Bodybuilder aims to lift sport’s profile among Muslims

Ahmed Arifi (MuslimBodybuilding.com)

Ahmed Arifi (MuslimBodybuilding.com)

It takes an admirable amount of humility for a big man to admit he is looking for a safe place.

In a society in which we’ve been socialized to believe a man’s muscles are his security, a particularly muscle-bound man might be accused of showing weakness by exploring any solution to a problem that doesn’t involve steeling his jaw and beating said problem to a bloody pulp.

When Ahmed Arifi, a 30-year-old information technology professional in Toronto, first got involved in the sport of bodybuilding, he found much of its fan base and online communities infected with racism, debauchery, bigotry and Islamophobia. So he decided to find a safe haven by using some of his computer skills to build one by himself.

Arifi is the creator of MuslimBodybuilding.com, an online community forum where Muslims who are active, invested or simply curious about bodybuilding and fitness can connect with others without being harassed, trolled or attacked over their religious beliefs. It’s also a place where prospective Muslim bodybuilders can learn how to fit this often controversial sport within the parameters of a halal Islamic lifestyle.

Arifi’s involvement in bodybuilding could be considered different. While he trains, eats and monitors his progress with the same focused discipline as the pros you see on the cover of magazines like FLEX and Iron Man, he does not compete and has no plans to compete as a bodybuilder, not even on the amateur level.

While there is nothing wrong with the practice of bodybuilding, Arifi reasons, the performance element — which you can see in the 2013 documentary Generation Iron, or in the 2006 documentary Afghan Muscles about bodybuilders in Afghanistan — does not align with his Islamic values.

In a wide-ranging interview, I spoke to Arifi about this conflict of interest, his path to Islam, and the growing fitness crisis in the Muslim community:

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UMMAH SPORTS: What is MuslimBodybuilding.com, and why did you create it?

AHMED ARIFI: MuslimBodybuilding.com is my effort in building an alternative online community for Muslims for all things fitness, health, nutrition and exercise training. The term “bodybuilding” may seem foreign or only give images of monster bodybuilders to most Muslims, but the term “bodybuilding” is just that: building your body.

My own journey goes many years back. I used to train martial arts for about 11 years — one could say I trained religiously. However, I let myself go and became morbidly obese at 290 pounds. For a while I didn’t care, but then I realized this was just plain horrible. I had to do something about it and I started exercising for the sake of getting back into martial arts. Before I knew it, I fell in love with weightlifting and bodybuilding.

Over the years I tried so many different training regimens, supplements, suggestions and everything under the sun. I used to hang out on a lot of online bodybuilding and fitness communities.

I realized, having become Muslim, that there was no healthy or Muslim-friendly forum out there. The majority of these forums had hateful bigots — including the moderators — who would bash Islam and Muslims. On top of that, many would have obscene sections catering to straight-up female porn, foul language and worse. To top it off, most of the sites were only interested in selling supplements.

As such, MuslimBodybuilding.com was my effort in building a friendly community for Muslims where Muslims can share their fitness journey, seek help, interact and learn.

US: In addition to the sheer size and muscles, when a lot of people think of bodybuilding they also come up with immodest outfits, and the stereotypes of vanity and steroid use, to name a few things. The sport has a negative reputation in some circles, but is it overall haram or halal?

AA: Good question, and it requires a more profound answer. The term “bodybuilding” itself, as I mentioned earlier, if you break it down simply means building your body. This in itself is an excellent pursuit. The benefits of training and proper nutrition are countless. I can cite so many examples of physical, mental and emotional benefit.

However, despite so many Muslims partaking in bodybuilding competitions, competitions on stage are at best a gray area or outright haram because it involves showing complete awrah. This is usually the image most Muslims think of.

While competitive bodybuilders are inspirational in what they achieve through their hard work and basically are walking anatomy charts or walking giants, as a Muslim I have to draw a line in partaking in something like this personally. A few years back when I started cutting down, people asked me if I was going to compete, which felt tempting but it is not halal.

