Ramadhan: Case of a rock and hard place for Muslim athletes

Black Pirates utility back Haruna Muhammad (with head gear)  tussles it out with Heathens players during the Ramadhan of 2018. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO 

What you need to know:

Haruna believes that fasting does not really stop him from playing at the top level. Because, after all, it is something he has done all his life.

Ramadhan, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, is the holiest, and must be observed by all Muslims by virtue of its being the fourth pillar of the Islamic Faith. 

Quran 2:183 makes it a law: "O you who believe, fasting is decreed for you, as it was decreed for those before you, that you may attain salvation..."

Ramadhan fasting is observed by avoiding eating or drinking anything between daybreak and sunset. 

For Muslim athletes, this presents them a challenge; an exciting one to some. 

Haruna Muhammad is one of the top rugby players in Uganda. The Stanbic Black Pirates utility back hails from a staunch Muslim family in Naguru and began fasting at a young age.

For close to a decade now, Haruna has been going about his rugby business while fasting. But one game stands out.

In 2018, in a top of the bill clash between Pirates and Heathens at Kyadondo, Haruna put up arguably one of his best performances to date.

Playing as a fullback, Heathens picked on him as a target for aerial bombardment. By fielding the balls and launching attacks, the opponents clearly wanted to wear  him out. A fullback is the last line of defence, the organiser of the back three but also the first line of offence from deep.

Female rugger Sharifa Kobusingye of Black Pearls battles through the She Wolves defense lines in the women's rugby league. PHOTO/DENISE NAMALE 

All those responsibilities on the shoulders of a person that hadn't tasted anything for 12 hours!

However, Haruna stayed alert, stood up to the opponent's game plan and with Heathens leading 12-05, Haruna gathered a loose ball, danced through a sea of opponents and passed to Captain Ivan Magomu, who released Conrad Wanyama for the try.

Five minutes later, Haruna was at it again. Wanyama recycled play from a Pirates breakdown, Magomu as first receiver kicked a grubber which Haruna picked and scored. 

Pirates lost 18-15 but Haruna had made a statement having achieved all he did on an empty stomach.

At the full time whistle, Haruna went down on his knees, then lay motionless on the ground. Many, including myself, thought he had collapsed. But well he was just regaining his breath from the 80 minutes of gruelling rugby.

A week later, still fasting and playing against arch-rivals Kobs, Haruna had to go off pitch briefly after taking a hard knock from an opponent.
"That was tough because I was being asked to break the fast and take some water and painkillers but I didn't," he recalls.

Haruna believes that fasting does not really stop him from playing at the top level. Because, after all, it is something he has done all his life.

It is, however, a different case with female rugby players. Sharifah Kobusingye (Black Pearls) and Nalinya Kadara Ali (Haruna's sister, and Panthers captain) approach the fasting season slightly differently from Haruna.

For Kobusingye, her toughest part of the day is between 12-3pm. Their training starts at 5.30pm and lasts two hours. She says by the time training comes in, her body is relaxed and ready. She breaks her fast during training. Kobusingye doesn't fast on match days. Her coach, Helen Koyokoyo Buteme, a strength and conditioning specialist, would rather not field a fasting player.

Last weekend against the Thunderbirds, Kadara was fasting. But things went tough immediately after dishing out her first tackle. Playing under that heavy sun (women's games kickoff at noon or 2:00pm) she was clearly out of her breath.

"I felt my eyes going blurry and my chest losing breath. As captain, I knew I had to take a stand, and very fast. I know what my faith says about Ramadhan so I went and took water. That's when I regained myself and finished the game," she says.

Kadara must have tried to follow her brother's way but found out that they are built differently. Even her mother had warned her not to fast on match day. Good enough, Islam opens the door for "paying the debt" after Ramadhan. She will fast the lost day.

Islamic scholar Twawiil Abdallah supports this. He teaches that in case a player feels overwhelmed, they can skip that match day but must fast at the end of Ramadhan to fill it up. Because after all, Allah prohibits His servants from insisting on intentionally endangering their health. 

"It is a bad idea for a rugby player or boxer to play when fasting because without food, your body is low on glucose. For women, our bodies store a lot less glycogen than men's bodies. We also use fats more than glycogen during exercise, while men use more glycogen during exercise. Women who are fasting or haven't eaten suffer during intense sports that rely on glucose as an energy source," argues Buteme. 

Shadir Musa, an Olympian boxer, believes that everything begins and ends from an athlete's mental standpoint. 

He says he has competed in major tournaments in Uganda and abroad while fasting. 

"What you put in your head is what you will reap. If you go in thinking you are weak because you are fasting, you will be beaten..."

