I had a date last night. No, it’s not what you think: Muslims customarily break their fast with a date. Dates have a special significance in Muslim culture and tradition. Referenced many times in the Qur’an, date palms are said to have sheltered and sustained Mary while she was giving birth to Jesus, and dates were a staple of the diet of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
My date of choice is a Medjool date, large and plump, and I usually bring to potluck iftars a plate of Medjools stuffed with walnuts and sprinkled with powdered sugar. 90% of Medjool dates available in the US come from the fertile Coachella Valley of California, near where I grew up. In fact, southern California is one of the few areas outside the Middle East where dates are successfully cultivated. Dozens of varieties of dates are grown there. And in my humble opinion, they are the best dates in the world.
My father used to take me on pilgrimages to Mecca. Not the holy city in Saudi Arabia, but the town of Mecca, California, where the annual Date Festival is held. We got to sample every type of date available — Zahidi, Deglet Noor, Empress, and others. In this part of California, dates are not only celebrated–view the many roadside date shops and billboards along Interstate 10–but their links to the Arab and Muslim world are acknowledged respectfully. The date growers we met even asked us if they were pronouncing the Arabic names properly.
One of the most important tenets of Islam is charity, and it is during Ramadan when Muslim pocketbooks open most freely. With our hearts softened through the rigor of fasting and reflection, our attention turns to those less fortunate. Charity, or zakat in Arabic, is considered one of the five “pillars” of Islam and a mandatory tenet of the faith, and a strong charitable impulse is an attribute for which Muslims worldwide are well known. And at the end of Ramadan, a specific donation, zakat-ul-fitr, is collected for these charitable purposes.
In a post-9/11 America, however, the institution of zakat has taken on a whole new meaning. Scores of US-based Muslim charities have been shut down or their activities curtailed for fear of promoting terrorist causes overseas. While in some of these cases a link was established between one or more staff members and suspicious groups overseas, most closures were preemptive in nature, leaving millions of dollars of Muslim charitable contributions with nowhere to go.
One of the things that makes America special is our food. We have a unique way of taking cuisines from all over the world–China, Mexico, and Italy come to mind–and putting an American twist on it. We have managed to elevate eating out to an art form, and it has a special place in American culture.
But for Muslim Americans who abide by halal dietary restrictions (similar to Jewish kosher rules, but not as stringent), eating out has presented a challenge. Where can Muslims go without having to resort to vegetarian options? (Although, thankfully, there are an increasing number of good vegetarian restaurants available.) The answer is the halal restaurant–defined not by cuisine type, but by the use of meat slaughtered after the Muslim invocation to God.
There is a communal and public aspect of Ramadan that helps to bind Muslims as a community (ummah in Arabic), and there are the logistics of fasting that help us balance our daily responsibilities around the commitment to fast. But the act of fasting is, at its heart, a very personal spiritual experience–a contract between ourselves and our Creator that helps to reestablish our place with respect to Him.
Fasting serves the mental purpose of taming our ego, the physical purpose of putting mind over body, and the spiritual purpose of submitting ourselves to God’s will.
It is human nature to empower and elevate ourselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when left unchecked, it can become an addiction that upsets the critical balance between people that is needed for a civil society. Muslims, like all humans, are no exception to this instinct. Left to our own devices, we would worship only ourselves and resist any attempt to put rules and restrictions on our behavior. But there is an inner voice or state–Muslims refer to it as our fitra–that recalls a primordial covenant with God to recognize His authority over all things. It is this basic relationship between human and divine that Ramadan seeks to reestablish.