Islam in Latin America
There was Moumtezs Hachen El-Orra, 48 years old, Libyan by birth, but naturalized in Brazil after several years. With a fluent, emphatic and captivating Portuguese, El-Orra was receiving the several visitors of CEDIAL with a lot of attention. He is a Sunnite (that is, he belongs to the dominant branch of Islam, as opposed to the Shiites), and during our conversation the director of CEDIAL told us of the difficulties, and hopes, of the around one million Muslims who live in Latin America. Contrary to what could be expected, the strong anti-muslim campaign after 9/11 didn’t damage muslim preaching and proselytism in the continent. A larger number of people according to El-Orra, tried to understand, to know and to get closer to the muslim religion, refusing the imposed stereotypes. In this sense there was after 2001 an increase in the interest for this religion on the whole continent, with the increased construction of mosques and of affluence.
But, what is Islam? El-Orra tells us of an inspired and revealed religion, that is, directly brought to men by God (Allah) through his prophets. That is right! Prophets in the plural. Mohammed was not the only one, even though he has been the greatest of all prophets in the Revelation of Islam, including the revelation of the sacred book (the Koran) El-Orra teaches us that to be a muslim you only have to accept the basic form of recognition of the religion: “There is only one Gog and Mohamed is his prophet”. Of course, there are other things you must do. For women, for respect and modesty, the use of the veil, no need for a burkha or other heavy forms of concealment, only the hijab. For all believers it is compulsory the fast during the holy month, the Ramadan, to give alms to the poor or “zakat”, to make the peregrination to Mecca (or “Haj”) and, of course, the rule of daily prayers facing Mecca.
El-Orra understands that many times the precepts are not properly followed by the believers. However, by accepting the Revelation of God (in the above formula) the convert is and remains a muslim, subjected to God. Maybe he wouldn’t be a good follower (as there are also evangelists or catholics who relapse) but he would be, in any case, a muslim.
Islam, the State and its values
For El-Orra a major part of the success of Islam in our Americas comes from a feeling ever more present of the crisis in the family, in special to women. At this point he shows himself to be clearly rigorous, without concessions: the unity of the family, the leading role of the parents in the education of the children, the preservation of virginity for the girls, the refusal to give in to the most common vices among the youth … all of these are items that have to be followed rigorously by a believer and which put his salvation at risk if they don’t.
Another polemic point is the certainty that there can be no salvation of the soul if there is no commitment to the material conditions of the believer himself. So a political power that allows the vices and the relaxation of the customs – especially in relation to the family – could never be considered a just regime by the muslims.
The idea, of illuminist origin, dating back to the XVIII that the separation of the public sphere – where secular criteria rule, of free choice and of the non intervention in the education of the children or domestic intrusion – from the private sphere – the home, family, religion – is not something acceptable to Islam.
There is the basis of a large civilization fracture. In the West the emergence of the difference between the public and the private was an answer exactly to the terrible religion wars that shook Europe between 1571 (the proclamation of Luther’s Theses) until the XVIII century. The answer of intellectuals and politicians (especially after the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648) was to leave to the private sphere the choices concerning religion.
Islam, still according to El-Orra, due to the grave vices and damages of modern life (another emphasis on the family) doubts of the answer generated in the West and in its capacity to create a person who is happy and with integrity.
Islam and Tolerance
In this sense Islam is political and the politics (in a converted country) is Islamic. This would be the only possibility to avoid the loss of people in a morally relaxed State. The secular State would be seen as a Godless State, where vice could freely take over. So for Islam is not enough to have a clean soul, but the body also has to be clean! For the real muslim you should follow God’s laws on earth, this would be the real role for the muslim, and not the conformation to the laws of men!
The book, the Koran, is the source of all knowledge, in fact “the book of all times”, where the advances in science, of morals, of ethics are present and are a permanent source for the believers. The Sharia and the Sunnah – the tradition collected at the time of the Prophet – complement and increase the teachings transmitted by God.
To finish, El-Orra insists in the comprehension of the spirit and of its explanation, and even fears that we won’t be able to bring to the public the real face of Islam. He makes clear that his religion is the only correct one, that it is the source of knowledge and of wisdom. However, with emphasis, he insists that he respects the other religions. He tells us that the certainty of being right, of being beside the One, wouldn’t allow him to offend or ridicule the others. Remembering a passage from the Koran, when the Prophet warns his followers, who were threatening the beaten defenders of Mecca, against impiety and arrogance. The muslim shouldn’t offend neither by words nor arms the non-believer!
Francisco Carlos Teixeira is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
(*) Professor na Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.
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