Fasting feeds their faith

Muslims running restaurants or in other jobs in the food industry face challenges as Ramadan shifts their focus to spiritual sustenance

By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter

October 27, 2003

Zubeda Kaleem will spend the Muslim holy month of Ramadan surrounded by glazed crullers, cream-filled pastries and strawberry-frosted eclairs.

But Kaleem, 27, manager of Dunkin' Donuts at Western and Devon Avenues, will not be tempted by the treats.

She will draw from a spiritual strength cultivated since she began abiding by the monthlong Ramadan fast at the age of 7. Kaleem says the only nourishment she needs is God.

For the next 29 days, many Muslims will eat and drink according to Allah's schedule, while holding jobs serving hungry customers, taste-testing recipes and stuffing grocery bags.

For Muslim restaurateurs and other culinary professionals surrounded daily by the very thing that is forbidden, Ramadan is not a test of faith. It is an opportunity to illustrate it, focus more intensely on God and reap the rewards.

The first sighting of the new moon Sunday designated Monday as the first day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. For 29 days Muslims will seek redemption and purification by fasting from sunrise to sunset.

The fast precludes eating and drinking, smoking and sex. It also rules out the use of foul language and the expression of extreme emotions such as anger.

"It's not a fast to be hungry," said Amir Mithwani, the former owner of a Popeye's Chicken. "It is a fast of your eyes, ears, nose, tongue. You get a kind of satisfaction."

Kaleem, who begins baking doughnuts at 5 a.m., said satisfaction should not be mistaken for will power.

"If you can control your tongue, you can control anything," she said. "If you speak bad, you hurt others. If you eat bad, you hurt yourself."

The regimen of Ramadan goes beyond restraint. Muslims recite and read the Koran, the holy book, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan.

Those who fall short of praying five times a day year-round make a special effort to do so during the holy month. They also give to charity.

The fast does not require starvation. Before sunrise, Muslims eat a light breakfast called suhur.

And when they break their fast at sundown, they follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who ended each day with milk and dates.

They then share iftar, the evening meal, with family and friends.

Many halal cafes, which serve food meeting Islamic dietary laws, will have special hours during the month to give their employees time during the day to fulfill their Ramadan requirements.

But even those establishments will open their kitchens early to prepare the evening meal. Many of them will offer iftar free to customers on the go when it's time to break the fast.

Serving halal cuisine is considered a good deed, said Muhammad Chaudry, director of the Chicago-based Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. The recipient does not have to be needy in order for God to bless the chef.

Musharruf Shah, one of three brothers who own the Sonargaon Restaurant, a Bangladeshi bistro on West Devon Avenue, said he wants to serve cabdrivers and area merchants unable to take part in the evening iftar meal because of their jobs.

"Most of them are bachelors. They don't have time to cook," Shah said.

Unlike at many restaurants in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods, Shah plans to stay open during the day to serve non-Muslim lunch and dinner crowds. In the United States, it's difficult to close when restaurants next door are packed.

Farouqe Sardharia, 19, said his family's restaurant, Lal Qila on Western Avenue, also will stay open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., although he expects daytime business to be slow.

Because of the late nights, Sardharia often sleeps late rather than eating a suhur.

The only effort he will have to make in the kitchen is controlling his temper.

"I can't be perfect," he said, showing off a scar made by a hot oven rack that morning.

Raised Muslim, he has fasted since he was a boy.

"It makes me feel like a better person," Sardharia said of the fast. "It makes our self-esteem better. It makes us better Muslims."

A convert to Islam, Labrena Rent-Abu Bakkah, 27, a manager at Fox & Obel Food Market on the Near North Side, has observed four Ramadans, and this will be her first amid the temptations of a gourmet grocery.

"Every hour should be focused on being Godly," she said. "Being that you're fasting, it makes you more humble."

Accidents do happen, said Chaudry, a former taste-tester at Heller Seasonings, a Chicago spicemaker.

When one errs, the solution is simple. Apologize to God.

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune