Muslim man praying (Shutterstock)
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. Although mainstream media would have us believe that Islam is a newfound concept in the Americas, its roots are deeper and far more vast than the current immigrant Muslim population and can be traced earlier than the transatlantic slave trade.
Islamic culture’s impact on the New World, and especially the institution of slavery, is seldom discussed or recognized, although it’s estimated that between 15 and 30 percent of the enslaved population were Muslim. Many of these believers were from West African countries, though some fled the onslaught of the Crusades and settled in the New World prior to 1492. Others came as guides, explorers, and traders back when Black Moors, Arabs, and African Muslims ruled the oceans. Many of these “Black” Muslims were highly educated, having influenced the intellectual and scientific development of Europe from 711 to 1492 CE while others were soldiers and warriors who fought against European expansion.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan became part and parcel of the never-ending struggle of enslaved people to hold onto their culture in the face of brutality and was one of the many mechanisms used to resist enslavement.
The fast of Ramadan is an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim (with exceptions granted to pregnant, menstruating, or nursing women and to men and women who are ill or traveling). The superior education of many enslaved Muslims 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.
Historian Amir Webb, author of Musa: Mansa of Mali, cites a number of examples of Muslims who defiantly refused to give up Islamic practices, including fasting. One such example was an enslaved Muslim in Jamaica named Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu, who was known to pretend to be sick whenever he wished to observe the fast. Another Black Muslim pioneer, the Senegalese scholar Omar ibn Said, observed the fast of Ramadan in open defiance of prevailing Protestant religious indoctrination of enslaved people and even wrote his own biography in Arabic.
Feeding the hungry is part of the Islamic tradition for those unable to observe the requirements of a formal fast, and Muslims in Georgia observed this by giving rice cakes to other slaves who became known as “saraka” to non-Muslims, affectionately derived from the Arabic word and Islamic principle of charity or feeding the hungry called “sadaqah” or non-obligatory charity. Margarita Rosa, a PhD candidate from Princeton University, reportedly “unearthed… records of (Muslim) slaves praying and observing Ramadan as well as giving Zakah (mandatory alms) to poorer slaves to offer relief and sometimes freeing each other.”
In order to fast and pray, Muslims would often have to sneak away to congregate. 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 enslaved people’s revolt in what is now known as the Dominican Republic. Dutty Boukman, the original architect of the 1791 Haitian revolution, was, according to Professor Sylviane Anna Diouf, author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, 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 the tyranny of slavery. Although often done in secret, fasting was part of enslaved Muslims’ ongoing battle for human dignity.
This seemingly small act must be understood in light of the fuller picture of Muslim resistance to slavery. The daily dehumanizing practices of slavery and the slave trade provided further challenges to adherents of Islam. On the auction block, men and women were stripped naked and examined like livestock — a process made more unbearable due to their religious beliefs. On the plantation, enslaved Muslims prioritized retaining their religious identity through dress. Muslim men immediately created loose fitting clothing from the rags or blankets they were given, while the women immediately resorted to head coverings and wraps that seemingly went unnoticed as a cultural/religious act of defiance.
Enslaved Muslim people would also communicate in Arabic and, to throw off the master, chant similarly to that of the recitations used by Muslims when reciting the Holy Quran. Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik and Professor Diouf agree that this chanting leads 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 attempts to stem the practice of Muslim and other non-Christian religions. Gatherings to pray or fast were outlawed, with the exception of Christian church services. Pork was made a staple of the food source given to enslaved people, 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 the Muslim slave, 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 Malê Uprising of Brazil in 1835, spearheaded by Muslims with the story of a young Muslim killed in the midst of the revolt. 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.”
About the Authors
Imani Bashir is a former sports broadcaster who believes in raising her son as a global citizen and has lived in three countries (Poland — where her son was born — Egypt, and China). She discontinued teaching in a formal classroom setting and is a full-time consultant and writer, currently working on her first memoir about being a traveling first-time mother.
Muhammad Ibn Bashir is a former trial attorney who practiced law in the State of New Jersey. He graduated from Howard University School of Communications and completed his education at Howard University School of Law. He specialized in criminal and constitutional law for over 25 years. He served as a Public Defender and was co-counsel in the defense of the first “World Trade Center Bombing” trial.