Ebadur Rahman wants to help Muslim athletes flourish. He tells us how Muslim athletes keep happy, healthy and fit while fasting through Ramadan.
Lift the sleek black lid of a Nujum Ramadan gift pack and you’ll find an array of delights. Honey and dates to break fast, prayer beads, perfume, and water from the holy Zamzam Well in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Hundreds of these have been sent to high profile Muslim athletes across the UK, including Arsenal’s Elneny, Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate, and Chelsea keeper Sami Tlemcani, by a small social enterprise in Bow set up to help Muslim sportspeople integrate their faith into their profession.
Nujum Sports is the brainchild of local resident Ebadur Rahman, who saw a need for for top level sports clubs to make their institutions more accommodating for Muslim athletes.
Of the 513 players in the 2019-20 Premier League, 42 were Muslim, a greater percentage than the Muslim population of the UK. Yet not all clubs are fully versed in the requirements of their Muslim athletes, which may include: factoring prayer times into schedules, serving halal food, providing a tranquil place to pray, and potential adjustments to sports kits. And of course, there’s Ramadan to consider.
Misrepresentation in the media is also a concern, particularly for female athletes who have been portrayed as overcoming repression to play. Either they face constant politicisation of their chosen headwear or can seem strangely absent from sporting fixtures altogether.
The idea for Nujum Sports came to Rahman one month after the UK was first plunged into lockdown. Many of Rahman’s footballer contacts came to him for advice on how to adapt to this ‘new normal’ while still celebrating Ramadan.
Before launching Nujum Sports in 2020, Rahman had spent three years working at the Football Association working on better safeguarding and jurisdiction.
‘There’s not many Muslims in the FA,’ he explains, so he quickly became a go-to for Muslim footballers seeking advice on working their faith into their sporting career. Many stayed in touch after he left the organisation in 2018.
‘We weren’t even allowed to go to the mosque,’ he explains, talking about the first lockdown, which made it even trickier for professional athletes to observe Ramadan while keeping up rigorous training regimes.
‘A lot of the players had questions about their faith,’ he explains, ‘so we created an event for them. We brought one of the biggest Islamic speakers there is, he’s called Mufti Menk… everyone looks up to him.’
The success of the Q&A made Rahman realise that ‘there’s not really an organisation around to support Muslim athletes, not just footballers, but just generally male and female athletes, and I thought “why not, I like taking a risk,” so here we are.’
‘Ramadan makes me feel energised’
Rahman spent the first six months of his life in Portsmouth – ‘it was the nearest port when my dad swam over from Bangladesh,’ he jokes, deadpan. The family then moved to Tower Hamlets, where he has stayed ever since.
Shadwell, Poplar, then Stepney, and now Bethnal Green, Ramhan is a Tower Hamlets boy through and through. He has also set up Nujum Sports’ offices in the striking Bow building of Main Yard studios.
Nujum Sports currently has three full-time members of staff, and up to 15 volunteers who help run events and outreach to youth sports clubs. Rahman has worked hard to cover all bases: ‘We want to be the organisation for athletes so that if they need support, we’re here for them.’
After experiencing a small stroke in 2019, at the age of 31, Rahman suffered greatly from anxiety and depression, highlighting to him the interlocking of physical, mental and spiritual health. For this reason, Nujum offers counselling and mental health support to athletes via qualified practitioners.
PR and crisis management are also on offer, with Islamophobia still prevalent in many sports. ‘You have athletes who might get caught up in a storm, not through any fault of their own, but because of their background.’
In one recent case, ‘a Muslim cricketer didn’t want to wear a gambling sponsor on his shirt.’ Rahman explains that it wasn’t the player himself who requested not to wear the sponsored item, rather, the club had intervened once it realised that it might pose an issue for a person of Muslim faith. Yet, the player still became a target of abuse from the far-right, so the club sought Nujum’s support in dealing with this.
Rahman explains that ‘clubs in this country are very good… especially higher up their ladder, they have a lot in place for their faith-based players. So it’s about supporting them and putting in different things.’
Whether this is bringing in halal food to the canteen or making sure there’s an appropriate place for prayer, Nujum Sports is there to guide clubs to enable their Muslim players to excel.
As a not-for-profit, Nujum is funded by organisations including Fans for Diversity and the East End Community Foundation, and is free for professional athletes and clubs.
Ramadan is simply the Arabic name for the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. As one of Islam’s five pillars, fasting in Ramadan was prescribed by Allah as an obligatory act for all who are able to. This means not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. And this includes drinking water.
Ramadan presents a serious challenge to professional athletes, who would regularly consume thousands of calories throughout the day to support rigorous training regimes. As this year Ramadan falls in spring, fasting lasts up to 18 hours per day.
But far from being considered an inconvenience or strain, Rahman sees this as a month for reflection, fostering new friendships, supporting those in need, and, for athletes, focusing on how faith can play a positive role in everyday professional sporting life.
While some athletes who are fasting will cut back on training, many will continue as normal. Last year, local centenarian Dabirul Choudhury walked 100 laps of his 80-metre communal garden – while fasting – to raise money for the RFC’s (Ramadan Family Commitment) COVID-19 Crisis Initiative.
Rahman himself doesn’t consider himself an athlete, though he does train hard, and actually feels more energised when fasting.
‘I still train, I train just before I break my fast at 6pm ish, and I train as normal, just as I would any day,’ he explains.
Advice for athletes fasting during Ramadan
Because the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, the exact date of Ramadan changes every year. ‘For the next twenty years the footballing calendar is going to be during Ramadan, that’s why this year, for the first time in a long time, it’s been in the middle of the season,’ explains Rahman.
Once every 44 years, the Olympic Games and Ramadan coincide. When London hosted the Olympics in 2012, that’s exactly what happened. While most athletes were excused from the duty of fasting during the Games, they still observed many of Ramadan’s other rituals including daily Duas (prayers) and the Ummah, a prayer for all humanity.
So what is Rahman’s advice for athletes fasting through Ramadan?
‘In the early morning just before you even start your fast (at Suhoor) you’ll need slow release carbs, and your protein, greens and vegetables.’
Once the sun has set, it’s time for Iftar, when family and friends meet for a communal meal. While it might be tempting to feast at this time – you can imagine the hunger – Rahman recommends always breaking fast ‘with water and dates first.’
‘Your stomach’s going to shrink, so the dates and water will help it open up, and then you can come back with your protein, your rice and chicken.’
In order to take in enough liquid, Rahman suggests consuming isotonic fluids, as opposed to water, during the time when eating and drinking is allowed (at night).
But Ramadan isn’t only about the fast. ‘It’s also about spirituality and connecting with God. And then just being more God-conscious.’
‘It’s teaching you patience. If you just make it about food and water, that’s all you’re going to get from it.’
But what Rahman is doing isn’t just for Ramadan. To run faster, shoot straighter, and punch harder, athletes need to feel they belong, that their needs are fully catered for, every day. Rahman is making space for Muslim athletes to flourish, and we’ll be seeing the results on the scoreboard.
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