Fed up with government guidelines of salt intake, doctors’ advice on calorie control and nutritionists’ warnings about additives, Rabia Barkatulla wanted to return to the simpler, more wholesome diet of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Equipped with ‘Shamaa’il Tirmidhi’ on the eating habits of the Prophet (SAW), she undertook a kitchen clearout and supermarket ban to get back in touch with real food.
Week 1: Fasting on Mondays and Thursdays
Abu Hurayrah (RA) said: “Rasulullah (SAW) said: ‘Deeds are presented (before Allah SWT) on Mondays and Thursdays. I desire that my deeds be presented whilst I am fasting”(Hadith 288).
The first Monday of fasting is going well, just as the first day of Ramadhan, you relish the change. It’s funny how we have ritualistic habits with food: certain foods at certain times, certain drinks and certain combinations of flavour. Perhaps it is easier to break up the routine with fasting non-consecutively. I’m getting used to eating lighter in general and I’m not inspired to cook a big meal because it’s not an ‘occasion’ the way iftar usually is. Mostly, we’re filling up on pasta, fish and soups which are quick to prepare in all of half an hour from the shopping bag to the plate.
I can feel that fasting has made me more energetic and not being sluggishly waylaid with tea and lunch, the day seems liberated for other activities like swimming. Because it’s only a Monday and Thursday, mentally I can cope and I’ve found keeping my mind off food gets easier. We have a tendency in our age of neurotic vanity to be self-consciously losing weight rather than looking after our health and wellbeing. I’m trying to ignore that part of my irrationality and concentrate on health. I want to engage in more ‘ibadah during the day as I feel lighter – so for the days I’m not fasting I’ve taken up praying before I eat, finding that it’s easier to pray the sunnah as well and make it more of a mental rest during the day. The only down side I’ve found is that if I don’t have enough fluids before the fast, I really feel it.
Week 2: Fruit
‘A’ishah (RA) reports that “Rasulullah (SAW) ate watermelon with fresh dates” (Hadith 189).
Now that fasting is established in my weekly routine, it’s time to introduce something I’m really not fond of: fruit. I can go without fruit for months; the texture of its raw fleshiness spurs me to bury it under crumble until it no longer resembles its former self, or worse, fry it in pancake batter for breakfast.
Fruit smoothies are my lifesaver, as well as bio-pot fruit yoghurt. After physical exercise the body needs replenishing with minerals and hydration: once you come back in the house from running errands there is nothing better than a smoothie. I’ve actually finished a litre in two days, putting away 8 portions of fruit.
Yoghurt is a lovely, summery alternative to ice-cream or chocolate. Even fig rolls are high in fibre and are great with a cup of tea. I’ve also taken to stuffing dates with nuts and putting them in my handbag, brilliant on busy weekends when you’re out and about shopping or visiting people and you need something on the go for breakfast.
Chopping up dates and cranberries and sprinkling them over cereal has led me into the world of the dried fruit; a versatile and easy way to absorb vitamins without trying. Now they’re everywhere, in my muffins, on top of toast and even in my cookies.
Week 3: Bread, Vinegar and Olive Oil
Someone asked Sahl bin Sa’d (RA): “Did Rasulullah (SAW) ever eat bread made of white flour?” He replied: “White flour may not have come before Rasulullah (SAW) till his last days” (Hadith 138).
It’s time to bring out the rolling pin. Any culture that still makes wholemeal bread is worth adopting, so I’m rolling out the rotis to go with our Bombay potatoes. I’ve tried using brown flour to make quiche pastry and that was a disaster. The fridge alternative is a multi-seeded loaf, the best of the brownest – exceptionally worth the extra money.
Jaabir bin ‘Abdullah (RA) relates that Rasulullah (SAW) said: “What a wonderful grave vinegar is”(Hadith 145). Vinegars are complex and varied. There is red wine vinegar, best for kidney beans and salads, there is cider vinegar, light and good for pasta, malt vinegar that we use on chips and white wine vinegar, the most versatile in the kitchen. I’ve realised that they can all be used for pickling vegetables or fish in jars so I’m storing more than I bargained for this week.
