Muslim Olympians: To Fast Or Not To Fast?

(Great Britain’s Mohamed Sbihi, above left, and Greg Searle celebrate after winning a bronze medal in men’s rowing. Sbihi decided not to fast during the Olympics.)

Competing in the Olympic Games. Can you imagine it?

Can you further imagine competing as one of the Muslim athletes in London while fasting from food and water for up to 17 hours a day – from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.?!

These Olympics are the first Summer Games to coincide with Ramadan since 1980. It has posed quite a dilemma for the estimated 3,000 Muslim athletes who want to remain true to their faith but need to consume a certain amount of calories before their events and drink to avoid dehydration.

It has been a time of private soul-searching as well as seeking advice from Islamic scholars for these athletes. How does one balance sport and faith? Is that even a legitimate question?

Some Muslim Olympians have chosen to observe the 17-hour fast, like Milad Agila, head of the Libyan weightlifting team.

Others are opting out of fasting entirely, having appealed to various interpretations of the Qur’an. Leaders of the faith in Egypt (the fatwa committee at Al Azhar University in Cairo) and Bahrain have issued fatwas stating athletes would not have to fast, citing exceptions already made in the Qur’an for those who are traveling, sick or pregnant.

Still others, like Indonesian weightlifter Irawan Eko Yuli, plan to postpone fasting a month. It is reported that many Saudi athletes are also observing the fast a month later. They have reached this compromise by consulting Islamic scholars who have allowed them to fast or do charity after the Games are over:

It is a matter of personal choice, for example I believe that (British rower) Mohamed Sbihi has agreed to feed 60 poor people in (his father’s homeland of) Morocco for every day he does not fast during Ramadan,” Dr Muhammed Abdul Bari, former chair of the Muslim Council of Britain, told NBCNews.com.

Some Muslims have criticized these kind of exemptions as excuses to shirk obligatory responsibilities. But many others say they demonstrate Islam’s flexibility and undermine perceptions of the faith as rigid and dogmatic:

“If you’re chosen to represent your country, that is a huge responsibility, and to jeopardize that is almost un-Islamic,” said Zahed Amanullah, an American Muslim who has lived in London since 2003.

I spoke to one of my Muslim friends about this issue. He emphatically said that Muslim Olympic athletes should fast during Ramadan. He said, “They should be more concerned about the Day of Judgment than the Olympics! Fasting is mandatory.”

To my Muslim readers, what do you think of this Olympic sized dilemma?

To fast or not to fast during the Olympics. That is the question!

20 thoughts on “Muslim Olympians: To Fast Or Not To Fast?

  1. Prophet Mohamed SAW Peace be upon him has told us that if we are sick or traveling, we have the option not to fast, but if we did it would be better for us. And if we do not fast for these reasons then we must fast the number of days we didnt fast after Ramadan. Same thing goes for women when they dont fast 6-7 days of Ramadan for biological reasons, they must fast these days after Ramadan. This is also written in the Holy Quran, the two conditions where we are given the option not to fast.

    • Hussein – always great to hear from you!

      It sounds like your belief about this dilemma is that a Muslim would have “the option not to fast” when Ramadan comes during the Olympics but. . .it “must” be made up by fasting later.

      It sounds like an effort to find a middle ground – a healthy compromise if you please – between those who will not fast at all and those who will fast no matter what.

  2. I believe it is a personal choice, so you do what you are convinced about. With all due respect to all other opinions, I feel more inclined to Prophet Mohammad’s saying : “Islam is easiness not hardness and stiffness”. So, in this exceptional event, in which you represent your country and may jeopardize your team’s chances of win, opting out of fasting and choosing to feed the poor people instead doesn’t sound illogical for me.

    • Omar,

      I so appreciate your comments, my friend.

      It seems that you are seeing the importance of others, in this case the person’s country and teammates. A decision like this could possibly affect many, many people. On the other hand, when do you say to yourself, “Though I may let my teammates – and even my country – down, I must never disappoint my God. He and He alone is my first allegiance.”

      Omar, I also appreciate what you said that this is a personal decision worked out between the athlete and their Creator. After all, won’t we all have to answer to Him on Judgment Day? Let us be sure of our convictions and actions!

      Finally, you also have a very interesting quote from Muhammad regarding easiness. I find it similiar to Jesus’ saying:

      Matthew 11:28-30
      “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

      A paraphrase of Jesus’ encouraging words goes like this:

      “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

      This is the way I want to live. Religious rules are important. But they can never take the place of a real, vital, alive, fulfilling relationship to the Lord.

      • I agree with you that God’s place in the heart should be higher than any other thing for a real and sincere believer.
        Now, the question is can you stay within this circle of allegiance and obedience while not violating his orders (fasting here) because of a -probably- legitimate reason?
        I personally don’t have the answer for that question. The clergymen are usually and understandably split between the two opinions: between yes and no in answering this question.
        Here comes the next question, which answer should I take? There is a saying for Prophet Mohammad that says: “Question your heart even if people give you an answer to your question”. In other words, you can listen to both opinion, but at the end you should do what you believe is the right thing and you are convinced about (in your heart).
        Regarding the easiness, I agree with you we need these spirits inspired by Jesus, and by Mohammad after that, to teach people that religion is to rest you souls, not to carry burdens. We need to convey this massage which is really a heavy one, but worth it, in the face of those who promote extremism and stiffness.

        • Omar,

          For a young man, you sure have a lot of wisdom!

          It seems that some see the issue as a very “black-and-white” kind of thing. No dilemma: the Qur’an says ____________ so obey it. Simple and no need for discussion.

          But it seems that you see this issue as less certain because different scholars have different interpretations.