Musa says Ramadhan calls for ultimate preparation and cooperation from management and teammates and once that is sorted, he is good to go. In his case, he will readjust his training and feeding and the rest remains the same.

"I don't think fasting inhibits one's ability to perform. You just have to draw a plan on how you are going to eat, what you are going to eat, how you are going to train and how you are going to rest," he asserts.

Musa says during Ramadhan, he trains once (an hour or two) towards sunset. At that time, the body has been through the hardest part of the day and the stomach is only expecting something. 

After breaking the fast (Iftar), Musa can choose to rest and recover or go for night (Taraweh) prayers. During fight days, Musa rests enough and gets up to only warm up and enter the ring. 

Musa and KCCA coach Abdallah Mubiru are in the same boat. Mubiru, a former top league and Uganda Cranes player, draws us back to his days at SC Villa back in the 1990s when club officials discouraged some Muslim players from fasting.

Abdallah Mubiru, the KCCA FC coach, has more than 10 Muslim players in his ranks and is devout Muslim himself. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO 

"I refused. For some reason, Ramadhan is when I really used to play my best football so there was no way I was going to accept this. And when I refused, my perfomances absolved me. So I don't really believe that fasting necessarily makes one less effective on pitch," says Mubiru, whose team beat Vipers last Friday with a number of players fasting.

KCCA has 10 Muslim players. Mubiru says he approaches Ramadhan in a special way.

"First of all as a Muslim, I encourage my players to observe this pillar of our faith. But I also know that we are different, so I don't force anyone. We have adjusted training times because of the sun. These days we train early before the sun comes out strong. On match days, it's a personal choice. Some fast, others don't."

Mubiru has gone a step further to ask the league organizers to factor Ramadhan in the grand scheme of things.

"I asked that night games should be played either after Iftar or that halftime coincides with Iftar, but I haven't got any feedback from the organizers. So without such arrangements you just have to throw a water bottle or banana to the player to break his fast," he adds.

Bernard Bainamani, the Uganda Premier League CEO, says he is yet to receive Mubiru's request. 

Since last year, we have seen referees across Europe, including the Premier League and other major English leagues, pause games for Muslims to break their fast. That is what Mubiru was calling for. 


Muslims take their morning meal (suhoor) before day break and conclude their fast after sunset. The hours fasted depend on what part of the world you are in.

So, what should one eat? 

Leonard Were, the former President and General Secretary of the Uganda Rugby Medical Society (URMS), played rugby for Uganda. He has postgraduate qualifications in sports medicine and is a World Rugby Medical Educator, on top of lecturing sports medicine at Uganda Christian University (UCU).

Were says that fasting shouldn't stop players from playing per se, as this is a matter of Faith and individual volition. However, Were advises that players should be regulated and guided from a feeding and medical point of view.

He tells athletes to go big on carbohydrates (carbo loading during Iftar). High density carbohydrates take long to break, so that helps to take them through to the morning meal and the next day. That should be followed up with proteins, fats and vitamins, on top of a steady water intake. But Were is also quick to point to the other side. 

"When you fast, you lose glucose and water. And glucose is very important in brain function as it works in the process of blood circulation to the brain. So in that case it is easy for a rugby player or boxer to suffer a concussion, which presents disruptions to brain activity," he adds.

Famous cases 

New Zealand dual-code superstar, Sonny Bill Williams is arguably the most famous Muslim athlete, currently. Famed across the Rugby Union and Rugby League worlds, Williams, a world champion in the former, converted to Islam in 2019.

He is also a heavyweight boxing champion and played against the touring British and Irish Lions while fasting. He recalls one day when he had just begun fasting, as the most challenging.

Training in the afternoon used to be tough and being the only Muslim player in the team made things not easier for him.

So one evening, just hours into the biggest game of the year, again, he fell asleep on the team bus. Why? He had loaded up on too much food during Iftar. That sent him on a research journey that helped him know how to go about the whole thing. Thankfully, he says, he had a good game.

Last Sunday, Kyrie Irving, the American NBA superstar, said fasting is his way of getting closer to his Muslim colleagues and to Allah (God).

"I am not alone in this (Ramadhan). I have brothers and sisters all around the world that are fasting with me. We hold our prayers and meditations very sacred and when I come out to play, God’s inside me, God’s inside all of us. So, I am walking with faith and that’s all that matters," he said in 2022. 

Irving said this during a post game press conference after he had pulled off one of his biggest displays of the season, playing 40 minutes and scoring the game winning shot in a nail-biting 107-105 win over the defending champions Denver Nuggets.

Between 1995-1997, Hakeem Olajuwon played 42 games during Ramadhan, including his last career game, where he was officially named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

Across the sporting divide, Muslim athletes have excelled during Ramadhan amidst the existing challenges. Yes, it is a season of sacrifice.