Allah, Family, Football

In a dark room at Colgate University’s Wendt University Inn, Abdoul Kouyate starts his day with wudu (الوضوء).

Wudu is the process of cleansing oneself before one makes Salah (صَلاة).

Kouyate, a defensive end at Colgate University, walks slowly to the bathroom rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He turns on the light, stares into the mirror and leans over into the sink placing his hands. He begins wudu by washing his hands. Followed by splashing water in his mouth to clean out any food or residue that was once there. Then he cleans his nose and blows it. Abdoul then washes his face and gently pats his eyes. He cleans his arms right to left, up to his elbow. Then cleans his head, neck, and ears. And lastly, Abdoul washes his feet. 

After wudu is done, Abdoul lets Allah know he is ready to pray by making a “dua.” A dua is a creed of prayer, asking Allah for help and letting Allah know you are about to begin Salah (صَلاة) . Salah is the word for prayer in Islam, which occurs five times a day. 

Photo by Calvin Milliner

Balancing the discipline of religion, a prestigious education from Colgate, and a competitive football season makes life tough for Kouyate. In addition, the lack of support from the NFL and NCAA to be inclusive of other religions also takes its toll. The phrase “God, Family, Football” is only told through the lens of Christianity and Catholicism.

But never Islam.

The marketing of religion in football is portrayed through the glorification of born again Christians like Tim Tebow, players kneeling to God after touchdowns, pregame prayers, and football movies like Woodlawn. But when Muslim football players attempt to express themselves, they often get penalized. For example, the Daily Beast reported the instance in which Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Husain Abdullah prostrated and prayed to Allah in the endzone after a touchdown and was immediately penalized because of a league rule stating “players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” The sensationalism of Christianity in football has blinded league officials from the possibilities of other religions integrating into the sport. 

Ahmet Çelik, Imam at Colgate University, recognizes the indifferences in the sport of football. Çelik, born and raised in Turkey is used to the prostrations of Muslim soccer players when they score. But he is not too familiar with the celebrations in American football, he said. 

“Many Muslim players when they score, prostrate which is called Sajdah Shukr (سجدة), which means you submit yourself to God and you present your gratitude to him for helping you achieve what you achieved,” Çelik said. 

Çelik emphasizes that Islam is not a new religion. Islam is not very different from Judaism or Christianity, Çelik said. The three religions are all apart of the Abrahamic traditions which share some of the same beliefs and messengers. For example, Mary is one of the most mentioned names in the Quran and Moses is the most mentioned messenger of God in the Quran, Çelik said. 

“Islam is considered as a continuation of the chain of messengers sent by God to guide humanities.” 

The LED lights that try to illuminate Kouyate’s room are overshadowed by posters of Muhammad Ali and Tupac Shakur. Above Kouyate’s bed frame, a black and white poster of Muhammad Ali flexing over Sonny Liston hangs. Across the room, a poster of Ali underwater in his fighting stance greets his guest. 

Photo by Calvin Milliner

“He’s one of the global figures who people may know about who practiced Islam during his life, him coupled with Malcolm X,” Kouyate said. “This is someone who stood on his morals even though it took away what he loved to do and the way he supported his family.”

Kouyate sees Ali as the catalyst for all Muslim athletes. Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam made him out of the norm, Kouyate said. “He lived his life the way he felt was right,” Kouyate said. “He followed his own moral path and not the moral path others tried to set for him.” 

In a sport as violent and upbeat as football, it is essential to dial it back, Kouyate said. 

“Islam is all about peace and submission.”

The split second before the ball is snapped is the most peaceful in Kouyate’s eyes.

Then the chaos begins.

Kouyate uses the phrase “Bismillah” (بسم الله) before the snap, which means in the name of Allah. But once the ball is snapped, his job is to disrupt the peace, he said. Discipline plays a major role in Islam, but the only time Kouyate breaks character is when the ball is snapped. 

