The legend of the holy tomato

Look very closely at this tomato. Does it contain just seeds and flesh - or can you make out the word - the Arabic symbol for Allah? If so, you are just one of the witnesses to the miracle of Bradford.

There was nothing extraordinary about 52 Willow Street. The terrace house, with its tiny concrete front garden, was just like all the others in the Bradford suburb. In the quiet road children trundled past on skateboards, and the odd cat slunk along the top of a wall. The back of the house offered panoramic views of the neighbours' washing lines. Life was tranquil for the mostly Asian residents of Girlington.

Nothing extraordinary until last Tuesday when housewife Shabana Hussain started preparing a curry. Since then hundreds of curious Muslims have been making their way to No 52. Their knocks on the door are always followed by the same question: "Is this the house with the miracle tomato?"

Shabana, 27, had been at home with her four young children and mother- in-law, Zeenat Bibi, when she ran out of tomatoes. Zeenat, 61, popped out to the local corner shop, Tahir Food Stores. Sitting in the lounge of No 52, surrounded by pictures of the Taj Mahal and Mecca, Zeenat smiles as she recalls the part she played in the miracle.

"Another customer was choosing some tomatoes, and I had to wait. I then picked out a kilo - I prefer the hard ones. It was just luck that I picked that one." Shabana, in the kitchen cooking another curry, pops her beaming face through the hatch and picks up the story.

"It was the first tomato I picked out from the bag. As I was slicing it in two I said `Bismillah', which means `In the name of Allah'. I glanced at one of the halves and there was that very word."

She then looked at the other half only to see the veins had formed another Arabic phrase from the Koran - "There is no god but Allah". "I was so amazed. I just stared at the halves feeling completely numb. I had a desire in my heart to see it. I was startled that my wish had come true."

Shabana had been looking at the insides of tomatoes for two years, ever since Shaista Javed from Huddersfield - also in Yorkshire - claimed the veins in her tomato spelt Koranic scripture meaning "There is no God but Allah" and "Mohamed is the messenger".

Shabana showed the fruit to Zeenat and to her 16-year-old brother-in- law, Adil Hussain. Jubilant at the discovery, they started phoning friends and relatives with the news.

"I was amazed," says Adil. "I thought it was a miracle. I was worried the tomato would go soggy. We put it on top of the display cabinet in the front room so the kids couldn't get at it. I kept going back to look at it every five minutes."

When Shabana's husband, Imdad, a 38-year-old computer technician, returned home, he asked the imam of Girlington mosque, Qari Muhammed Ali Azhar, to come and verify the "writing". The spiritual leader is in no doubt of its authenticity. "This is a proclamation of god's oneness and it's a true miracle," he says.

He asked Imdad to bring the fruit to the mosque to show the congregation. Mindful that one trip over a raised paving slab and the miracle would be mulch, Imdad walked the short distance holding the dish in front of him like a ticking bomb.

"About 30 people lined up to have a look," recalls Imdad. "They all agreed that it was sacred scripture. One person rushed home to get a camcorder and filmed it."

Even Bradford's most senior Muslim cleric, Pir Mahroof Hussain, has given the tomato his approval. "It's a miracle of Islam," he insists.

The flow of pilgrims beating a path to No 52 shows no sign of drying up. Adil, who has been buying six bottles of soft drinks a day to cater for them, puts the number at around 250 so far.

"The house was packed out the first couple of days. I kept having to rush back and forth to the fridge to bring out the tomato, as well as trying to look after the guests."

And still they come. A red Rover pulls up and a tall man in a white tunic and trousers steps out and peers at the house. "Have you come to see the tomato?" asks Adil, who has done the routine so many times before. "Yes," admits Arshad Khan, a 35-year-old engineering lecturer from Bradford.

The fridge is duly opened, and the tomato, sitting proud in a white dish, wedged between a bunch of coriander and a lettuce, is ceremoniously carried through to the front room, which offers the best light. Mr Khan peers through the cling film at the halves, which by now are beginning to go fuzzy. Imdad assures him that the lines were much clearer when the tomato was fresh, and shows him blown-up photographs taken earlier.

There's a moment of silence. The visitor then announces: "It's a miracle! A miracle. No human has the power to write in a tomato. It's a message to the world, not just to Muslims, to believe in the oneness of Allah. It endorses your faith. I feel very emotional. It increases my love for Islam."

So why has Allah chosen a tomato? "Allah chooses what pleases him. A few years back it was an aubergine."

Indeed, in March 1996 Ruksana Patel, from Bolton, Greater Manchester, cut into an aubergine only to discover the seeds had formed the phrase "Allah exists" in Arabic. A holy aubergine once even turned up in Bradford. A Hindu, Amrata Mistry, and his wife discovered the sacred symbol "ohm" in the centre of their would-be dinner two years ago.

In the lounge of No 52, a group of women have gathered to see the wonder. "You should have called me sooner, so I could have seen it when the lines were clearer," says a housewife, Rukhsana Naim, 40, from Heaton, Bradford. But she is not disappointed. "It's a miracle, and everybody should know. I'm very pleased to see it with my own eyes. I was at a friend's house when they told me and I came straight round."

Another housewife who will pause before slinging tomatoes into her pan is 38-year-old Robina Zabair, also from Heaton. "I couldn't believe it when I was told. It's a special moment. I would be over the moon if I had discovered it."

Indeed, Shabana hasn't stopped beaming. It has, she claims, changed her life. "I have more belief that there is only one god, and that our religion is the true religion." Still smiling she returns to her cooking, diligently inspecting every sliced tomato.

Now almost celebrities, the Hussains are finding themselves the subjects of congratulatory hugs and handshakes. "As a family we feel very privileged that it has happened to us. People have said maybe we are good people. We don't feel anything special," says Imdad.

Another person whose popularity has increased is storekeeper Tahir Haq, who sold the tomato. The 21-year-old says his shop was busier than usual the day after the discovery. He believes Allah gave him a role in the miracle to reward him for a recent pilgrimage to Mecca.

"The price of my tomatoes remains the same," he says.

Imdad is now trying to get in touch with university food-science departments for advice on how to preserve the tomato. If unsuccessful, he may offer it to a sick member of the community to eat - should it not mould over first. If so, he may bury it, or toss it into the sea, following the traditional method of disposing of damaged sacred objects.

While the tomato's days are numbered, Imdad doubts whether its demise will deter pilgrims. They will still come to see the photos, he says.

Could it be, I venture as I leave, that it is just a coincidence that the veins look like Koranic scripture? Absolutely not, Imdad insists. "There is no break in the Arabic characters."

I put to him the other question I have been dying to ask - why has Yorkshire produced so many "miracle" fruit and vegetables?

"A coincidence," he says, turning on a table lamp to give visitors a better look at the miracle tomato.

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