Chile has a growing Muslim community – but few know about it

Chilean Muslims reflect significant diversity. They include the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufis, a global Sufi order that originated in Central Asia. Johannes Albert,
Nora is a rare sight at the Universidad de Chile. She wears a long abaya or Islamic robe that covers all but her hands and face, and her outfit sets her apart from other students on campus. In between classes, she often looks for a quiet, sheltered place to lay a rug and pray.
If you ask Nora, like us, about her distinctive appearance on campus, she would say that she doesn't mind. She is happy with her dress, her prayers, and the way of life it reflects. Nora is a Chilean Muslim and that is proud.
Chile is not a country where most people would expect a Muslim population. However, it is not an isolated incident. For example, some of the earliest Muslims in Latin America arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as "Moriscos", these Muslims traveled to the colonies in hopes of escaping persecution under the Christian crown in Spain.
Muslims also came to America as enslaved Africans under the Portuguese and Spanish empires in the 18th century. These Muslims came mainly from West Africa and led one of the largest revolts on the continent against slavery in Brazil. Muslims in Latin America are also the result of migrations from the Middle East out of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This history of Islam in Latin America is visible today in the 1.7 million Muslims in Central and South America.
Why we did this research
As a scholar of religion and anthropology, our interest in Latin American Muslims began in 2018. At that time, few studies of Muslim minorities in America addressed the experiences of Muslims in Latin America. In addition, much of the research in America has focused on issues of assimilation or terrorism, neglecting the more fundamental issues of belief, practice, and community.
In other words, Islam was formulated as a problem rather than a way of life. And we found that as a result of this research, large Muslim communities and their experiences were excluded from the image of Islam in America.
As scholars and converts to Islam, we understand the profound meaning that Islam can have for its believers. We have therefore chosen to focus our research on a growing community of Muslims in a region that is not normally affiliated with Islam.
Diverse community
In Chile, Islam is primarily the result of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries. While fleeing the Ottoman Empire, these Levantine immigrants and their descendants settled permanently in Chile and founded the first Islamic institutions in the 1920s.
Despite their national and religious differences, members of this early community united their efforts as Muslims to lay the foundation for Islam in Chile. Today, almost a century after the first Islamic center was built, Chile has 13 mosques and Islamic centers.
Home to around 5,000 Muslims, including Sunnis and Shiites, who have their own mosques and centers, these sites are the communal epicentres of the Muslim minority in Chile. Together they provide the space for Muslim education and practice and serve as an important source of their visibility.
Chile has one of the smaller Muslim populations in the region. Regardless of its size, Chilean Muslims reflect considerable 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.
The Mezquita-as-Salaam Mosque in Santiago, Chile.
Mezquita as-Salaam was founded in 1989 and is now open daily for ritual prayers and hosts all Islamic events, including night festivals during Ramadan and communal meals for the Eid festival. The mosque is currently administered by Tablighi Jamaat, a global Muslim missionary movement that offers most of the Islamic education and gives the main lectures in Spanish and Arabic for Friday prayers.
The Tablighi Jamaat also sends Chilean Muslim converts abroad to study Islam and take them on religious excursions across Latin America as part of its mission to remind Muslims to abide by Islamic traditions.
Converted to Islam
Mezquita as-Salaam is a diverse common room. Despite their official affiliation with the Tablighi Jamaat, Chilean Muslims come from a range of backgrounds and experiences.
Many are native Chilean converts, such as Khadija, who adopted Islam about a decade ago. We met Khadija during Ramadan in the Mezquita as-Salaam. She discovered Islam through her own online search and only got to the mosque after deciding to join the faith. Khadija does not identify with the Tablighi Jamaat approach and instead participates in study circles with Chilean converts and some of the Arab-Muslim women who visit the mosque.
They practice Koran recitation together; Study the Quran and Hadith, the recorded statements of Prophet Muhammad; discuss the ethics of Islam; and share ideas for halal recipes. For Khadija, the mosque is an important place to get in touch with other Chilean Muslims and to escape their experience as a minority.
Naqshbandi Sufi Dargha, a global Sufi order originating in Central Asia, in Santiago
In a working-class neighborhood about 6 miles west of the Mezquita as-Salaam is the center or dargah for the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufis, a global Sufi order that originated in Central Asia. We were introduced to the Naqshbandis by a Tablighi Imam who gave the community an Islamic education. Under the direction of a local Chilean sheikh who started the first branch in Chile, this small group of Muslims is associated with Naqshbandi orders across America, including Argentina and the United States.
From our visits to the Naqshbandis we learned that they were almost exclusively converts. Many of them told us in interviews that they discovered Islam in a dream through personal encounters with the Sheikh of the Order, Muhammad Nazim al-Qabbani. The community regularly visits the dargah for informal gatherings, vegetarian meals and dhikr (devotional acts of prayer that remind Muslims of their connection with God) and Friday prayers.
They also meet to prepare and distribute meals in Santiago's impoverished areas. For the Naqshbandi this is a critical dimension of their ethical work. It is one of the most important ways to practice the Islamic principles of compassion and faith.
Iman, for example, is one of the founders of the food campaign they call Olla Rabbani. Every week she and other Naqshbandis travel to local markets to collect unspoiled leftover food 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 dhikr practice. But Iman also found a connection to God through her work with the poor. For them, as for many of the Naqshbandi, feeding the hungry is as much a part of Islam as any other form of devotion.
The communities of Mezquita as-Salaam and the Naqshbandi Dargah are only a fraction of the Muslim community in Chile. In Santiago and throughout the country there are other Sunni, Shiite 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.
However, together they represent the Muslim minority population of Chile. More importantly, they are part of the ever expanding Muslim world.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It is written by: Michael Vicente Perez, University of Memphis and Matthew Ingalls, American University in Dubai.
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Michael Vicente Perez was funded by the John Templeton Trust Global Religion Research Initiative and the International Research Collaborative Grant from the American Academy of Religion. Michael Vicente Perez is affiliated with the University of Washington. was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust (Global Religion Research Initiative Grant) and the American Academy of Religion.

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