Portugal, o Islão e a Ilha de Moçambique – em inglês

Filed under: História Moçambique, Ilha de Moçambique — ABM @ 6:21 pm

ilha-de-mocambique-from-space(prima na imagem e veja a Ilha de Moçambique em todos o seu esplendor)

por ABM –

Sendo que o Maschamba não aderiu ainda, que eu saiba, à Commonwealth, seria um bocado antitético rebiscar em inglês num fórum em que se pretende falar (por vezes quase intestinalmente) entre nós os que falam esta língua. Mas também rabisco em inglês e isso dá-me a chance adicional de ver, espreitando para o outro lado da paliçada, o que os amigos que dialogam nessa língua, dizem de nós, e deles.

Foi assim que, prescrutando um curioso site sobre o mundo islâmico hoje, encontrei o texto em apreço, em que um simpático médico egípcio descreve a sua experiência no Norte de Moçambique há uns anos e celebra a sua fé islâmica. Só que, ao fazê-lo, incorreu no que eu consideraria umas imprecisõezinhas muito menores que eu…achava que podiam ser talvez reconsideradas. Solícito, mandei uma mensagem ao autor, perguntando se ele se ofenderia se eu contribuísse essas sugestões – o que fiz e enviei.

Só que, inspirado por uma das mais magníficas canjas de galinha que comi ontem à noite (generosamente regada com limão, como aprendi com os meus antepassados açorianos), sentei-me e escrei um aditamento à primeira mensagem, pois, após rever o texto original, achei que o meu simpático interlocutor não conhecia Portugal, a sua história, a sua relação com o islamismo e algum do contexto do Moçambique pré e pós-colonial

O que vai a seguir é esse aditamento, que é longo e ainda por cima em inglês. Mas regista um voo vertiginoso na história em que os três grandes protagonistas são Portugal e as religiões católica e muçulmana.

E de como os três desembocam em quinhentos anos de Moçambique.

Para se apanhar o fio à meada, convinha ver o texto original que me chamou a atenção.

Aqui vai.

Portugal and Islam on the Island of Mozambique

So now, if you don’t mind, let me give you some facts which might help you to apprehend some of the context of the Portuguese – mainly, who were those Portuguese and why did they show up in the Indian Ocean – an Arabian, and thus Muslim, and Indian trade route for hundreds of years) – suddenly in 1498, and why did they do what they did, namely on the Island of Mozambique.

Where did the Portuguese originate from


Portugal was originally a province (a “county”, with a count, which was a high member of nobility) of the Christian Iberian Kingdom of Leon and Castilla. Leon and Castilla was the driving force in the creation of today’s Spain. It was a Christian kingdom (Catholic. Back then to be a Christian was to be a Catholic) whose main reason for its existence was medieval Europe’s effort to “push back” Iberian Muslim kingdoms which had been in existence in the Iberian Peninsula since the middle of the 8th Century. Muslim armies pushed from what is Morrocco today northward to Europe up until the middle of the 8th Century, until they were stopped in 732 by the Franks (I guess the ancestors of the present French) at the Battle of Poitiers, which Wikipedia insists in calling the Battle of Tours ( .


Slowly, from the North, Christian Kingdoms began to “reconquer” land from the Islamic Iberian Kingdoms.


Things on the Western edge of Leon and Castilla were moving rather slowly until a Mr. Henri, a Burgundian nobleman (the Duchy of Burgundy being about half of today’s France), married Tereza, a daughter of the king of Leon and Castille at around 1100 and was named a Count and given the run of County of Portugale, which if you look at the map of Portugal is on the far northside of today’s Portugal. At that time the whole south side of the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim and ruled by Muslim royalty. Arabic was the language and all the traditions, technology, art, architecture, etc – were Muslim, with some jewish flavour in the middle.


There were then two crucial events which shaped Portuguese history.


The first was that Henri’s son, whose name was Afonso Henriques, rebelled against Leon and Castille and formed what was to become Portugal. His was also a Catholic kingdom and you need to understand the politics of the time, where in Christian Europe the Catholic church and Pope were not only considered to be above kings in terms of religion, but also waere above them in terms of politics. In fact, Portugal was only considered to be an independent kingdom only when the Pope in Rome called Afonso Henriques “king” in a letter dated 1143 (and of course the Portuguese fought back the Castillians).


The second was that in 1095, just before Henrique rebelled against Leon and Castille, the then Pope ( declared a kind of Intifada against some Muslims in order to try to help the Eastern Roman Empire fight Muslim armies on its eastern flank (somewhere in present day Turkey), which then was based in what is now Istambul. All Christian kingdoms in Europe contributed by sending money, peasants and nobles to help in the fight – the Pope’s calling, rather misunderstood by today’s standards, back then was the word of Lord God himself.

