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Islamic Faith and Athletic Competition at Eastern Kentucky University

Left to Right-Mo Jouhari-Hakim Abouzouhir- Bahiya El Arfaoui
Stu Johnson
Left to Right-Mo Jouhari-Hakim Abouzouhir- Bahiya El Arfaoui

The word “diverse” might well describe many a college athletic team in 2024. As one example, the Eastern Kentucky University men’s and women’s track teams have members from around ten different countries. Some of those student-athletes were challenged on and off the track in a different way this spring.

It might be characterized as “challenging-in a good way.” The intersection of religious faith and conviction and the drive to succeed athletically. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calender, is one of the most sacred times for those of the Islamic faith. The month-long period of fasting, prayer, reflection and community concluded last week.

Hakim Abouzouhir
EKU Athletics
Hakim Abouzouhir

Hakim Abouzouhir is a highly successful steeple chase runner from Morocco and on the Colonel track team. The 26-year-old says a professor in 2009 took him to a running event near his village and said you would be a good runner, this started his interest in racing.

Now here in the U.S. these years later, Abouzouhir competed while fasting during Ramadan,

“Especially here in the United States, different than Morocco. Because in Morocco everyone is fasting. Just mean you are doing something usual that everyone is doing, but here, it’s like little challenging when you are like seeing people around you that are like eating. Then you feel like how you are a good believer or not.”

Abouzouhir said his event is a 3000-meter race jumping barriers including seven with water. He said the track competition includes a strong mental aspect and the fasting period from sunrise to sunset makes one tougher.

EKU Track Team Coach Cory Erdman said all his runners are very dedicated and that certainly pertains to Muslim members during the month-long religious observance. He admits it required some flexibility all the way around.

“So they have to adjust a lot, as a staff we have to adjust. Patrick and Mia, assistant coaches..Dale..who all work with athletes who are observing Ramadan. We adjust schedules. They adjust their schedules. It essentially adjust everything for everyone. But, when you have individuals who are focused and want to be better as athletes you want to try to help them get better and you’re sort of willing to go the extra mile and that’s been our approach,” said Erdman.

Erdman said modifications included training late at night or even 1:00 to 2:00 a.m. for the Muslim student-athletes. But as far as performance, Hakim Abouzouhir won his race at Stanford. He said it was a bit easier, running in the evening than a mid-day meet in Richmond when breaking the fast didn’t come til much later.

Coach Erdman admits his Muslim members may even make better times post-Ramadan.


Bahiya El Arfaoui
EKU Athletics
Bahiya El Arfaoui

Bahiya El Arfaoui is freshman, also from Marrakech. She competes in the 800-1500 and cross country. When it came time to break a fast at the end of the day, she missed her mother’s cooking and preparation, but she gave it a try.

“Not good at all. I’m still practicing. I just go and check YouTube every time. Yeah, I ruin the house every time but it’s ok. It’s really good. It benefits me to handle that and rely on myself sometimes,” said El Arfaoui.

El Arfaoui also said she relied on her Moroccan friend sometimes in food prep. Adjustments for the Ramadan observance when it comes to competition are not an issue in her home country. El Arfaoui noted there’s no racing during Ramadan there. She added it means a lot when track coaches acknowledge the religious period.

“Our Coach Mia really tries to fast with us at the beginning, so she motivated me to go and just to race because I know that’s so tough for you and that’s hard and I feel that because she liked tried and fast I think for more than ten days,” said El Arfaoui.

El Arfaoui said that made her happy to see other people know her situation and feel the same thing. And having a community of people of her faith is very important.

Mo Jouhari
EKU Athletics
Mo Jouhari

Mohammad Jouhari echoes that sentiment. Also from Morocco, Jouhari is another distance runner. He said fellowship during this time of observing one of the five pillars of Islam makes a big difference.

Jouhari said competitors might think a time of fasting, especially on race day, would be a major factor. But, he noted that’s not how he feels when running a race.

“I feel like God is helping me twice as like a normal day without Ramadan. You are doing something for God. He will never like fail you. He will always be by your side,” said Jouhari.

Hakim Abouzouhir has a similar feeling about experiencing Ramadan and continuing with athletic training and events. And nourishment comes in different forms.

“The food is just not what makes you strong. It’s the spirit level of your life. When you are like a good believer and you believe in Allah, you believe in God..whatever…it gives you like huge energy to perform at a good level,” said Abouzouhir.

Prayers were offered at the Richmond mosque last week as part of the Eid celebration. The community gathering marks the end of the Ramadan observance. The period of Ramadan is based on moon sightings.

But, Ramadan 2025 is projected to begin on February 28th and end March 30th. Hakim, Mo, and Bahiya will likely be observing and competing once again.

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Stu has been reporting for WEKU for more than 35 years. His primary beat is Lexington/Fayette government.
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