Khaled A. Beydoun, the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law, published an opinion piece on the history of Ramadan in America on Al Jazeera. He reminds Americans that many of the first Muslim Americans were African slaves in the antebellum South, and that Ramadan has existed in America for centuries.
This weekend marks the beginning of Ramadan. Nearly one-fourth of the world will observe the annual fast and eight million Muslims in the United States will abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the holy month. A gruelling task at any time of the year, Ramadan this year will be especially daunting during the long and hot summer days.
Islam in America is rapidly expanding. It is the fastest-growing religion in the nation, and the second most practiced faith in twenty states. These demographic shifts prompted a prominent Los Angeles-based imam to comment, “Ramadan is a new American tradition.” The cleric’s forward-looking pronouncement marks Islam’s recent arrival in the US. However, this statement reveals a pathology afflicting a lot of Muslim Americans today – an inability to look back and embrace the opening chapters of Muslim American history written by enslaved African Muslims.
Social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 percent, or, “[a]s many as 600,000 to 1.2 million slaves” in antebellum America were Muslims. 46 percent of the slaves in the antebellum South were kidnapped from Africa’s western regions, which boasted “significant numbers of Muslims”.
These enslaved Muslims strove to meet the demands of their faith, most notably the Ramadan fast, prayers, and community meals, in the face of comprehensive slave codes that linked religious activity to insubordination and rebellion. Marking Ramadan as a “new American tradition” not only overlooks the holy month observed by enslaved Muslims many years ago, but also perpetuates their erasure from Muslim-American history.
Muslim diversity in the US has reshaped Ramadan into a multicultural American tradition. The breadth of Muslim America’s racial and cultural diversity today is unprecedented, making this year’s Ramadan – and the Ramadans to follow – new in terms of how transcultural and multiracial the tradition has become.
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