Health is Wealth: Reimagining the Iftar and Other Communal Eating Traditions |

Health is Wealth: Reimagining the Iftar and Other Communal Eating Traditions

Muslims love eating together. Besides the three daily meals, families and friends come together for a variety of occasions that are characterized by the consumption of food and drink. The iftar or breaking of the fast is one of the most popular food gatherings. Symbolic of the religion of Islam, the meal is eaten at the conclusion of a fast. During the month of Ramadan, some religious communities and businesses host nightly iftar gatherings. Outside of Ramadan, weddings, graduations, and aqeeqahs (where new babies are celebrated and introduced to our community) are just a few reasons Muslims eat together. 

The food-based gathering is also where children learn the acceptable behaviors associated with communal eating. They observe the adults in the room and notice how they interact with food. They see which food is popular and which is ignored by the diners. They observe how much food is acceptable to eat and how much people waste without apparent consequences. They witness the pace at which the food is consumed. They may notice that the dietary rules they are expected to follow at home are often suspended at community gatherings. They form opinions and habits that may follow them into adulthood.

Blessings and a Test

Eating together can and should be a blessing for the community. It was a common practice among the early Muslims to share their meals, and it remains an important part of our modern community life.

But eating together can also be a test. Cultures that dine together often have food traditions and recipes that are highly treasured by the community, but whose frequent consumption may not be wise. These culinary creations are passed down from generation to generation and have reached the status of being staples at celebrations. Proud cooks vie for the diners' enthusiastic approval of their personal versions of these dishes. Many of the recipes, however, though popular and extremely delicious, are not nutritious. Traditionally, the ingredients that made those meals taste so wonderful – the salt, the sugar, and the fat – are also the same ingredients that make them so unhealthy and fattening. 

Changing the eating habits of a community is not an easy task. Old habits die hard. Traditional foods may have origins in a time when healthy food options were scarce, yet they evoke warm memories of family togetherness. Some dishes were meant to be eaten by workers who easily burned up the high calories and not by people with modern, sedentary lifestyles. Partakers often rationalize their abilities to exercise the harm away. Some foods were forced upon enslaved peoples but have now become widely accepted.

The community should collectively weigh the nutritional value of their traditional menus and rethink the inclusion of these foods in their gatherings. It is time to break the cycle of unhealthy traditions and reimagine our meals in terms of healthy choices.

Turning to the Sunnah

The Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings be upon him, left his followers a blueprint for good health. He taught people the spiritual dimensions of eating, encouraging his followers to dine communally, saying:

“Eat together, and mention the name of Allah over your food. 

It will be blessed for you.” 

(Abu Dawud)

He also explained which aspect of communal eating was the most beneficial for the diners, saying:

“Eat together and not separately, for the blessing is associated with the company.”

 (Ibn Majah)

The starting point, therefore, for reimagining our communal meals is in bringing to mind our intentions. Our niyyah should be to turn the meal into an act of worship. When we reflect on that goal and couple it with an understanding that the true blessings of the meal lie in the fellowship, then our culinary efforts can, hopefully, move from mere sensory experiences to healthy, spiritual experiences.

Finding Healthier Choices and Practices

The next step is to include more healthy food options on the menu. Many Muslim food gatherings rely heavily on refined carbohydrates. Plates are piled high with white rice, pasta, and bread, which are the most economical food choices. Feeding large numbers of diners on a budget requires the inclusion of these "filler foods," foods that can make hungry diners feel satiated. Although these foods are economical and filling, they often are devoid of nutritional value and can lead to diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and the onset of high blood pressure earlier in life. We owe it to our children (who are now showing symptoms of these diseases at higher rates) to eat healthier.

The key to being able to include more healthy options is in the development of a community culture where the food gatherings are not meant to satiate the palate, but to provide nourishment and opportunities for fellowship. Communities need to be re-educated and new mindsets have to be cultivated.

For health and nutrition to become a community priority, we must reimagine our portion sizes and the number of servings available at our gatherings. The unfortunate trend in many communities is for the hosts to provide extra large portions, a cornucopia of options, and never-ending servings. People tend to eat beyond their needs. This includes the children of the community.

When we sacrifice health for tradition, we are setting a bad example for the youngest, most impressionable members of the community. Children love the freedom of community gatherings, but while their parents engage in socializing and worship, they are often helping themselves to adult-sized portions and selecting second-helpings of unhealthy foods.

With childhood obesity rates rising, we owe it to our children to change our eating paradigms. Some suggestions for improving the community food gatherings are:

  • Offering water instead of sugary drinks
  • Using smaller plates and cups to control portion sizes and reduce food waste
  • Adding more vegetables and whole grains to the menu
  • Limiting the fat, sugar, and salt content of dishes
  • Asking parents to be responsible for fixing the plates of young children
  • Recyling paper, aluminum, and plastic products

Communities have a responsibility to set children on a healthy path. These suggestions may not be popular and one could argue that the rules for good nutrition should be relaxed at food gatherings, but the habits they reinforce can be detrimental. They leave lasting impressions on the children. They help them establish unhealthy eating habits. And we will all have to take responsibility for our part in that.

Candice “Sister Islaah” Abd’al-Rahim reverted to Islam in 1976 and considers herself a student of knowledge. She has deep education credentials which include a M.A. in Teaching, Certificate of Advanced Studies (Post-Masters) in Administration and Supervision, B.S. in English, and experiences as a principal (in fact the first hijab public school principal in Maryland!), curriculum and staff developer, mentor, and classroom teacher of grades pre-K through 12. She is a former adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate School of Education and is a doctoral candidate in Islamic Sciences at the International Online University. Islaah’s contributions to the field have earned her honors in the Who’s Who of Distinguished JHU Alumni. She is wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother and is an active member of several Muslim communities in the Baltimore area.


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