Fruit of Heaven
In Surat Ar-Rahman, God tells of the delights, sweet smells, and splendor the believers will enjoy in heaven, including dates: “Therin is fruit and palm trees having sheaths [of dates]” (55:11) and “In both of them are fruit and palm trees and pomegranates” (55:68).
The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PHUH]) said, “When one of you breaks his fast, then let him do so with dried dates. And whoever does not find dates, then water, for it is purifying” (Tirmidhi).
Muslims break their fasts with dates, but what else do we know about this sweet dried fruit? Read on to discover God’s gift of dates.
“And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented” (Quran 19:25-26). These verses tell of God providing dates to Maryam (Peace Be Upon Her), giving her relief before the birth of Prophet Isa (PBUH).
Since the Quran was revealed, we have known that dates benefit pregnant women. Fast forward to 2011, scientists at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid have studied the relationship of dates upon pregnancy; specifically, the effect of date consumption during late pregnancy upon labor and delivery. They found that women who ate six dates per day during the last four weeks of their pregnancy had significantly improved labors as compared to eating no dates.
Dates are packed with fiber. Just four Medjool dates, or eleven Deglet Noor dates, provide a quarter of our daily fiber needs! But, why is fiber so important — particularly when we are fasting?
Fiber can be divided into two categories: soluble and insoluble. Our bodies need both. Soluble fiber can help lower our cholesterol, while insoluble fiber, like that found in dates, helps with our digestion and can reduce constipation. Extremely long days of fasting, as Muslims experience when Ramadan is in the summer, can contribute to constipation. Many factors contribute to increasing our susceptibility to constipation: a long day without water, eating fewer fruits and vegetables, not drinking sufficient water between iftar (sunset meal at the time of breaking the fast) and suhoor (pre-dawn meal before fasting begins), sleeping directly after iftar, and not exercising or even moving much after iftar. Eating a handful of dates each day is an easy way to increase our fruit and fiber during Ramadan and help keep our digestive system running smoothly.
Dates are also a good source of potassium and magnesium. What fruit comes to mind when you think of potassium? For many people the answer would be bananas. Pound for pound, dates contain nearly twice as much potassium as bananas! One medium banana contains 12 percent of our daily potassium needs, while four Medjool dates, or fourteen Deglet Noor dates, provide 19 percent. Our bodies need potassium for proper nerve and muscle function, and potassium can also help to lower our cholesterol levels.
Date palms can grow in a variety of climates but will not thrive and produce high-quality fruit unless grown in an arid, hot climate. Palms do need a large amount of water to produce quality dates, so the plants are irrigated. The dry, hot weather and large water requirement branded date palms as having their “feet in the water and head in the fire.”
A dry climate is needed for date production because, if rained on while developing, the dates will crack and discolor, according to botanist Julia Morton in her book Fruits of Warm Climates. Even a humid environment during development will cause the dates to become damaged and rot. As protection from occasional rain in even the driest areas, the date clusters are covered with bags. Bagging also guards the fruit from insects and birds. With proper conditions, one mature date palm can produce more than 250 pounds of dates per year.
Worldwide date production in 2012 exceeded 8.3 million tons, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Check a world map and you can find the “date belt” where most date production occurs. Starting in Morocco, the date belt extends east throughout North Africa in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan; then continues in the Middle East in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman; and extends further east into Pakistan and China. Egypt is the leading producer of dates, yielding more than 1.6 million tons of dates in 2012, followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, both with 1.1 million tons.
Looking for something a little closer to home? Drive two hours southeast of Los Angeles, California, and you will be in the heart of United States date production: Coachella Valley. This pocket of desert produces 95 percent of the dates grown in the United States, around 30,000 tons per year.
Did you know though that there are more than 300 distinct cultivars grown around the world, with some sources estimating as many as 600? Medjool and Deglet Noor are two of the most common date cultivars readily available in most grocery stores in the United States. To add to your myriad of choices, you can choose to eat dates at three different stages of their development, and each offers a unique texture and taste!
In their early stage, called kimri, dates are bitter and not edible. Dates can be eaten in the next three phases: khalal, rutab, and tamr. In September and October, khalal dates, or fresh dates, are ready to enjoy. Khalal are full grown, but crunchy and can be yellow, orange, or red, depending on the culitvar. With further ripening, the dates reach the rutab stage and they are softer and light brown, though still delicate. Both khalal and rutab must be handled and transported similarly to fresh tropical fruits. Though they have a short shelf life, with careful storage and transportation, khalal and rutab can be enjoyed fresh worldwide.
After drying, the dates reach the tamr stage. Tamr are the color of molasses, soft and chewy, and have a satisfying, rich flavor. In a cool environment, tamr can be stored for more than a year. Tamr are the stage you can find on grocery shelves year round.
Each Ramadan, Muslims are given the fruit of heaven to break their fasts. But remember, we can enjoy these delights all year round. What could be more divine? This Ramadan, instead of preparing syrupy time-consuming desserts, dip into your date supply! The standby of stuffing with almonds* and walnuts is delicious and healthy, but you can dress up a few dates by stuffing them with slivers of candied citrus rind or drizzling them with melted chocolate** and dipping in unsweetened coconut. Sweets can be healthy. You don’t have to tell the family that you are watching out for their digestive health when serving up dates for dessert!
Suzann Audi earned her masters degree in food science from Kansas State University. She lives in Illinois and enjoys volunteering at her mosque and children’s school.
*IFANCA halal-certified Wonderful Almonds
**IFANCA halal-certified Godiva Chocolate
IFANCA halal-certified dates are available in your grocery store under these brands: Bard Valley, Mariani, SunDate, and SunPalm. Check www.ifanca.org for a list of specific certified products.