Ramadan treat dates back to Muhammad

August 2, 2011

(RNS) Brown, sticky, and wrinkly, dates seem a sad or unremarkable
fruit. But every Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that began on Monday
(Aug. 1), dates take on tremendous religious significance for the
faith's 1.6 billion followers.

Throughout the world, Muslims will break Ramadan's required daytime
fasts just as Prophet Muhammad did nearly 1,400 years ago: with dates.

But while emulating Muhammad is said to bring blessings, a quirk of
seasonal timing and dates' growing popularity among non-Muslims are
making the prized fruit harder to get for Ramadan.

Today's date aficionados will tell you that Muhammad had a reason
for breaking his fast with dates, namely that hunger comes not from an
empty stomach, but low blood sugar. Thus, eating two or three dates
quickly restores blood sugar, quelling hunger, and prevents overeating
after fasting.

Dates appear frequently in the Quran, as well as in Christian and
Jewish scripture. In one Quranic passage about Mary, when she is in the
pain of child labor, a voice advises her to shake a date palm and
replenish herself with the fruits that fall. Dates are also frequently
mentioned in hadith, stories and sayings about or attributed to
Muhammad.

The Spanish introduced dates to California in the 1700s, but they
didn't take off until the early 1900s, with the introduction of the
large, chewy Medjool -- "the Cadillac of dates," according to Mohammed
Abdul Aleem, CEO of Islamicity.com, whose online store sells dates.

Medjools once thrived in Morocco, but were decimated there by
disease. In a last-ditch attempt to rescue the Medjools, a Moroccan
ruler sent 11 date palm offshoots to California. Those 11 branches
became the basis for an American date agriculture that now produces
close to 20,000 tons of dates annually, and whose devotees argue about
date varieties the way wine connoisseurs argue about vintages and
grapes.

Date farmers and ethnic groceries catering to Muslim customers see
Ramadan the way toymakers view Christmas: an excellent market
opportunity. Many said date sales double during Ramadan.

Oasis Date Gardens, a 175-acre date ranch in Thermal, Calif., sells
and ships to customers whose orders can be as small as a few 1-pound
packages, or as large as pallets with hundreds of pounds of dates, said
wholesale manager Greg Somohano. Customers include families, mosques and
Muslim prison chaplains.

But this year and for the next couple of decades, everyone on the
date product chain -- farmer, wholesaler, retailer, consumer -- faces a
dilemma.

Most date varieties are harvested in September and October. Because
Islamic holidays are based on a lunar calendar, which is usually 10 or
11 days shorter than the solar-based Gregorian calendar, freshly
harvested dates won't be available for Ramadan for about 20 years.

Meanwhile, date buyers and sellers will need to adapt, which means
freezing dates, stocking up, and ordering in advance.

That's easier said than done.

"We do take a hit," on freezing and storing expenses, said Mark
Goulet, general manager at Leja Farms in Coachella, Calif. While Leja
has been preparing for Ramadan for months now, Goulet said they are
still struggling to make all their orders.

While Muslims extol the virtues of dates, their growing popularity
as a health food is making them harder to come by.

Some store owners said getting dates on their shelves this year took
almost divine interventions. "God only knows how I got these," said
Mohamud Aden, owner of Hamdi Halal in Boston, gesturing vigorously
towards a shelf holding two kinds of Saudi Arabian dates in his narrow
Islamic grocery and butcher shop.

Aleem said he posted messages on the Islamcity.com homepage and sent
emails to website followers as early as December, advising them to order
dates early.

For all the business that comes with Ramadan, Somohano said Ramadan
is not the only hectic time around his farm. "The other busy time is
around Christmas, when Arab Christians are ordering dates," he said.