The common narrative of Thanksgiving brings to mind scenes from elementary school plays featuring the happy Pilgrims sharing their harvest feast with happy Native Americans. Both groups shared a communal meal and gave thanks for a bountiful first harvest in the New World. This was the harvest that saved the surviving English settlers from starvation and death after a devastating first winter that diminished their numbers by half. If it hadn't been for the almost miraculous appearance of the English-speaking Tisquantum -- commonly known as Squanto --
who taught the remaining Pilgrims how to cultivate maize, and to hunt and fish, our school play might have been very different.
While researching the origins of this national holiday, I was surprised to discover that Thanksgiving wasn't a new or unique practice among these religious new immigrants to the land. After barely surviving a ruinous drought the next year, a second Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth was declared by Governor William Bradford. However, he first called for a religious fast to express thankfulness to God, which was then followed by a feast day. Annual days of fasting and thanksgiving were common practice among other New England settlements.
Thanksgiving didn't become an institutionalized event until the midst of the Civil War. in 1863, President Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November to be an official day for Americans to "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union." Since then the last Thursday of November has been an American holiday with the exception of two years during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November to stimulate Christmas retail sales, since advertising and promoting goods for Christmas before the Thanksgiving holiday was considered to be in bad taste.* The impetus for this date change signals the erosion of the religious focus of Thanksgiving to something more secular. In 2011, it's fair to say that we as a nation consider the modern expression of Thanksgiving to be getting together with family or friends, overeating, football, and a day to rest up before Black Friday.
While the religious significance of Thanksgiving has been lost for many Americans, Muslim Americans will say that it's not lost for us.
This original Thanksgiving celebration, preceded by fasting, is very familiar to Islamic practices. Muslims observe a month-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan, followed by the celebration of Eid al Fitr. Muslims should also fast on the day of Arafah in preparation for the next three days of celebration of Eid al-Adha. Devout Muslims follow the example of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad by fasting on Mondays and Thursdays as well.
We ritually express gratefulness to God in our five daily prayers with the Opening Prayer, Al Fatiha:
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee (alone) do we worship, and whose aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
After completing the ritual prayers, we recite dhikr. Traditionally, dhikr, (akin to saying a rosary), is expressing praise and gratitude to God. We say, alhamdoulillah (all praise and thanks are due to God), Subhan'Allah, (Glory be to God) and Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) 33 times each -- which adds up to praising God at least 495 times a day with all 5 prayers. We do our best to have our lips moist with thanks and praise for God all day long.
The supplications given during prayer, and the ritual 99 words of thanks and praise after each prayer are only the beginning of a Muslim's expression of gratitude to God. Listening to Muslims speaking to one another you'll hear phrases like, insha'Allah, (if God wills it so), when speaking of something in the future; when the discussion surrounds a beautiful thing such as an autumn tree in all it's flaming glory, a Muslim will say, "subhan'Allah" to remind himself that God created the miracle of the changing seasons. If I ask a Muslim, "how are you?" he will likely say, "alhamdoulillah". This answer doesn't tell me if his roof was fixed, or if he got the hoped-for job promotion, but I will know this person is living in a state of God-consciousness with the ultimate belief that we have no control over the universe, or a leaking roof.
Another myth about Muslims in America can be put to rest. Muslims will be patriotically observing Thanksgiving all across America as a day of gratefulness, topped off with halal turkey and exotic takes on side dishes that rival the American green bean casserole and sweet potatoes.
While Muslims give thanks to God every day, the fourth Thursday of November will always be remembered with special consideration of the difficult times faced by America's first immigrants. They arrived on the shores of this spectacular land with great hope to freely practice their faith, and live peacefully among the folks who were already living here.
*Known as Franksgiving, the earlier Thanksgiving date only lasted two years. There was great public outcry against the change; folks felt it dishonored President Lincoln. Under political pressure, FDR signed a bill into law restoring the fourth Thursday of November as the permanent date for Thanksgiving.