“Is Ramadan an American Holiday?”

Dr. Nathan S. French, Miami University

Dr. French with D & Z host, Yoshie Vinton

Ramadan Mubarak! Ramadan Kareem! These greetings, wishing another a “Blessed” or “Generous” Ramadan are common throughout the annual month-long fast observed by Muslims across the world and here in the United States. Muslim communities in the United States are among the most diverse communities of Muslims in the world. Per polling by the Pew Foundation in 2017, nearly 80% of Muslims in the United States observe the fast of Ramadan. Each community will observe that fast in a variety of ways. Let’s explore Islam and Ramadan as we consider the question – “Is Ramadan an American holiday?”

Thinking about the Basics:  What is Islam?

When scholars think about Islam, we do not begin with mere belief. We think about diverse communities of Muslims. Generally, we understand that Islam is a monotheistic tradition, meaning Muslims believe in only one God. Muhammad ibn ʿabd Allah (570-632 CE) is understood by Muslims to be the Prophet and Messenger of Islam who received from God, through the angel Jibril (or Gabriel) the Qurʾan, a revelation and recitation in Arabic preserved in text in the seventh century C.E. There are now nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world and they are incredibly diverse in their identities.

In their practice, Muslims affirm that there are five shared obligations. Every Muslim must affirm the oneness of God and the prophetic message of Muhammad, must observe the five daily prayers, must ensure the sanctity of their property by paying zakat, must attempt the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca if they are able at least once in life, and, finally, must observe the fast of Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

As a ritual observance, Ramadan is a period of spiritual renewal for Muslims as they commemorate the revelation of the Qurʾan. Central to the observance of Ramadan is to step outside of normal routine and become mindful of one’s obligations to oneself and to one’s community. A central act of self-denial that accompanies Ramadan is fasting from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset if one is of a mature age and in good health.

Often, people combine the fast – or sawm as it is known in Arabic – with the word Ramadan. The word “Ramadan,” however, refers specifically to the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar of twelve months of thirty days.

Fasting can present unique challenges to Muslims around the world. Muslims who live above the Arctic Circle – where the sun may not set or rise for nights on end – often seek guidance and accommodations. Muslim athletes who are competing rely on the advice of religious officials, healthcare practitioners, and their own conscience to decide on whether to abstain from food.

Ramadan is also a time of communal gathering. Each day, Muslims will wake before sunrise to a meal called suhur in Arabic. At the end of the day, the fast is broken with a meal called an iftar, literally a “breaking of the fast.” Foods that are eaten are often a reflection of a family’s own preferences, cultural practices, or national identities. These gatherings culminate, at the end of Ramadan, in the observance of the holiday, Eid al-Fitr – a final breaking of the fast.

At times, Ramadan can be a challenge, but it is not meant to be an undue hardship. If a Muslim is unable to fast or breaks the fast accidentally, then it is permissible to make up that fast at a later date or provide food to others as an act of charitable giving. Many evenings during Ramadan Muslims will head to their local mosque to participate in qurʾanic recitations and reflective prayers called tarawih in Arabic. It’s common for the entire Qurʾan to be recited throughout the month.

Is Ramadan an “American” Holiday?

When we think about “American” holidays, you might think of holidays like the fourth of July, Juneteenth, or Memorial Day. Yet, there are other holidays that many Americans celebrate that now seem woven into our shared cultural vocabulary and, often, these have spiritual origins – Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and Kwanzaa. Might Ramadan fit into this latter category?

Many Americans may not realize that the first Ramadan observances likely occurred in the 17th or 18th centuries in North America. In other words, Ramadan was observed in North America before the United States was a country!

The first enslaved North and West African Muslims taken against their will arrived in the 1520s. People with Arabic and Muslim names appeared in registries of enslaved persons. In the nineteenth century, the biographies of enslaved West African Muslims indicated that they fasted for Ramadan on Sapelo Island in Georgia. Such observations included the exchange of saraka, small rice balls, using recipes found across West Africa. Scholars argue that these saraka were in actuality a form of sadaqa, an Arabic term for charitable giving.

As Muslim immigrants began to arrive to the United States, the observance of Ramadan became increasingly diverse across the country. Today, Muslims observe Ramadan in all fifty states and U.S. territories – ranging from Cincinnati and Chicago to Madison, Minneapolis, and New Orleans.

