Every year, North-American Muslim communities approach the end of Ramadan with anticipation. And uncertainty. While some fix the date of Eid-ul-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) using astronomical calculations, others wait patiently to observe the slender crescent on the 29th night of Ramadan. A sighting of the new moon means that Eid is the next morning; an absence means one more day of fasting.
Last week’s uncertainty was eclipsed by the uncertainty of whether Mohamed Salah, recovering from an injury, would appear in Egypt’s World Cup match the next morning. The unapologetically Muslim soccer star is creating a new lens in which the world views our religion, instead of one tied to extremism and terror: Athletic excellence balanced with religious dedication. Yet, the question remains: Should Muslims need to be exceptional in order to defeat these ugly stereotypes?
I asked myself this question last Thursday, when Muslims wondered whether our soccer star would appear, just as the new crescent had appeared earlier.
On Friday morning, a conflict emerged on the East coast of North America as preparations were made for the Eid prayer (or “salah”). The Egypt-Uruguay match overlapped during the prayer service. Some joked: Should I observe Eid salah or Mohamed Salah? The spiritual chants preceding the prayers seemed more subdued this year, as people checked cellphones for the score. Banished during prayer, the devices re-emerged quickly after, as fans hoped – even prayed – that their hero would play as a late substitute.
The Salah effect on Muslim worship began even earlier during Ramadan. As Liverpool advanced to the UEFA championship final against Real Madrid, it was reported that Mr. Salah was observing the fast during training. That meant no fluids (not even water) or food from dawn to sunset. While Liverpool fans fretted about Mr. Salah’s fitness for the big match, Muslims had a different take. Here was a high-profile athlete, preparing for the biggest match of his career, without compromising his beliefs. His devotion and discipline were inspiring. My own daughter, a competitive soccer player, found extra motivation to fast during her training – through the example of Mr. Salah.
UEFA Cup dreams were shattered when he was injured during a brutal takedown by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. The tears streaming down Mr. Salah’s face were dwarfed by the tsunami of grief and anger in the Twitterverse. Mr. Ramos had accomplished the impossible feat of uniting Muslims. Some decided to attend special Ramadan night prayers for the first time – just to pray for Mr. Salah’s shoulder to heal in time for the World Cup.
Mr. Salah’s popularity has extended to soccer fans throughout the world for his record-breaking season with Liverpool FC. He has won both the Premier League Player of the year and the Premier League Golden Boot. His exciting, quick style of play, coupled with an impish joy, are reminiscent of the great Brazilian Ronaldinho. There’s a surreal video of Liverpool fans chugging beer while chanting: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me; if he’s sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want to be!”
A natural manifestation of Mr. Salah’s faith is his celebration following a goal. After sharing the moment with teammates and fans, he separates and solemnly prostrates on the pitch in humility. The prostration of thankfulness may be performed by a Muslim to express gratitude to the divine. According to Islamic teachings, a person is closest to God when prostrating. It is also a rare moment when one’s heart is physically higher than one’s head.
To see Mr. Salah prostrate after every goal is refreshing, as he is oblivious to any negative perception of his gesture. He is Muslim and proud, without being in-your-face about it. He quietly worships at the local Liverpool mosque, which has led to an increase in attendance and the creation of an interfaith soccer league. He eschews alcohol and gives generously for the less fortunate in his home province of Tanta in Egypt.
He is a role model for Muslim youth, by showing that hard work combined with simple adherence to the faith can lead to success and respect. His message is simple: Be proud of who you are, treat people well and give back to your community. He is also changing the perception of Islam in Europe for the better with his humble personality and athletic excellence.
But does this mean that Muslims must win Golden Boots, Nobel prizes and Olympic medals in order to be respected? Is exceptional achievement the only way to dispel the extremist stereotype? Can Muslims simply be average and be accepted for who they are?
While there are no simple answers, Mr. Salah’s example of humility, gratitude, charity and personal excellence provides a worthwhile road map for all to follow.