Playing the game, living the life of a Muslim

by Ibrahim (Obby) Khan

Ibrahim (Obby) Khan played nine years in the CFL for Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary before retiring in 2012. In the wake of the shootings at a Quebec City mosque and the ban on Muslims from certain countries imposed by U.S. president Donald Trump, we asked him to reflect on his faith, his experiences in football and his reaction to recent events.

Imagine telling a room full of football players you don’t drink beer or can’t go out for wings and ribs … because you are Muslim.

This was the situation I faced as an 18-year-old freshman at Simon Fraser University. I was away from my family, my home and my religious community for the first time in my life. I was standing in the locker room at the end of my first training camp and everybody was going out for food and drinks to celebrate the start of the season. I was invited along, of course, but I didn’t know what to say. I was nervous. How would my teammates react? What would they say?

“I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat the wings or ribs (they are not Halal) because of my faith, ” I said quickly, getting it out of the way.

They responded with a lot of questions. Many had never met a Muslim before, never mind played with one. They knew little about my faith, and what they did know – this was right before 9/11 – was often misguided or just plain wrong. I patiently answered them all.

Finally, they said, “Who cares? Come anyway.”

This was an “aha” moment for me, perhaps the first time I realized I could be who I am and people would respect me for it, even love me for it. I did go to parties, bars and events, and became a part of the fold, on the football team, on and off the field.

I would pray when I had to pray, fast when I had to fast. I went on to have some of the best years of my life, and some of those teammates are some of my closest friends.

My mother (Rehana) and father (Iftikhar) emigrated from Pakistan in 1979, looking for a better life for their growing family. They were one of the first Muslim families in Ottawa, pioneers in their own way. My father helped establish the first mosque in his community, and because you couldn’t buy halal meat, I have vivid memories of going to the farm and slaughtering the animals ourselves, processing the meat and sharing it with other Muslim families. We prayed five times a day, we went to the mosque all the time – we grew up with Islam very present in our lives.

My father taught me that no matter where we go or what we do, we are an example of what Islam is. We look a little different, we act a little different, we might dress a little different so people will always be looking at us, and we have to embody the best things of what our faith teaches us.

During my nine years playing in the CFL, I had countless discussions about race and religion. In the pros, it’s very different: if college is a brotherhood, the pros are a business. My teammates didn’t really care that I was Muslim, or that I didn’t drink alcohol, or that I fasted, as long as I did my job. My faith was a talking point, but there were never any negative feelings or heated moments.

The opportunity for education was always there, and most people were genuinely curious. I vividly remember sitting in the locker room one day, talking politics with a few African-American players and a few Canadian guys. When the conversation moved to religion, and I started talking about Islam, some of the Americans were surprised. One of my teammates said, ‘All we know about Islam is what we see on TV, and that ain’t good. You guys are terrorists and hate the West. He said, ‘Muslims are hated more than black people in the States now.’ This was in 2007. Things are even worse now.

While I never overtly experienced Islamophobia or racism in the locker room – my coaches were, almost universally supportive when the needs of my faith interfered with football – that isn’t to say I haven’t felt it.

When I travel to the United States, I’m routinely stopped and questioned, in some cases held for long periods of time. When I signed with Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL in 2004, I was stopped at the border despite the fact that I had my contract, a letter from the Bengals and my equipment. The U.S customs officer didn’t believe me. They held me for more than an hour before finally letting me go. When I was travelling back from Pakistan in 2007, I was held in customs for almost six hours, freed only after a Google search confirmed that I was indeed a professional football player with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

It is easy to feel angry after these experiences. It’s even easier after the events of this past week that saw the murder of six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque and the restrictions on Muslims entering the U.S. by new American president Donald Trump.

I’ve used the platform of being a leader of the team in college, a professional athlete and now a member of the business community in Winnipeg to educate people the best I can. But we all need to speak up. When you see something or hear something that’s not right – and we all know what’s right in our souls – we all have an obligation to do and say something. And not just for Muslims but also for this country’s indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, women: the challenges of ignorance and persecution, and the need for change, extend to all of us.

