Ramadan Latino Style: An Interview with Jamal Abdul-Karim
Jamal A. (Diaz) Abdul-Karim is the director of the Upper Division of Al-Rahmah School in Baltimore County, Maryland. He is a convert of Cuban descent and a native of Manhattan, New York. He is married and has seven children, ages ranging from 29 to 50. Abdul-Karim holds a master’s degree in education and has been committed to serving the public and private educational sector for over four decades. He has conducted lecture series, authored research papers, and continues to work independently on cultural and community-based programs and events. We asked him to share his thoughts on celebrating the month of Ramadan as a Latino Muslim.
How do you and your family prepare for the month of Ramadan?
Ramadhan is a very unique and specially blessed period for all practicing Muslims. Our family prepares for it much like other Muslim families. We obtain what we need in food stuffs, while anticipating the benefits of worship, camaraderie, special events, and visitation of family and friends. Beyond that, we look forward to ways we can spiritually improve our personal lives and character. I feel the benefits are immeasurable.
Do you help organize Ramadan events and iftars for the Latino community in your area?
My family participated with many Ramadan events over the years in the local area, including when smaller venues were hosted by some of our Latino Muslim brothers and sisters. Usually, Latino-based foods, personal memories, and religious interaction are shared. Activities like this have been linked to larger venues in which I had the privilege to participate. Pursuant to these beautiful activities, I’ve been inspired to write articles, give interviews, and participate as a speaker/presenter in programs. Those programs focused on educating Muslims who aren’t aware of the impact that contemporary Latino Muslims are making and have made historically.
For the most part, the Muslim community at large responds positively to our efforts. Yet, according to the actual statistics of how many Latino Muslims there are, or what active role we’ve played in history, other groups of Muslims continue to be unaware of the numbers and diverse backgrounds of Latino Muslims that live throughout the Americas.
We are inextricably attached to the historical developments of these regional areas. The indigenous populations of Latinos that come from many of the contemporary inner cities were on the scene for decades. We’re on the rise, and the numbers continue to increase across the nation. Nevertheless, many brothers and sisters are still amazed when they learn some of the facts about Latino Muslims.
How do your culture and traditions play a role in how you approach and celebrate Ramadan and Eid?
For me, it’s a matter of reminiscence. Ramadan brings to mind a few of the former holiday celebrations. Homemade pina colada, helado de coco (coconut ice cream), mango or pineapple ice-cream (Cuban-style), yellow or red rice and pigeon peas, platanos (plantains or green banana), meat pies, peppers, fish in red sauce, avocado and lime sprits, or picante seafood (conch) salad, a taste of sofrito, so forth and so on, are a part of the festive atmosphere that I experienced during those holiday periods.
My older daughter has undertaken to preserve parts of that tradition, and it’s a treat! We like the flavors, mixtures, and seasonings. When other Latino Muslims share their food with us, it is always something special. I believe that every group has something good to offer, and it’s no different for Latino Muslims. It’s an incorporated part of our Islamic diversity and heritage.
Have you developed your own Ramadan/Eid traditions? If so, what are they?
As far as traditions go, our basic activities follow the same pattern as other Muslims. Each household might have something special that they do, but the main focus is to worship Allah and gain as many blessing and benefits as we can. What’s special during this period is striving to perfect what goes on in the entirety of the year. Another focus is the fact that our dietary habits must conform to the Islamic recommendations, and we can enjoy all those aforementioned foods and dishes, by using available halal products. In that regard, we can indulge during Ramadhan in the same context, and enjoy that meat pie (empanada) with halal meat, flavor our arroz y gandules (rice and pigeon peas) with smoked halal turkey (instead of jamon/pork), we can drink the virgin mojitos (quite refreshing), and other things that are familiar and shared.
In my family’s case, incorporating some Latino foods is an imperative for preserving some of the cultural things I grew up with. I believe this is a positive way to pass on what makes us who we are, and the identity that we choose to recognize as part of our family’s heritage. In the broader scheme of things, we are grateful to share this reality, because there is a legitimate place for it in Islam.