          Muhammad’s statement about listening to your heart as it seeks God is very interesting to me. My wise wife often tells me something like this: “You are asking too many people about what to do without spending enough time in prayer and the Bible – asking God what He wants you to do.”

          Bottom line: In my life, I just want to please God out of reverence and love – no matter what scholars, clergymen, and friends might say.

          • Thanks Mark,
            May God reward you for your pursuit to please him.
            And yes, this “black-and-white” approach usually leaves no room for dialogue.

            • Dear Anonymous,

              May each of us do all we can to please God knowing that His love cannot be earned.

              It is so hard sometimes to accept but God’s love is a free and glorious gift to be received instead of a reward to be earned!

  3. The Olympics in Ramadan is a dilemma for those who are participating in them. From a participant view point; I would want to win in the race of whatever I am involving in. Mohamed Sbihi decided not to fast for the purpose of winning in the Olympics. Few or maybe less to my knowledge decided to fast and not have the Olympics get in their way of fasting Ramadan. Islam is an easiness and not harness as stated in the above comments. What If I lost in the Olympics, would I have made the right choice? What If I had to skip 30 days of Ramadan for the sake of my country, Will I be rewarded in the Hereafter, if i lost?
    I think that If i was in the Olympics and had the choice to fast or not, I would fast regardless of the difficulty of the game or the obstacles that I would be facing. That’s just me. However, others might say that it’s an easiness from Allah and you can re-fast/ feed poor people. True, but that;s just my opinion. I think they should fast regardless.

    • Aziz, great to hear from you – thank you for your opinion. I treasure each comment from my Muslim friends like you!

      I am intrigued by the scenario you depicted if you were an Olympic athlete: a desire to win the race or event but even more, a desire to be “rewarded in the hereafter.”

      As a Christian, the question for me should always be, “What would please the Lord in this situation?”

      2 Corinthians 5:8-10
      “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

  4. Guys, the verse in the Quran is clear. All Muslims in the Olympics have traveled distances to get their unless they are British. Therefore, they can break there fast. They have a legitimate excuse. The excuse is traveling, it has nothing to do with Physical effort or jeapordizing. You dont need to be a scholar to give a fatwa to break your fast during traveling, the verse is in the Quran is clear:

    [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew. 2:184

    Anyone telling you that it is NOT permissiable to break your fast when on a journey certainly knows nothin about Islam and has not read the Quran.

    • Hussein,

      I so appreciate a view from a Muslim friend.

      This seems to make a lot of sense to me when you look at the travel part of the issue.

      I have a question about making up the fast via feeding the poor. I ask this question with respect and not malice. I am simply trying to learn. The question – from my ignorance – is:

      Could people who have money avoid the Ramadan fast every year and just feed the poor as a painless substitute?

      In other words, if they want to not go through the rigors of fasting, could they use feeding the poor as an excuse for not fasting?

  5. sorry for my spelling and grammar mistakes, what i meant is:

    “Guys, the verse in the Quran is clear. All Muslims in the Olympics have traveled distances to get there unless they are British. Therefore, they can break their fast. They have a legitimate excuse. The excuse is traveling, it has nothing to do with Physical effort or jeopardizing. You don’t need to be a scholar to give a fatwa to break your fast when on a journey, the verse is clear in the Quran.”

  6. Salam Mark!
    first, the issue of the fasting in Europe is sth controversial, In Islam, both the Fasting and the 5times Pray are based on the movement of the sun during the day.
    throughout earning my degree in the Islamic Law, I made a lecture on the fasting and the Pray of the Muslims who live in Countries where the day is much longer than the night (and the opposit…)
    and the right answer after all of that that we have to measure the 5times pray and the fasting according to the 24hours and according to the closest Country in which the day equal (somehow) the night.
    this answer is based on the speech of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) when he was talking about the signs of the herafter and the coming of the Daggal and the Masiah (Jesus Christ peace be upon him) because the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him said) that the Daggal will remain on the earth (Just before the hereafter for 40 days, a day like the year, a day like the month, a day like the week, and the other days like the normal days..
    so they asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) how shall we pray then? and he replied : You measure it’s time.
    well, actually, It was shocking for me, coming from Palestine to Paris to find out that the Muslims there fast the whole day!
    in some countries there is 6 months day and 6 months night, so they can’t even do the prays on the right way if they didn’t meausre, and like so the fasting.
    for example, we do make the mid-day pray when the sun’s location on the middle of the sky, however; In France the sun don’t even go to the middle of the sky, It always stay on the curve of the sky..
    and this is why they have to measure the time regarding the closest country to them in which the day equal the night (more and less)…

    regarding your question, well, If I went there on the same day then I will not fast for sure, because this is one of the excuses that’s mentioned in the holy quran, because Allah said: (and He has not laid upon you an hardship in religion) /Holy Quran 22:78.
    however if I was there from long time then I will do make my fast only according to the closest country in which the day equal the night!

    Ammar

    • My friend Ammar,

      Wow, this is a detailed explanation of measuring time (daylight hours?) during Ramadan that I had never heard of.

      Thanks for your input – as one who has earned a degree in Islamic Law!

      One thing I know, I might be able to learn how to measure time but I cannot measure God’s love for me – and the whole world!

  7. As a Christian who recently discovered the blessing of fasting in order to draw closer to God and to present my concerns before Him, I know that God sees my heart and honors my desires to serve Him. He does not respond so much to dutiful legalism as He does to loving obedience. He looks at the hearts of those who seek Him during Ramadan or any other time and draws near to those who seek His presence.

    • Kit,

      Sure appreciate your response, particularly your words that God is not after dutiful legalism from us but instead He desires obedience to Him out of love.

      Yes, whether Muslim or Christian, He alone knows our hearts!

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