Ramadan in America & The Revolutionary Act of Fasting During Slavery

Written with Muhammad Ibn Bashir.

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar — the month in which the Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the month in which all Muslims hope to develop consciousness of Allah through fasting. The fast of Ramadan is an obligation on every able-bodied Muslim with exceptions granted to pregnant, menstruating or nursing woman, men and women who are ill or traveling, and children who have yet to hit puberty. It was the superior education of many enslaved Muslims that allowed them to use the stars and moons to calculate the holy month in the Americas and many would sneak off, risking the whip or death, for prayers and meals directly associated with the fast.

Fasting during Ramadan became part and parcel of the perpetual struggle of enslaved Africans to retain their culture in the face of slavery’s brutality and often became one of the many mechanisms of resistance.

Documents written by Yarrow Mamout 1800s

Although mainstream media configures Islam as a newfound concept in the Americas, its historical roots run earlier than the Transatlantic Slave Trade and deeper than the current immigrant Muslim population. What is seldom discussed or recognized is the impact that Islamic culture had on the New World and especially the institution of slavery.

It is a known historic fact that nearly one-third of those victims were Muslims.

Many of these believers were from West African countries, however some fled the onslaught of the Crusades and settled in the New World prior to 1492. Others came as guides, explorers, and traders when Black Moors, Arabs, and African Muslims ruled the oceans. Many of these “Black” Muslims were highly educated, and developed the civilizations of Europe from 711 AD to 1492 while others were soldiers and warriors who fought against European expansion.

According to the National Museum of of African American History & Culture, “African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers, Mustafa Zemmouri (also known as Estevanico), was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.”

Historian Amir Webb, author of Musa: Mansa of Mali, writes of Muslims who defiantly refused to give up Islamic practices, including fasting. For example, a Muslim slave in Jamaica named Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu feigned illness whenever he wished to observe the fast. Another Black Muslim pioneer enslaved in the United States, the Senegalese scholar Omar ibn Said, observed the fast of Ramadan in open defiance of prevailing Protestant religious indoctrination of slaves and even wrote his own autobiography in Arabic.

Omar Ibn Said circa 1850

Muslims in Georgia observed the fast by giving rice cakes to other slaves which became known as “saraka” to non-Muslims, affectionately derived from the Arabic word and Islamic principle of charity or feeding the hungry called “sadaqa” or non-obligatory charity. (Feeding the hungry is part of the Islamic tradition for those unable to observe the requirements of a formal fast). Margarita Rosa, a Princeton University scholar, is reported to have found evidence of Muslims praying and observing the fast while enslaved. Rosa’s research encompassed the enslaved Muslims in the South American country of Brazil and showed that the enslaved Muslims had greater visibility due to their practices, including giving zakat (mandatory alms) to poorer slaves which made them.

In order to fast and pray Muslims would often have to sneak away to congregate together. While many of these gatherings featured prayers and learning, others led to planning revolts. In 1522, Spain passed laws banning the importation of Muslims into the New World after numerous meetings resulted in the first recorded slave revolt in what is now known as the Dominican Republic. According to Professor Sylviane Anna Diouf, author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Dutty Boukman, the original architect of the Haitian revolution in 1791 was a Muslim. He too fasted the month of Ramadan before encouraging the uprising.

Fasting helped the Muslims maintain a sense of connection to their culture, their God, and themselves under slavery’s tyranny. Although often done in secret, this practice was part of the ongoing battle for human dignity that enslaved Muslims were determined to win. This seemingly small act has to be understood in light of the fuller picture of Muslim resistance to slavery. Any picture of the slave auction demonstrates how dehumanizing the process was. The men and women were stripped naked and examined like livestock. However, once on the plantation Muslim men and women immediately created loose fitting clothing from the rags or blankets they received while the women immediately resorted to head coverings and wraps that seemingly went unnoticed as a cultural/religious act of defiance by Muslims.

Qu’ran 1734 Library of Congress

Enslaved Muslims would also communicate in Arabic and, to throw off the enslaver’s radar, chant similarly to that of the recitations used by Muslims when reciting the Holy Quran. Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik and Professor Sylviane Anna Diouf agree that this chanting led to the robust echoing sound that became the soul behind “Negro spirituals.” Kubik states in his book, Africa and the Blues,

“the vocal style of many blues singers using ‘melisma’, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries.”

The draconian practices of enslavers can be traced directly to the attempt to stem the practices of enslaved Muslims. Gatherings by the enslaved to pray or fast, were outlawed, with the exception of Christian church services. Pork became a staple of the food source given to the enslaved, many of whom refused to eat it. Muslim names were taken away and replaced by “Christian” names or nicknames. Musa became Moses. Ayub became Job. Still, the determination to maintain a connection to their faith was paramount to enslaved Muslims and fasting was one of the most non-intrusive means of keeping the connection to Allah.

Muslims fast to establish “taqwa” (God consciousness). In the Muslim slave it represented resistance. Margarita Rosa references the Male Uprising of Brazil in 1835, spearheaded by Muslims with the story of a young Muslim killed in the midst. Around his neck was the Quranic prayer of Ibrahim (Abraham) that said, “Our Lord, and make us Muslims (in submission) to you and from our descendants a Muslim nation (in submission) to you.”

Writer & World Traveler IG & Twitter: @sheisimanib!

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