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US Muslims: Is It Thanksgiving or A Day of Mourning?

Long before social-distancing and lockdowns, there was a Muslim divide on whether to celebrate Thanksgiving or not. It is as clear as black and white, halal or haram for many Muslims. Pro-Thanksgiving Muslims say you are encouraging good family relations and making special acknowledgments of thanks on the non-religious holiday.

Non-participants say it is not one of the few sanctioned Islamic holidays. Participating in it is a form of bid’ah, making it haram regardless that the holiday is secular in origin.

But there is another issue regarding Thanksgiving that is much less discussed by Muslims. 

What is Thanksgiving based on?

The general revisionist legend of Thanksgiving is that in their early struggles in America, pilgrims were aided by Native Americans to survive the harsh and foreign winter. According to the legend, a celebration was held to give thanks for the aid and/or their blessings. While harvest-type celebrations are common across many cultures, it isn’t clear that the two cultures celebrated together in the 1600s.

According to Native Circle, “In October of 1621 when the ‘pilgrim’ (they were actually puritans) survivors of their first winter in Turtle Island) sat down to share the first unofficial ‘Thanksgiving’ meal, the Indians who were there were not invited.  There was no turkey, squash, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.  A few days before this alleged feast took place, a company of ‘pilgrims’ led by Miles Standish actively sought the head of a local Indian leader, and an 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the very purpose of keeping Indians out.”

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It is even proposed that the first Thanksgiving-like celebration was held to mark the end of the Pequot War, which occurred with a massacre of about 500 Pequot men, women and children. 

The Governor of Plymouth declared that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” 

Is it worth Celebration?

Being based on a lie, is Thanksgiving still worth celebrating? Is that even halal to further a lie? The lie continues to contribute to oppression and genocide of the indigenous people of North America.

‘Well,’ people say, ‘that’s not why I celebrate Thanksgiving. All my family have the time off, so it’s a good chance to get together. And we are thankful…’ 

Couldn’t we spend our time together as a family, while recognizing the false past Thanksgiving was born of? And continue the progress of recognizing the ongoing, contemporary issues of assimilation and racism in the US. As Muslims, don’t we feel compelled to participate in the truth

Truth leads one to Paradise and virtue leads one to Paradise and the person tells the truth until he is recorded as truthful, and lie leads to obscenity and obscenity leads to Hell, and the person tells a lie until he is recorded as a liar.

Allah’s Messenger (PBUH), narrated by Abdullah (Sahih Muslim)

Day of Mourning

Half a decade ago, in 1970, Wampanoag tribal member Frank James was invited to speak at the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans to North America. In the first few lines of the speech James says:

“This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal.

A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood…”

James’ words were considered inflammatory and rejected by the event organizers. That year was the first in which James organized a protest on Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock.

During the event, Plymouth Rock was buried, the Union Jack flag was removed from the Mayflower and replaced with the flag that had been raised on Native American liberated Alcatraz Island in 1969. This protest marked the first National Day of Mourning which is now recognized annually in the United States on the same day as Thanksgiving. 

Recognition is powerful

A plaque is now posted on Cole’s Hill which reminds visitors:

“Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”

How does a Native American Muslim feel about the holiday?

“As an Indigenous person who is also Muslim, I have long felt uncomfortable with this holiday. Of course I believe that we should be thankful and express our gratitude. ” Aaminah Shakur says.

“For many converts, like myself, family expectations are a serious consideration that make it difficult to avoid engaging in a variety of holidays, of which Thanksgiving is just one. The question for those of us concerned with justice and righteousness doesn’t have to solely be ‘if’ we participate, but perhaps ‘how’. 

I look forward to the day that the National Day of Mourning is recognized instead, but it will take us to contribute to creating that change. Maybe, for Muslims, that change starts with having more honest conversations around the dinner table on this day – where we ensure our children know the true stories of how Indigenous people were oppressed by the Pilgrims, historically have been deeply harmed, and continue to be erased today. Can we have more open conversations about how this nation was built and the myths that have contributed to it?

Know our history together

“I have also encountered so many Muslims who think Native Americans only exist in history, and this is part of those same myths that need to be challenged. We still exist, and we still deal with the effects of colonization today.

“Maybe if we started there, with telling the truth on this day, naming ways we contribute to or benefit from the erasure and harm done to Native Americans, we could also begin to build new family traditions that would make better use of this day for enacting change going forward.” Aaminah adds.

How will you celebrate this holiday?

Tommy Orange, author, educator and member of Oklahoma’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, has a suggestion for how-to spend the holiday:

“We don’t have to buy turkey. We don’t have to buy into any of it. Sure, it’s a tradition. So is the Confederate flag.

“Here’s what we can all do this Thanksgiving: Anything else. Everyone has the day off. Most people have an unchecked investment in the holiday. They might not say it, but they want to keep the illusion that America’s roots are true.” 

Try something different this fourth Thursday of November. Address your nafs. Acknowledge the truth. If you have the time off, enjoy it while being honest about the historical significance of the day. It’s true that Muslims can and should give thanks every day. How and why will you be doing it on this day?