Aqiylah and Omar Collins do Ramadan their own way. And that, they say, is the whole point.
Ramadan, which began this year on April 2 and ends May 2, is the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, the period during which Muslims believe God revealed the scriptures to his prophet Muhammed who recorded them in the Quran. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from sex and tobacco, and they spend as much time as possible in prayer and contemplation. Importantly, they also fast from sunrise to sunset. In Portland this year, that means no eating or drinking between 5:45 am and 7:40 pm
After nightfall, Muslims break their fast with a dinner meal called iftar. In the morning, they traditionally eat another meal suhur before beginning the daily fast again.
So what foods should Muslims eat for iftar and shoo?
“You can grab a peanut butter jelly sandwich,” Omar Collins says, laughing. “The whole point is that it’s not about the food. It’s about your devotion and cleaning yourself out spiritually, physically and mentally. Ramadan puts you back in focus.”
Recipes included with this story: Lamb With Black-Eyed Peas, Salad Quinoa and Sweet Potato Pie
Jokes aside, the Collinses are not eating peanut butter and jelly. In fact, wheat is almost entirely absent from their pantry this year, to Omar’s dismay. (“I love bread. Everybody loves bread,” he says.) He and his wife are both focused on health. Omar is a retired delivery driver and a devoted regular at the 24 Hour Fitness a few blocks from their Hollywood District apartment. Aqiylah is a traditional naturopath and founder and owner of Qi to Wellness, providing wellness consultations virtually from their living room and, recently, in person.
Rather than being a temporary break from their “normal” eating habits, Aqiylah says Ramadan is an annual opportunity to reassess their diet entirely and initiate more permanent healthy changes. Muslims have a responsibility to take care of their physical bodies, adds Omar, and fasting for a month helps clarify problems and bad habits. If you see fasting simply as a period of deprivation to suffer through, you’re more likely to overindulge once iftar comes around, Aqiylah says, noting that she knows Muslims who end up gaining weight during Ramadan because of this pent-up hunger.
“I’m more intentional about food during Ramadan than I am the rest of the year,” says Aqiylah. “I’m more thoughtful and I’m planning a little bit more.”
Their Ramadan cooking has evolved over the years, drawing recipes and flavors from their Southern grandparents but infused with a wild sense of experimentation as they work on their health goals. One year, the couple went entirely vegan for Ramadan. This year, they are following an individually customized regimen called the Blood Type Diet. Aqiylah, who has O-type “hunter and forager” blood, is eating a diet similar to paleo, while Omar’s B-type blood allows him to eat dairy and more legumes. Corn, chicken and bread are the big things missing from their pantry, replaced with red meat, lean proteins, beans, seeds and vegetables. That means an iftar meal of seared, lightly seasoned lamb chops, served with black-eyed peas and a quinoa salad to accompany the protein. Their one concession to buttery, sweet indulgence: a slice of sweet potato pie (white spuds are out) for dessert. (The Collins subbed in a store-bought gluten-free crust this year.)
Like many Black Muslims of their generation, the couple found their faith as adults. Omar grew up in Washington, North Carolina, in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, though he never considered himself a Christian. He moved to New York City after high school, and following a stint in the Air Force, he found himself casting about for some deeper meaning to his life about him, meaning he did not find in his background about him. Meanwhile, Aqiylah grew up in a devoted Catholic family in Queens, New York. She felt herself drawn to religion but grew increasingly frustrated by the biblical questions she says her family members and clergy were unwilling or unable to answer. When Aqiylah and Omar discovered Islam, they say they immediately found what they were missing: a deeper connection to their spirituality and an emphasis on behavior and action instead of memorization and unquestioning faith.
“Coming from being Christian, Islam is really something that’s ingrained in your whole life,” Aqiylah says. “There’s a way that you go to the bathroom, there’s a way that you get dressed, there’s a way that you eat, there’s a methodology in everything you do. When I step out my door on my right foot, and I say ‘Bismillah,’ I’m asking God to bless me and protect me but I’m also [reminding myself] that I’m going out to do his work to be a representative of what’s right and what’s righteous and what’s good in the world.”
The couple met in 1982 through a mutual Muslim acquaintance and after an intense courtship of hours-long, late-night phone calls, they married within two months. “It was like a pseudo arranged marriage—we didn’t really know each other,” Aqiylah recalls. “But we discovered that his strengths of him are my weaknesses and my strengths are his weaknesses of him.”
They moved to Portland in 1992, raising their three children here and briefly starting a small mosque in Vancouver. In 2011, after their children had left home, they moved to Richmond, Virginia, to be closer to Omar’s father and older brother and where they say they happily fell in with a thriving community of Black Muslims. But in fall of 2020, feeling the weight and increased isolation of pandemic travel restrictions, they moved back to Portland to be closer to their children and seven grandchildren again.
The Collinses have two sons in the Portland area: activist and writer Mac Smiff and rapper Hanif Collins, who owns a Vancouver barbershop. They also have a daughter Hafidha Acuay in Seattle who does not practice Islam. That is OK, the Collinses say. Their own faith has always been a deeply personal choice that requires continual renewal and participation. Forcing it on anyone else is not in their nature.
“Culture and religion are often confused, especially for non-Americans,” says Aqiylah, adding that many traditions Muslims consider integral to their faith are regional innovations
Those differences often become visible during food sharing and community events for iftar. Aqiylah says they would often receive deliveries of meat pies and other Arabic food from neighbors in Virginia, which they appreciated but never associated with Ramadan specifically.
“It’s not islamic food,” she says. “If we decide we’re going to make bean pies or potato pie or… lasagna, then that’s Ramadan food.”
Aqiylah and Omar revealed in that culinary freedom. The only scriptural guideline for iftar is to break the fast with dates and water, as Muhammad himself did. Beyond that, all foods are fair game. (Aqiylah even notes that the diet she’s following this year doesn’t allow dates, so she’s subbing in figs instead.)
“African Americans don’t really have a culture outside of America. Our culture was lost, taken, stolen, erased. That’s a double-edged sword,” says Aqiylah. “One side [of that sword] is that a lot of African American Muslim people adapt other people’s Islamic cultures. … But then the other side of that sword is that we’re also a clean slate — we can learn Islam without our own cultural baggage being so overwhelming. Because most of us are converted. We didn’t grow up with Islam.”
— Marty Patail, for The Oregonian/OregonLive