By Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid
O believers, give in charity what is good of the things you have earned, and of what you produce from the earth; and do not choose to give what is bad as alms, that is, things you would not like to accept yourself except with some condescension. Remember that God is affluent and praiseworthy. —Surah Al-Baqarah 2:267
While in this blessed month of Ramadhan that calls all Muslims to good behavior, prayer, remembrance of Allah (Thikr) and Qur’an recitation, another of Allah’s commands zakat (charity) also takes its most prominent role. Zakat is a specific religious tax on certain items that can become wajib (mandatory) under certain circumstances and it is a pillar of Islam. There is also zakat al-fitrah which is a religious tax paid on the day when Muslims break the fasting period at the end of the month of Ramadhan. The beauty of zakat is that like sadaqah, it can also be defined as charity. Various schools of thought define the specifics of how it should be paid to slightly differing degrees. The significance of the act that comes at the end of month of fasting and reflecting on those who are less fortunate is the reminder to all Muslims that their sustenance and subsequently their charitable offerings were Allah’s to begin with. Zakat is such an important aspect of Islamic practice that in Ayatullah Dastghaib’s work, Greater Sins, the 37th Greater Sin is the non-payment of wajib zakat. The Prophet Muhammad (S) has also said:
The angel of death is told to remove the soul of a person, but if during that time charity is given then the order to remove the soul is cancelled.
The importance of charity that many of us struggle with even in times of abundance was well known and practiced in the lives of our Muslim ancestors.
According to Katie Brown, the great-granddaughter of Salih Bilali, it is reported that her grandmother Margaret would make flat rice cakes that she called ‘saraka’ every year during a holiday celebration. Miss Brown further recalled “The recipe, a variation on West African cooking, involved soaking rice in water overnight, and then pounding, the swollen, softened rice in a wooden mortar with a pestle until it had turned into paste. Then Brown’s grandmother would add honey and sometimes sugar, and form the paste into flat cakes.” After the cakes were made another woman repeated Ameen the Arabic word for amen several times then blessed the cakes before they were consumed.
So many Muslims all over the word make cakes or sweets of some kind to commemorate the coming of Eid al-fitr so it is not hard to believe that early American Muslims who were celebrating Ramadhan would not also engage in these celebrations. What is a little more difficult to state with accuracy is the full meaning behind these acts of worship and charity given the overlap of African culture onto Islamic practice. Several scholars have attributed the use of this term (saraka) to an ancestor festival celebrated in West Africa in which Africans gave thanks and asked for help. Historically other African festivals shared this same name, but Islam does not include acts of ancestor veneration and it is more likely that the term was co-opted by different African groups, including non-Muslims, to mean different things. There is historical evidence that Muslims in Trinidad, other Caribbean Islands and Brazil participated in preparing saraka offerings some with soaked rice dishes and others with halal slaughtered animals, the recitation of Bismillah (In the name of Allah) over food offerings to be given away.
The term saraka has also been confused with sakara the name of a Yoruba drum played by Yoruba Muslims of Nigeria throughout history. The songs created with this instrument reference traditions of giving and Islamic terms like salam. In a song from Carriacou, the lyrics refer to “Sari Baba” the giving of a milk and rice dish consumed during the month of Ramadhan (sari) to elderly men or fathers (Baba). The word sari comes from the Arabic word sahur, the predawn meal during the annual fast.
It is most likely, that even though the Muslims of Sapelo Islands are not reported to have given away the rice cakes to the less fortunate that they were still recognizing the need to offer thanks for their blessings and remembering Allah. It is widely reported by scholars that Bilali was an observant and educated Muslim who fasted during the month of Ramadhan and observed the feast days (Eid celebrations). Many of the traditions of multi-generational Muslim families are passed down and this is a great example.
If we think of Bilali’s non-Muslim descendants as continuing the tradition of saraka without knowing the full Islamic value of their actions it does not diminish the fact that sadaqah (charity) is one of the few acts that continue to bless a person after his or her death. Sadaqah, which is never measured in quantity and can be the simple transaction of smiling at another is something that should be done by Muslims today in abundance; thus continuing the traditions of our ancestors from the 1800s.
Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid is a part-time lecturer in the departments of Pan African Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville. Her research interests focus on the African American and Native American Islamic experiences (Slavery-Melungeons-20th Century Islamic Movements-Present Day) with emphasis on minority voices.