My son will be required to represent his Islamic heritage in the same way his father does and his father before; to demonstrate that it is a religion of peace, faith and spirituality. In some ways, so much has changed – it’s easy to think you’ve made it when you can buy halal meat at Walmart – but the events of the past few days have shown that there is so much to do, if we can only find a way to do it together.

– Ibrahim Khan currently owns and operates a number of restaurants in Winnipeg where he lives with his wife and son.


37 Comments on Playing the game, living the life of a Muslim

  1. He states – “I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat the wings or ribs (they are not Halal) because of my faith”
    He doesn’t mention that Muslims are not allowed dogs as pets and the requirement for women to wear the hijab.
    Islam is a Religion – Muslims are not a race of people they are a religious group.
    If Christians held similar beliefs they would be ridiculed.

    • Lennywasout // February 4, 2017 at 1:45 pm //

      I don’t own a dog…so does that make me a bad person or terrorist in you little mind?

      Women are not compelled to wear a hijab or full face covering….it’s a choice.
      Maybe some in abusive marriages are “forced” but from my understanding, Islam in itself does not demand it.
      Go and actually meet and talk with a Muslin…it may change your outlook. Or no…your loss.

      • Yes choice, – free? – when they have been exposed to religious ideas since they were babies.No,when you have children at a young age they can be moulded into anything.May be observed to be freedom of choice but it certainly is not. Let us teach the children no religion, until their twenty, and let the free make the choice.Religion is not a freedom by its nature,it is a demand.Only adults should practice religion not the children.

    • Wow! Just Wow! You are fixed on fundamentalist edge cases. I can cited you similar ridiculous traditions from Christian fundamentalists. You need to get out there and meet some people. I am sure that you are well meaning and sincere but you are very seriously uninformed.

  2. I would like to see Muslim community be more active in countering terrorism. However I know that it is easy for me to say but difficult and dangerous for them to do.

    • Did you not read the part where this article is in response to a white person shooting Muslim people? “Muslim” and “terrorist” are not synonyms, no longer treating the two as such is a very simple way to help prevent terrorism.

  3. Slim Pickens // February 4, 2017 at 10:21 am //

    I dont dislike Muslims, though I agree with Franklin Graham that their religion is evil . Should be considered child abuse for a young girl to wear the various face coverings. The woman should not be allowed to wear the covering either, it`s offensive.

    The player in the article sounds like a nice guy nevertheless

    • Slim. I have the same problem with people who wear crosses. Very offensive.

      • If you know your history, many people wearing crosses,in the Middle East, lost their heads for it.Canada at this time does not represent the way the world works and many people cling to superstition and ignore the rights of others.

        • Jesus De Souza // February 6, 2017 at 1:55 pm //

          Lets not forget about the 120million people killed in the name of Christianity over the years.

    • Jesus De Souza // February 6, 2017 at 1:54 pm //

      You are an Islamophobe. What is evil about Islam? Nowhere is is a doctrine to force a young girl to wear a face covering. How many young muslim girls have you met that wear a face covering? Go to a Muslim country and count the number of young girls wearing a face covering. You will be shocked.

      Uppu’re probably a nice guy, but evil nevertheless.

  4. Brian costello // February 4, 2017 at 10:55 am //

    it’s a well done and interesting article. a question tho, does he sell ribs, wings and other Canadian food ,plus alcohol in his restaurant s. hard to make money if you dont

    • Lennywasout // February 4, 2017 at 1:41 pm //

      His religion only limits him from partaking not selling it. This is no deferent than Catholics who couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, etc. Long now forgotten.
      Jews who only eat Kosher.
      Every religion has their own restrictions based on who knows what…

    • James webb // February 5, 2017 at 11:51 am //

      No his restaurants dont sell pork or alcohol. Schwarma restaurants – they are great!!

    • He doesn’t sell alcohol or burgers or ribs or wings. He sells Shwarma, shwarma platters and middle eastern salads. He doesn’t need to sell the other stuff to make money. Winnipeggers LOVE Obby and his involvement in our communities and for charities. He is an all around amazing man BECAUSE of his faith and culture. We are happy he is in business and has helped others Middle Eastern immigrants add another cuisine to our multicultural “Canadian food”.

