Focusing on faith: Ramadan and the student-athlete

Photo: Courtesy of Fatima Iqbal Photography

Focusing on faith: Ramadan and the student-athlete

High School Sports

Focusing on faith: Ramadan and the student-athlete

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For the past couple of weeks, alarm clocks have been buzzing early at Hira and Inaaya Shakir’s house. The family has been waking up around 4 a.m., plenty of time to eat a filling meal before the sun comes up. After gobbling down sandwiches, eggs, and other protein, the sisters usually try to snooze for another couple of hours before getting ready for school.

Muslims all over the world have similar rituals as part of Ramadan, a holy month dedicated to prayer, reflection, and service. It marks when Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

For student-athletes, Ramadan brings additional challenges. While abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk, they must maintain the same level of focus on both academics and sports.

Ramadan began in the evening of May 5, and is expected to end after sunset on June 4.

It is a particularly crowded time of year, as Advanced Placement exams and finals compete with playoffs for their attention. But, as South Brunswick (N.J.) freshman Hira Shakir pointed out, fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, “things that are holding up our faith.”

Morris Hills (Rockaway, N.J.) freshman Ali Ashour II believes “you have to be mentally pure” during Ramadan: no cursing, music or graphic imagery.  Keeping a positive attitude, even during physical deprivation, is key to the spiritual message.

Diverse observance

Muslims make up 1 percent of the total United States population, about 3.5 million people, according to the Pew Research Center. In New Jersey, they make up about 3 percent. It’s a diverse group that includes African-Americans and families with roots in South Asia and the Middle East.

Both Ashour and Ahmed Abdulla’s parents emigrated from Egypt. They met at the Islamic Center of Morris County in Rockaway many years ago, and are now nearly inseparable after school. The two boys — Abdulla a Morris Knolls (Rockaway, N.J.) freshman and Ashour a freshman at Morris Hills — work out together almost every afternoon: lifting, doing footwork, and working on football routes.

Ali Ashour 14, and Ahmed Abdulla 15, continue to weight train for football season although they are fasting for Ramadan. Ashour attends Morris Hills and Abdulla attends Morris Knolls. May 21, 2019. (Photo: Amy Newman/NorthJersey.com)

Abdulla, who grew up in the Parsippany Hills Little Vikings system and transferred after the family moved to Denville in January, was most concerned with how Ramadan might affect his grade-point average. Like the Shakirs, he wakes up before sunrise to eat, then squeezes in a couple more hours of sleep. After school, he works out, breaks the fast with Iftar, and goes to the mosque. Sometimes he doesn’t get back home until 11:30 p.m., which doesn’t leave much time for homework.

“Getting through the day is our goal, so you surround yourself with people who help you achieve that goal,” said Abdulla, who played defensive end and defensive tackle for the Parsippany Hills freshman football team last fall.

“If we can get through the day, us working out is building our strength, our mental strength especially. When it’s not Ramadan, you don’t have an excuse not to work out. You worked out for a month with no food or water and you survived. You can do anything. … Unless you put yourself in my shoes, there’s only so much you can understand. It’s not about what you can read. It’s about what you feel from it.”

For Abdulla, Ramadan is about deliberately focusing on his faith. He is depriving his body of food and water in order to concentrate on rebuilding his soul. When Ali steps to the starting line for the 100 meters, he has a different mindset from competitors who aren’t fasting.

“It gives me an advantage in a way,” said Ali, who was part of Morris Hills’ first-place 4×100 and second-place 4×200 at the Morris County Frosh-Soph Relays, and ran on the third-place varsity 4×100 at Morris County Relays.

“I’m way more mentally strong and prepared. … Running is nothing. If I can get through a whole day without eating or drinking, I can get through a 100-meter race. If we can get through all this (in the gym) without eating or drinking, and other people who can eat or drink aren’t doing the same thing, our capabilities are out of this world.”

Sharing their faith

Clifton athletic director Thomas Mullahey said coaches, teachers and other administrators are “sensitive” to those who are observing Ramadan. There is an alternative room for students who choose to avoid the cafeteria while fasting. In South Brunswick, students from different schools made Ramadan jars for the faculty and staff, including dates — the Prophet Muhammad broke his fast with three of the sweet fruit — and chocolate.

Rania Benatia of Hanover Park competes in the girls shot put. (Photo: Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network)

Hanover Park (N.J.) junior thrower Rania Benatia brought Ramadan up with coaches Bill DiMauro and Rachel Maggioncalda more than a month before the outdoor season even started. They agreed to focus on championship meets, and be conscious of Benatia’s physical health. Hira Shakir and her other fasting teammates have done some “adapted workouts,” building in extra breaks if they feel lightheaded.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar, so each year the holiday shifts, moving back around 10 days according to changes in the moon’s cycle.

“Coaches know to keep an eye on it, and make sure they’re able to participate at full strength,” said Mullahey, recalling when he coached soccer at McNair Academic in Jersey City during Ramadan, and athletes would sometimes eat dates and drink water on the bench after sunset — but in the middle of a game.

“We all work together on it. Obviously, no one is ever penalized for observance.”

Nearly all Inaaya Shakir’s Franklin Township Panthers travel soccer teammates are fasting for Ramadan, and they also wear hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Together since first grade at Noor-Ul-Iman School in Monmouth Junction, the Panthers are accustomed to supporting each other — and answering questions from non-Muslim opponents and classmates.

At a tournament, a referee took a selfie with the Panthers in their navy uniforms — with long sleeves and pants for modesty — and white hijabs. Inaaya Shakir, a seventh grader at Crossroads North in Monmouth Junction, recalled a game last season when she and her teammates prayed and broke their fast at halftime, “and we won that game by three goals.”

Before Hira Shakir competed during Ramadan, she thought, “I’m not going to be tired. I’m not going to go slower.” She ran a personal best in the 100 meters, lowering her time from 16.1 to 14.7 seconds. Hira Shakir finished the 100 in 14.63 and 30.32 in the 200 meters at the GMC freshman championships on Wednesday.

“They’re nuts, I don’t know,” chuckled Saadia Shakir, Inaaya and Hira’s mother, about a recent soccer match. “It’s raining and they’re energized. They won. I was like, ‘How do you guys do that?’ God bless them. They somehow get the energy.”

Get more at the Daily Record.

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