x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UAE Olympians who delayed Ramadan fasts determined to fulfil their obligation

With Ramadan just a memory for another year, John Henzell talk to some who are still fasting to catch up on days they missed during the Holy Month.

UAE's Ismaeil Matar celebrates his goal with teammates during their men's Group A football match against Senegal at London 2012
UAE's Ismaeil Matar celebrates his goal with teammates during their men's Group A football match against Senegal at London 2012

The leftovers from the Eid feasts have long since been cleared away, but for sportsmen such as the UAE goalkeeper Ali Kasheif, the Ramadan fast is just beginning.

The national team were given dispensation not to fast as they trained for the London Olympics, where they lost two games and drew one.

As the rest of the UAE celebrated Eid, the nation's footballers were training twice a day at a development camp in Austria, preventing them from catching up on missed fasting days.

But with the team now home, Kasheif and others are aiming to begin fasting, even though almost nobody around them is doing so.

"We have just more than a week before the first league game," he said. "I think it [fasting] is something the club management, as well as the technical staff, understands.

"I have already discussed this matter with the technical staff, and I can do so whenever I decide, if the intentions are clear, no matter what date we fast and complete this important religious obligation."

Mohammed Salem Al Enazi, Kasheif's team manager at Al Jazira, said they were being flexible about how players made up for days they did not fast during Ramadan.

"For those players who have missed fasting due to unavoidable circumstances, there are no hard and fast rules from our side to catch up on the days they have missed," he added. "They are free to do so as and when they want to.

"I think the best time would be during the period when we return from our camp [in Austria] and before the first league game.

"As far as fasting is concerned, it is not a major issue for the Emirati players because they are well accustomed to this practice from a very young age and can cope up with it."

Two others who received approval from their imams to defer fasting were mountaineers Muhammad Irfan and Iftikhar Amin, who began an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, a few days before the end of Ramadan.

Irfan, an Abu Dhabi-born engineer, had originally planned to fast during the expedition but was talked out of it because of the rigours of climbing the 5,895-metre volcano.

"When I shared this idea with some experienced hikers, they all advised me that it will be very difficult to fast as I'll be walking about 20 kilometres every day on an uphill trail," Irfan said. "Sustaining that without food and water will be extremely tough and risky.

"It made me upset, as I never wanted to miss any days of fasting, but at the same time I didn't want to miss climbing Kilimanjaro.

"That's when I consulted an Islamic scholar and, to my delight, he affirmed to me that I can skip the days of fasting until my trip ends, and make up for them upon returning."

Since returning on August 26, he has found it unexpectedly difficult to catch up. In the first two weeks, he only fasted for a couple of days.

"It's not very difficult physically, but spiritually I don't find it the same as in Ramadan," Irfan said. "I lack the spiritual intensity I had during Ramadan. It's maybe because Allah says in the Quran that He chains the Devil during Ramadan so we don't get distracted by it.

"Also, I am not able to invest the same amount of time in worshipping as I did during Ramadan.

"No more taraweeh prayers [the extended prayers after isha, during which the Quran is recited in sections] as well."

Mountaineers and Olympians are far from alone in fasting after the Holy Month. Muslims made up between one quarter and one third of the 10,000 participants in the Olympics, for which a deferral of fasting - always available for those ill, pregnant or nursing, along with fighters and travellers - was approved by religious authorities.

A 2004 study of fasting footballers in Algeria by Dr Yacine Zerguini, a member of the medical committee of football's world body, found that Ramadan had little effect on their performance. But the participants were amateurs rather than elite players and even a small deterioration of performance in the Olympics could make the difference between a gold medal and finishing in the middle of the field.

Another study from Tunisia showed that competitors were more likely to suffer injuries during Ramadan than at other times of the year, thought to be caused by less-than-optimal physical preparation, lack of sleep or insufficient training.

For extreme endurance sports, such as the 10-kilometre open-water swim event in the Olympics, fasting would be reckless.

The Egyptian Mazen Aziz said he loses up to 5 kilograms in a typical 10km swim - and that is with eating and drinking along the way.

To compete while fasting would have been dangerous. He told the US radio service NPR: "I don't think anyone can handle that - anyone. You may die."

Egypt's El Azhar University, founded more than 1,000 years ago and the country's pre-eminent religious authority, issued a fatwa excusing athletes from fasting so long as the duration was not more than 15 days.

Irfan and Amin's Kilimanjaro climb fell within that limit.

They had signed up for the expedition in April and had been training for it by hiking the hills of the Northern Emirates and by slogging up and down the snow slope at Ski Dubai on Fridays before it opened.

In Ramadan, it had been difficult to continue their training because of their fasting and they stopped the Ski Dubai sessions.

Neither had ever missed a day of fasting during Ramadan in the 15 or 16 years since they were old enough to take part, so it was a big decision to skip it in the final days of the Holy Month.

Irfan said: "Although we always have the freedom to skip fasting on days we are sick or travelling and make up later, alhamdulillah I have never felt the need for it."

The challenge of fasting while everyone else around them is eating and drinking simply underscored the purpose of fasting, he added.

"It's to get the first-hand experience of the pain of hunger and thirst so we can acknowledge and be thankful to Allah for His countless blessings, and be more caring and generous to people who are not as privileged as we are," Irfan said.

Additional reporting by Amith Passela