Muslim athletes in metro Detroit balance sports and faith during Ramadan fasting

The 2014 World Cup poses challenges for observant Muslims as Ramadan starts this weekend.  In 2007, the Detroit Free Press wrote about how local Muslim athletes observe Ramadan.

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Fordson High School football team prays before game in 2007

Fordson High School football team prays before game in 2007

 

THE RAMADAN FAST | A TEST OF BODY AND FAITH

MUSLIM ATHLETES SACRIFICE SUNRISE TO SUNSET

Published in Detroit Free Press, Oct. 5, 2007, Page 1a.

http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071005/NEWS05/710050338/0/RSS07

By Niraj Warikoo

Detroit Free Press Staff Writer


 

Hunched over, clutching his stomach, Saeed Saleh gasps for air. The cross-country runner has stopped suddenly during a practice sprint around the track at Fordson High in Dearborn.

“I couldn’t breathe, ” the senior panted. “It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t able to keep on going.”

That’s understandable, given that Saeed, like thousands of Muslims across metro Detroit, abstains from all food and liquids during daylight hours for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that started in mid-September.

For high school athletes, the 30 days are a special challenge, one that puts their faith to the test as they balance America’s tradition of school sports with their religion.

Far from a clash of civilizations, what plays out on fields and courts across Michigan is a blend of cultures that complement each other, reinforcing their common values of sacrifice, discipline and hard work.

Islam’s emphasis on forbearance overlaps with the lessons learned on American playgrounds, say local imams, athletes, players and coaches, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

“The philosophy of Ramadan … is the same thing we’re teaching these kids on the field, ” said Hussein Berry, who founded a junior football league in Dearborn. “It all comes together.”

Some Muslim football players got dispensations this fall from local Islamic scholars to break fasts early on game day – not unlike the time when a Detroit rabbi cited a Talmudic verse that allowed Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah (but not on Yom Kippur) during the 1934 pennant race.

Other Muslim athletes eschew food and water even on the day of competitions. A top runner, Saeed placed first in a meet in Ypsilanti the week before Ramadan started. But during a Thursday practice after two weeks of fasting he pondered whether his abstaining would affect his time in a coming meet.

“Sometimes, you just die out, and you just can’t take it anymore, ” he explained while massaging his cramped right side. “Sometimes, you just feel like, keep on going, you know? … We’ll see what happens.”

 

Football and Islam

Last season, Fordson High’s football team, which is about 95% Muslim, started 4-0.

Then Ramadan came.

The team lost its next four games, all held during the holy month. After Ramadan, the team won its last regular game of the year, squeaking into the playoffs.

Did the fasting affect their performance? Maybe.

But this season, new head coach Fouad Zaban isn’t making it an issue.

“It became an excuse, whether legitimate or not, ” said Zaban, a former star running back at Fordson. “It became a distraction, something we had to deal with the last four to five years. …But our motto this year is: ‘No excuses.’ We will not bring the issue up, and we haven’t.”

Zaban is a devout Muslim and fasts. But he’s leaving the choice up to his players: There’s water on the sidelines if they want to drink during workouts. During a practice last Thursday, though, the players chose to sweat it out.

“I got to follow my religion, ” said Mohammed Bazzy, 17, the team’s quarterback. “It’s very hard during football, but there’s no excuse … you got to do what you got to do.”

For athletes, the first days of Ramadan are often the toughest, as the body tries to cope with no food or water from sunrise till sunset. To Bazzy and other students, avoiding liquids is particularly tough.

But they say it’s worth it.

“It makes me feel strong knowing that I can fast and go through football, ” he said. “Fasting makes you a stronger person, a better person.”

Scholar’s advice

Before Ramadan began, some of Fordson’s starters met with Imam Abdul-Latif Berry, a Shi’ite Muslim scholar who heads the Islamic Institute of Knowledge in Dearborn. They asked him: Can we eat and drink before the game?

Imam Berry advised them: It’s OK, but they must make it up after Ramadan. Also, they must travel on game days at least 22 miles outside their home city before afternoon prayers, and break the fast there.

So on game days, several Fordson players drive out near Ann Arbor before 12:30 p.m., gulp down some water or Gatorade, and then drive back to eat before the 7 p.m. kickoff.

There are other Islamic interpretations of when and how Muslims can break fast early, a reflection of the diversity within Islam. One general rule scholars teach is that if someone can’t handle fasting and playing sports without harming themselves, they must break fast, said Khalida Beydoun, an Islamic teacher at the institute who advises young women playing sports.

“You need to look at the individual situation, because each person goes by what they can tolerate and do, ” Beydoun said.

Ali Reda, 15, a sophomore on Fordson’s varsity tennis team, said he usually can survive the first two sets of matches. But then he hits a wall.

“You feel exhausted, ” Ali said. “You can’t run as fast to get to the ball. You lose a step.”

Before Ramadan started, Dearborn schools reminded principals and teachers that many students would be fasting. It asked them to consider how that might affect students during tests and physical education.

Hamtramck schools face a similar challenge, said athletic director Jeremy Cartwright. During football games, the coach calls a time-out at sunset so his Muslim players – who make up about half the team – can eat and drink.

Because Ramadan starts 10 days earlier every year, coaches are worried about years when the holy month will overlap grueling summer workouts and later sunsets.

Game day

Like last year, Fordson’s football team started 4-0 this season. But also like last year, they dropped the next two games, both played after a week of practices during Ramadan. Even if the kids break fast early on game day, abstaining during the week may catch up with them, said Fordson athletic director Mark Shooshanian.

Still, Fordson’s opponents – Allen Park and Monroe – were tough and both were favored to beat Fordson.

Fasting all week didn’t appear to hurt the cross-country team at all.

At a meet Saturday morning at Dearborn High School, Fordson came in first, beating 20 other teams from across the region. And four of the top five runners were from Fordson. All were fasting Muslims.

It was a joyous morning for the team’s runners, who have become good friends after years of racing together.

Saeed, the senior who cramped up two days earlier in practice, came in first, recording a personal best of 16 minutes, 20 seconds in the 3.1-mile race. Teammate and senior Samer Ilayan came in fourth and also recorded a personal best.

“It’s all mental, ” Samer said. “We don’t go around saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do good, we’re fasting.’… When we’re racing, we don’t think about food … we just make sure we give it 100%.”

 Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or nwarikoo@freepress.com.

Fordson High football player takes water break

Fordson High football player takes water break

 

( below is sidebar:)

Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan?

The general idea is that Muslims should focus on their faith instead of being distracted. It’s also to remind followers of how poor people feel.

How do they cope while playing sports?

Some gulp down a gallon of water before sunrise to help keep them hydrated through the day. Many say that mental focus is the key.

Can Muslims break the daytime fasts to play sports?

It depends. Some Islamic scholars say they can if fasting may adversely affect their health. Others say it’s permissible if the athlete travels a certain distance and makes up the fasting after Ramadan.

How have other religious minorities dealt with playing American sports?

Jewish athletes have long grappled with how to deal with holidays and Sabbath days that overlap with game day.

During the 1934 pennant race, Detroit Tigers star Hank Greenberg was thinking of sitting out games during the Jewish high holy days in September.

A Detroit rabbi said it would be OK for him to play on Rosh Hashanah, which Greenberg did – and went on to slam two home runs in a 2-1 victory. The Detroit Free Press ran a front-page headline – in Hebrew – that read: “Happy New Year, Hank.”

When Greenberg sat out for Yom Kippur, the Detroit Free Press poet wrote:

“We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat

“But he’s true to his religion, and I honor him for that.”

— By Niraj Warikoo

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