I know many Muslims who compete and are successful at it and they are great guys, but it is clear that mixing on stage with the opposite gender and being stared at by both genders while wearing competition underwear is unacceptable Islamically.

The aspect of pushing yourself physically and challenging yourself is still improving yourself. It does not have to be viewed as a vain pursuit.

And there is a hadith which says Allah (swt) loves beauty, and that pride is looking down upon others. So there is nothing wrong in wanting to be beautiful or handsome, taking care of ourselves and our health. As long as it does not cross certain limits.

On the other hand, there are other forms of competitions that push the body as well that do not just focus on aesthetics but strength, power and athleticism, such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, etc. Personally I am abstaining from competing on stage and ultimately do this for myself, Alhamdulillah.

US: While researching the sport, I found that there appears to be a lot of competitive Muslim bodybuilders, or at least a lot of bodybuilders from Muslim-majority countries. Is this sport really that popular in the Muslim community despite its haram aspects?

AA: There are a lot of Muslim bodybuilders, actually. One of the best known was Nasser El Sonbaty, who passed away about two years ago. He was at the top, competing in Mr. Olympia. (Editor’s Note: Mr. Olympia is an annual competition that is essentially the Super Bowl of bodybuilding.) A lot of people believe he was an uncrowned Mr. Olympia but he would have never been granted this win due to prejudice of his race. Wa Allahu Alim.

The biggest upcoming professional bodybuilder from the Muslim world is Mamdouh Ramy Elssbiay. “Big Ramy” is Egyptian and a humble guy. He was just competing in Mr. Olympia. He is literally one of the biggest bodybuilders that ever walked onto the stage.

There are many bodybuilders throughout the Arab world, both Muslim and Christian. However, it still does not take away from the fact that Islam stipulates that we not show our awrah on a stage to everyone. I respect everyone and in no way mean to look down upon others, but it is true. Some just may be unaware and some still choose to do it.

Once again, however, one does not need to be on stage and a competitor to get strong, big or ripped.

US: How does a bodybuilder handle Ramadan? Some of these guys are eating five, six, seven meals a day during training. Can you even do that when you’re fasting from sunup to sundown?

AA: This previous Ramadan was the most challenging and difficult Ramadan I have ever done. Work schedule and being in the summer and all.

Usually around Ramadan time, people line up with questions on eating and training. The previous Ramadan I did something wise and was in a cut, so getting into Ramadan was a breeze.

Cutting takes discipline and obviously so does fasting, therefore doing a cut before Ramadan will make the transition easier. Bulking prior to Ramadan is a disaster in the making. Winter time it’s different because of short hours. But anything with long hours and hot weather, you are striving to preserve what you have. It’s all about timing and scheduling. You can still workout, but you will have to do less volume and less times a week.

This past Ramadan I literally worked out twice a week, full-body, and that was it. How I scheduled my work mattered a lot. Getting all of my meals ready mattered a lot. I still managed to eat iftar, before sleeping and suhoor.

US: Talk about these terms “cutting” and “bulking.” What do they mean in bodybuilder parlance?

AA: When people think of getting stronger, bigger and leaner they use horrible terms like “getting toned.” They expect to build muscle and get lean. In reality, this phase of getting leaner and building more muscle is a newbie phase. In the long term, you have to train and eat with a goal.

You either cut, maintain or bulk.

Bulking is a phase where your goal is to get stronger and build new muscle. You may put on some bloat and fat, but ultimately your goal is to build new muscle and strength. You will eat in surplus.

Cutting is trying to drop fat and bloat, a phase where you want to look solely better and leaner. You try to maintain the muscle and strength you have, you may lose some, but ultimately lose more fat and the final result is pleasing.

Maintaining is just training and eating and well … maintaining where you are at.

What everyone should want to lose is not weight but rather fat. Weight loss is not a good long-term goal unless you are morbidly obese. What gives us shape and strength are muscles. Fat is just stored energy, dead weight.

Ahmed's transition from obese to ripped. (MuslimBodybuilding.com)

Ahmed’s transition from obese to ripped. (MuslimBodybuilding.com)

US: At the time you first got into bodybuilding, had you ready reverted to Islam?