One thing led to another and in the end they decided, and were able , of taking Jerusalem for a while, created a big mess, etc. But the important thing for this story is that a) all of the sudden you had in Europe the political will, money and armies to fight “the infidels” (i.e., Muslims), b) you even had a very powerful, super-organization called the Knight Templars, a Catholic organization within the always otherwise monolithic structure whose top was the Pope in Rome (or, for some time, Avignon) c) it just happened that in the South of the Iberian Peninsula there were Muslim kingdoms!


So what did Henrique do? He enlisted the help of many European armed nobles and their supporters, including, crucially, the Knight Templars, in exchange for lots of money, lots of land, and promises of everlasting happiness in heaven, to help him grow Portugal by moving its borders south against the “evil” Muslims who were living in the South of his small kingdom.


If you ever come to Portugal, not only you will find that a significant percentage of Portuguese are direct descendants of those early Muslims, but also there are endless vestiges of Muslim presence in the language, in names, architecture, etc. In fact, many of the main cities South of Coimbra retain Muslim names. I have a very small property in a small village 50 kms north of Lisbon whose name is Alcoentre, which is the original Islamic name of the place, which can be traced to the Islamic Kingdom that ruled the area back in the year 950. The only monument in the village mentions the Islamic Kingdom of Cordova, I think.


The arab word “inshallah” actually exists in Portuguese and believe it or not it means exactly the same thing: “oxalá” – “God willing”…


And so in small battles and skirmishes they moved south and took over the land. It took about 200 years. Lisbon was taken from the Muslims in 1147 and much later became the capital of Portugal. One of the old suburbs of Lisbon is still called “Mouraria”, “Mouros” being the name given by the Catholic Portuguese then to the Muslims who lived there. After Lisbon was conquered I guess the Mouraria was where they lived. Supposedly, the oldest Catholic church in Lisbon (900 years old) was built on the site where a Mosque was – but I am not sure. The South of Portugal, which is still called the Algarve (“Al-Gharb”) is so Islamic and Arabic that you would find it almost funny. But with time the Muslim customs, which were obviously repressed, died out somewhat – but many traditions and signs of that presence remain.


In Spain, the last Muslim Kingdom, Granada, was conquered by Isabel and Ferdinand ( much later, in 1492, thus creating the present kingdom of Spain.


Back to Portugal. I hope I am not boring you.

John I, God and Trade


In 1386 Portugal almost became part of Leon and Castille again, but the Portuguese nobility rebelled against the idea and went to war in order for Portugal to remain independent. The new king, John I, fought wars for almost 20 years before he could rest. He married an english woman, Philipa Lancaster, and had several children.


Then, something strange happened. In August 1415, just as the wars against Leon and Castille ended (thus the Portuguese were good in war and had a small army still), with the authorisation of the Pope (but of course!), the Portuguese assembled a small fleet of ships and successfully invaded and took over the small northern African, Muslim port of Ceuta. This was a crucial event in many ways, for a) it gave great prestige to the Portuguese in Catholic Europe, where defeating Muslims was viewed as a good and noble thing to do, b) the Pope thought it was great, c) it was highly profitable, d) it was something for the nobles to do – they were of no use in times of peace other than to give problems to the King, e) the Portuguese became specialized in naval warfare, something rather new in Europe, f) for the first time in many centuries, Catholics broke into immensely profitable trade routes that were until then in the exclusive hands of Muslim arabs.


Thus, slowly, the plan started to form in the Portuguese nobility to fight to enter and dominate sea trade routes to the East. Those routes ran across the Mediterranean towards what is today Egypt, Israel and Turkey. From these lands goods were shipped overland from present- day China, India/Pakistan and Iraq/Iran. It was an obscenely profitable business which was completely dominated by Muslim Arabs.


The Portuguese strategy was threefold: scientific, commercial and religious.




In terms of science, I am actually amazed at what they did back then. But for your pleasure I will mention the development of the instruments and formulas to measure latitude (developed from old Muslim and Jewish information analysed under Prince Henry the Navigator, a son of John I), the use of maps, and the development of the “Caravela”, a specific type of small ship developed by the Portuguese based on Muslim technological know-how in which for the first time a special type of sail (common in the Arabian Sea) allowed then to sail fast and against the wind in zig-zag form (note: your friendly Portuguese when they showed up in Mozambique Island in 1498 were using these ships. They weren’t really a fleet: three small ships and a lot of dhiarrea…)




In 1453 the Muslims Turks famously invaded and conquered the former Constantinople (named Istambul in the 20th Century) and the Catholic Eastern Roman Empire fell. A consequence was that in Europe for a while trade routes were interrupted and thus the price of goods produced in China, India and the Middle East reached absolutely astronomic values.