How do you feel Ramadan compares to how you and your family celebrated the Christmas holidays?
When I express what my former religious disposition was, it sometimes seems unusual to people, but I wasn’t a Christian. Yes, I was exposed to Christianity and its teachings, but my parents were open-ended about this. When it came to my siblings and me, they didn’t force Christianity down our throats. My father was strict in his mannerisms as a Jesuit Catholic, and my mother was raised in the Baptist Church. Yet, religious choice was no insistent issue. We were undoubtedly encouraged to believe in God. Initially, when I was young, my family attended an inter-denominational church. Its curriculum was the idea that true fellowship was composed of people of all denominations, expressed in the higher ideals of faith and brotherhood.
For this reason, I was exposed to Jews, Christians, African Continentals, East Indians, and a host of other congregants that participated in that church. This early experience impressed me as a child, with its primary emphasis on brotherhood, and the unity and worship of God. I was free to explore other belief systems that reflected Afro-centric traditional beliefs, Asian teachings, world philosophy, and of course Islam. I believe I expressed it earlier, that former holiday times had a sense of spirituality in terms of the family traditions, as well as the custom of reunion among young and elder members. As with families that emphasize the importance of tradition, respect for elders, and being thankful, Islamic holidays emphasize the great blessing derived from commemorating the praises of Allah. He reminds us in Qur’an that one way we can celebrate the praises of Allah is by commemorating the special days He granted us.
What distinguishes you as a Latino Muslim in your community? In other words, can people tell that you are a Latino Muslim?
This is an excellent question, and honestly my physical appearance doesn’t necessarily convey to people that I’m a Latino Muslim. This comes with sharing personal information when the topic arises. Others are aware that I’ve been proactively involved with the Latino Muslim Da’wah Movement and programs, as part of Islamic education efforts. Besides my Latino brothers and sisters that know I’m of Latino descent, there might be telltale traces that emerge when I use a phrase in Spanish, or it’s been related by someone else that knows about my background. I have met other Muslim brothers and sisters who are like me, but they are more low-keyed about it. For instance, they may or may not speak Spanish, or they may not openly identify as Latino. They may even feel a sense of awkwardness about interacting with Latinos, let alone identifying as one.
I’ve strived to approach this reaction, or sense of things, by stressing the fact that we are a diverse group of people. Some are completely immersed into the Latino experience, while others have come from multi- or bi-cultural Latino ethnicity. Rest assured, none of these things invalidate people, their roots, culture, or sense of ethnic identity. I see it as learning more about one’s personal history, how comfortable an individual might be, and their sense of how it relates to Islam.
I have no problem with being identified as an African American. This presents no conflict for me. African indigenous culture and civilization is just a phenomenal reality that is a result of the global African diaspora. Allow me to remind you that Latinos come in all shapes, sizes, shades, and colors, and we speak Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, and Creole and/or Patois.
Do you have any special Ramadan experience or advice you would like to share specifically aimed at or regarding Latino Muslims in the community?
Ramadan is a chance to renew our intentions, refresh our understandings, and invigorate our spiritual commitment. When the opportunities arise to share in the rich cultural experiences of Latino Muslims, I recommend that other Muslims explore, investigate, research, discuss, and attend programs that share vital information about Latino Muslims and their continued contribution to the Islamic world, and the world at large. We are fortunate to have in the midst our communities learned, dedicated, and continually advancing Latino Muslim brothers and sisters. The Latino Muslim community is expanding, and its profile reflects groups that come from mainland North America, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean Islands. Muslims from these diverse areas can share their experiences with other people and represent each aspect of the region from which they originate. Sharing this type of da’wah will enhance the understanding of our Muslim ummah and reinforce the reality that Allah can bring Islam to any person’s heart and to any society He chooses.
Finally, Latino Muslims continue to globally contribute to the advancement of Islam through academic education, Islamic scholarship, the medical and technological sciences, historical research, community development, the culinary arts, independent businesses, the sociopolitical realm, and various other fields of endeavor. The contributions of the Latino Muslims are paramount to the continued collective efforts to establish Islam in our regional communities and the Western Hemisphere.