Note from BW of Brazil: Many years ago when I began to learn about the struggle of Afro-Brazilians to achieve equality in a Brazilian society that treated them as second class citizens, I noted that many Brazilians of visible African ancestry were inspired by the leadership of black Americans such as the former Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X. For several years, I have come in contact with many black Brazilians who revealed that the classic book Autobiography of Malcolm X is what taught them about the realities of race and racial identity in the Western world. The 1992 film produced by Spike Lee and the autobiography as told to author Alex Haley inspired many black Brazilians to identify themselves as blacks and understand what that meant in a world that judges all citizens of the world according to a Eurocentric standard.
Malcolm X is also partially responsible for a rise in Brazilians of African descent becoming Muslims. Carlos Soares Correia was the former name of Honerê Al-Amin Oadq, the leader of a group of rappers and activists collectively known as the Posse Haussa based in the city of São Bernanardo do Campo in the greater São Paulo region. The group was one of the entities responsible for bringing Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the legendary Black Panther leader, to São Paulo during the Month of Black Consciousness in 2007. Today, São Bernanardo do Campo is home to the second largest community of Muslims in the country.
The Posse Haussa name was inspired by the 19th century Muslim slaves of Nigerian origin that revolted against the institution of slavery in the northeastern state of Bahia in Brazil. According to historian João José Reis, the Haussás were one of the more Islamized groups of Muslims in the region which also included the Malês, specifically muçulmanos (Muslims) that were of the língua iorubá (Yoruba language). In this era, the Afro-Muslim community mostly consisting of Yorubas, followed in number by Haussás, Tapas and Fulanis, represented about 15-20% of the total of Africans in Bahia. The Yoruba speakers would come to be known as the Nagôs and would eventually lead one of the most famous slave uprisings in the history of Brazil: the Revolta dos Malês or Revolt of the Malês.
Much has been written about this revolt and the intent is not to given a thorough history of the event, but the piece below provides an introduction to an important story in the history of Africans in the New World.
Revolt of the Malês: The Legacy of Black Muslims that rebelled in Bahia before the end of slavery
Salvador, 25 January 1835. It was a two story townhouse, in Ladeira da Praça, which began with the largest and most important urban uprising of enslaved Africans ever registered in Brazil. It was around 1:00am in the morning when a group of 50 Africans, from the most different ethnicities, occupied the streets of the Bahian capital. The uprising went down in history as the Revolta dos Malês (Revolt of the Malês).
This is an episode that shows the political importance that the Africans of Muslim religion had in the history of Brazil – with a little-known legacy that has lasted until today.
“In Bahia of 1835, blacks who belonged to one of the most Islamized ethnic groups of West Africa were known as Malês”, explains the historian José Reis, from Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA). “The term malê derives from imale, which means muçulmano (Muslim), in the Yoruba language”, deciphers the author of the book Rebelião Escrava no Brasil – A História do Levante dos Malês em 1835 (slave rebellion in Brazil – the history of the uprising of malês in 1835)
From the old sobrado (two story house), the rebels went in several directions. A group advanced to Praça do Palácio, where the prison of the city was located. There, the insurgents planned to take the weapons of the guards and liberate Pacífico Licutan, known as Bilal, the Malê leader who was imprisoned to pay the debts of his master. The other rebels hit the streets and alleys, knocking on doors and windows of houses and calling on enslaved and freed people to unite and join them in combat. About 600 insurgents, Muslims and non-Muslims, answered the call and participated in the uprising.
The plan to liberate Pacífico Licutan, however, failed. Armed with spears, swords and batons, the mob was forced to retreat in the face of police armed with guns and bayonets. Bewildered, they fled the city and asked for help from the slaves of Recôncavo, the area at the heart of escravismo baiano (Bahian slavery).
Not only were they left without the support as they were trapped in Água de Meninos, a location of the of the Quartel da Cavalaria. It was there that the final battle took place. Before sunrise, 73 rebels had already fallen dead and another 500 were imprisoned, explains the anthropologist Lídice Meyer Pinto Ribeiro, from Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie (SP), author of the article “Negros Islâmicos no Brasil Escravocrata” (Black Muslims in Slave-o-crat Brazil).
Even the Africans that didn’t participate in the uprising of 1835 suffered police persecution.
A decree signed by the Chief of Police, Gonçalves Martins, allowed any citizen to give voice to arrest the slaves, Muslim or not, who were gathered in numbers of four or more. Bringing together people at home, for example, began to be strictly prohibited.
Another measure obligated masters to “convert” their slaves to Catholicism. If they didn’t do so in six months, they would be fined. For fear of retaliation, Muslims began to deny their religion. More than that: when it was practiced secretly, the religion suffered acculturation with Catholic practices. All this explains the absence of descendants of slaves that were followers of Islã (Islam).
Muslims: enemies in Africa, allies in Brazil.
“The victory comes from Allah!”, said the fragment in Arabic found in a Malê amulet confiscated by the police. However, the long-awaited victory did not come. The bodies of 73 dead rebels were thrown in mass graves in a graveyard site. The more than 500 prisoners were interrogated, tried and punished.
The penalties varied from whippings for the slaves to deportation for the freed. Four of them received the maximum penalty: hanging. The authorities ordered the construction of new forces in the Campo da Pólvora region of Salvador. But they forgot to hire an executioner to do the job. In the absence of one, those convicted were even shot by a firing squad in the public square, by an improvised platoon.
