Muslims celebrate spirit of Juneteenth

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Originally published in The Buffalo News on June 19th, 2019

I must admit that, until recently, I was unaware of the American celebration known as Juneteenth. I suspect the same holds true for other Americans. But given its history and meaning, it didn’t take long to get excited about this somewhat obscure celebration.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, celebrates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas – reportedly the last remaining enclave of slavery in American history. It was announced on June 19, 1865, and thus came to be known as Juneteenth.

It is highly symbolic of the movement to end slavery in America – one of the most shameful aspects of American history, as well as one of its greatest triumphs. Juneteenth is officially a day of observance in 50 states across America. In Buffalo, the celebration is commemorated with a parade culminating in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park downtown.

The struggle to end social injustices has proved to be a perennial one. As American Muslims, the struggle to end slavery is a key feature of the origins of our faith. Nearly 15 centuries ago, some of the very first converts to Islam were slaves who bore severe persecution by their masters for their acts of faith. Some were martyred while others were ransomed and subsequently freed.

The Muslim holy book known as Quran stresses in verses 90:13-14 a key act in gaining favor with God: “And what should make thee know what the ascent is, it is the freeing of a slave.” In hadith literature, which reports the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, it is reported that a Bedouin had once asked the prophet what would be the one act that would grant one admission to paradise. The prophet replied, “You should free a slave.”

But, emancipation from slavery itself is not enough on its own. Equality and empowerment are just as important. The Quran emphasizes not just the freeing of slaves, but according them with rights and means. It encourages Muslims not just to free their slaves but even marry them and allot equal inheritance rights to the offspring.

These principles and injunctions were paramount in altering the subservient perception of the slave class, restoring their human dignity and weaving them into the main fabric of society. In American history, the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement have continued long after emancipation.

The Juneteenth celebration may be more relevant today than it has been in the past, and is a sobering reminder that racial equality and social justice remain an ongoing concern in America. In fact, according to many, these idyllic American principles have deteriorated in recent years.

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