By Vanessa Taylor
This month, Muslims across the country are once again observing Ramadan. Yet mainstream conversations in the United States tend to reduce the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to solely a fast from food and water between the fajr ("dawn") and maghrib ("sunset") prayers. However, the meaning and purpose of Ramadan extends far past that oversimplification. In the Americas in particular, Black Muslims have an extended history of engaging with Islamic holy days in search of liberation.
In Ramadan of 1835, enslaved African Muslims in Salvador of Bahía, Brazil, organized one of the best-recorded slave rebellions in the Americas. What would become known as the 1835 Malê revolt was “a spiritual struggle organized within Bahían madrassas, brought about by the desire to reunite with exiled spiritual leaders, and ultimately, to preserve Islamic education and through it, spiritual fortification.”
Today, Black Muslims account for a fifth of all Muslims in the United States, and our history of engaging with Islam as a tool for liberation has continued. Unfortunately, Black Muslim women are often left out of America’s Islamic history, only making their way into archives as ghosts or the relations of far more important men.
To ever hope to know Islam in America, you have to actually know Black Muslim women. To recognition of this history, four Black Muslim women share their experiences with Islam — as a source of comfort, a tool for liberation, and a means to survive in a world that seems pitted against every facet of their identities. Their approaches to activism during Ramadan may all be different, but each of these women capture the legacy of Black Muslims working towards liberation.
Queen-Cheyenne Wade, 21
Student & Activist
The history of protesting, and social and revolutionary change by Black Muslims has been deeply entrenched in the United States for decades. During Ramadan, it’s not only the time to think about your prayer, fasting, and your goals, but also your community, the society that you live in, and how you can be a more impactful person.
Protesting is something that we have the privilege of doing in America. There are so many countries where free speech and protesting is very hard. With that privilege of being able to speak out, it kind of makes it a responsibility for a lot of Black Muslims to talk about some of these issues and injustices we face — not only in America but around the world.
My relationship with Islam has impacted my organizing very much. The Qur’an tells us to bow down with those who bow down. We live by that model and yet we live in a society where that isn’t always reflected. The people who are doing the bowing down or the hard work aren’t always appreciated and usually exploited. Going from my beliefs in what I was taught and how to treat people, then seeing the way people were being treated in my society and my communities, I saw a disconnect of, "Oh, this doesn’t really feel or look right."
I see a duty to speak up about the ways in which stereotypes perpetuated in the Western World incite violence and hatred that should not be associated with Black people or Islam to begin with. That’s why I incorporate my activism into Ramadan and relationship with Islam altogether: to help educate on the injustices that we have to deal with as Muslims, from stereotypes of hatred to violence in places like China or Palestine to the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, and the unjust treatment of Black people.
Organizing impacts my relationship with Islam because I can engage these things that are really important in my life and bring them together. They work together so easily, and it’s so beautiful when you just see that work kind of come to fruition. You’re just seeing during holy days, all these Muslims standing up and saying, “This is what we believe in. And this is what we are fighting for, striving for, and not just for ourselves but for the world.”
Zaynab Shahar, 28
Academic & Faith Organizer
Most of my focus is with queer Muslims and countering anti-Blackness in Muslim communities. The overlap between queer Muslim organizing and trying to get non-Black Muslims to care about Black people, let alone Black Muslims... Those two things are a weird circle.
I converted around the time when the Trayvon Martin case was unfolding. When I first converted, I was really reticent to even call myself a convert because people have such a colorful association with that, particularly when it comes to Black Muslims. My second Ramadan was spent at a protest and I was the only Muslim there. What stuck out the most in my mind was not only the lack of Muslims in attendance but also — because all of Chicago’s protests take place in downtown Chicago — I could see a lot of people sitting at Panera Bread staring down their noses at people like, “Why are you protesting?”
The lack of shock and the apathy was something that really struck me, because you hear people invoke that āyah about justice [4:135] but when push comes to shove, it doesn’t mean anything to them. I think my crises of faith mainly revolved around, well, does this verse have any meaning if it’s just invoked to say, “Yeah, I belong to a religion that claims to care about justice, but being a steward of that religion, I don’t have to do anything”?
One of the things that’s become really apparent to me is that to be a Black American Muslim in the United States, holy observances aren’t necessarily holidays. I listen to non-Black Muslims — not all, but a fair amount — talk about, “Oh, I’m so excited to get deeper into the Qur’an and do all this community stuff.” And not that we’re not doing those things too, but so many of us in the back of our heads are like, “Yo, I still have to attend that organizing meeting. We still have to turn up against somebody because something happened.”
I hazard a guess to say that’s always been the case, from enslaved Muslims trying to observe Ramadan, and Islam as a source of defiant liberation theology being the genesis for rebellion and revolt, to Malcolm X even to, I’m guessing, when Amadou Diallo was shot. When I look at all that history, I think, has there ever been a moment since the inception of this country when Black Muslims have been able to be like, “Yep, this is a holiday and I’m just going to sit around and do holiday things”?
In the beginning, I tried opening my home, but it got to a point where surrounding myself with non-Black Muslims who were pretty apolitical when it comes to Black death and anti-Black racism became a soul draining endeavor. I’d go to protests or vigils for Black people who’d been murdered by state or white supremacist violence and I’d throw iftars for people where none of that is on their radar.
