By Rachel Lenzi email@example.com, MaineToday.com
PORTLAND – At 4:30 in the morning, Mashale Nabi’s teammates are probably still asleep. But for the past four weeks, around that time each morning, Nabi wakes and consumes a breakfast of yogurt, fruit, cereal and plenty of water and Gatorade.
Nabi, a sophomore at Portland High School, isn’t exactly enthralled with the idea of waking up before the sun rises and like many teenagers, she values her shut-eye. But these days, waking up early is a necessity for her to adhere to one of her core religious beliefs.
It is Ramadan, and as a practicing Muslim, Nabi must prepare properly for a day of fasting that begins when the sun rises, which means proper nutrition and hydration. What compounds these days is the fact that Nabi is going through preseason practices with the Portland girls’ soccer team.
For Abshir Horor, observing Ramadan is a chance, as he explains, "for the Muslim people to collect good deeds."
"It’s the month that you clean yourself, erase the bad deeds you have done," said Horor, a junior who runs cross country at Waynflete. "They say evil and Satan are blocked during Ramadan. It’s a good month, like a holiday. You get closer to your family, you have meals with them, and it’s a good month that brings the family and Muslims together."
Nabi and Horor are part of a small group of high school athletes who, while preparing for the fall sports season, are fasting from sunrise to sunset in observance of the Muslim holiday.
Nabi can’t refuel by eating a midafternoon banana or an energy bar. She cannot even have a sip of water. She is the only player on her team who fasts in observance of Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam.
"You feel sorrow for the people who don’t have food," Nabi said of observing Ramadan. "You understand what they are going through and what you might take for granted, like food and water. You do it to be thankful for everything you have."
One of the five pillars of Islam — along with charity, prayer, the profession of faith and the hajj (the religious pilgrimage to Mecca) — Ramadan is observed worldwide, even in the Muslim communities in Maine that are predominantly found in Portland and Lewiston. Ramadan spans the course of 30 days and is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which varies from year to year. This year, Ramadan ends Thursday and is followed Friday by the Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration that marks the end of fasting.
Nabi remembers the first time she observed Ramadan, when she begged and pleaded her mother for a glass of water. She was in middle school and didn’t understand the scope of the holiday. Her mother put it in simple terms for her.
"She said to me, ‘Try it for one day, you’re doing it for God,’ " Nabi recalled. " ‘This is a good thing.’ "
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are nearly 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, including 1.8 million in the United States. According to the Islamic Center of Maine, the state’s Muslim population is about 10,000 and includes Afghanis, Somalians, Kurds, Bosnians, Iraqis, Iranians and Americans.
"Ramadan is more understood now than it was 15 years ago," said Jenan Jondy, the outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono. "People are more educated. With the knowledge, there’s more of an increase in education about it and there’s a respect for it."
Jondy, who works with high school and college students in the Bangor area, attributes the growth in understanding to the push for education about Islam, and for the growth of Islam in the American population, as more second- and third-generation Muslims are now in their teens and 20s.
"There are different challenges for different youths," Jondy said of teenagers who observe Ramadan. "For some, it might be second nature to do so. For others it might be a challenge to watch other kids eat. I have a daughter in high school and a son in the eighth grade and they’re fine with it, and they’re the only Muslims in school. But at Ramadan, you are rechecking your priorities. You submit your will to God and you are required to take action."
GOING THROUGH DRILLS
Portland Athletic Director Mike McCullum did not have an exact number of student-athletes who observe Ramadan, but Nabi and her older brother, Fazal, who is on Portland’s boys’ soccer team, are two. Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller estimates there are at least 20 student-athletes at the high school who observe Ramadan, and remembers the issue first arising about eight years ago, when an influx of immigrants settled in Lewiston.
"We understand that every fall, this is something we have to deal with," Fuller said. "What becomes difficult for us is when Ramadan begins, but we’ve dealt with it for so many years and the athletes are open with us about it. All my coaches learn about it directly from the kids."
This year, Ramadan began six days before the start of fall sports practices in Maine. Many who observe Ramadan wake prior to dawn for a meal that is meant to sustain them until sundown.
"In the summer you need sustenance, and you need the energy," Jondy said. "But it’s amazing how little food we need. The first two days are tough, but then your body starts to adjust."
This is the second year Ramadan has fallen during the preseason, at a time when players are working toward earning spots on the team, doing so in hot weather and humidity.
"Last year was extremely hard," Nabi said. "I’d just entered high school and it’s preseason and it’s a lot tougher out there. It was hard going through the drills and (Portland girls’ soccer coach Dave LeVasseur) pushes us. When it got hard, I’d stand there and I’d ask God to give me strength. But if I did something good, I thought, maybe I’ll get something good in return."
TAKING A PRAYER BREAK
At several high schools in Maine, Muslim student-athletes are balancing the observance of their faith with their athletic endeavors. It’s challenging at times — for the athletes who must fast from sunup to sun-down, as well as observe a timetable of prayers; for coaches who may have never worked with an athlete whose religion requires a strict observance schedule; and for athletes who may wonder why a teammate is forgoing a water break or is ducking away from the field and looking away, in the direction of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (s).
"I think it’s a great educational experience for the kids who don’t celebrate it," McCullum said. "It teaches the kids another aspect, another culture that they may or may not know about. For other kids, for coaches and for myself, it’s something that needs to be recognized. We need to understand it so we can allow these kids to observe it and to do what we can do from our end to help."
In more than 20 years of coaching boys’ soccer, Waynflete’s Brandon Salway has worked with at least 10 players who observe Ramadan, including four this season.
In years past, Waynflete has played in state tournament games in October and November, in years when Ramadan is observed during the fall. Salway has seen games when players forgo water breaks and postgame meals, and players who have stopped during practices or even during games to find a place to pray.
"Sometimes they go find a place, even on the road, they’ve gone together to pray," Salway said "I’ve actually had a player go at halftime and I told him, come back when he felt as if he could. It’s different. Kids have handled it a little differently. I’ve told them, you tell me what I need to do to accomodate them. It’s never been a distraction or a problem."
Last fall, Horor played soccer at Waynflete and had several teammates who observed Ramadan. He had teammates whom he prayed with, as well as teammates who understood their collective observance and who, like Nabi’s teammates, abstained from eating or asked Horor beforehand if they could eat in front of him.
"That meant a lot because I know people are respecting me and respecting my religion," Horor said. "If someone just comes to your face and eats food in front of you, it’s hard to think about it."
"Last year I fasted during soccer. It affects your training. You get tired, but you get through it. This year, I’m glad Ramadan came early. It’s going to be over by the time school and sports really start."
DOING IT FOR GOD
Nabi began her soccer season Friday, and she is the only player on the Portland girls’ soccer team to observe Ramadan. Her brother, Fazal, has several teammates who observe Ramadan. In the Muslim community at Portland High, Nabi knows of Muslims who observe Ramadan and others who do not. She observes Ramadan independently and prefers not to invade others’ observation of the holy month. At the same time, she is surrounded by friends and teammates who understand and respect her observance.
"I don’t think I ever feel isolated because of it," Nabi said. "It makes me stronger by looking at food, knowing, I can’t have it but I can have it later. But I never feel isolated. The people around me support me."
Horor knows of Muslims who do not observe Ramadan and he does not judge them. He has his reasons for observing Ramadan.
"Some kids don’t do it," Horor said. "But in every religion, you have people who are very serious about it and some who are moderate. It’s the right thing for me. Once you are 15, you are considered a grown man and to Allah, to not do it is to commit a sin. For 11 months you eat every day. For one month, you observe this. I’m doing this for good deeds. I’m doing this to go to Heaven."