Approximately fifty people gathered outside the Hennepin County Government Center to pray on the first Friday of Ramadan shortly after 1pm. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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A.J. Bantley broke her Ramadan fast one day with M&M’s.

She doesn’t remember what day it was—the past week has been a blur, she said. On the first day of Ramadan, Bantley, 55, attended a protest while fasting, and she originally planned to go home in time to break her fast before 8 p.m.

“But as I was standing there, I couldn’t get myself to walk away. It was too powerful,” Bantley said. “Eating and drinking at that point wasn’t even on my mind.”

That day, Bantley, who works for a public charter school in South Minneapolis, was calling for justice in the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man fatally shot in Brooklyn Center. In the nights that followed, Bantley continued to protest through sunset. She told her friends not to invite her over to break their fasts together: This is more important to me. My heart is out on the streets.

Almost two billion Muslims across the world started celebrating Ramadan April 12. For the following 30 days, Muslims who are able to will fast from sunrise to sunset and immerse themselves in prayer, charity, and spiritual reflection. But in Minnesota, Muslims grappled with an especially difficult start to the holy month. Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday in the murder of George Floyd, but protests continue for Wright—and for an end to police brutality and systemic racism generally. Muslim community leaders and activists are reflecting on how their faith and activism intersect.

Imam Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, has increasingly been talking with his congregation about justice.

“Justice is the bedrock of Islam. It’s the blood that floats through the entire body of Islam,” Zaman said. “So Muslims have to be on the side of justice.”

Justice in Islam

Bantley has been protesting all over: Brooklyn Center, downtown Minneapolis, George Floyd Square, the Governor’s Mansion in Saint Paul, and even a surprise protest in Stillwater. Chauvin’s guilty verdict isn’t enough. Bantley is more concerned about systemic issues.

“This is one of the things that we wholeheartedly are taught,” Bantley said, “that no one is better than another person, except in our righteousness to God, not skin color, not ethnicity, not family name.”

Bantley reminisced about previous Ramadans, when she would have a predetermined schedule. She would spend her time reading the Qur’an and going to the mosque for the late-night prayer. 

“Being out on the streets, it almost felt wrong in a way,” she said. ““The more I thought about it, this is also a spiritual journey—really standing up for something, for change that has to happen.”

When Zaman talks about justice with community members, he explains that it exists in layers. On one hand, he said Muslims believe ultimate justice can only be delivered by God on the Day of Judgment. “Nothing you do—you could give hundreds of millions of dollars, you could change every single police law—you will still not get real justice.”

But there are other layers to consider. Racism, police brutality, and systemic injustice are contrary to the faith. At the very least, Zaman said Muslims should reflect on that. Second, Muslims—especially Black Muslims—suffer as a result. There’s also a third layer to consider. 

“We live in a toxic soup of racism in this country—all the people of America, including Muslims,” Zaman said. “You cannot swim in a soup of something and not be taken by it.”

So Zaman has taken it upon himself to talk about injustice, despite the fact that some of his congregants believe in keeping politics out of the mosque. Zaman remembered giving a sermon after New York City police officers put Eric Garner in a deathly chokehold in 2014. He remembered looking out into a crowd with puzzled faces. 

But now, people get it, Zaman said. Because they also hang air fresheners from the rear view mirrors of their cars, just like Wright did when he was stopped by Brooklyn Center Police. No one can deny this anymore, Zaman said, and he’s pleased to see his community protesting.

“Even though I understand that we may not get as much as people deserved, we can move the needle,” Zaman said.

To do that, Zaman echoed what many community leaders, activists, and elected officials have been saying since Chauvin was found guilty. He wasn’t just a “bad apple;” the system that allows officers like Chauvin to exist needs to change.

‘My people need to show up for prayer. Are you ready to arrest a thousand Muslims?’

As Muslims in Minnesota made plans to protest that system, they were met with a scheduling issue. 

The evening Ramadan started, protesters gathered in Brooklyn Center demanding justice for Wright. That same day, Governor Tim Walz imposed a 7 p.m. curfew in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota counties. The curfew would have kept all Muslims in those counties from attending their local mosque for the first nightly prayer. 

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded the governor amend the order to accommodate people traveling to and from religious gatherings. 

Zaman was also shocked that he wasn’t consulted. He left messages with the governor’s office, the Department of Public Safety, and the mayor of Saint Paul, Melvin Carter. Carter was the first to call back.

“I recommend controlling the situation by making sure cops stop killing Black people,” Zaman told Carter. “In the meantime, my people need to show up for prayer. Are you ready to arrest a thousand Muslims?”

Eventually, the state clarified that people traveling to and from religious gatherings would be exempt from the curfew. 

Fadumo Osman, a 25-year-old Muslim living in Saint Paul, said that the clarification didn’t bring any reassurance. At the very least, it felt like an afterthought. At most, she wondered if police officers would still stop Muslims on their way to the nightly prayer.

Still, that didn’t disrupt Fadumo’s plans.

Muslims attend protests and donate supplies

When Fadumo wraps up her day working as a freelance programmer, she goes to the store to buy food and supplies to deliver to Brooklyn Center High School and other areas running food drives. 

She pulls up to a long line of cars also dropping off goods. She’s also seen the shelves clean out pretty quickly. Lately, Fadumo has been buying water, Gatorade, menstrual supplies, and diapers. The supplies are mostly for residents living in the apartment building across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department.

“During the holy month, it’s always been about reflection,” Fadumo said. She added that acts of charity are incumbent upon Muslims, especially during Ramadan. “There are different examples of ways to show solidarity within your own means. For me, it’s been supply runs.”

After that, Fadumo stays behind for the rest of the night to protest. She remembered seeing a woman who brought her own prayer rug. Members from CAIR-MN had brought dates and water for protesters, which is typically how Muslims break their fast. “It was beautiful,” Fadumo said.

On the first night of Ramadan, Fadumo called a Lyft to take her and her supplies to Brooklyn Center. Her driver, an Egyptian-American Muslim named Ahmed helped Fadumo bring everything inside and he stayed behind to speak to other mutual aid organizers. He told them: I know it’s hard to speak up during this time, but Muslims stand with you. Everyone started crying, Fadumo said.

Fadumo then recalled a teaching in Islam: People make up one body and when one of the limbs suffers—the whole body suffers. When the judge declared Chauvin guilty of all charges in the murder of Floyd, the suffering eased slightly, but the work still continues.

“I’m afraid that people will see a guilty verdict and move on,” Fadumo said. “It doesn’t really change what’s happened and is still happening.”

After the Chauvin verdict, Fadumo said she was going to spend the next couple of days with her family in Mankato for Ramadan.

Bantley on the other hand will continue to attend protests—wherever she’s needed. But she makes sure to stick a few dates in her pocket just in case.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.