It is related from ‘Umar (RA) that Rasulullah (SAW) said: “Use olive oil in cooking and rubbing (on the body) because it is from a blessed tree” (Hadith 150).
I’m amazed at what a difference it makes having no other oils or butter at hand when cooking. It contains good fats, and so olive oil mayonnaise is also a happy alternative.
Lunch is now a single sandwich, but filled with enough nutrients to make me glow. Seeded bread spread with olive oil mayonnaise, goats’ cheese and tomatoes: this is gourmet food!
I’ve devised a cunning idea to make dinner not look as sparse as it seems; in one word: Tapas! The Spanish dinner you don’t have to cook: pots of marinated vegetables, olives, and cheeses with bread that you dip in and out of things. Pickled artichoke hearts in vinegar is not so bad with seeded bread. Throw in some sun-dried tomatoes and you have quick-fix pizza. Pickled fish is my new discovery; I never knew how much anchovies where used by the Italians until I tried pasta puttanesca, pasta with fat olives, anchovies, chopped tomatoes and olive oil, assembled in minutes and reminiscent of sitting in an Italian restaurant with steam rising from the plate.
Week 4: Gourds and Fowl
Jaabir bin Taariq (RA) said: “I attended the assembly of Rasulullah (SAW). I observed, they were busy cutting a gourd into pieces. I inquired: ‘What shall be made of this?’ He replied: ‘It will add to our food’“ (Hadith 152).
Gourds are the marrow-family vegetables including cucumber, pumpkin, courgette and squashes. In England, many of these are grown and available from October onwards and most we are quite familiar with; courgette is wonderful in ratatouille, cucumber in salad and pumpkin in pies and soups. The butternut squash is new to me, so I tried a vegetarian lasagne with red onions in the mix. Squash is exactly what you need in the autumn; roasted with some salt it can be added to risotto, used in place of potatoes in a curry or simply turned into mash.
Zahdam Al-Jarmi (RA) said, “we were present in the assembly of Abu Musa Ash’ari (RA). Fowl meat was served for food. A person from among those present, moved back. Abu Musa (RA) asked him the reason. He replied: ‘I had seen the fowl eat something (dirty) so I swore an oath that I will not eat it.’ Abu Musa (RA) said: ‘In that case, I had seen Rasulullah (SAW) eat the meat of a fowl’” (Hadith 146).
Fridays are special as my husband likes it if we don’t eat meat except for this day, it’s the only time in the week I have a family affair with roast chicken or cottage pie. I can now see that, left to my own devices, I was baffled with what to eat and how to be more healthy. I’ve lost half a stone in a month; without a rigid plan or even needing to try.
I can see from the ahadith that I’ve been looking at, that the Prophet’s (SAW) diet was not as meagre as I’d imagined. There is a great variety of colour, fibre and vitamins in different types of food that was the custom of the time. Meat was not everything, and nor was subsistence on dates and milk; the only pattern we can find is that the Prophet (SAW) didn’t eat the same for two days: he listened to his body.
I am buying vegetables according to the seasons, which is one step away from growing my own but a learning experience nevertheless. There are vegetables and fruits that grow in this country that the Prophet (SAW) enjoyed; herbs such as dill and parsley. I’m appreciative of each season as there are new ingredients to tinker with and dinner doesn’t have to come out of a jar or a tin anymore. Granted it is harder work preparing and testing foods, but it is the stuff of life; we have been entreated to eat what is halal and good for us; and this not only gives us fresher nutrients and simpler habits, but we assist and blend into the natural world around us.
Rabia’ Barkatulla is a freelance writer and Arabic language teacher who read Arabic and Arabic Cultural Studies at the School Of Oriental and African Studies and is currently studying English Literature at Oxford University. Rabia’ has taught for the Ibn Jabal Institute in London, and continues to teach at the Ribat Institute in Surrey.