AA: I got into bodybuilding after reverting to Islam.

As I mentioned earlier, I let myself go and became morbidly obese at 290 pounds. My goal was to get back into shape to train martial arts again, but instead I fell in love with the discipline and challenge of weight training and bodybuilding. Martial arts always required specific times when I could train; with bodybuilding and weight training I make my own schedule.

The beauty of being Muslim, of martial arts, and of weight lifting and bodybuilding is in the discipline and drive to better yourself. It’s one-on-one. It’s you versus you.

US: How did you come to Islam?

AA: I officially declared my shahada back in December 2003, however I took interest in Islam prior to that. Maybe since 2000, early 2001 for sure.

Since a very young age, I loved reading and learning just about everything: history, science, philosophy, cultures, religions, technology … I was a very inquisitive person. I like to learn, Alhamdulillah. I also like to question and discuss.

When I used to go to school I felt a bit different. I did not conform to what everyone did; I did not go with the flow. Just because everyone is doing it, does it make it right? The youth around me were promiscuous, getting drunk, partying, paying attention to meaningless things in life and entertainment. Totally unaware of world issues. In their own little world.

Me, on the other hand, I could sit and observe and think. I’d look at a tree, look at the sky, and wonder. I wanted to find out what was going on in the world. I wasn’t Muslim, but I was conservative despite how loose society was. And it’s even more loose today.

My religious background was Catholic on my mother’s side and Orthodox Christian on my father’s side. My mother always tried to teach me how to be good and how it is not good to do evil. Plain and simple. Do unto others as you wish to be treated.

I was going to Catholic school, and when I used to read the Bible I used think about the lives of the prophets. I tried to study their examples and lives. I believed in them.

When we used to attend church, I enjoyed it most of the time. Sometimes I was lazy to get up for church, but I cared. I literally strived to be a better Christian. I read my Bible, went to Sunday school, went to a Catholic school paying attention to religion class, and went to church.

When I entered high school things changed. I was still the same me, but the youth around me became even more loose and careless.

And the religion classes changed. Elementary school was all about the Old Testament. Suddenly, high school was all about the New Testament, and just like that, it’s as if we chucked the Old Testament out the window.

In grade 9, they made us watch a movie about “God” coming in human form to “save” an atheist. I felt … what’s the word I want to use … disgusted? Disturbed? I was not comfortable with the idea. And I wasn’t the only one that found it disturbing. All this after all those teachings of the Old Testament against idolatry, about worshiping only God and not anything from the creation. I was shocked.

That’s when I started slowly questioning things. Little by little, they started teaching us that Jesus is God. So I took my time in reading the Old and New Testament, and it just didn’t add up. They tried to literally sneak it in little by little. The teachings in the classes started being less and less from the Bible.

So as the teachings started being more about catechisms and more about the trinity, I started reading the New Testament and finding more and more learning about Jesus not being God.

When I posed these problems to the teachers, priests and pastors, they tried to brush me off with statements like “have faith” and basically having no answers. Ridiculous explanations such as trinity being like a family, or an egg, or an apple … This was too weak for me. Furthermore, as I studied the history of the church and the councils, it shed light on how the trinity actually developed.

So I was in a conflict. I believed in the prophets, I strongly believed in God, I believed in Jesus (peace be upon him), but this man-made stuff didn’t add up.

I even questioned why priests could not marry. Who started this? There was no such thing decreed from God. And we all know the scandals with priests molesting children. In fact, one teacher was arrested at our school for molesting children. So it blew my mind. I had so many questions, and the answers that were in the Bible and the historical facts were in conflict with the answers given by teachers and priests.

In grade 11, I had a world religion class where we talked about different branches of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, pagan religions, Roman religions, Greek religions, African religions, Indian religions, far eastern religions.

In this course, many of the arguments I had were pinpointed when talking about how Christianity divided and how it formed. And when it came to Islam, it was to the point and answering much of the questions I had without even reading the Qur’an yet.