  5. Great read! Unfortunate that the previous commenters hold some of the very unaccepting attitudes that Obby has had to work so hard to overcome. If anyone characterised all white Christians by the worst 1% of them (KKK, Nazis, mass murderer school shooters, etc.) they’d be “ridiculed” and found to be evil too. Thanks Obby for providing some very interesting insight into your journey and the current North American reality.

  6. Good article, always nice to get some insight to different people’s beliefs and lives. Ever race and religion has some bad apples, we can’t judge everyone by the actions of the bad apples.

  7. Lindsay Wilcox // February 4, 2017 at 11:52 am //

    I work with male and female Muslims. Over the years I have trained about 20 Muslim doctors in their Residency to become Medical Microbiologists or Infectious Disease doctors. NONE of the women wear face coverings, most do wear a scarf. Some dress completely “Western”. When one thinks that Muslim women must dress completely covered up, etc. one is thinking of the repressive Saudi Arabia where they are very strict.

  8. Lennywasout // February 4, 2017 at 1:37 pm //

    I can’t believe how narrow minded people are without getting their facts correct. Women choose to cover up or wear a scarf. Yes there are some who force their spouses to do so, also some women in other parts of the world are forced to marry at 13. But none of this happens in Canada.
    So because Jews wear caps, does that make them less human.
    Terrorists in North America after 911 are all home grown psychopaths. Look at what just happened in Quebec.
    Have any of you bigots actually met and spoken at length with a follower of the Muslim faith?? Stop reading the BS on the internet and actually get out into the real world and meet these people of faith.

  9. It’s bad times now that racism and nationalism (an absolutely ridiculous concept in a continent full of immigrants) is coming back in full force.

    Nobody should care what a person does or wears if it falls within the law. I have huge respect for Obby and his convictions. I’m happy that his fellow players accepted him (as they should) but to be a pro player and follow the requirements of his faith takes an incredible level of sacrifice and self discipline. It’s sad that people have to put up with racist garbage just because they look and do things differently.

    Obby and the vast majority of Muslims are good people, and are no different than any other race or religion.

  10. Thanks Obby for sharing your story, your experience. It’s too bad some have to judge and be critical when all that is being shared is one’s story. It’s too bad there is a sense of fear and weakness among some about others.

    For the person who said they want to see an Islamic community doing something to combat terrorism, look up “Stop the crISIS”. That’s just for starters.

  11. Tony Shaw // February 4, 2017 at 4:14 pm //

    You are a role model for ALL of us, Obby. Thank you.

    • In Iran women can not watch sports unless they are accompanied by a man and many women are harassed if not dressed properly.All religions must evolve with the times and there is no doubt that the Muslim faith must change with the times.I like John Lennon’s imagine, personally.

  12. Mohamed (Nanaman) // February 4, 2017 at 6:16 pm //

    Greetings and peace,

    What most Muslims seek to do is to belong while being able to pray, wear or observe their faith. And, a very important part of the faith that is sometimes overlooked by Muslims is that our practices should never make it difficult on anyone. For example, parking illegally to make it to the mosque for prayers is completely impermissible, Islamically speaking. But, our clothing, beards and eating of halal should cause no objections by anyone.

    Look, my grandparents arrived in Canada in 1967. Fifty years ago. My parents settled in Steeltown where I was born. My parents and grandparents worked incredibly hard as immigrants to the best country in the world. My Dad worked at Stelco and later moved to Richmond Hill when another company sought his machinist skills.

    So, as a Ticats’ fan who teaches in a public school, is there any reason to be fearful of me? I’d hope not. I am a Muslim. Again, so? My wife, by choice I may add, wears hijab, and is that reason to fear or hate me or her? My daughters, now 16 and 18, have decided to wear the niqab or face-covering in spite of my concerns and general belief that it is not a necessity. But, being Canadians, this is THEIR choice. I, as the father, can advise, but it is not my place to place restrictions on their choices. So, again, why the fear or hate?

