It’s the last ten days of Ramadan, and Muslims who observe the holiest month in Islam are still eagerly partaking in the only date we have and are allowed to have each night.
Therefore, it’s time to bring back the age-old question before we cap off the month: are you Team Medjool or Team Rotab? Maybe you prefer Deglet Nour, the all-purpose “date of the night” that has become a pantry staple for date lovers. Or maybe you fancy the purported healing properties of Safawi and Ajwa. Perhaps you’re like me, who is always partial to the luxurious feel of chocolate-covered dates as a reward after a whole day of fasting.
Aside from our annual moon-sighting wars, the choice of dates that would reign supreme on dining tables in Muslim households is another hot topic of contention in the fasting month. Dried Deglet Nour dates still attached to their branches have taken the crown for several years now in my home. To quote my mother, “It’s not legit without the branches!” Others might disagree, favoring the softer and meatier texture of Ajwa, the variant thought to be Prophet Muhammad’s preferred choice of superfood.
To this day, my father will insist all of us break our fasts and end our suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) with dates, thanks to their energy-giving properties. While the date debate continues to ruffle gastronomic feathers, what is so special about this fruit that it’s become synonymous with Islam’s holiest month?
Dates acquire a special position among Muslims because it is one of the fruits specifically mentioned in the Qur’an, Islam’s central scripture. The date fruit appears 22 times throughout all of its chapters, more than any other fruit-bearing plant cited in the Qur’an. The date palm and its fruit is particularly memorable in a verse detailing the virgin birth of Jesus, who is revered as a prophet in Islam. Mary (known as Maryam in Islam) was experiencing labor pains and had to lean on a palm tree when she heard a voice instructing her to shake the tree so she could partake in the date fruits to alleviate her pains in delivering Jesus.
In addition to the Qur’an, dates also appear in the Hadith, another major source of guidance on worship and practice for Muslims, which features sayings attributed to Muhammad. He was thought to favor Ajwa dates, a variant that is grown in the Saudi Arabian city of Madinah to this very day. If you’re making Umrah or Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Ajwa dates are freely distributed at mosques for pilgrims and are commonly sold as souvenirs at airports.
The Prophet Muhammad was quoted saying: “He who eats seven Ajwa dates every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them.” Even science backs its benefits—a study has found that Ajwa lists high among existing date varieties in terms of nutritional value, containing high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Date palms are one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world, with historical evidence stretching back to 5000 BCE in southern Mesopotamia. They were widely grown in Ancient Egypt, prized for their leaves, which provided shade in an arid climate, and for the sweetness of their fruits. The plant also carried a symbolic meaning in Ancient Egyptian temples, thought to represent the sun god Ra and Min, the god of fertility.
Presently, the date palm has acquired a coveted international status, so much so that it has even made it to the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for its significance to the people in the Middle East. The date palm industry is a lucrative venture fetching up to $1.98 billion in revenue and has since grown outside of its traditional areas of cultivation.
One such place is Bard Valley in southeastern California, where Medjool dates are grown and shipped to places with large American Muslim populations. However, date cultivation in southern California came with its own problematic history. Originating in the obsession to replicate a piece of Orientalist “Arabia” in the Coachella Valley, dates were imported in the early 1900s from Morocco by Walter Swingle, who was tasked by the U.S. government to look for “exotic crops”.
The result? A kitschy recreation of an imagined “Arabian” landscape in the Valley ripe with stereotypes and brownface centered around the date trade. This venture commodified a culture that was deemed inferior to fuel Western fantasies of the Middle East for tourism boost, culminating in the International Festival of Dates in 1921. Thankfully, the Orientalist projection of the American date trade was scrapped, and the focus now is geared towards health-conscious consumption.
It comes as no surprise then that dates have entered the pantheon of superfood the world over. Growing up Muslim, dates of various types ranging from semi to super sweet have always graced our supermarkets in abundance during Ramadan, even though none of them are homegrown. Due to their availability worldwide, many desserts have incorporated date fruit as the main ingredient. From date-filled ma’amoul cookies in the Arab world to date fritters in Malaysia and date squares sold in cafés, the date fruit continuously transcends religious and cultural significance as a versatile delicacy enjoyed by many. If you haven’t yet sampled its succulence, why not grab a box or two at your nearest stores?
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