Ramadan is the name of the ninth month on the Islamic lunar calendar and is the official month of fasting for Muslims worldwide. For the duration of the month, Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset each day, perform meaningful rituals that illuminate their faith, exercise humility, and engage in self-reflection.

In Islam, the fast is observed in the same fundamental manner, regardless of one’s geographical region, culture, or ethnicity.  How is the fast of Ramadan observed? What is the significance of the Ramadan fast to African American Muslims? How were African Americans first introduced to Islam and Ramadan? And how did Ramadan begin within the Islamic faith?

Like Muslims worldwide, African American Muslims and those throughout the African Diaspora will observe Ramadan because it is one of the five obligatory acts of their religion designed to foster obedience to Allah—the Arabic name for the sole Creator of the universe. These five acts are referred to as the pillars of Islam, with Ramadan serving as the fourth pillar. Muslims believe that faithfully adhering to these pillars as a way of life leads to self-liberation and freedom from mental slavery.

A set of wooden prayer beads.

Wooden prayer beads owned by Suliaman El-Hadi, late 20th century.
Muslims occasionally use stringed beads during prayer to count their three expressions of remembrance of Allah: “Glory be to Allah; Praise be to Allah; and Allah is the Greatest.”

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Qaddafi El-Hadi in memory of Suliaman El-Hadi

The first pillar of Islam is the Shahada, or creed, which is openly bearing witness to one’s belief in Allah and recognizing Muhammad Ibn Abdullah of Arabia as the prophet. This creed represents a belief in and commitment to something greater than oneself—the Creator and the mission of Muhammad. The second pillar is Salat, the ritual of five daily prayers, which occasionally includes the use of prayer beads. Salat helps to fortify the creed and  guard against self-destructive behaviors. The third is Zakat, charity to those in need and charitable acts of kindness, which help cultivate the power of goodness in self and society. The fourth is Ramadan, abstaining from food, drink, and sex between sunrise to sunset for the entire month. Fasting is a practice in self-restraint and a ritual of cleansing and self-purification with the goal of strengthening one’s morals and values. And the fifth pillar is Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia at least once in a lifetime to gain further enlightenment and understanding of the religion and to experience a sense of unity with Muslims from around the globe. It is within the framework of the five pillars that Ramadan has its significance to practicing Muslims.

Adult Muslim worshippers are expected to engage in the Ramadan fast every year. Several exemptions from fasting exist, due to age, travel, and health conditions. The elderly; women pregnant, nursing, or menstruating; and pre-pubescent children are exempt. However, children are sometimes encouraged to fast as much as they can without enduring pain or hardship.

A rectangular prayer rug woven with burnt sienna, brown, and tan threads in a consistent geometric pattern.

Prayer rug used by Imam Derrick Amin, 1970s.
Muslims prostrate on small, easily portable rugs during their daily prayers that are performed five times a day and may be in various locations.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Imam Derrick Amin

A typical day in Ramadan begins with the conscious intention to fast and act charitably. A light meal of one’s choosing follows roughly twenty minutes to an hour before sunrise. Then the early morning prayer begins, which is performed together with family or other Muslims in the household.  At this point, all consumption of food, drink, and even medicine ceases. All extraneous leisure activities and interests not conducive to quiet contemplation also cease.

The day’s activities still include work, if not too physically strenuous, but the primary focus is performing the five prayers, engaging in acts of charity, being cognizant of one’s family responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, reading the Qur’an for enlightenment and wisdom. The end of the day is marked by prayers and a meal at sunset, often eaten together with other Muslims. Many predominantly Muslim societies are well adapted to the seasonal activities associated with Ramadan—people prostrate on prayer rugs in public spaces and businesses may set their hours around the fast. With mosques readily accessible, believers can also very easily make congregational prayers, if they so choose.

A man kneeling on a rug in prayer.

Salat,1990; printed ca. 2000. Photograph by Chester Higgins.
A Muslim is shown offering du’a—a special prayer of invocation, supplication, or request—during one of the five daily prayer rituals.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Chester Higgins, All Rights Reserved

The end of Ramadan is punctuated by a feast referred to as the Eid-ul-Fitr, or the Feast of Breaking the Fast. All over the world, Muslims gather in their homes, mosques, parks, and community centers to offer special prayers and celebrations replete with gift giving, fine fashions, camaraderie, and a collective meal. It is a joyous occasion marked by a strong sense of purpose—serving Allah and humanity. Whatever the Eid feast may lack in revelry, when compared to other types of celebrations, it makes up for with group cohesion and the renewal of longtime friendships.

