Within the first few days of Ramadan, I finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Thinking about this book, tying it into the idea of the baraka and blessings in food, and approaching food as a means of bonding and goodwill this Ramadan all have bestowed me with an acute awareness of how much we owe Allah in the way we obtain, prepare, serve, and share our meals. While it may seem contradictory to be thinking about food during a time when we’re supposed to be thinking about things besides food, I find that there couldn’t have been a better time to do so. Ramadan, I am learning, is not just about lack of food. It is also about celebrating and being thankful for the food we do have. So this Ramadan, I have been trying to realize these sentiments through the process of preparing and having iftar with friends and family.
One of the most rewarding discoveries I am making this Ramadan is the spirituality in the act of cooking. Cooking has always been a meditative, soothing act for me. It’s a craft I dabble in to relax, to unwind. When I engage in it outside of Ramadan, too much of it feels indulgent. During Ramadan, however, I experience it on a whole new level.
I at first disliked the idea of spending so much time in the kitchen during a day of Ramadan. But the immense reward of feeding those who are fasting is something I wanted to make the most: “Whoever feeds a fasting person will have a reward like that of the fasting person, without any reduction in his reward.” At-Tirmidhi, authenticated by Al-Albani (rahimahullaah).
I don’t think of reward in terms of brownie points, or just in terms of an end result. It’s about the process it takes to complete that act. Because an act that is done for Allah should be done in the finest and most perfect manner possible, I try to put in all of my peace and goodwill into the act of preparing and hosting iftars. I try and be thankful for having so many delicious, wonderful ingredients at my disposal. I’m even thankful for the fact that my siblings don’t make a fuss when something does not turn out perfectly.
Part of having shukr for food has to do with receiving it in an honorable manner. Just like cooking can be an act of dhikr, setting the table became a spiritual act as well. It feels unseemly to use disposable dishware or cutlery, so I use crockery. A place is set for each person that is expected to be eating with us.
As I think to the way the table is set, I am reminded of the title of the fifth chapter of the Qur’an: Surat Al-Maidah. The Table Spread.
My mother has always taught me that food that is shared has baraka in it. We should never feel that there will not be enough to go around and should open our hearts as well as our houses to feeding people. What better time to immerse oneself in this act than in Ramadan? Sharing my iftar has made me realize how many dimensions there can be from baraka, perhaps more than we can ever imagine. We not only have enough food for everyone. We get up from the table with both our stomachs and hearts full.
Along with the idea that there will be enough to go around, I wonder if baraka can also mean other things. It can involve physical nourishment, meaning that the nutrition in the food you eat gets to the parts of the body that need it the most. It can even mean that the harmful substances in food are rejected and are made into something beneficial. Baraka can help develop our immunity to other problems, like idle and frivolous and slanderous talk and support a heightened tendency towards compassion, goodwill, humor, and brotherhood and sisterhood. Baraka can encompass things that we cannot even comprehend, so it is difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes this iftar so wonderful. But I do know that everyone was relaxed, in good humor, and generous in sharing themselves. And I daresay it’s not often that I experience this kind of camaraderie outside of Ramadan.
While this is where the my narration of the story of baraka-filled iftar should have begun, it comes at the end. While I might have begun to see the sacred act of preparing, serving, and sharing meals, I feel that I have a long way to go in terms of obtaining the things I need for my meals.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan embarks on adventures where he attempts to grow, hunt, and garden all the ingredients for meals he shares with others. He emphasizes that food isn’t just about nourishment. It’s about social bonding, being in community, and one’s connection to nature. I thought of how wonderful it would be if the food I shared with my friends for iftar was not from the supermarket, but from the farmer’s market. I thought of how much earthier and closer to nature I would feel if I had been in contact with those who treat the earth with respect and generosity as they helped bring this food into existence.
The respect and generosity, perhaps, begins in the latter part of the food chain. I can perhaps work backwards from sharing to serving to cooking and extend this gratitude and respect to obtaining the food as well. For the best way to be thankful for food and to reap even more baraka from it would be to obtain it from people who respect Allah’s bounty as they partake of it in the way He intended us to.
Sarah Farrukh will start her Masters in Information Studies at the University of Toronto in September, 2011. Her interests include books, the digital age, and what it means to be a Muslim in today’s times. She blogs at A Muslimah Writes.