“The first Muslims to observe Ramadan in America were slaves who snuck off into the fields to pray,” Qasim Rashad explains from his office at the United Muslim Masjid in Philadelphia, where he serves as the Amir.
Professor Sulayman Nyang of Howard University is an expert on Islam in the United States and says that 10 percent of the African slaves brought to the US came from Muslim backgrounds. Other sources say it was as many as 30 percent.
Today, African Americans make up a large portion of the country’s Muslim community.
A 2011 report by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of native-born US Muslims are African American. Many of these converted to Islam during the 1960s and 1970s due, in part, to the influence of the Nation of Islam. In the 1970s, Warith Deen Mohammed led the majority of the Nation’s followers towards traditional Sunni Islam.
In Philadelphia’s African American Muslim community, Ramadan is observed as it is anywhere else. Families wake up early for “suhoor”, the pre-dawn meal, and fast for the 16 daylight hours typical of a North American summer. Many local Masjids offer community “iftars” (fast-breaking meals), as well as educational events and classes throughout the month. Iesha Prime, a well-known figure in the Muslim community in the US, addressed a crowd of hundreds at Philadelphia Masjid during one of these events, saying: “It may look like we’re down and out. It may look like as a community, we’re behind. But in reality – when God created you, specifically – God created your language and your colours for a reason”.
Halal markets, Islamic bookstores, and Muslim fashion are ubiquitous in Philadelphia, and it would be hard to venture into any neighbourhood in the city and not find at least some Muslim presence.