Photo by Colgate Athletics

Five times a day, Kouyate and Muslims around the world face Mecca at the exact same time. Each prayer, whether it be Fajr, which is right before the sunrises—Dhuhr, which is the afternoon prayer—Asr, the mid-day prayer—Maghrib, the sunset prayer and Isha’a, the night prayer, align all Muslims with their faith simultaneously. 

“We face that direction because that’s the city the prophet Muhammad is from,” Kouyate said. “It’s a place to recenter all Muslims in general, we all face the same way and come together to face that one building, that one figure that we all can return to as the home of our faith.” 

Kouyate reaches under his nightstand to grab his black prayer beads and his pink prayer mat. He places the pink prayer mat in the corner of the room—facing the holy city of Mecca, where the Kaaba is located. The Kaaba serves as the most sacred site in Islam and is where Muslims aspire to make pilgrimage one day. This pilgrimage is only one of the Five Pillars of Islam which are Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Sawm, and Hajj. Shahada is the belief that Allah is the one and only God. Salah is the five required daily prayers. Zakat deals with charity and donating 2% of yearly savings to the poor. Sawm is fasting during Ramadan. And Hajj which is the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

The soft spoken Kouyate looks at Ramadan as a month to be more mindful, he said. Ramadan is usually after spring ball meaning it cuts into final exams. Kouyate sees this as mentally challenging when you can’t drink water or have a snack. But eventually you get used to the routine in Ramadan, Kouyate said.

“You start to notice how much food we don’t need,” Kouyate said. “I feel like your faith becomes stronger during the month of Ramadan.” 

But Ibrahim Kante decided not to fast. Kante, a defensive end at NC State, chose not to fast for personal reasons. The rangy 6’4, 263lb defensive lineman is not the biggest, he said. 

“When you fast, it changes how your body reacts to food,” Kante said. 

Photo by NC State Athletics

Kante is a tweener which allows him to be an interior lineman one play and a rush end the next. If he fasted, he would not have much of an appetite, he said. The decision to not fast was primarily because of his weight, but Kante did mention his playing time being a factor in his decision not to fast. 

“I want to be at a weight that can help me play. Especially in a three man front, when you have to take on double teams.” 

In a three man front consistency is key, Kante said. “It’s not about being able to do it once but being able to do it again and again.” The defensive linemen in a 3-3-5 tend to demand a double team. And the more you weigh, the easier it is to take on blocks consistently, Kante said. 

Choosing between one’s religion and one’s role on the field can seem like an ultimatum. But Kante was supported by his coaches and teammates either way, he said. Kante believes if football was predominantly a Muslim sport, the month of Ramadan would be heavily implemented in the league’s marketing and scheduling. But when you fast it hurts you in terms of playing football, Kante said. 

The temptation of college drinking and smoking was always presented to Sanoussi Kane in his hometown of Harlem, New York. Kane, a safety at Purdue University, uses his faith to be discipline in all aspects of Islam. 

“If you have to be discipline anywhere in the world, you have to be discipline in New York,” Kane said. “Because the distraction is in front of your face.” 

Kane believes being a disciplined Muslim prepared him to play football. For example, Kane looks back on how he would wake up at 5 a.m. to pray or 3 a.m. to eat during Ramadan. This discipline translated to waking up for early morning practices at Purdue. Kane calls it “light” because he’s been doing it for so long and it’s easy to him. Kane credits Islam for putting him ahead of the curve and instilling this expected discipline in him. 

“It’s rare for people on that journey to stay the course,” Kane said. “ A journey in religion is a journey towards the success you want to have in life.” 

“If you don’t stay discipline, the only thing you will know is failure,” Kane said. 

AP Photo/Stew Milne

The stigma surrounding the religion of Islam comes from a lack of understanding, Kouyate said. Kouyate encourages a willingness to listen and learn which will give people a better understanding of Islam. Imam Souleimane Konaté wants to put a stop to the spread of misinformation about Islam. 

“STOP! Stop poisoning people and give them the right information,” Konaté said.

Konaté carries out the message of Allah at Masjid Aqsa-Salam in Harlem and is pushing for those who are interested in Islam to get involved. 

“The Quran is in every language,” Konaté said. “So they know the truths, they have to go read the Quran.”

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