The Surprising History Behind Ramadan in the United States


Picture Ramadan's roots in the United States and you're likely to imagine its traditions and meals being brought over along with immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, only recently becoming a part of America's diverse roster of holidays. 

But in actuality, the holy month, which marks a time when Muslims around the world fast from food and water during daylight hours, might be a far more American holiday than you'd expect.

Image Credit: Getty Images. Muslim-Americans during Ramadan in Queens, New York. 

Writing for Al-Jazeerawriter and Critical Race Studies expert Khaled Beydoun sheds light on how the religious tradition was first celebrated on American soil by African slaves.

An estimated "600,000 to 1.2 million slaves" in America were Muslims kidnapped from the western regions of Africa that included a significant Muslim population, according to social scientists.

Beydoun also points out that while many enslaved Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity, many others continued to practice their faith while forced to do menial, back-breaking work. He also explains that they kept fast during Ramadan and abstained from food and drink, held Ramadan prayers in slave quarters and put together iftars — the evening meal when Muslims break their fast at sunset.

Image Credit: Getty Images. Muslim-Americans break their fast in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time, multiple slave codes that were passed in the South in response to rumored slave insurrections stated that gatherings of five or more slaves were considered as an "unlawful and tumultous meeting" to plot rebellion attempts and escapes.

Talib Sharif, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and Imam at Masjid Muhammad in Washington, says Ramadan is an opportunity for Black Muslims in America to remember and observe the "strong connection between African-Americans' historic struggle for freedom and equality since the end of slavery in the 1860s, and the Islamic tradition of seeking spiritual freedom."

"You know, we're coming out of slavery," Shareef said. "So that was a journey to see humanity free. And becoming Muslims through that experience it was highlighting three particular words - freedom, justice and equality. That's what we wanted. And every human being wants that."

According to Pew Research Center, 35% of Muslims in the United States today are black, challenging the notion that Islam's rise in the country was merely the product of immigration.  

Image Credit: Getty Images. Muslim-Americans pray during Eid, a festival marking Ramadan's end.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and even Latin America made their way to America, seeking greater economic opportunity than in their homeland, creating the most diverse Muslim community in the world.

"The Muslim community in the United States could be seen as a 'microcosm' of the Muslim world," Mounir Azzaoui noted in a 2009 American Institute for Contemporary German Studies issue brief on Muslim integration in Germany and the United States. "This circumstance can be considered particular to the United States; nowhere else in the world will one find such a diverse collection of Muslims."

As the great-grandson of a slave, Ibrahim Mumin says Ramadan is an opportunity for him to share his faith with non-Muslim Americans who may not know about Islam. 

"I was at a reception and they asked me what country am I from because many Americans have this perception that all Muslims come from another country," said Mumin. "And I'm from the United States of America. I pull up my passport, [it] says the same thing as your passport says, 'United States of America.'"

It's worth remembering just how far back Islam's roots go back in the United States.