When the Americas were discovered by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century, they brought slaves from the north and west of Africa who introduced Islam in Latin America, staying in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and some Caribbean islands. In many cases, these Muslim slaves were forced to leave their religious beliefs or be executed instead. Thus, with the passing of time, Islam started fading away in Latin American countries.
At the end of the sixteenth century, after the liberation of slaves and the return of many of them to these lands, together with immigration from India and Pakistan, new concentrations of Muslims appeared. According to some documents, between the years 1850 and 1860 massive immigration of Arab Muslims to American lands took place. The majority came from Syria and Lebanon, and stayed in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. Some of these also stayed in Paraguay, together with immigrants from Palestine, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This immigration was very intense, and started decreasing in the 1950’s in these countries and in the 1970’s in Colombia, with future currents taking residence in Brazil and Venezuela.
These communities, just like in the U.S.A., integrated themselves to national activities, standing out for their hard work, respect and love for the country that sheltered them. Many of them grouped to create Islamic societies, centers, mosques, etc. in order to worship freely. Nowadays, in all Latin American countries, there are Muslim concentrations, immigrants and natives, who adopted Islam as their new faith. According to statistics, the number of Muslims in Latin America is over four million, with 700,000 in Argentina and more than 1.5 million in Brazil. Immigrants represent 50% of Muslims in the Islamic communities in Latin America, the rest being new Muslims of different nationalities, such as Mexicans, Spanish, Italians, Colombians, Argentinians, etc.
Just as in any other country where Muslims are a minority, Latin American Muslims also face some difficulties. These include lack of knowledge of the Islamic culture and religion, lack of formal teaching of the Arab language, lack of economic resources, and lack of Islamic material in Spanish. Many Muslims have assimilated so much into the cultures of their countries that they are not aware of basic Muslim rites like marriage, funeral, burial, etc. However, many groups maintained their identity and did everything possible to return to their religious origins. These groups worked hard in order to change that situation.
Today, many members of the Latin Muslim community participate in Islamic congresses around the world, young Latin Muslims study at universities in Arab countries, and many others maintain their Islamic religion and traditions and wish to increase their knowledge of it. The number of people embracing Islam is also growing day by day. In view of this situation, Muslim representatives of 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean gathered in the year 1997 in Buenos Aires, and achieved the formation of the “Islamic Association for Latin America.”
As a result, many tasks have been accomplished, such as the Spanish publication of many Islamic books and websites, mass distribution of Spanish material on Islam, recognition by government authorities (for example, in Argentina) of holy days for the Islamic community, including the Islamic new year, and Muslim representation by members of our community in their individual countries as governors, senators, representatives and other positions of importance.
At the same time, there is much that still needs to be attained. Muslims must cooperate in the building of mosques in the places where Islamic communities lack them; they must cooperate in the creation of a fund for humanitarian help to the old, the poor and the sick; they must unify the attitude of all Muslims in subjects like marriage, funerals, burials, etc., and must encourage the mosques to hold various activities, so that they can perform their true roles and not only that of a place to pray and commemorate events.
Finally, Muslims in Latin America must continue to reach out to their neighbors to show them the beauty of Islam and remain committed to being productive citizens in their respective countries.
Adapted from a speech delivered by Muhammad Yusuf Hallar at a recent Islamic Organization for Latin America conference.
Muhammad Yusuf Hallar is the Secretary General of the Islamic Organization for Latin America, Director of the Office of Islamic Culture- Argentina, member of the Constituent Islamic Council of the Muslim World League (Makkah), and a member of Expert Committee on Minority Rights- Islamic Conference (OIC). In 2009, he was named one of 500 Most Influential Muslims of the World by a report published by The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.