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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

The word thal means plate and sufra means table-cloth. The Arabic word for thal (tray) is tabaq or siniyya (round tray). The word sufra in Persian means anything on or in which victuals are placed, provisions prepared by men of hospitality, such as the sufra'i dauri (a round table-cloth), sufra'i sham'dan (a lamp-dish), sufra'i fasahat (an eloquent tongue) or sufra nishin (a guest of table).

The Arabic word for sufra is ma'ida, meaning table. There are two kinds of ma'ida, the sufra and khiwan, which was familiar in the Islamic states. The sufra was usually made of cloth, copper or palm-leaves in round shape, and was put on the ground where people sat around it. In course of time, however, an improvement was introduced when people started using a sufra made of leather. The word khiwan was applied to a ma'ida, which was raised from the ground. It was made of wood and stone. Affluent people preferred it to be of marble or onyx. Large round trays of brass, set on a low table were a common sight in the houses of rich.

Whenever the Prophet Abraham wished to take meal, he used to seek a guest upto the distance of one or two miles to participate with him. On arrival of his guests, once Abraham made arrangements for their hospitality. He had a fat calf in his home, which he slaughtered and got it roasted for his guests. The Koran affirms: "Then he went apart unto his housefolk and brought a fatted calf roasted for the guests, and presented before them" (51:26-7). Hence, he was surnamed Abu Zaifan (the father of guests). The custom of entertainment of one to three hundred guests is still prevalent by the side of his grave to commemorate his hospitality.

In 614 A.D., about four years after his Divine call, the Prophet was revealed: "And warn your nearest relations" (26:214). He proceeded to invite his forty close relatives from the Hashamites at his house. The guests were served with mudd (a measure of about two pounds) of food, consisted of roasted meat of the lamb, bowl of milk and the drink made of honey. This was the earliest example of the Prophet's sufra in history.

The Prophet of Islam received a number of visitors from various parts of Arabia, and held a simple sufra at his house in Medina. The residence of Ramla, a lady Companion and the house of Umm Sharik, a wealthy and generous lady among the Ansars, served as the guest houses, where the visitors lodged. In special cases, the guests were put up in the Prophet's mosque where, for instance the Thaqif deputation was once lodged. The Prophet honoured them all with personal attendance and entertainment. Visitors were never allowed to depart without being served with food. The Prophet was equally hospitable and liberal to Muslims and non-Muslims. The Abyssinion delegates were lodged at the Prophet's own house, and they were fed with Arab custom. Once a non-Muslim staying with the Prophet was entertained with goat's milk, which he drank to the dregs. Another goat was ordered to be milked that too did not suffice. It took seven goats to satisfy him, for the Prophet continued to ply him with milk till he had his fill. On one occasion, he got a goat slaughtered and ordered the liver to be fried for his thirty guest Companions. The Prophet had in his house a large bowl so heavy that it took four men to lift it up. It used to be brought out daily at noon. The Companions of the Suffah sat round it in a circle to eat food. Sometimes, the Prophet had to sit gathered to himself, with his knees double upright, in order to accommodate others (Tirmizi). Once the Prophet reached his house with the Suffah Companions and asked to serve them food. They were served with food made from bran. Some harirah (a soft food made by boiling dates with milk) was then brought. It was followed by a large bowl of milk (Abu Daud, 2:198). The Prophet also said, "The angels do not cease to pray for blessings on one of you as long as his table is laid out, until it is taken up" (Ihya Ulum al-Din, 2:11). Tafkha bin Qais states that once the Prophet led me and four other Companions to A'isha's cell and asked her to serve food and drink. She served a sort of khichra made of rice and pulse, which was followed by a kind of cheese. Then she also brought milk in a small cup and we drank it (al-Hilliyah, 1:352).

During the gathering of the Twelvers in the rawda-khani (recital of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain), the women hold a special religious meeting, known as Sufra (table-cloth). It consists of an invitation by the hostees to a number of other women to join her for a meal which is usually preceded or followed by a discourse. The Sufras are often held in the name of one of the members of Ahl al-Bayt and are often in fulfillment of a vow.

The tradition of sufra is also found in the Sufic khanaqah. The darwish on service take the sufra in their hands and kiss the ground reverently before their master had spread out the sufra before him. The first item that is placed on the sufra is salt, then bread and then rest of the meal. At the end, the darwish on service fold the sufra before the feet of their master and kiss the ground in reverence.

In Iran, it is customary to lay on a table a ceremonial display called Sufreye-Nawruz, consisting of a mirror, a copy of the Koran, live goldfish in a bowl, green sprouts of wheat grain and lentils, coloured eggs, and Haft-Sin, which is a large platter filled with seven dishes (haft sin). Each dish bears in haft-sin the name, beginning with the Persian letter sin i.e., sib (apple), sir (garlic), sumak (sumac), sinjib (jujbe), samanu (a kind of sweet-dish), sirka (vinger) and sabzi (greens), which are placed on a cloth spread on the floor in front of a mirror and candles in company with dishes of certain foods. The Navroz holidays officially last 13 days when all Iranians visit as many friends as possible and exchange Eidy or festive gifts. The first day is reserved for respected elders of the family who in turn return the visit. Everywhere a festive mood prevails; tea, sweetmeats, ajil (dried fruits and nuts), conversation and music flow. The thirteenth day of Navroz called sizdah bedar (thirteenth out of doors) is traditional spent out in the woods or parks. Every Iranian family leaves home early in the morning, and equipped with mats, picnic materials and musical instruments, search pleasant sites. Each family has brought the sprouted wheat and lentils from their Navroz Sufreh, which they will cast away for good luck. It is considered lucky to eat a special thick soup ash, made from noodles on this day. The soup and its accompanying garnish

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