The earliest observance of Ramadan by a U.S. President was under the administration of Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1805, accommodated the fast of a Tunisian envoy, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, as recorded by John Quincy Adams. Although some Presidents, like Jimmy Carter, sent their own greetings to American Muslims as they observed Eid al-Fitr, it was not until the administration of Bill Clinton that an iftar was again observed at the White House. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joseph Biden have continued this tradition.

White House iftar hosted by President Obama

So, is Ramadan an American holiday? Recent Presidents have said, “Yes.” As President Biden observed in 2024, “To Muslims across our country, please know that you are deeply valued members of our American family …. I wish you a safe, healthy, and blessed month. Ramadan kareem.”

Key Terms

Eid al-Fitr – The holiday commemorating the final breaking of the fast at the end of the month of Ramadan

Iftar –The breaking of the fast at sunset

Ramadan – the ninth month on the Islamic calendar

Sadaqa – Charitable giving

Sawm – The act of fasting during the month of Ramadan

Suhur – The first meal of the morning before sunrise during Ramadan

Additional Reading

Abdul-Majid, Narjis Nichole. “Legacy Post: Sadaqah, Saraka and Sapelo,” Sapelo Square, (link)

“African Muslims in Early America: Religion, Literacy, and Liberty,” National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, D.C., August 25, 2023 (link)

Austin, Allan D. African Muslims Antebellum America. 1st edition. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. 2nd edition. New York: NYU Press, 2013.

—–. “’Ṣadaqa’ among African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas,” Journal of Islamic Studies 10, no. 1 (January 1999), pp. 22-32. (link)

Fraser-Rahim, Muhammad. “Enslaved and Freed African Muslims: Spiritual Wayfarers in the South and Lowcountry,” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Sapelo Island, Georgia, (link)

Mustak, Dayana. “IHOP and Ramadan: A Uniquely American-Muslim Tradition,” The Kojo Nnamdi Show Blog, May 24, 2018 (link)

Spellberg, Denise. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Illustrated edition. New York: Vintage, 2014.

Documentary Film

Faith, Fordson, Fasting” (2011) is a unique look at a community of U.S. high school students and student-athletes in Dearborn, Michigan who balance their fasting for Ramadan and their high school football season.


“The Surprising Ways Local Muslims Come together for Ramadan,” The Kojo Nnamdi Show (link)

Books (Fiction)


H.A. Rey and Hena Khan, It’s Ramadan, Curious George” (Clarion Books)

George learns about Ramadan from his friend Kareem and joins Kareem’s family for an iftar (breaking of the Ramadan fast).

Jasmine Warga, Other Words for Home (Balzer and Bray)

The story of a young Syrian girl who arrives to Cincinnati Ohio as a refugee.

Rabiah York Lumbard, The Gift of Ramadan

Sophia hopes to fast during Ramadan with the aid of her grandmother. What happens when she faces challenges along the way?

Reem Faruqi, Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story

Lailah, a new student in Atlanta, Georgia, is thousands of miles from her home country. This year, she plans to fast for Ramadan for the first time. How will she explain this to her teachers and classmates?

Shirin Shamsi, Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story

Throughout the month of Ramadan, Zahra volunteers at a local shelter with her parents while praying for finding her lost Teddy and for God to grant her a sister. Then, she meets Haleema, a young girl at the shelter.

Natasha Khan Kazi. Moon’s Ramadan.

In this text, the Moon becomes personified as it reflects its light across the world on various communities celebrating Ramadan.

Middle and Young Adult

Iasmin Omar Ata, Nayra and the Djinn

Nayra finds herself caught in the middle of her family’s hopes for her and her classmates who bully her for being Muslim. Things become particularly difficult for her when her classmates notice her fasting for the month of Ramadan with her friend, Rami.

Sara Sharaf Beg, Salaam, with Love

Dua travels to New York City to spend the month of Ramadan with her uncle, aunt, and cousins.

S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hop and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices

An exploration of how various Muslim families across the globe prepare for celebrations of the fast at the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr).

Discussion Activities

Fasting for any reason can be difficult. Think about your classmates who might fast for Ramadan – or for other reasons – how might you help support your classmates during this period of fasting?

Think about your political representatives — your mayor, city council members, state representatives, or your governor. Or, think about your federal representatives in the House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, or even the President of the United States. Have they sent Ramadan greetings to their constituents? Are there other ways that they have engaged with the Muslim communities whom they might represent?

Think about your favorite sports team. What if a Muslim athlete playing for your team was faced with the question of fasting during Ramadan? How have athletes across the country and the world decided whether or not to fast during the month of Ramadan? Have any Muslim athletes at your school faced this question before?

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