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For African-American Muslims, Ramadan Has Special Meaning

  • Mana Rabiee

As the month of Ramadan begins, many millions of Muslims around the world are joining in a collective fast intended to help purify their souls. But for the more than half a million African-American Muslims, many of whom descend from former slaves, Ramadan has a special meaning - a link between the African-American experience and the Islamic tradition of spiritual freedom.

More than 500 African-American Muslims worship at the Masjid Muhammad in Washington, home to the oldest African-American Muslim community in the United States.

Talib Shareef, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, is the new Imam at Masjid Muhammad. He says the experience of black Muslims in the United States is different from that of most other Muslims.

"Most of the African Americans in America come from the church experience," Shareef said. "We became Muslims in America just a little differently here and because we are Muslim most of our family members are not aware of Islam, so we have to explain a lot of things. We have to share a lot of our life with those around us because it's a minority in terms of religion."

Jocelyn Cole, 24, grew up balancing her Christian life with Muslim traditions. Her mother is a Seventh Day Adventist Christian, while her father converted to Islam before she was born.

"Whenever I would be with my father during the month of Ramadan I would remember as a child going to farmers markets to find dates to break fast. So even though I might not have fasted the whole day or even understood I just remember eating dates with my daddy at sunset," noted Cole.

While the women greet each other inside the "Sisters' Room," the kitchen crew rushes to serve a Ramadan dinner of chicken and rice with baked beans.

For Ibrahim Mumin, the great-grandson of a slave, Ramadan is an important opportunity to share his faith with non-Muslims. But he says ten years after 9/11 many Americans remain afraid of Muslims and ignorant 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," Mumin noted. "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.'"

Imam Shareef says there is a 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. Ramadan, he says, is a chance for Black Muslims in America to remember that.

"You know, we're coming out of slavery," Shareef explained. "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."

Related video report on Muslim Americans by Elizabeth Lee