Articles from the 1997 Festival of American Folklife
Program Book

Celebrations in African Immigrant Communities: Islamic Celebrations in the African Immigrant Communities in Washington, D.C.
by Sulayman S. Nyang

In Maryland, Sierra Leonean immigrant Muslims pray at the Eid Celebration at the end of Ramadan. Photo by Harold Dorwin

Immigrants from the Muslim world have introduced global Islam into the American cultural and religious mosaic. They can be easily seen at the rituals, rites, and celebrations they perform as part of their faith communities and at annual events that reaffirm and revalidate their identities as Muslims. This aspect of Muslim life in the United States is now felt around the country and especially in the greater Washington area, where almost all Muslim countries are represented by their respective embassies and where a small but growing body of immigrant and native-born Muslims now reside. Estimates by local media put the Muslim population in the area between 50,000 and 75,000.

Muslims annually celebrate several feasts now reported in the local press and discussed between Muslims and their neighbors and friends in American society. The three most widely celebrated events among African Muslims are the Eid el-Fitr, Eid el-Adha, and Mawlad el-Nabi. The first feast takes place every year at the end of the month of fasting known as Ramadan. Because they have not yet established religious centers of their own, African Muslims in the greater Washington area usually join other Muslims at various local masjids (mosques) and Islamic centers for the Eid prayers. If they have been able to secure leave from work to celebrate, they also partake in a meal of chicken bought from halal (ritual expert) butchers, who cater specifically to Muslims. Some pay visits to relatives and friends in the area, while others are hosts or hostesses to other Muslims they have not seen during the year because of conflicts in work schedules and other responsibilities of modern urban life.

The second feast, the Eid el-Adha, comes two months and ten days after the Eid el-Fitr. This celebration is a re-enactment of Abraham's offer to sacrifice his son to God. It is also the day after the Muslim pilgrims converge at Mt. Arafat as part of their hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Like the first Eid, this one is celebrated by prayer at the mosque and by social visits and meals. This occasion is distinctive in its tradition of sacrificing a lamb (or any other animal approved by Islamic law) and sharing the meal prepared from it with neighbors and friends.

The third celebration, Mawlad el-Nabi, centers on the sira (biography) of the Prophet Muhammad. On this occasion African Muslims organize lectures and chanting sessions at a local mosque or rented facility. Such celebrations are often acts of devotion by members of local Muslim community organizations connected with African Muslim brotherhoods. These American branches of African Sufi orders maintain this form of veneration of the Prophet, but the tradition is frowned upon by members of the Wahabi sect from Saudi Arabia because it is seen as an innovation. During the celebrations, congregations sing poems known as qasidas, composed and written down long ago by African and Arab poets like Shaykh Alhaji Malick Sy of Senegal and other Muslim poets from Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Harar in Ethiopia.Sulayman S. Nyang, a tenured professor at Howard University+s African Studies Department, was the founding editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. Dr. Nyang has served as Ambassador of the Republic of the Gambia throughout the Middle East and northeast African countries. He is also the author and editor of works such as Islam, Christianity, and African Identity (1984) and Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John Mbiti (1993), which was co-authored with Jacob Olupona.

Suggested Reading

Austin, Allan D. 1984. African Muslims in Ante-Bellum America. New York: Garland.

Esposito, John. 1995. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, I.M. 1980. Islam in Tropical Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mazrui, Ali A., and Toby Kleban Levine, eds. 1986. The Africans. New York: Praeger.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1988. Ideals and Realities of Islam. London: Unwin Hyman Limited.

Nyang, Sulayman. 1986. History of Muslims in North America. Al-Ittihad (September): 39-47.

_______. 1984. Islam, Christianity, and African Identity. Brattleboro, Vermont: Amana.

Padwick, Constance E. 1961. Muslim Devotions: A Study of Prayer Manuals in Common Use. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Index of Articles    CFCH Home