Chile has a growing Muslim community – but few know it

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Nora is a rare sight at the University of Chile. Wearing a long abaya, or Islamic dress, that covers everything except her hands and face, her outfit sets her apart from other students on campus. Between classes, she will often seek a quiet, sheltered space to put down a mat and pray.

If one were to ask Nora, as we have, about her distinct appearance on campus, she would say she doesn’t mind. She is satisfied with her dress, her prayers and the lifestyle she reflects. Nora is a Chilean Muslim, and proudly.

Chile is not a country where most people would expect to find a Muslim population. However, it is not unique. Some of the first Muslims in Latin America, for example, arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as the “Moors,” these Muslims traveled to the colonies in the hope of escaping persecution under the Christian crown in Spain.

Muslims also came to the Americas in the 18th century as African slaves under the Portuguese and Spanish Empires. These Muslims were mostly from West Africa and in Brazil led one of the continent’s biggest revolts against slavery. Muslims in Latin America are also the result of Middle Eastern migrations from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This history of Islam in Latin America can be seen today among the 1.7 million Muslims living in Central and South America.

Why we did this research

As scholars of religion and anthropology, our interest in Muslims in Latin America began in 2018. At the time, few studies of Muslim minorities in the Americas took into account the experience of Muslims in Latin America. Additionally, much of the research in the Americas has focused on questions of assimilation or terrorism and neglected more fundamental questions of belief, practice, and community.

Islam, in other words, was presented as a problem, not as a way of life. And we found that because of such research, large Muslim communities and their experiences were excluded from the image of Islam in the Americas.

As scholars and converts to Islam ourselves, we understand the depth of meaning that Islam can have for its believers. We therefore decided to focus our research on a growing community of Muslims in an area that is generally not associated with Islam.

Diverse community

In Chile, Islam is mainly the result of the Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrations of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Fleeing the conditions of the Ottoman Empire, these Levantine immigrants and their descendants settled permanently in Chile and established the first Islamic institutions in the 1920s.

Despite their national and religious differences, members of this early community combined their efforts as Muslims to lay the foundations of Islam in Chile. Today, almost a century after the construction of the first Islamic center, Chile has more than 13 mosques and Islamic centers.

Home to around 5,000 Muslims, including Sunnis and Shiites who have their own separate mosques and centers, these sites are the communal epicenters of Chile’s Muslim minority. Together, they provide spaces for Muslim education and practice and are an important source of their visibility.

Chile has one of the smallest Muslim populations in the region. Despite its size, Chilean Muslims reflect significant diversity. In many ways, they are a microcosm of the Muslim world. In the capital Santiago, where the majority of Muslims live, the largest community is linked to the Mezquita as-Salaam.

Founded in 1989, Mezquita as-Salaam Mosque holds daily ritual prayers and hosts all Islamic events, including festivals.
Jean-Albert, CC BY

Founded in 1989, the Mezquita as-Salaam is now open daily for ritual prayers and hosts all Islamic events, including nighttime festivals during Ramadan and communal meals for the Eid festival. The mosque is currently managed by the Tablighi Jamaat, a worldwide Muslim missionary movement, which provides most of the Islamic instruction and gives the main lectures in Spanish and Arabic for Friday prayers.

The Tablighi Jamaat also sends Muslim converts from Chile abroad to learn Islam and takes them on religious excursions across Latin America as part of their mission to remind Muslims to adhere to Islamic traditions.

Converts to Islam

Mezquita as-Salaam is a diverse community space. Despite its official affiliation with the Tablighi Jamaat, Chilean Muslims come from a variety of backgrounds and backgrounds.

Many are native Chilean converts, like Khadija, who embraced Islam ten years ago. We met Khadija in the Mezquita as-Salaam during Ramadan. She found out about Islam through her own online research and only came to the mosque after deciding that she wanted to join the faith. Khadija does not identify with the approach of the Tablighi Jamaat and instead participates in study circles with Chilean converts and some of the Muslim Arab women who attend the mosque.

Together, they practice Koranic recitation; study the Qur’an and the hadiths, the recorded words of the Prophet Muhammad; discuss the ethics of Islam; and share halal recipe ideas. For Khadija, the mosque is an important space to connect with other Chilean Muslims and escape his experience as a minority.

Naqshbandi Sufi Dargha, a world Sufi order from Central Asia, in Santiago
The Naqshbandi Sufi Darghah, which the community visits regularly for informal meetings, vegetarian meals and prayers.
Jean-Albert, CC BY

In a working-class area about 10 kilometers west of Mezquita as-Salaam is the center, or dargah, of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufis, a world Sufi order originating in Central Asia. We were introduced to the Naqshbandis through an Imam Tablighi who provided Islamic education to the community. Led by a local Chilean sheikh who established the first branch in Chile, this small group of Muslims is linked to the Naqshbandi orders across the Americas, including Argentina and the United States.

From our visits with the Naqshbandis, we have learned that they are almost exclusively converts. Many of them told us in interviews that they discovered Islam through what they said they experienced as personal encounters with the Sheikh of the Order, Muhammad Nazim al-Qabbani, during a dream. The community regularly visits the dargah for informal meetings, vegetarian meals and dhikr (devotional acts of prayer that remind Muslims of their connection to God), as well as prayers on Fridays.

They also meet to prepare and distribute meals in the poor neighborhoods of Santiago. For the Naqshbandi, this is a critical dimension of their ethical work. It is one of the most important ways of putting into practice the Islamic principles of compassion and faith.

Iman, for example, is one of the founders of the food drive they call Olla Rabbani. Every week, she and other Naqshbandis travel to local markets to collect undamaged food scraps and use them to make large pots of lentil soup for local distribution. Iman was a deeply spiritual woman who established her connection with God through the practice of dhikr. But Iman also found a connection with God through his work with the poor. For her, as for many Naqshbandi, feeding the hungry is as much a part of Islam as any other form of devotion.

The communities of Mezquita as-Salaam and Naqshbandi dargah represent only a fraction of the Muslim community in Chile. In Santiago and throughout the country, there are other Sunni, Shia and Sufi mosques and centers with their own communities. Some are mixtures of Chilean converts and Muslim migrants from abroad. Others are exclusively Muslim converts.

Together, however, they represent Chile’s Muslim minority population. Most importantly, they are part of the ever expanding Muslim world.

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