For the first time in nearly 30 years, observant Muslims will confront an infrequent dilemma: how to faithfully observe the monthlong fast of Ramadan, which begins on the evening of June 28, during a time when soccer's World Cup takes place in Brazil.
It's the first confluence of the fast and the World Cup since 1986.
Ramadan, which is one of the five central "pillars" — or tenets — of Islam, involves abstaining from food, drink and physical pleasure during daylight hours. A celebratory meal, called Iftar, breaks the fast each evening at sunset.
However, many games take place during the day, and Muslim athletes are among the tournament's many players, The New York Times noted, including the French striker Karim Benzema and Germany’s Mesut Ozil.
"With the humidity and high temperatures in Brazil, especially along the northern coast and in the Amazon, an inability to stay hydrated would appear to put those players, and the teams featuring several Muslims, like Algeria, at a disadvantage in the knockout stage," the newspaper reported.
Whether there's a physical effect from this level of abstention is open to question, as is even the requirement for Muslim athletes to fast during the games, media reports indicate.
"There aren't many scientific studies regarding the effect of Ramadan on sports, but there's a bit of anecdotal evidence," said Samer Kalaf, who writes for the online sports site Deadspin and observes Ramadan. "(Houston) Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon fasted during his NBA career, even during one NBA Final, and claimed that his play improved. Former (Minnesota) Vikings safety Husain Abdullah didn't drink water during workouts, and he was fine."
Both the Times and Deadspin cited a 2012 study of Muslim athletes at the London Olympics, which also coincided with Ramadan, by Loughborough University scholar Ron Maughan, emeritus professor of sport and exercise nutrition. He said soccer players shouldn't be effected by the fast, but admitted there were more variables to track in a match than are generally found in an Olympic event such as a foot race.
And, the Associated Press reported in 2012, the High Egyptian Islamic Council issued a fatwa exempting Olympic athletes from the fast that year until after the games concluded.
FIFA, the world body governing soccer and the World Cup, predicted no ill effects for Muslim athletes at the event, according to The National, a newspaper in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
"We have made extensive studies of players during Ramadan, and the conclusion was that if Ramadan is followed appropriately, there will be no reduction in the physical performances of players," the paper quoted chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak as saying. "We have done extensive studies and nothing worries us. The players observing Ramadan always have the provision to ask for an exemption and follow Ramadan at a more appropriate time. This is what I have learnt from the religious leaders in Algeria."'
Not every Muslim player plans to observe the fast, however. Ivory Coast player Yaya Toure told The National that abstaining for 13.5-hour periods during the competition would have to wait: "Fasting? Have you seen the weather? I would die," he said.
Muslims who are not competing in Brazil will face their own World Cup dilemmas, according to several media sources. Television dramas produced for the Ramadan season in Egypt and Lebanon will square off against matches being played half a world away.
But, the Egypt Independent reports, one Muslim cleric has declared the World Cup off-limits altogether: "Vice-Chief of the Salafi Dawah Yasser Borhamy has issued a religious edict, saying that Muslims are forbidden from watching football matches in the World Cup as it could be seen as admiring disbelievers."
However, the news source added, not all Islamic scholars agree: "Bakr Zaky Awad, dean of Azhar University’s Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion, said the edict was made by a non-specialist, adding that permitted entertainment is not forbidden in Islam."
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