I have welcomed the Ramadan fast for 45 years. My spiritual and mental well being benefit greatly from additional Quranic studies, community prayers, and gatherings to break the fast, which itself is not difficult; a few hunger pangs the first few days wane, and the body accepts the change. The summer months can be a little tough, due to the heat and longer daylight hours. My husband and I have fond memories of encouraging our children and grandchildren to join us in the fast. They would be so happy when they actually completed the day!

Dr. Baseemah Najeeullah
Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Retired)

African Americans were first introduced to Islam with its practice of fasting, beginning in the late 19th century, in response to white supremacy and pervasive racial violence. They formed new religious communities that were both spiritual sanctuaries and hubs of social and political activism. Viewing Christianity as the “slave master’s religion,” some African Americans turned to Islam as a viable alternative toward achieving liberation. Thirty percent of the captured Africans brought to the colonies during the slave trade were Muslims, so early African American Muslim communities developed from knowledge of an enslaved Muslim experience. The formative years of these Muslim communities were characterized by a blending of Black nationalism, Pan Africanism, and varied interpretive traditions of Islamic thought. The social reform efforts of the Ahmadiyya Movement (est. 1889), the Moorish Science Temple (est. 1913), and the Nation of Islam (est. 1930) as forerunners, or “proto-Islamic” organizations, would help lay the foundation for the practice of the five pillars of the Islamic faith among African Americans today.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, Islam is the fastest growing world religion. Since the end of WWII, Islam has greatly increased in its cultural influence on African American communities. The term Ramadan as well as other Arabic words, such as Muslim names—Malik, Latifah, Aliyah, Aisha, Rakim, Talib, Jamal—greetings, and a plethora of styles and mannerisms, have found their way into the vernacular and cultural life of African Americans.

A Qur'an and wooden stand.

Qur'an and stand owned by Imam W. D. Mohammad, 1975.

During Ramadan, Muslims read or recite the Qur’an daily. Sometimes they read the Qur’an from a cradle, like this wooden one.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Laila Muhammad, Daughter of Imam W. Deen Mohammed

Historically, the fast of Ramadan began to commemorate the revelation of the Holy Qur’an. This commemoration is tied to the life of Muhammad, who lived and worked on the Arabian Peninsula, a place with an arid desert climate, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. The term Ramadan derives from the root word “ar-ramad”, which means scorching heat, so the month became associated with the heat on the Peninsula. For thousands of years, this place was almost exclusively inhabited by nomadic tribes, who had thoroughly adapted to its harsh environment. They were expert herdsmen of sheep, horses, and camels.

Adaptation eventually gave way to a robust desert economy. At the heart of this economy, its most important city emerged—Mecca—on the southwest coast of the Red Sea. At its center is the Kaaba, that unique cubical structure which is the very focal point of the annual Muslim pilgrimage today. Over time, Mecca had degenerated, eventually becoming a core of cultural crosscurrents and a veritable hot bed of frivolity and degenerate behavior. It was into this unlikely milieu that Muhammad, an orphaned child of noble birth, was born and would become the prophet of Islam.

It is around a somewhat mystical event experienced by Muhammad that the Ramadan fast began. According to Islamic history, Muhammad became increasingly dismayed at the moral state of his beloved Mecca. He began retreating to a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, where he would contemplate and meditate on the presence of God. On one of these excursions during the last ten days of Ramadan, he experienced a revelation that would profoundly change him and eventually establish him as a prophet. Muslims believe that in A.D. 610, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and revealed to him the first words of the Holy Qur’an, which were a command to read. The night of that revelation is referred to as the Night of Power. Thus, Muslims began fasting during Ramadan to commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.

Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an as a guide to humankind and as a clear sign and guidance in judging between right and wrong. So everyone of you who is present at home during that month should spend it fasting.

The Qur’an, chapter 2, verse 185, an English transliteration

Today, fasting during the month of Ramadan remains an act of commemoration, worship, and faith for Muslims all over the world. African American Muslims are part of this world community of believers who adhere to the five pillars of Islam. As one of those five pillars, fasting during Ramadan helps facilitate the intentions and efforts of Muslims to submit to something greater than themselves and to cultivate their knowledge and understanding of self, society, and Islam as their way of life.

View objects in the NMAAHC collection relating to Islam

Written by Tulani Salahu-Din, Museum Specialist, Language and Literature
Published on March 17, 2023

Arabic text written by Omar ibn Sayyid

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