education, might be humble and courteous while a man inhabiting a house of God, one with so-called “knowledge,” might be arrogant and rude.
Now let me share the uplifting story, one with a happy ending. On my way home I had a layover in Panama for almost eleven hours. So I decided to venture into Panama City for a while. The taxi driver took me to see several important sites including the Panama Canal. During our trip we spoke a lot about religion and I told him about Islam, that Ramadhan would begin the next day and what it meant for Muslims. He explained that he had doubts about some of the tenets of his faith. The last stop we made was to a Masjid. I invited him to come with me into the Masjid. I showed him how to make wudhu and then he stood next to me for prayer. After the prayer he took Shahaadah by Allah’s Grace.
I observed in both Brazil and in Panama that the Islamic Centers are built to serve the Muslim community and accommodate their religious and fellowship needs. Alhamdulillah, that is good. But as for da’wah, and Allah SWT knows best, it seems to me that very little is done.
Muslims cannot take benefits from the society and feel satisfied with just taking. They must give back to society more than what they take. I encourage every Shaykh to take time to leave the minbar (pulpit) and go into the field. When we engage with the people and listen to their narratives and the struggles that they deal with each and every day, we can offer them words of comfort, hope, and truth. In case you want to step out and head down south, Brazil is a good place to go. Just remember a smile, a flyer, and a simple obridgado!