Islamic Community

Stock Exchange Palace - Arabian Room
Photo:  Fabrice DemoulinCC BY-NC-SA - Some Rights Reserved

The Islamic community has played an important part in the history, culture and society of the Iberian Peninsula (Al- Andalus). It was also present at the dawn of the foundation of Portugal. Eight centuries of Islamic settlement and of contact with the Maghreb have left an important and unavoidable stamp on both culture and civilisation.  In the Portuguese case, this legacy is most notable in the Portuguese language, in Fado, in the art of the tile (the name and manufacture of which come from the Arab az-zulayj), in the monuments, in the food and in the handicrafts.  Signs of this influence are much more evident to the south of the River Mondego.  They are more tenuous and dispersed in Northern Portugal, but can still be found in some names and popular legends, the stories of the Moors and the enchanted Moorish women, and in a few scattered remains of their heritage.

Some traces of this Islamic presence have been found in the Douro Valley. Archaeological discoveries have revealed, amongst other finds, fortifications from the time of Arab occupation known ribãt, a word that gave us the place name Arrábida.  We understand from this that the Porto Arrábida was one of these fortifications, which, together with those built along the river, stands witness to the determination to defend the line of the Douro, the northern frontier of Garb Al-Andalus, in the 8th and 9th centuries. The ribãt were also spiritual places, occupied by Sufi monks, who were spiritual knights dedicated to studying the Koran and its message whilst also assuming responsibility for the military defence of the Umma (Moslem community) when under threat.

This frontier, along the River Douro, separated two worlds that were in permanent conflict – Christians and Muslims – and, as such, was much subject to attack by both sides.  Following one of these attacks, Abd al-Aziz ibn Musa, son of the governor of Ceuta, invaded in 716.  Porto was battered by the attacking Islamic army.

There are only a few remaining material examples of Islamic cultural legacy in the city of Porto.  These include dinars from Granada and the morabitinos (a gold coin used in the Iberian Peninsula and first minted by the Almoravids) and the first coin minted in Portugal during the reign of D. Sancho I.  These coins belong to the coin collection of Porto City Council’s Numismatic Office. There are also the traces of Hispano-Moorish tiles found during excavations of the Casa do Infante.  Finally, during the revivalist period of the 19th century, a number of European and Portuguese artistic movements, inspired by the eclecticism of Islamic art, began to spread a new aesthetic fashion, which became known as Neo-Islamism.  In Porto, this Islamic inspiration was expressed in various buildings, such as the Devesas Factory Warehouse, in Rua José Falcão, the Emília de Jesus Costa Orphanage and Crèche, in Gaia and, perhaps the most iconic of all, the Arab Saloon of the Stock Exchange, built between 1862 and 1880. The Arab Saloon was inspired by the Alhambra Palace, the construction of which was begun by Mohamed I in the golden era of the sultanate of Granada.

Today, the Islamic community in Portugal numbers some 40,000, around four thousand of whom live in Porto.  The first arrivals mostly came from former Portuguese colonies, such as Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.  Later Moslem influxes came from Senegal, Bangladesh, Morocco, Pakistan and India.  Most worked in commerce, concentrating their shops in the city centre, in the cathedral parish, along Rua Chã, Rua do Loureiro, Rua de Cimo de Vila and Rua do Cativo, transforming this area of the city into a sort of “Asian block”.  To accommodate the growing Islamic community, the Islamic Cultural Centre was set up in Porto, in 1999.  Today, the centre is the institutional representative for the Muslim community throughout the north of the country and also hosts the central mosque, in Rua do Heroísmo.

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Published 15-01-2014
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