The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony in New England. The governor of the colony, William Bradford invited about 90 Native Americans (or as the Canadians call them, First Nation people) to a feast where they shared a meal together. The new settlers, later called the Pilgrims, had a tradition of dedicating three days of prayer to thank the Lord for all his blessings. That year, the Pilgrims had a good harvest, thanks to the Native Americans who had taught them how to farm the land and grow corn. So the three days of festivities and prayer were dedicated to thank the Lord for the harvest.
The Pilgrims were devout Christians. They were Puritans who had disagreed with the Puritans in England. The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England. The Pilgrims, who were called separatists, did not believe the Church of England could be reformed. They separated themselves from it and wanted to have their own church. The group suffered persecution in England around 1600. Some of their leaders were executed for sedition in 1593. In the late 1500s and early 1600s the Church of England was not tolerant of any religious diversity. In 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I, the Act of Uniformity was issued. It made non-attendance of the official Church of England religious services illegal, and imposed a fine of a shilling for each missed service on Sunday. Anyone who conducted an unofficial service was punished by imprisonment. That was England around 1600, when the Pilgrims decided to emigrate, first to the Netherlands. They settled in Leyden. Years later they realized that it was important to retain their English identity and culture, and that they could not integrate into the Dutch culture. Then came the idea of emigration to North America. The first group came on the Mayflower, with the early settlers. They were supposed to go to Virginia, but the rough sea made them land at Cape Cod in New England. From there they established a new colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They befriended the Native Americans who taught them how to farm the land.
As a Muslim who values the Seerah of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, I find his story similar to the Pilgrims’ story. The Hijjra (migration from Makkah to Madinah) is a similar story – the Sahabah (his early followers) had to leave Makkah due to religious persecution by the Arab tribes in Makkah.
Before the Hijjra to Madinah, there was an earlier Hijjra. When the early Muslims suffered persecution by the Arabs in Makkah, Prophet Muhammad advised them to emigrate to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where they lived for several years. Although they settled there and enjoyed religious freedom, they could not integrate into the culture. They all waited for the right time to go back to Arabia. Some of them came back to Makkah way before the Hijjra, like the Prophet’s daughter Ruqayya and her husband Othman ibn Affan. Others came back to Madinah later, after the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, like the Prophet’s cousin Jaffar ibn Abu Taleb. They all came to Madinah, and not just befriended the Ansar (the Muslims of Madinah), but together they all formed a new community of believers. As the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to farm the land, Al Ansar taught Al Muhajireen (the Muslims from Makkah) how to farm in their new land.
When I reflect on the story of Thanksgiving as an American Muslim, I realize that as this holiday has become part of the American culture, it has become part of my own narrative. Islam is new to America. Some of the first generations of Muslims who came to America left their country of origin because they were unable to practice their faith freely. Some of them (including myself) suffered and were persecuted because of their beliefs. They had to leave their homeland, culture, families and friends, to come to a new land. They all have enjoyed freedom of religion and practiced their faith with no fear or persecution.
Thanksgiving has become not just an American tradition, but an Islamic holiday. We as American Muslims should embrace it and celebrate it as part of our own narrative. The spirit of Thanksgiving is Islamic in nature. On our two major holidays, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha, we start our celebration with a prayer, a prayer to thank Allah for His blessings, the blessing of fasting the month of Ramadan, and the blessing of the Abrahamic tradition and foundation of Tawhid, monotheism.
The story of the Pilgrims, the story of the Muhajireen, is our story – the blessings of the new land and new home are the blessings of Thanksgiving.
As Prophet Muhammad said when he came to Al Madinah,
“Ya Allah, grant Al Madinah double the blessings you granted Makkah.”
“Ya Allah, make us love Al Madinah more than we loved Makkah.”