Muslim Revolt in the State of Bahia

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The Malê (as Muslims were known in Bahia) slave revolt ‘Revolta dos Malês” in 1835 was the only slave rebellion in the Americas in which Islam played a central role.

Armed revolts were not as common as runaways, due to the difficulty in organising groups of slaves and the small chance of success. The Muslim uprising was ultimately defeated. 

When Malês met privately and, less often, publicly to carry out the precepts of their religion or just to share other aspects of their lives, they used those occasions to envision a better world. They did not, however, rule out the use of force to attain this better world…. But for a long time Malê warriors’ battles were … only an angry expression of their desire for reparation rather than the conceiving of an actual revolt…. 

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Malê Revolt: Internet reproduction

The very fact that African slaves opted for Islam proclaimed a schism…. In the 1824 Constitution, Catholicism had been declared the official state religion, and the only one allowed public ceremonies and clearly marked temples. European foreigners were conceded the right to religious freedom, provided they worshipped in private. Slave religions were illegal…. The Malês were outlaws.

The Malê ranks were growing. The rush to Islam did not necessarily mean a rush into revolution. It was, at its beginning, a search for channels of solidarity in the crisis that slavery itself represented, for spiritual security, and possibly for upward mobility and social prestige within the African community itself…. To be known as a Malê was an honour. It meant being respected for Malês’ written culture and magical powers, or merely for membership in a group known to express strong African identity….

The chasm between Islam and Bahian society was especially wide because Islam was an exclusively African religion that brought together slaves and freedmen. Besides, like Catholicism, Islam was a universal religion. And since it was not an ethnic religion, Islam could possibly unite diverse ethnic groups, nullifying the slaveholders’ political advantages derived from Africans’ diverse ethnicities….

The enthusiastic celebration of Lailat al-Miraj (Mohammed’s ascension into Heaven) in November 1834 was a watershed, the feast was interrupted and dissolved, by well-known enemy, Inspector Marques. This episode was sealed shut by the later destruction of their mosque, which produced discord and distress in the Malê community. Its pride was hurt, and its weakness exposed to the entire city. The Muslims need to act immediately…. Two other incidents must have influenced the political reasoning: the imprisonment of [Malê leader] Alufá Pacífico Licutan and the imprisonment and public humiliation of another important preacher, alufá Ahuna. The decision to revolt on 25 January 1835 was quite likely made in November 1834. It was a calm, calculated political decision designed to harness the high-strung emotions of the crisis. The twenty-fifth of January coincided with a propitious date in the Islamic calendar.

João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 112-115.