Why is it considered healthy to break the Ramadan fast with dates, and why are Muslims recommended to pray before iftar?
Breaking the fast with dates is a Ramadan tradition, as most of its benefits are unique to this particular fast. Breaking one’s fast with dates, as well as praying before iftar, are both mentioned in the Hadith literature: "The Messenger of Allah would break his fast with ripe dates before he would pray. If those were not available, he would eat dried dates. If those were not available, he would drink some water.”
One of the many physical benefits of breaking the fast with dates is that our body benefits from the date’s high level of natural sugars. Sugars travel most quickly to the liver, where they are converted into energy more quickly than any other nutrient. Muslims have an immediate need for this energy when they break their fast, for they need energy to perform their sunset prayers. Ironically, one also needs this energy to consume the iftar meal. When a person eats, the body uses energy to digest the food. Eating large quantities of food immediately after fasting is not healthy for the body, which is in a weakened condition. Eating a date first helps the body start its digestive process and gives it the energy to deal with the secondary, more complex foods, eaten during ifta.
Dates are also high in vitamins A and B6, folic acid, potassium, natural sodium, iron, and magnesium. Thus, eating dates daily during Ramadan is like taking a daily multivitamin. This daily multivitamin can create a stronger and healthier body, one more fit for fasting. Dates also contain large amounts of dietary fiber, which can prevent any constipation that might result from eating the traditionally rich foods served during Ramadan. Additionally, dates protect the stomach and intestinal tract from parasites and bacteria, and thus is a good preventative medicine when eating iftar at unfamiliar locations.
Dates also have a special place in Islam. In fact, they were one of the Prophet’s (SAW) most frequently consumed foods. For this reason, their benefit is most likely spiritual as well as physical. If their benefit were purely physical, one could perhaps consume any fruit high in natural sugars before iftar to gain similar benefits. However, the act of following the Prophet’s (SAW) tradition is one way of connecting and remembering him, which is spiritually beneficial for Muslims.
One should pray after eating dates and before eating the main meal, because this short break gives the body time to metabolize the dates and water that have been consumed and to start the body’s digestive processes, which have been resting all day. Eating large amounts of food immediately after breaking the fast resembles starting a car and the driving it without giving it enough time to warm up. As we know, this can damage the engine’s internal mechanics.
The same is true with the body, for jumpstarting the body’s digestive processes can shock the entire organ system. In some cases, this shock could be dangerous. In most cases, however, it is simply an unhealthy way to break the fast. The immediate dangers are apparent in the increased need to sleep after the iftar. This sleepy feeling comes about because the body has expended so much energy on the digestive system that it needs to lower its other bodily functions in order to perform its digestive duties properly. Over time, this habit can cause long-term damage to the body.