This is a guest post by G. Willow Wilson.
The week before Ramadan, I ordered a $65 jumbo box of medjool dates.
“By the grace of God, 100% organic,” the advertisement read. “Highest quality.” I find myself thinking ‘at that price, they’d better be.’ One more thing ticked off my list, along with halal free range chicken–raised by the Amish, butchered by Muslims; only in America, folks–dried apricots, filo dough for sweets, and a half million other things, because for the designated cook in any Muslim household, the holy month of fasting involves stocking up on food.
It seems counterintuitive, I know. But when you’re only eating one big meal a day, you’ve got to make it count. During the day, Ramadan might resemble Lent, but at night it resembles Thanksgiving: seasonal eats enjoyed with family and friends are a big part of the month’s festivities. Something special happens at that wonderful moment when the call to prayer rises up from the nearest iPhone (there’s an app for that) and you descend on a table of lovingly prepared traditional foods.
Yes, Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, a month when Muslims around the world deepen their practice through fasting, reciting Quran, giving charity, and being particularly nice to one another. (Cursing, gossiping and rudeness are especially frowned upon during the holy month.) And whenever anybody takes a moment to rhapsodize about the food, there is inevitably a grumpy person waiting in the wings to say “Food is not the point. You shouldn’t even be thinking about food.” Okay, brother. But while you’re performing extra prayers, who do you think is making that biryani you eat at sunset? It doesn’t cook itself.
For me, preparing the evening meal has itself become a form of ibadah; an act of worship and striving for God. Even a dish you’ve cooked a hundred times before gets tricky when you can’t taste as you go and adjust the ingredients accordingly. Is there too much salt? Not enough garlic? You won’t know until sunset, when you and your guests will find out at the same moment whether your instincts served you well. Cooking while fasting is a unique experience, not least because you’re surrounded by the perfume of food you can’t eat. Very early on, I discovered that I’m never tempted to sneak a bite of something–if anything, cooking the evening meal serves to emphasize the purpose of my fast, defining my service both to God and to the people who will break their fasts with the food I’ve prepared.
Eating good food with people you love brings an essential but often overlooked element to religious practice: joy. You’re filled with gratitude to God to be sitting at that table (or in traditional households, on that floor) with those particular friends, able to enjoy a meal together after a day of intense abstinence. A lot of people around the world aren’t so lucky. Part of the point of Ramadan is remembering how fortunate you are, and endeavoring to make life a little better for people who have less. Even as we enjoy our evening meal, prayers and alms are winging their way to those for whom the sun sets on war, famine and heartbreak–especially this year, when so many in the Arab world are struggling to free themselves from tyranny. As we open our homes and tables to our friends, we open our hearts to you.