This meant that, if by any chance a way was found to bypass the (Muslim) Middle East and directly reach India, enormous fortunes would be made.


By that time the Portuguese were on the coast all over Muslim North Africa and were beginning to navigate South from where Portugal was located. Importantly, they discovered and operated from the Azores, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, thus enabling them to “jump” across the ocean using the then little-known trade winds.


Now, there is no record as to why and how the Portuguese came up with the belief that there was a way around Africa to reach the Indian Ocean and thus India and the Middle East from below. But I believe that somehow they knew. It must have been information they gathered from several sources, the most obvious one being their (Muslim) trade contacts in North Africa. Or the message from the Etyhiopian envoy who was in Lisbon. Or from spies in Venice.




Portugal was then a Catholic kingdom, eager to display its devotion to God, the Catholic Church and Catholic causes. Somehow it became part of the project a) to help spread the Catholic religion wherever they went, b) to find a supposedly ancient (and very, very rich) Christian kingdom somewhere behind and below the “great Muslim barrier” which was the Middle East. We are in fact talking about the ancient ethiopian Christians, which unfortunately for the Portuguese, who eventually linked up with them,were neither very rich nor very Catholic, for that matter…

Enter Mr Vasco da Gama


The Portuguese enterprise was run by the king and the nobility and moved forward. Eventually they reached the southern tip of Africa, and in 1498, King Manuel I sent Mr Vasco da Gama in the three aforementioned ships, (plus a supply ship that was soon discarded) off to successfully find a sea route to India.


When Gama sailed, he didn’t really know what he was going to find. What he did find was that the eastern side of Africa was full of Muslim-dominated trade from and to the Middle East, which had been going on for hundreds of years. That is why culturally, there was by 1500 Muslim religious and culture widespread on the coasts of Eastern Africa.


What the Portuguese did in fact do in 1500 was (and it was not always pretty) was to a) ensure that they had reliable stops along the very very long route between far-away Portugal and Goa (which they later conquered) to supply, repair and support their ships; b) those stops were and had to be safe, which meant leaving people and building fortresses such as the one you saw in the Island of Mozambique, c) those stops were also trading posts with the surrounding lands, and d) they had to make a massive effort in acquiring intelligence and information concerning goods traded, who was who locally and how to establish their presence.


On the route between Lisbon and Goa, the Island of Mozambique was by far the most critical stop. That is why the fortress of San Sebastian, the one you saw, is the biggest work of military engineering ever built by the Portuguese anywhere. In fact, in all of its existence, it was never taken over by anybody.


The Portuguese strategy in the region simply meant displacing the “owners” of the trade routes (mainly Muslim in East Africa but not in India) and replacing them or, more commonly, having them pay some tax or tribute. They went as far North as the entrance to the Red Sea and present-day Irak (there is an old Portuguese fortess right in the middle of Irak, believe it or not). In the end, they went as far as Japan and China.

Trade Tourists


In 1500 the whole of Portugal had a total population of around one million people. So the modern idea that the Portuguese had any chance of “invading” and “colonizing” anyplace is just a bad joke, much in fashion these days. They were looking for trade and easy money. Besides the weird Zambézia Prazos, they did very little in present day Mozambique, practically nothing until the last decade of the XIX Century. Muslims and Africans were mostly left alone and the Portuguese were very happy to trade with them. In any event the trading empire soon collapsed and by the 1600’s the Portuguese barely managed to hold on to Goa and Mozambique Island.

The Mozambique Muslims


There isn’t, to my knowledge, a written history of the Muslims of Mozambique. It would be a most interesting effort it someone studied the topic. I guess Muslim Arabs and their descendants remained happily trading on the coasts of present day northern Mozambique, and spread their religion. There wasn’t much the Portuguese could or wanted to do. Without them, you probably couldn’t trade with the African hinterland. In the 20th Century, Arab Muslim descendants were in a privileged position, as they played a relevant role in trade, they were much more educated than the average (black) Mozambican and much richer. To my knowledge they were remarkably africanized and part of the landscape, alongside with the communities that were of Indian/Pakistani origin and which also had strong cultural and trade links with Mozambique.


By the 1950’s Portugal was by then a dictatorship trying to hold on to its nine “colonies” (Cape Verde, Guinea, SãoTomé and Príncipe, the small Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, Angola, Mozambique, India, Macau and Timor). Mozambique was finally beginning to develop economically. The dictatorship formally favoured the Catholic religion and while it tolerated other religions, it clearly discriminated against them. In Mozambique it was a particular problem due to its historical cultural, racial and religious diversity.

