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On June 19, we Americans celebrate Juneteenth — the day slavery was completely abolished in America.
As a Muslim, I believe this is one of the greatest moments of American history. The Qur’an, our holy book, states, “Do you know what the greatest ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave.” (Qur’an 90:12-13) This shows how blessed the complete abolition of slavery was and how, from the Islamic perspective, it brought America to new heights.
Muslims and slavery in America go back to the original West African slaves that were brought to America.
The ancestors of these freed African Americans originated from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds and cultures throughout West Africa. In many cases, they were united by forceful bondage. Up to a third of these West Africans were Muslims from many different people groups such as the Wolof and Fula peoples. Islam came to West Africa at the end of the seventh century and became an important identity of many West African peoples and cultures for both Muslim and traditional religion practitioners.
Upon arrival to America, African Muslim slaves faced varying levels of religious tolerance. Some slave owners allowed them to congregate while others strictly forbade it. Over time, however, due to the practice of separating slave families and the inadequate amount of Islamic teachers, Islam gradually disappeared among the African Muslim slaves and was left only in some traditions and folklore.
Currently, a quarter of Muslims in America are African Americans. Since the 1920s, there has been a revival in African American interest in Islam through various movements such as the Ahmadiyya movement. Muslim names are very prevalent among non-Muslim African Americans, illustrating a growing interest in their Muslim ancestors who were enslaved.
African American Muslims have played a crucial and highly visible role in both the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and the Black empowerment movement. Leaders like Malcolm X, an African American Muslim, turned to Islam as a source for understanding the racial divide in America and how to bring upon its end.
The Prophet of Islam states, “Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white — except by piety.” This quote of the Prophet of Islam is exactly what the Civil Rights movement in America was fighting for. Ever since its inception, Islam has always consisted of a diverse group of followers: Arabs, Africans, Persians, Greeks and other peoples. We, Muslims, believe that this shows Islam’s support for racial integration.
After the final abolition of slavery in 1865, the 20th century was characterized by the breakdown of much racial prejudice and a change in attitude towards race. Yet, it was also a time of change in which not all boundaries had been broken down. African Americans who had been stripped of their individuality still fought to restore equal rights between them and the white.
The Qur’an highlights the importance of understanding each other’s cultures and traditions instead of thinking of others, who are different from us, as foreign or even inferior. It mentions, “We have made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.” (Qur’an 49:13) By doing so, society, in general, is able to take great strides forward with the diversity of ideas, different perspectives and the fostering of cultural insight that comes with acceptance and compassion for others.
America’s journey to becoming a melting pot of different cultures, races and languages has been a long and precarious one. Juneteenth is an essential and necessary step in the process of America becoming what it is today.