    On a daily basis, I wear traditional Islamic attire; again, by choice. However, when I attend games in the Hammer or the Rogers Centre, I’m rocking my Ticats’ gear. Similarly, when I play hockey, I throw on one of my hockey jerseys. Am I trying to deceive you? Is there a reason for fear or hatred?

    No, I am a Canadian! So, when Lemieux scored that goal in 87 or Crosby at the Olympics, I was cheering as a loud as any of you. Likewise, when the Women’s team came back to defeat the Americans, my family cheered along with the rest of the nation.

    And, in true Canadian fashion, I also have been incredibly fortunate to be able to build a backyard rink. Watching my kids play hockey back there while sipping a Timmies’ coffee is modern Canadiana.

    C’mon, there’s enough hate in the world. I mean, I hate the Argos, but my wife as lifetime Scarberian, still wears her Argo jersey. Again, her choice.

    • Mohamed. Your post made me proud to be a Canadian. thanks for your contribution to our community.

    • Great comment, Mohamed. Like amicus said, it made me proud that I’m Canadian. And proud that you are, as well.

  13. Most new immigrant groups have had to face some sort of discrimination upon arrival in Canada (Chinese head tax, Italian internment camps during WWII, etc). It is usually based on ignorance more than hate. Obby has hopefully educated some of the ignorant with the above article. I hope more Muslims follow his lead and dispel some of the myths some in the West still have about Islam.

    • Many people come to Canada, today, to escape discrimination and many of these countries they are escaping from are are predominately Muslim.Ignorance does not just thrive in Canada but is the way of life in most countries.

  14. What a well written and insightful piece. Personal and relatable, which has helped it be constructive and educational. Given what was asked of him, he could have approached it in a very different way.

    While I never cheered for Khan (being a Ticat fan) he always seemed like a classy player. And since his playing days ended I’ve come to realize that’s because he’s simply a classy person, which has been evident in stories that have touched on him via media that cover the CFL.

    Thank you, Obby.

  15. Great sharring of insights into what it means to be a Muslim in Canada.
    Maybe somehow this opportunity to learn more about the Islamic faith can be broadened.
    This would be a perfect time, for some who are Muslim, to offer an informal chance to help some of us come to a better understanding of the Islamic faith.
    Perhaps right across Canada short courses and/or discussion groups could be organized.
    Even if initially in any community only a few turn up, it would still be a start.
    I have no doubt that other better ideas on how to make this coming together to understand each other are out there.
    Some leadership is needed here.
    The saying “build it and they will come” might be true here.

  16. I have no doubt that other better ideas, on how to make this coming together to understand each other, are out there.
    It can be simple and informal and doesn’t need to be big or flashy.
    Maybe a sharing website could be a start.

  17. I have no doubt that other better ideas are out there, on how to make this happen.
    Sorry for the the lack of clarity.
    Maybe this is an example of why we don’t understand each other as well as we should.

  18. Very well written and thoughtful article about Khan… thanks to Obby and the authors for an enlightening read…

    I was impressed and moved by Muhammad’s comments… as others have said he made me proud of Canada and he seems like the kind of person I want as a friend and a teacher to my children…

    The problem is not in religion or faith or colour of your skin… the problem is ignorance… and no I don’t mean lack of education… one only has to look at the Trump White House with his educated staff and all their white supremacist hate mongering policies… to see ignorance in all it’s disgusting glory…

    I have friends who are Asian, black, atheist, Jew and Christian… what attracts us to each other as friends is quite simple… we are good people who like and accept each other regardless of differences…

    Maybe if I’m lucky someday I can also be accepted as a friend with a Muslim…

    I really struggled with this last sentence because I hate to label people… I don’t have a black friend or a Jewish friend…. And will not have a Muslim friend… I just have friends…

    Cheers… Snake

  19. Ryan Garriock // February 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm //

    Exquisitely written Obby. Peace and love for all. Assalamu alaikum

  20. John Johnston // February 7, 2017 at 9:23 pm //

    Obby is a class act. Anyone who thinks otherwise has obviously never met this wonderful, caring, generous man.

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