This was in 2001. That same year, my grandparents visited us. My grandparents and my uncle, who’d passed away in 1999, had become Muslim. When they came to visit us, my parents asked them to bring my uncle’s Qur’an so we could read it. We wanted to find out more about Islam.

Around the same time, we found a halal meat store where we met one Egyptian family. The wife was a Croatian revert and the husband was a well-known local imam. Everything was happening by Allah’s qadr. And later that year, 9/11 happened. So every little thing led to more questions and yearning for more answers.

Reading the Qur’an ultimately is what led us to embracing Islam, Alhamdulillah.

All the mass media hysteria just led us to want to know more about Islam, Muslims and Muhammad (saw). Things like hearing news stating “the hijackers had Muslim accents” made me go “whaa?”

So every little piece in the puzzle came together. I began college and befriended Muslims for the first time. I joined the Muslim Student Association and started helping out. The rest is history, Alhamdulillah.

US: And your parents were taking this spiritual path with you?

AA: My parents had their journey and I had my own, but we pretty much were on the same course along each other, Alhamdulillah. Many things came easier for me being a youth, while they were older. But sooner than later, gaining knowledge changed everything, Alhamdulillah.

US: During your first year in college you were studying Islam and you were part of the MSA. Had you officially become Muslim yet?

AA: I gave my shahada right around that time. I was already Muslim in my heart — I just had to make it public. I already believed in the Qur’an and in Muhammad (saw) as a prophet of God. It was a gradual change, but December 2003 is when it was final.

US: You talked earlier about racism and an anti-Muslim sentiment in the world of bodybuilding. How prevalent is that today, whether it’s in the gym or online or with judges during competition?

AA: At one time there was racism towards blacks. There still is towards Arabs and Muslims. Obviously with the political atmosphere, online bodybuilding communities are full of anti-Islam bigots, so a lot of Islam-bashing does happen.

In the real world, however, those that are racist keep it to themselves mostly, so they make themselves only heard online. At least the gyms I go to, everyone is respectful regardless of your race or religion. People are there to train, not voice their views.

There is always gym chat between guys, and I have found most people curious about how and why I became Muslim, both from Muslims and non-Muslims.

US: You know there are elements of gym culture that could make a devout Muslim hesitant to get started with something like bodybuilding or weight training. The logistics of praying is always something to consider. And then you’re potentially working out near scantily-clad members of the opposite sex, and again there are the stereotypes: loud rap or metal music blaring over the speakers, people walking around cussing and yelling everything. What advice would you give to a Muslim who might be apprehensive about stepping into a gym?

AA: There are men-only and women-only gyms. However, if you are living in a non-Muslim country, men-only gyms are rare. However, one thing I will tell everyone is that I am there not to socialize or meet people; I’m in there to get work done. In and out. I zone out, start lifting and no one exists.

It can be a fitna, as some girls are fitness models and competitors themselves — I train at World’s Gym with a lot of competitors. So all one can do is gaze down and zone out.

Whenever I’ve prayed at the gym no one blinked or flinched. I am sure there could come a day some loser has something to say, but generally there is always a space and people are understanding. Generally, I manage to pray before or after the gym, and it hasn’t been a problem. But sometimes I would flip out a yoga mat and pray. There is a joke post I saw about a brother praying and girls getting behind him, thinking he was doing yoga (laughs).

As far as feeling intimidated going to the gym, everyone starts somewhere. You are not going to walk in and know how to lift and train. You learn. Day by day. Every big guy in there began as a small guy at one point. We all start as newbies.

US: Is there such a thing as too young to start training with weights? Can kids or teenagers get involved in lifting and bodybuilding?

AA: No such thing as too young. The myth that young people shouldn’t lift weights and that it’ll cause them to be short is just that: a myth. Thirteen or fourteen is a great age to get started. The body is developing and the earlier you start, the better and sooner the results.

Prior to that, it would be wise to do bodyweight exercises just because it’s good to build a foundation of control over one’s own body weight to start. Many of the better known bodybuilders started like that. Hormones are raging and the potential for growth is there.

