For religious observers, the COVID-19 pandemic changed every aspect of our lives, including how we worship. For Muslims in particular, this meant closing masajid, or limiting the number or Muslims permitted to pray in the traditional ranks, shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot, to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
It also meant suspending Ramadan traditions, like community iftar, the daily breaking of the fast at sunset. Fasting — abstaining from food, drink and intimate pleasures during daylight hours — is a commandment from Allah observed during the 9th month on the Islamic calendar, Ramadan. Home to over 270,000 Muslims, the Philadelphia region experienced a return and reclamation of these traditions this year.
Iftar is a deeply communal experience, an invitation to gather and rejoice in the breaking of the fast. It’s the rush to the masjid, the greetings of As Salaamu Alaykum (“may peace be unto you”) from your community aunties and uncles as the aroma of roasted chicken and lamb wafts through crowds gathering to sit and wait patiently for the sunset prayer. It’s the sound of fresh boxes of dates being opened, and fresh watermelon being chopped. We fast, pray, and reflect together. During quarantine, our gatherings were taken away — this month’s new moon, though, marked the return of iftar as it should be, a sacred interaction with Allah and fellow Muslims.
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When seeking out options for iftar, Muslims are not looking for a smorgasbord. Iftar should be just enough sustenance to break the fast, and offer energy to continue into the evening prayers. The meal should be halal, and light on the stomach.
But what’s halal? It is not a cuisine but an Arabic word that loosely translates to English as “permissible.” Halal does not include pork, or contain ingredients derived from pork. It must also be free of blood, and protein must be prayed over prior to being slaughtered in a dignified manner, such that the animal does not suffer.
For those looking to support local restaurants during Ramadan, the following establishments will offer specials throughout the month. Most importantly, they offer a space to gather either with your family or other Muslims that could be total strangers, to break the fast and observe a sacred tradition of breaking bread, together.
Brother Abdul Qawi is CEO and chef at Muslims Serve, a local hunger relief organization in Philadelphia open to anyone seeking food assistance, regardless of their religious background. Over the past eight years, Qawi and his wife, Shahidah Ellis, their children and volunteers, have distributed over 145,000 plates of food. “We expect to serve about 300 Muslims a night Monday through Thursday, and double that number Friday through Saturday,” Qawi said. Currently, the nonprofit serves 5,000 people per month, fueled by donations through its 15 soup kitchens. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims Serve will be serving iftar at the historic Philadelphia Masjid in West Philly (located in the Sister Clara Muhammad School building).
4700 Wyalusing Ave., Philadelphia; 267-265-6434, MuslimsServe.org, @MuslimsServe
If you’re in the mood for serious soul food made with certified zabihah halal meats, Southside Zabihah Halal is your next stop. Satisfy your craving for an authentic Philly cheesesteak, slow-roasted chicken, mashed potatoes with homemade gravy, or even sautéed garlic string beans. You’ll also find creamy mac and cheese, tender cabbage, and the ultimate fish and grits. For the month of Ramadan, Southside is serving up a plate of convenience by offering a variety of family-sized iftar meals that can be preordered and picked in time to break the fast at sunset.
“Ramadan can be busy for the person who is usually responsible for preparing the meals at home, particularly moms,” said owner Husain Thompson, who operated across the street from his father’s masjid, Masjid Mujahideen, at 60th and Osage in West Philadelphia prior to the pandemic, but recently moved to Woodland Ave. “Our service is also one of convenience for those who need to fill the obligations to feed fasting Believers because they are unable to fast themselves, and those who would rather spend their energy in increased worship during the month and not behind a hot stove.”
The iftar meals offer a variety of options including like curry lamb over rice, turkey or beef lasagna served with garlic bread and garden salad. Each meal serves a family of four and comes with a two-liter beverage.
6150 Woodland Avenue, 267-279-7687, @Halal_Eatery
During a pandemic that has stifled much of the food service industry for almost two years, Jamela Bilal and her father James are tapping three generations-worth of family recipes to bring traditional, homemade deli options and quality deli options to Jenkintown and dessert Philadelphia county. The new reiteration of this bakery opened in January, and is fast making a name for itself with melt-in-your-mouth brown sugar cookies, while the Amish carrot cake is favorite among customers. The chocolate-covered, peanut butter-filled medjool dates and authentic bean pie — a staple in the Muslim community since its development by the Nation of Islam — are must-haves after 15-16 hours of fasting.
723 West Avenue, Jenkintown, 267-279-7687 @BilalsBakeryDeli, bilalsbakery.com
Victoria Tyson opened Victoria’s Kitchen in 2008, and for the last 14 years has been serving up savory soul food throughout Philadelphia and Cheltenham and Elkins Park. Muscling through the pandemic, Tyson is now partnering with her cousin, chef Jamela Bilal, to offer atering based on religious dietary needs. Bilal is also owner of Halal 2 Go, a halal meal prep service which ships nationwide. Besides offering halal meat, the service offers local and organic veggies, vegan and vegetarian selections, diabetic, gluten-free and allergy-friendly alternatives. “Finally Muslims who observe halal-only diets have healthy and flavorful options of convenience that are not currently represented in their supermarket frozen food aisles — they can find it in the refrigerator display at Victoria’s,” says Bilal. Place an order for Victoria’s fried shrimp, or stop by moments before breaking your fast to grab Halal 2 Go’s chicken pot pie or Korean barbeque cauliflower wings.
7304 Ogontz Ave., 215-927-1066, victoriaskitchen.com, @victoriaskitchen
Sharon Muhammad has always operated on the “do for self” values held by the Nation of Islam, of which she has been a faithful follower for 40 years.
She’s operated her restaurant, Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen, in its current Germantown Avenue location since 2011. On her menu it reads, “O men, eat the lawful and good things from what is in the Earth,” an ayah (or verse) from the Qur’an, the Muslim holy text, a reminder of her cause “to serve the people who serve other people,” she says.
The pandemic was particularly rough for Muhammad, who lost her husband of 42 years in March 2021. And like other restaurateurs, she struggled through the various pandemic-adjacent ordeals, needing to fundraise about $10,000 to stay open. “We cut hours, but all praise due to Allah, and thanks to everyone who donated, we are still here,” she says. Despite those challenges, Muhammad still serves mainstays like her authentic Muslim fish hoagie, lamb cheesesteak on fresh baked whole wheat rolls, and fish fried rice.
4441 Germantown Ave., 215-261-7258, sismuhammadskitchen.com, @sismuhammadskitchen