January 06, 2005

Ramadan, Date Omelets, and Global Compassion

by Omid Safi, Colgate University

Ramadan was simpler in my childhood: It was about date omelets.

We got up around 4 or 4:30 a.m. to have a suhur, also called sahari, meaning a dawn-time meal. After that, no food and no water until sunset time. For the grown-ups, it meant no smoking, and as they love to joke about it, no sex until sunset. Then we would break our fasts with a meal called iftar. Getting out of bed was always a titanic struggle, but not on Ramadan mornings. We got to have a special treat on those days: date omelets.

My mom, God bless her precious heart, would get up at 4 in the Ramadan morning and cook sahari for us. We got to have date omelets, which must have at least eight thousand calories. She would take four or five fresh dates, cook them in some butter (no margarine, please), and then mix it with some scrambled eggs. Sugar, fat, protein. Oh, and a tall glass of chocolate milk, and another glass of water. Happiness on a table, served up at 4:30 a.m. We lived for that meal. We were not allowed to have date omelets at any other time of the year, no matter how much we begged for it.

Kids are not required to fast for the month of Ramadan. (Neither are the elderly, the sick, those who are traveling, women who are nursing or pregnant, etc.) As children, we didn't have to fast, and yet it was an important rite of passage to wake up with our family.

Ramadan was, and continues to be, a more spiritual time around our households. People are a bit more considerate, a bit more mindful. Fewer arguments over the TV remote. Even my family members who did not do the regular five-times-a-day prayers fasted. To not fast would be ... rude. Ramadan is about food, and it is about more than food. It is about cleansing one's heart and soul. People watch what they say, what they listen to, what they look at. The words were spoken with a bit more compassion, and folks ended arguments before they began by reminding each other that it was Ramadan.

My father used to tell us that fasting was a privilege. He said that we chose to not eat from sun up to sundown, whereas there are people in the world for whom not eating lunch or snacks was a daily fact of life. In being hungry, we are to feel their pain and suffering. He would often repeated this Persian poem by Sa'di:

The Children of Adam are members of one body,
made from the same source.
If one feels pain,
the others can not be indifferent to it.
If you are unmoved by the suffering of others,
you are not worthy of the name human being.

(Sa'di, The Rose Garden)

One of the common customs in the Muslim world is to take food to those in need in Ramadan. There is often no central collecting agency to do this. The challenge was to do this without in any way reducing the dignity of those who were presented with the food. Charity personalized, dignity un-compromised. That was the goal.

I am thinking about Ramadan a lot these days as well. Missing those date omelets. And missing what felt like the simplicity of the times. They were not simple days, of course, as it was the time immediately preceding the Iranian Revolution of 1979. But to my eyes they seemed like simple days.

Ramadan is hard these days. Not eating food is the easy part. Ramadan is in winter these days, which means the fast can last less than 10 hours or so, depending on what part of the country you live in. It was often as long as 16 hours when Ramadan was in summer.

The hard part is feeling the suffering of others. I am a parent now. Before I am a Muslim, I am a parent. Before I am an American, I am a parent. And this Ramadan I am thinking a lot about children.

I think about the children whose parents never came home from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The children whose parents were on the four planes on September 11, and the ones whose parents were on the American Airlines plane that went down November 12. Even now as I look at my son and daughter watching Arthur on PBS, tears swell up in my eyes as I think about those children whose Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Christmas this year will be spent without their parents.

All of our children are precious, the ones here, the ones there, the ones everywhere. I have children now, which means my life is no longer my own. I have an eight-year old son, and this Ramadan I will offer him date omelets at dawn time. And I will hug him tight—nappy hair, sleepy eyes, nasty breath, and all. May he grow up to be one who feels the pain of others as his own. May he have the courage to bring some healing into this fractured world.

And may he like date omelets…

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is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Colgate University, co-Chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion, and editor of Progressive Muslims.

Seemi Bushra Ghazi

is a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, musician, and non-clerical reciter of the Qur'an.