Now, I’m selective about who I spend my time with. I’d rather be around people whose fast and whose consciousness are oriented around Black liberation. Because I don’t fast anymore for health reasons, I do a lot of my academic research during Ramadan, which has me spending a lot of time with particular chapters in the Qur’an and really learning and sharpening my ability to exegete those things as a scholar. I’ve found that ten times more rewarding than cleaning my house for three hours.
Nisa Dang, 25
Civil Rights & Immigration Activist
I started organizing in 2014 in response to Michael Brown’s murder. I’d always been aware of the ways that police violence impact my community, but Brown’s death was the first that I followed as intensely as I did, mostly due to social media. I began protesting for months on end, which culminated in my arrest in December of that year. After, I was able to go to Palestine and commune with activists there. What I saw helped confirm my understanding of the impact of white supremacy, colonialism, and imperialism on Black and brown people as a global phenomenon and how our struggles for liberation are not confined by borders.
I came to Islam as a convert in 2017. Though I’d been considering converting for three years by that point, my time living and working with Yemeni migrants in Djibouti also helped propel me to that decision. It was around this time that I finally finished Malcolm X’s autobiography, which helped remove fears of being an imperfect Muslim. I finally began to understand that it was the process through which I needed to learn.
After all I had seen and witnessed — through all the pain, the violence, the sorrow, the death — Islam remained a constant for me. Activism and my experience as an organizer had worn me down to the bone. My decision to convert was informed on my desperate need to anchor myself to Allah. I knew if I did not anchor myself and find something or someone to believe in, to hold me to this physical realm, I would probably not make it past 25.
The community that I keep is fastidiously committed to liberation. I think that while our relationship with Allah is not necessarily political, it’s at the very least informed by a radical tradition that precedes us. It just so happens that protests often occur during summer months when we’re observing our biggest holidays. This is a time when we are expected to reevaluate our commitments to Allah.
For those of us bonded to Allah through protests and activism, it is only natural that we continue to show up for our communities and to be leaders where others have faltered. It’s not pleasant to protest while you’re fasting, but it is a reminder that the work we do is urgent, tied to the physicality of being present, and that demands that we show up in our entirety.
I often read texts written by Muslims whose faith has been informed by activism and vice-versa. Because I came to Allah through a place of trauma, brokenness, desperation, and needing to survive, I am more drawn to texts written by folks who identify with that need. It comes as no surprise that the people behind these types of text are often Black Muslim femmes, alhamdulillah.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X said, “If I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America – then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.”
Those of us who have been active in the community understand how surveillance programs like Countering Violent Extremism put us in harm’s way. I’m always cognizant of folks who may share the same religion or the same skin tone as me, but who do not have the same interest in liberation and are therefore agents of the state. That’s something that I am reflecting on this Ramadan and I’m praying for guidance on how we can approach that as a community.
Donna Auston, 47
Anthropologist & Writer
I became Muslim almost 30 years ago, when I was 17 years old. My discovery of Islam was closely connected to my own growing political awareness about what it meant to be Black in America and in the world. I was reading Malcolm X, but also I was discovering in earnest Angela Davis and W.E.B. DuBois and delving deep into the Black intellectual and activist tradition. That led me to Islam, in so many ways. It seemed to fit where I wanted to be in the world, and provided a spiritual practice that specifically gave me a set of tools that I needed to work on myself, and to work on the world around me.
I was at a protest in the immediate aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Newark, New Jersey, which is a heavily Black Muslim city. There were a number of Muslims present, participating, organizing. I remember I spoke to one sister that day who said, “It’s Ramadan and this happened and this is where I need to be.” In other words, what it meant for her to be fasting was closely connected to a sense of being present in the streets advocating for justice.
In 2015, Ramadan opened with the Charleston shooting and closed with the death of Sandra Bland. It’s a recurring thing, these injustices occurring around the time or coinciding with Ramadan. For a lot of the people that I worked with, these events remind us that this is a part of what we’re supposed to be accomplishing.
Ramadan is not just about abstaining from food and drink, but it’s about standing for truth. We’re reminded in our personal practice to be more mindful of the tongue and speak with clarity, but that also extends to our action. It certainly extends to our actions in terms of protest, because that’s what protest is about. It’s about standing for truth and in many ways in bodily form.
Part of what I understand worship to consist of as a Muslim is ritual acts like praying and fasting. But just as important is the act of caring for other human beings, which means that it is a part of my duty to my Creator to make sure that my fellow human beings are safe. To make sure that they have adequate food, security, and to make sure that they are not murdered. To make sure that their freedom is not restricted, that they’re not living in fear.
In some instances, that means I’m out in the streets. If there’s an action, and that’s where we need to be, then that’s where we need to be. It has also consisted of making sure that we actually take time to observe the holidays. Part of what protest is for me is safeguarding those moments where I’m with my family, my community, my loved ones — where we are engaging with joy.
When Philando Castile was killed, on the day of Eid, I specifically remember thinking, we’re going to celebrate this year and then tomorrow we are actually going to pick up the baton and do whatever we need to do to bring that forward. But, I’m actually going to take a moment to celebrate because, in part, that’s what oppression is designed to do.
Being able to intentionally cultivate spaces of joy in a world that doesn’t intend for you to have any is itself an act of protest. Sometimes, we are restricted. In a lot of ways, we are hemmed in and we have an outside order and a system that doesn’t want us to breathe. But, we’re going to breathe in spite of that.
These interviews have been lightly edited.