Throughout the first half of the century 19, many of the African Muslims trafficked to Bahia – in their majority Haussás, an ethnicity that prevails in the region today, equivalent to northern Nigeria – were soldiers captured during a jihad, or “guerra santa” (holy war) in Arabic.
“They differed from the others for being literate in Arabic and for having knowledge of mathematics,” explains Ribeiro.
In West Africa, various kingdoms lived in war in the Califado de Sokoto (Sokoto Caliphate), a Muslim state founded in 1809 by the Caliph Usman dan Fodio and that occupied a vast territory in the north of present day Nigeria. Enemies in his native land, the “prisoners of war” became allies on Bahian soil.
“As they belonged to different ethnic groups, Islam provided to these Muslims a sense of fraternidade (brotherhood). It therefore became a civilizing element that transformed ethnic heterogeneity into religious homogeneity,” explains the anthropologist Juarez Caesar Malta Sobreira, of Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco (UFRPE).
The Islamic religion was crucial to the choice of the Day 25 January for the start of the hitch. For Catholics, the date is dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Guia and is part of the feast of Senhor do Bonfim, one of the most traditional of Bahia. But, for the Muslims, in that year, it was a day to celebrate the Laylat al-Qadr, one of the Islamic festas that precede the end of Ramadan, the mês sagrado (holy month) for Muslims.
To protect oneself from the enemy, the Islamic warriors created amulets with passages from the Corão (Koran) written in Arabic, such as “Help us against those who reject the faith!” and “Rescue us from this city whose people are oppressors!”, in pieces of paper stored in leather handbags and sewn by hand. Each talisman, believed, “it would protect” from a weapon: the laya against arrows and the maganin karfe against knives.
In Salvador in 1835, the revolt of the Malês was led by enslaved people who lived in urban areas, that didn’t cut cane in the mills, or spend the night in the senzalas (slave quarters). Quite the contrary. They enjoyed relative freedom, could even work outside and received a small amount for their services. The “negros de ganho” (wage earning blacks), as they were known, exercised the most varied crafts: from barber to artisan, tailor to vendor.
With what they earned, they paid a daily portion to their master. With the surplus, they could afford expenses of food, shelter and clothing. “Some saved to buy their manumission letter. Others, once freed, came to accumulate greater assets than certain whites”, explains Ribeiro.
To keep alive the belief in the Prophet Mohammed, the Malês gathered in isolated places and the doors closed to pray, read passages from the Koran and celebrated festivals of the Muslim calendar. “Just like the candomblé, Islam was not entirely free to be practiced. Masters of slaves and chiefs of police both tolerated as much as they repressed,” observes Reis.
Article 276 of the Penal Code of 1830, moreover, forbade the worship of another religion that is not of the State”. Even so, the alufás, name given to the religious leaders and that, in Yoruba, means priest of Ifá, conveyed his knowledge to the youngest. “The followers of Islam dedicated Fridays, a holy day for Muslims for prayer and meditation. On that day, they wore white clothes, an Islamic tradition which became widespread in Bahia,” observes Sobreira.
Malê Legacy: From the religiosity to vocabulary and to cooking
On the day of the uprising in 1835, the Malês took to the streets dressed in thobes, a kind of loose gown in white color. In the attack reports, police authorities referred to the Islamic dress gown as “war attire”. But the malê clothing would not be complete without the filá (kufi), a type of cap which would have given rise to the white turban used in the candomblé and umbanda.
The influence of the Malê people in Brazilian popular culture, however, goes beyond the turban and the abadá. According to Reis, traces of Islam can be noticed in the culture, vocabulary and even in the cooking. Widespread in the interior of Sergipe and Alagoas, the dança do parafuso (screw dance) or “dança da assombração” (ghost dance), for example, would be of Malê origin. According to tradition, in the dead of night, the Africans disguised themselves as ghosts and did the dance to scare off the capitães do mato (captains of the wood).
In the vocabulary, the historian cites the example of “mandinga”: “Read aloud as sorcery, the term comes from the mandinga pouch, a Muslim amulet that Africans introduced in Brazil”. In the Bahian cuisine, another Islamic tradition also crossed the Atlantic: Haussá rice.
A favorite dish of the writer Jorge Amado, it’s made without salt, oil or seasoning and cooked with plenty of water. At mealtimes, the followers of Islam only consumed food prepared by Muslim hands, didn’t ingest pork and practiced fasting during Ramadã (Ramadan).
In the religious aspect, the relationship between Muslims and candomblecistas (adepts of the Candomblé) is also present. In Yoruba mythology, Obatalá is the name given to the deus supremo (supreme god), “that that fecundates”, below only Olorum, the creator of the universe. In the Brazilian syncretism, he received the name of Oxalá or Orixalá, orixá associated with the figure of Jesus Christ.
The historian José Antônio Teófilo Cairus, of the State University of Santa Catarina (UDESC), suggests another hypothesis for the etymological origin of the name may include the Arabic phrase Insha’Allah, which means “if God wills.”
The anthropologist Lídice Ribeiro gives other clues of the association between the two religions: the symbol of the half-moon linked to to Orixás, replacing the colorful African robes for the white of Islamic clothing and even the ritual practice of the removal of the shoes before meetings. “In spite of persecutions, islã negro (black Islam) has remained present in Brazil until the present day,” she says.
Source: ICAMMALES – Irmandade dos Crêoulos Africanos Muçulmanos Malês. “Afinal de Contas quem eram os Malês?” Accessed June 17, 2018. Reis, João José. “A Revolta dos Malês em 1853”. Educação Salvador Prefeitura website. Accessed June 20, 2018. Terra