US: What is your height and weight? And of course I couldn’t do this interview without asking: How much do you bench?

AA: (Laughs) Everyone loves the bench question. Unfortunately, due to a chest injury I no longer bench. In fact at this very moment I’m re-injured again.

I am 6-2 and weigh 225 pounds right now. Last time I cut, I cut from 200 pounds to 190. I was already relatively lean, but 190 peeled. Right now I would probably be peeled around 210.

US: What do you see for the future of MuslimBodybuilding.com and for your future in bodybuilding and fitness?

AA: Personally, I am always striving to get better, so inshAllah bigger, leaner and stronger. Even when I was a tad bit smaller I was asked to compete, but I will continue to restrain myself from this for obvious Islamic reasons.

Ideally, I would love to get into training people.

As far as the website goes, I need regular contributors of content. I haven’t spent enough time advertising, so the community needs to grow and establish itself. As far as my own personal contributions, I love to write, but with a full-time job, my own gym time and a personal life, it can be challenging to multi-task.

I do want to start making videos and clothes and not just publish articles. I have a vision for a variety of halal supplements which the market lacks.

Obesity is a rapidly-growing problem in the ummah. Gulf and North African Muslim countries are overtaking even the U.S. and Mexico with obesity. It’s ridiculous. So fitness and health definitely require attention in the ummah. Our bodies are a gift from Allah (swt). We must take care of them. It is also beneficial to be strong and better than being weak. Old people become frail because they lose muscle and bone density. We don’t need to suffer. Everything is qadr, but you are most likely to live better if you take care of yourself.

US: How can the Islamic ummah benefit from embracing weightlifting or bodybuilding?

AA: I want Muslims to benefit from the good and still avoid the haram.

Likewise for sisters. A lot of women think lifting weights is not womanly, but both genders have the same muscles, and what works for men also works for women. Women don’t become men by lifting weights, they just build muscles, which also gives them shape.

I’d like for Muslims to benefit from training and nutritional knowledge and not think only competition bodybuilders. Rather, think about how these tools are going to benefit my physique, my health, my strength, etc.

Ahmed Arifi (Instagram)

Ahmed Arifi (Instagram)

US: Just to give people an idea of what it takes to do this, what was your last workout like?

AA: When I first started I focused solely on strength, which is good to start building a foundation. However as of late I focus more on tension and volume of work. My numbers don’t go up necessarily, but my form and time under tension is greater.

Yesterday I trained legs, and squats are my staple exercise. I go all the way down into a seated position — “a** to the grass.” I don’t consider parallel or above parallel a full squat.

When I first started training legs I did it all wrong. I used a Smith squat (machine) and loaded up all the plates like an idiot. About three years ago I started training from scratch and learned how to properly squat. I began from scratch with an empty barbell and fell on my bum when trying to go all the way down.

Last night I squatted 405 pounds below parallel in a seated position for the first time. That’s a long way from when I first started. I used to have skinny legs, but now have a serious problem finding pants and jeans with wide enough legs and a small waist.

My two favorite exercises are deadlifts and squats. My last set max attempt deadlift was 500 pounds, but I have instead been focusing on high-volume back work instead. I normally always start with deadlifts regardless, warm up with 315 pounds 12 times (315×12), 375 by 10, 455 by 6 then go until I tire out and move onto rows and other back isolation exercises.

US: Because you don’t compete, are you as precise or obsessive over your results? Are you in the mirror saying “this muscle right here needs to look like THIS,” or is it not as important since you’re not going to be scored and judged on a stage?

AA: It comes down to personal improvement. Having a motivation and goal always helps. I’m a very competitive individual, however, I have to draw the line as a Muslim.

You can still do this and not have to show it to the whole world on a stage. There are many fantastic bodybuilders out there, Muslim and non-Muslim, who never compete and sometimes never even come to be known. I have a friend who, with his physique, could have competed. He also deadlifted 700 pounds. But he’s Muslim and he will not compete, so no one knows about him.

Point being, one does not have to hit the stage to benefit himself mentally and physically through bodybuilding or weight lifting and powerlifting.

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