1975 and Beyound


At independence in 1975, as a result of what I firmly believe was a deliberate state scheme to kick out all Portuguese “invaders” and their descendants (moi même included, although indirectly) and of the rabid communist program immediately adopted by the government, more than 90% of all Portuguese and their descendants left within 12 months of the independence proclamation. All property and businesses were nationalized and a virtual reign of “socialist terror” ensued. As a result, the economy was summarily destroyed and there weren’t almost any skilled people to do anything (Portuguese development measures were too few and too late and most people were unskilled in 1975). Mozambique tried to get help from its “socialist brothers” the Soviets, the East Germans, Bulgarians and the like, which in the end not only did not help but only seemed to contribute to complicate things further. Everybody tells they either were afraid or they were spying on everybody else.


Soon Mozambique was at war to “free” Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and to liberate apartheid South Africa from apartheid. Both of which promptly retaliated with economic sanctions, wars of attrition and support for people opposing Frelimo. A very bloody civil war followed – an estimated one million people died as a result. Mozambique’s administration, schools, businesses, hospitals, were ghosts of the past.

The New Business Aristocracy


In this context, there was, I believe, one group that played a critical role: the arab/Muslims, now Mozambican citizens, who as a group were commercially active in the cities and with contacts, way more literate than the average for the country, and who mostly stayed or kept in touch with Mozambique. Without the Portuguese to compete with, with all the dilapidated infra-structure, without the capacity of the average Mozambican to create enterprises, and with the government absolutely desperate to get the country back on its feet, the arab/Muslim elite began to invest, trade and develop businesses. By the end of the 1980’s, Frelimo conveniently kind of dropped the communist line , resorting now to a nationalistic, “we are the liberators and the new capitalists” line.  With Machel killed, Joaquim Chissano presided over the metamorphosis.


Soon the Arab/Muslim  elite were key stakeholders and their prestige, influence and wealth soared. By far the most obscenely extravagant weddings in Maputo involved the offspring of wealthy Mozambican Muslims marry. Freed from the former Portuguese restrictions on religion and with no competitors whatsoever in business, and welcomed by a Frelimo previously opposed to all types of religions (it had confiscated almost all Catholic properties in the country following independence) but now converted to a curious african version of wild west cowboy capitalism where they were key players, they were able to practice the Muslim religion, build lots of mosques and support the spread of the Muslim religion throughout Mozambique.

Recent Additions

Since the late 1980’s many arab and Pakistani Muslims came to live and work in Mozambique, bringing customs and traditions which are not historically linked with the ancient communities who had been there for hundreds of years. As television and easy of travel increase – as well as their wealth – they seem to becoming more in tune with Middle Eastern and Arab Muslim culture. They travel more to arab countries, holiday there, shop there, bank there, watch satellite television in Arabic, broadcast from the Middle East, use clothes more common in the Middle East, speak fluent arabic.


That is a double-edged sword: in general, there are today “two” great muslim communities in Mozambique, one the above, more urban, sophisticated, rich, influential, racially more directly linked with the Crescent countries, and another, much larger, much poorer, less influential, made up of millions of black Mozambicans who are devout Muslims. While relations between the two communities seem to be in rather friendly terms these days, it was not always so. While they practice the same religion (mostly sunni), they do so in slightly different ways and navigate in different wavelengths, as their realities are in many ways so different.

Muslims in Portugal



One last note: there were almost no Muslims in Portugal until 1975. Following mostly Mozambique’s independence. Many Muslim families mostly from Mozambique (they had Portuguese passports, a detail which is important) either moved, sent their children or opened businesses in Portugal. They were mostly welcomed and were successful in creating a life for them there. Many maintain close links with Mozambique, going back and forth. They are successful and respected members of the community. They opened mosques in Lisbon and practice the Muslim religion freely and in peace (of course occasionally the resident Catholic cardinal in Lisbon says something insane about Muslims and they react in anger – rightfully so, of course). Long gone are the days when you were harassed for being a Muslim in Portugal.


2 comentários »

  1. Náo sei se o simpático doutor fará uso das tuas informações. Penso que o registo memorialista e, muito naturalmente, algo egocentrado (coranicocentrado) está para além do estado actual das relações sociológicas moçambicanas. Quanto à questão da articulação-choque entre cristãos e muçulmanos ao longo da história ele pouco sabe, e traduz a história que lhe foi contada.

    Há algo escrito, entretanto.

    Mas gabo-te a paciència, de pregar assim


    Comentar por jpt — 22/10/2009 @ 12:08 am

  2. paciência de corno – mas ele pôs-me a pensar, avabei por escrever o que pensei entre sorver uma Coca-Cola e trincar um croquete.


    Comentar por ABM — 23/10/2009 @ 4:39 am

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