The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said: “Break your fast by eating dates as it is purifying.”
Every culture has its stable food. From the days of ancient Mesopotamia to the present, dates have been a stable food for the Arabs and others dwelling in the Middle East. In the pages of the Qur’an, no fruit is mentioned more or highly prized than dates. The date palm tree is an iconic image: earning a place on Saudi Arabia’s coat of arms. And, throughout the Middle East, the date palm is considered the “tree of life.”
“If Allah (had) not blessed us with dates, the survival of our ancestors in the desert may not (have been) possible,” says Araf Al-Odiliaa, date cultivator and owner of one of Al Qassim’s oldest date palm plantation. “Even to this day, the date is not just a food (to us); it’s considered a (symbol) of prosperity.”
Al-Odiliaa’s date palm plantation is only meters from Al-Othaim Mall in Onaizah, Al Qassim. Onaizah is not only home to some of the oldest date groves in Saudi Arabia, but also houses date palms that are more than a century old. Al-Odiliaa’s groves are home to such trees. “We do not harvest fruit from very old trees,” he said pointing to a century-plus-old date palm, as a friend translates. “These trees are very dangerous to climb and also they may not (support) the weight of the man climbing it. It might (snap). We want these trees to live as long as possible.”
Date palms, like many other species of trees, live for more than a century and continue to grow throughout their lifetime. The older date palms on the Al-Odiliaa plantation are as tall as 12 meters. Despite their age, these trees still produce almost as much fruit as a younger date palm – about 1,000 dates a season. Al-Odiliaa, who has been in the date business for more than 20 years, says that there are an estimated 1.5 million date palm trees in Onaizah alone and more than six million date palms in Al Qassim province. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Saudi Arabian date production represents approximately 12 to 13 percent of world production. According to the FAO, the world top date producers are Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Other sources proclaim Egypt as the world leader in date palm numbers and fruit production.
“Date production is such an (integral) part of the (Saudi economy),” said Al-Odiliaa. “It is (second) only to oil. For this reason, the government supports date farmers.”
During the summer of 2012, the annual Buraidah Dates Festival — the world’s largest dates festival — took place and attracted more than almost one million visitors from around the Kingdom. Farmers and venders sold an estimated SR1 billion dates over the 90-day event. An estimated 300,000 tons of dates were sold. Sukkari dates account for 80 percent of sales and are the most popular among Saudis according to vendors. However, Ajwah dates are the most highly touted and favored by the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him).
According to a Hadith, “Ajwah dates are from the paradise.” And, they are mostly grown in the Hijaz region. Throughout the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the centuries after, date preparation methods have not changed much. Onaizah Dates Factory uses simple methods to prepare dates.
Upon delivery to the factory, dates are sorted by size and texture, washed, and then bagged. Once bagged, the dates are then exposed to Arabian sun while being pressed with wooden blocks (or other heavy objects) for about three weeks to a month. Sunbathing and pressing the dates creates the syrupy goo that Sukkari (i.e. sweet or sugary) dates are known for. Once the dates have caramelize, they are stored in a temperature controlled, dark warehouse, which help the dates keep their golden-brown color. The factory process dates without sugar or any other additives. A modest sized factory, Onaizah Dates Factory processes more than 500 tons of dates per year from various growers in the area. Three other large factories in Onaizah help meet the demand for dates for the rest of Qassim. According to factory management, roughly four million kilos of dates are sold each day during the apex of the date season — from July to September. Onaizah Dates Factory processes 17 varieties of dates.
“Dates are a huge part of Islam and Muslim culture,” said Al-Odiliaa. “The Qur’an (advises) us to eat dates to cure illness and (rejuvenate) ourselves.”In Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, dates are prescribed for many ailments and medical conditions. Among Arab women – and other Muslim women – dates are a popular remedy for easing pregnancy pains and complications. It is stated in the Surah Maryam that Maryam (Peace be upon her), the mother of Isa (Peace be upon him), was lead to the trunk of a palm tree to shake it for its fruit. Maryam (Peace be upon her) ate the fruit and it eased her labor pains before giving birth to Isa (Peace be upon him) . During Ramadan, and other fasting periods, Muslims also follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) of eating dates at the time of breaking their fast.