OGDEN — As an outstanding athlete growing up in Edmond, Okla., Kamaal Ahmad usually let his skills do his talking.
"I was never much for talking to my opponents or anything like that," said the man who is now an assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator at Weber State University. "I was always, you know, let's just play."
But once a year Ahmad found himself doing quite a bit of talking — not so much to his opponents, but to his teammates and coaches.
"Both of my parents are Muslim," he explained. "I grew up strictly observing all of the Muslim traditions, which made us kind of unusual because there aren't that many Muslims there in Oklahoma."
So the month-long observance of Ramadan fasting always required some explanation.
"Ramadan was big," Ahmad said. "I started participating in the Ramadan fast in the sixth grade, and by that time in my life I was heavily involved in athletics. So you had this 12-year-old kid who was playing sports and not taking in any liquid or food, and questions arose from that."
Thankfully, once Ahmad or his parents explained the sun-up-to-sundown fasting of Muslim Ramadan observance, his teammates and coaches were understanding and supportive.
"Edmond was a great place to grow up," he said. "The people around me were good to me. They treated me like I was one of their own."
When he went to play football at the University of Kentucky, he found the people there equally accepting.
"Coach (Ron) McBride was my position coach, and he always made me feel comfortable," Ahmad said. "During Ramadan he made it easy for me. He always excused me when it was time for me to eat or to pray."
That courtesy continues today, as Ahmad serves on McBride's coaching staff at Weber.
"It isn't always easy," Ahmad says, explaining that because Ramadan observance is based on the lunar calendar, and therefore occurs at slightly different times each year. "This year it's right in the middle of fall drills — two-a-days. There's a lot of work being done by the coaches to prepare for the season. Sometimes I have to leave a couple of hours earlier than the other coaches. It is truly a blessing to work for somebody like Coach McBride who actually encourages me to do what I need to do to observe my faith."
And not just McBride. "I have never experienced hospitality anywhere like I have experienced here in Utah," Ahmad said. "Here I can practice my faith openly, and no one ever harasses me. People live in peace with each other. I've never seen anything like this. Everyone in the community and the university is supportive of my beliefs and practices, during Ramadan and other times of the year."
Ahmad's experience with being Muslim in Utah was echoed to a great extent by Hani Almadhoun, a native of the Gaza Strip who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area and who works for a non-profit that helps to promote Palestinian culture. A few years ago he decided to go to BYU to pursue a master's degree in public administration. He wrote recently in the Huffington Post's religion section about observing Ramadan in "the Mormon Heartland."
"While many think that a Muslim living in Utah must face some major challenges, I have seen none," Almadhoun writes. "I have nothing but respect for those who help people get a taste of home away from home."
Almadhoun, who also does some stand-up comedy on the side, indicated that his first Ramadan at BYU was difficult. He had just arrived on campus, and he knew very few people.
"Ramadan has always been about sharing and big gatherings, but I had to live without those my first semester at BYU," he says. "I remember it was a normal thing for me to go by myself to the university food court and break my fast alone over a Subway sandwich or a hamburger.
"Being alone in Ramadan especially sucks if you come from a family of 10, like me," Almadhoun continues. "Followers of the Mormon faith can relate to all things Ramadan — they fast once a month, they give 'fast offering' and have big families where sharing is caring."
Subsequent years of Ramadan observance at BYU became much more fulfilling, he reports. For example, "the Alumni Association started a new university tradition. Every Ramadan, the association would hold an elaborate Iftar dinner for the Muslim students on campus . . . This would serve two purposes: to make the students feel that the university cares about them and to encourage them to become active alumni. Also, the university gets a dose of diversity, the very thing that some care about."
"To this day," Almadhoun continues, "I still share a meal with my Mormon friends every Ramadan. We often do it in the first Sunday of the month when they tend to fast."
Ramadan's overlap with football season led to a fascinating story in the New York Times about a high school football team in Dearborn, Mich., that is doing its preseason workouts between 11 p.m. and sunrise because they have so many Muslim students on the team.
"'Honestly, it's more a safety issue than a religious issue,' said (Coach Fouad) Zaban, 41, who, like all of his assistant coaches and the school principal, played at Fordson High School, a Michigan power. 'If kids were going to fast, and the majority are, it was much safer not to be outside in daylight in 90-degree weather for hours each day.'"
The story briefly mentions BYU and its no-playing-on-Sunday policy as an example of others who have put religious principles ahead of athletic expedience.
"I think it is really in keeping with the best instincts of Islam in honoring the Ramadan fast, which, in my view, is an intentional disruption of quotidian life in order to affirm and galvanize key principles of Islam and to live under submission to Allah," said Thomas Forsthoefel, a 1976 Fordson High School graduate who is now chairman of the department of religious studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. "I find that very honorable and a real testimony to the awareness that there is something going on in life other than making a buck or seeing the bottom line."