Last week, I looked at one of the unique features of the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan. That feature called ‘suhoor’ is the early morning meal Muslims would partake of to start their fast every day during the month. I observed that the suhoor meal would vary depending on personal preferences and cultural backgrounds.
As pointed out last week, Ramadan is much more than a fasting period: it is a holy month rooted in culture, faith and history. Across the globe, Muslims mark this time with vibrant celebrations that are unique to their region and passed on through generations. The other unique feature of the month is the time of fast breaking or ‘Iftar’ as it is called in Arabic. Iftar is even more exciting, much more organized and family and community oriented than its counterpart ‘suhoor’.
Breaking the fast or iftar practices and traditions also vary from community to community and depend on cultural norms, all keeping within the faith-based directives. Iftar is done daily during the month of Ramadan at sunset. Muslims will start the fast with the suhoor meal at dawn as explained in last week’s article and fast the entire day until sunset. The fast is a complete fast from any food or drink. Muslims will eagerly look forward to breaking their fast at sunset and will ensure they are ready for that moment just after the sun dips under the horizon.
Just like suhoor times vary depending on the time of the year and the location in the world, so too will iftar times vary. For some continents, during summer months, the days will be long and the nights short, while in winter, the reverse happens. In Barbados at this time, Muslims will break their fast around
6:22 p.m. In some places, the breaking of the fast can go up to 9 p.m.
Announcing the time of fast breaking, similar to announcing the time of suhoor, carries with it several traditions, most of which are disappearing with the changes in time and technology. In many Muslim Arab countries, the signalling of the time of breaking the fast was by the sound of canons and the call of prayer for the sunset prayer. The call to prayer or ‘Azan’ has remained, as that is the standard call throughout the year for each prayer, and so for the sunset prayers in Ramadan that marks the time to break the fast as well. The canons can still be heard in some Muslim countries.
Faith-based traditions highly recommend breaking the fast with dates and water. The date fruit is commonly found in the Middle East and was used extensively by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims. The health benefits of the date fruit are being extolled by several nutritionists. A recent article titled 13 Proven Health Benefits Of Dates on www.organicfacts.net spoke to the value of this fruit.
“Dates are sweet fruits of the date palm tree. They are one of the best versatile foods that can regulate the digestive process and have gained popularity in recent times. The Institute of Medicine recommends an intake of 25-38 grammes of dietary fiber per day, which can be supplied through high-fiber foods like dates. It is also said that consuming these dried fruits can promote eye health and may be effective in guarding against vision problems like night blindness. Medjool dates, in particular, are one of the popular varieties that have many benefits.
The massive health benefits associated with dates have made them one of the best ingredients for muscle development, brain health, regularity, and more.
Following faith directives, Muslims the world over will make every effort to obtain dates for fast breaking during the month of Ramadan. In the Caribbean, dates are not usually grown or readily available so the fruit has to be imported. Most dates sold in the region come from California. The Medjool variety mentioned in the article is one of the best out of California. Muslims would also try to import dates from Saudi Arabia or others parts of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia produces a wide variety of dates and some of the best types are found there. The Ajwa type date is considered the best variety with many healing properties. This makes it among the most expensive in the world.
The iftar period is seen as the most important time of the day for the fasting person. The faith extols its value and encourages observers to utilize the time leading up to breaking the fast in earnest devotion. Many iftars will reflect families or communities coming together to break the fast. Sitting together and praying just before breaking the fast is a common feature.
The faith also stresses the huge importance of giving during this month. And one of those practices of giving is feeding a fasting person, especially needy persons in the community. And so iftars in the mosque, community centers or some public facility, in many parts of the world, will feature a person or group of persons sponsoring meals. Here in Barbados, some of the mosques will have iftar every day of Ramadan while others may do so on random days or weekends.
In Muslim majority countries iftars can be grand occasions with thousands of persons joining in on fast breaking. In the following report from Abu Dhabi in the UAE, one gets a clear picture of the vast extent and the amount of work that goes into feeding persons who are fasting:
“The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the largest mosque in the UAE, becomes a focal point of prayer and congregation for residents of the Emirates during this important time in the Islamic calendar. To cater for those abstaining from food and drink, between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, the mosque hosts a massive nightly meal to break the fast, called an iftar.
The iftar menu traditionally includes dates and a yoghurt drink called laban, as well as a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates and calorie-packed dishes to provide a balanced meal. The ingredients required to make the meals [consist of] ten tonnes of rice, seven tonnes of chicken and ten tonnes of vegetables.
To feed up to 30,000 people every night, iftars at the Grand Mosque take six months of planning, involving around 400 chefs and almost 500 service staff.
“We are honored to serve, it’s kind of a privilege to be in such an initiative,” says Shaikha Al Kaabi, CEO of the Armed Forces Officer Club & Hotel, the hospitality company supplying the meals at the Grand Mosque.
The idea, which began 15 years ago, has grown to be a truly multinational and multi-faith affair.
“It’s really overwhelming to see the amount of people, regardless their backgrounds,” Al Kaabi adds.
The types of food consumed at iftars will differ depending on personal and cultural preferences. It is highly recommended not to overeat but to eat wisely especially during the month of fasting so that one can maintain good health and wellness.
The suhoor and iftar times are two truly unique features of the month of Ramadan and are very much looked forward to by observant persons of the fast. The two times allow for more family and community interaction and help build up relationships and restore compassion and care for each other.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected])