This is an excerpt of the piece, Touchdowns and Taqwa, published in All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim, White Cloud Press, 2012.
Taqwa involves fulfilling obligations inwardly and outwardly and avoiding what is prohibited inwardly and outwardly. It requires struggle and sacrifice, focus and commitment, cooperation, physical health, eating healthy wholesome foods, prayer, and the right attitude. A lot of what it takes to attain that state is what it also takes to be a good athlete.
Track and field was the setting for one of my greatest Islamic lessons on personal responsibility. I was a junior in high school and it was during Ramadan. I had missed dinner one Thursday night after breaking my fast because I was so tired from participating in indoor track and being on the basketball team at the same time – each day I was doing full practices for each sport while fasting. The next morning, Friday, I missed suhoor (the meal before sunrise that gives one some sustenance for the day of fasting ahead) and that night I also missed eating a proper dinner after breaking my fast. The next morning, Saturday, I also missed suhoor and woke up in time for fajr (morning prayer)- only this time I also had to prepare for a track meet. I had not eaten a proper meal in two days, and I did not know what to do. I was exhausted, hungry, and parched from thirst. I went to the kitchen and paced around looking into the cabinets and fridge. I even poured myself some water and stared at the glass. Eventually I went to my dad, who was preparing to take me to the track meet, and asked him what to do.
“Daddy,” I said, “I have not eaten in two days and I have a HUGE track meet today. Should I eat? Or should I fast?”
My dad shook his head and paused. If you know him, you know that he never rushes to judgment. His response was simple and profound.
“That,” he said, “is between you and Allah.”
Needless to say, I fasted. The best part of the story is that in all my events that day, I not only won but I also had personal bests in each event. I ran raster and jumped longer then I had ever done before.
In the process I discovered the benefits of thikr (engaging in constant remembrance of Allah) that day. Thikr was what sustained me throughout the grueling track meet. I also understood through this experience that my status before Allah has everything to do with my own intentions, choices, and actions.
At times I did not always fit into the culture of sports in the USA. If I could go back, I would have insisted on taking breaks to pray and I would have pulled my coaches aside when they were being insensitive to my race and my religion. However, in employing struggle and sacrifice, focus and commitment, cooperation, physical health, eating healthy wholesome food, prayer, and the right attitude I overcame those obstacles.
People measure their athletic careers by how much they won or lost or how many points they scored. These are fair measurements, but I think it is easy to overlook some of the most important lessons that come embedded in the games and in our approach to them. We should measure our success also by what we learn about our own selves and our own souls. As an athlete and a member of the Muslim American community, I hope I can be an example of the fact that sports are a healthy outlet for our youth, and that sports can be an enriching part of the Muslim experience. I feel each one of us has untapped potential in our community to be ambassadors of our faiths, cultures, and families, as well as athletes who can power our local teams to championships.