A new Muslim Athlete Charter has set out ways that clubs and leagues can better support sportspeople who practise their faith
Apr 07, 2022
Professional athletes know that strength and endurance are critical to a successful career. If you are also a practising Muslim and fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan, you will need extra psychological and physical stamina to get through the month.
Despite being one of the largest faith-based groups in the UK, the Muslim community has traditionally struggled for representation in British sports across national teams and lower leagues, but that is changing.
Some of the best players in the football Premier League are Muslim. Mo Salah, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, to name a few on the pitch. British Muslim cricketers Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid are near the top of their field.
Rugby has become the latest to embrace the diversity of its teams after the Rugby Football League (RFL) became the first national governing body to sign the Muslim Athlete Charter, a set of principles on how to better support and encourage sportspeople who practise Islam.
It has been welcomed from grass roots to professional level. The manager of the Midlands Hurricanes rugby team told The National he was “very happy and surprised” with the RFL’s endorsement.
“It’s a really positive step forward for rugby and it gets people talking and being more open about their religion,” says Darren Ivor Morson.
A practising Muslim of more than 20 years, the former rugby player from Wales said inclusivity initiatives, such as the charter, helped break stereotypes around what it means to be a Muslim.
Developed with religious scholars, athletes and sports clubs, the charter’s manifesto includes 10 things that teams can do to create a more hospitable environment for Muslim players.
They include provisions like, guaranteeing that Muslim players have proper venues to worship, offering halal meals, and allowing Muslim competitors to fast without judgement or hindrance throughout Ramadan.
Founder of Nujum Sports, the non-profit organisation that created the charter, told The National the RFL’s endorsement was a huge win for the people he was trying to represent.
“With the Rugby League World cup in November we will have players coming from all over the world and it’s important that those arriving come to an environment that welcomes them,” says Ebadur Rahman.
More than 50 clubs across cricket, football and rugby have already adopted the charter, which provides professional bodies with toolkits and advice, including Queens Park Rangers, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Middlesex County Cricket Club and the Football Association of Wales.
Recognising the contribution of Muslim athletes in sports both on and off the field, the RFL said the governing body was “sending a positive message” on the importance of creating a “truly inclusive environment” for everyone.
Since sharing posts about the news on his social media channels, Mr Morson said he had received a lot of positive support from his team after they realised he was fasting.
“It’s hard to talk about religion, especially in a sport like rugby but since I’ve posted online the players have been really supportive and kind, even hiding their food when they realised I’m fasting.”
He has also had Muslim rugby players he did not know become closer to him, creating a helpful camaraderie.
“It’s brought players together to start talking and the more of that, the better. By seeing this charter, the conversation gets started and so far it has been all positive reactions.”
After the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement and the shocking racism scandal that rocked English cricket, clubs and leagues across the UK have been adopting a number of anti-discrimination and inclusivity measures.
Accusations by former spin bowler Azeem Rafiq against Yorkshire for failing to adequately deal with the abuse he suffered while playing for the county side led to the setting up of a committee of MPs to investigate the sport.
The committee’s report was released in January and the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), who gave evidence during the investigation, have been developing an action plan to tackle racism and promote inclusion within the sport.
The RFL said the charter reinforced their commitments under “Tackle It”, the game’s own antiracism, anti-discrimination action plan.
For Mr Rahman, the latest signatory to the charter is a “positive movement of solidarity, equality and recognition of the contribution Muslims” in their sports teams.
Launched in 2020, Nujum Sports aims to “support and empower” Muslim athletes and drive their inclusion in sports.
A big fan of the “beautiful game” and former employee at the Football Association, Mr Rahman has been around players and athletes his whole life and found that clubs overall had a “distinct lack of resources” to support their Muslim players and supporters.
“We work with clubs and sporting organisations to build a mutual and positive understanding of Muslim athletes and Islam,” he says.
“Fasting for 15 hours a day can be a struggle, especially for athletes who are required to stay in peak physical condition.”
The shorter time available to eat means most Muslims change their meal frequency from three to two meals a day.
“For larger clubs, with dedicated nutritionists, designing a plan based on two meals is essential, ensuring players get all the required nutrients in one less meal.”
He advises smaller clubs to be tolerant of a slight dip in performance levels and Mr Rahman’s organisation has been handing out Ramadan packs with advice, sustenance and some comfort.
In a signature black-and-gold box, Nujum Sports sent out supplies that included, nutritional advice, a prayer mat, dates and Zamzam water, to every Muslim cricketer, footballer and rugby league player as “token of support and appreciation”.
“Sometimes athletes, especially footballers, don’t have family here and Ramadan is typically a time to spend with family,” Mr Rahman tells The National.
“So many players have told us it’s nice to feel remembered or considered, a lot of these players are often far away from home so getting a box like this is helpful for them, they’re human beings at the end of the day.”
Nujum Sports has also been running workshops on how to best support players across sporting arenas including the Middlesex County Cricket Club and the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, which includes the Football Association, the Premier League and the English Football League.
The knowledge gained during these workshops will be useful for a long time to come given that Ramadan falls during the football season for the next 20 years.
Last year, during Leicester City’s match against Crystal Palace, the game was paused to allow Wesley Fofana, Cheikhou Kouyate and Jordan Ayew to break their fast.
It is understood to be the first time a Premier League game has been stopped mid-match to allow Muslim players to do so but Mr Rahman advocates for this to be for all matches taking place at dusk during Ramadan, if there are Muslim players on the pitch.
Holding an iftar for Muslim players is another way clubs can show their support as well as being “an excellent chance for team building and organisational bonding”, he says.
Cricket is of course by far the most renowned staples of the sporting prowess within the British Muslim community and the sport’s governing authority has also taken steps to offer support for fasting players.
Ahead of Ramadan the ECB produced content from several high-profile Muslim cricketers with advice on how to sustain their professional and spiritual practises during Ramadan as part of their “Changing the Game” series.
International cricketer Moeen Ali said he got his body ready for the holy month by fasting for a day or two a week in the run-up to Ramadan.
“When I was younger I used to say I couldn’t fast and play but it’s not true, you can. It’s amazing what your body can do and go through,” said Ali, who is an ambassador of the Muslim Athletes Charter.
Meanwhile, Nottinghamshire and England batsman Haseeb Hameed stressed the importance of hydration during non-fasting hours.
“Get inasmuch as you can. It might not always feel comfortable in the sense that you don’t feel like drinking but you have to because you know it’s the right thing to do,” said the right-handed opener.
“It seems like quite a big ask but the special thing about [Ramadan] is you get obviously the massive spirituality, but you are best with a certain level of discipline which allows you to get through.”
Also observing Ramadan this month is Yorkshire and England spinner Rashid, who said commitment to the team remained paramount.
“If the team is training, whether I’m fasting or not, I still have to train with the team but I just keep them aware that I’m fasting to make things a little easier,” said Rashid, who is another ambassador of the charter.
Across county grounds and national stadiums, cricket has been embracing its significant Muslim presence in a manner of ways. After the success of last year’s Ramadan Midnight Cricket League launch, Warwickshire Cricket Board have now developed a new adult tournament to take place during this year’s holy month.
England’s famous Edgbaston Cricket Centre will extend its opening times until midnight during Ramadan this year and, for the second time in its history, play host to outdoor Eid celebrations for up to 3,000 people at the end of April.