Navigating devotion to the sport you love and the religion you’ve dedicated your life to can be physically challenging — especially when it means fasting during hours of intense competition.

It’s a conundrum that Muslim players on World Cup teams in Brazil are facing as much of the Islamic world observes the holy month of Ramadan with a dawn to dusk fast.

But it’s a local issue too — just ask players in the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association. League President Brian Beauvais played on a team in the Positive Productions basketball tournament in Mississauga at the end of June — and that meant no food and no water for him and the team’s starting guard Hamid Nassek from dawn to dusk.

But breaking that fast before sundown just wasn’t an option, Beauvais told CBC Hamilton. “For me, it’s not a question,” he said. “If you choose not to fast, it’s between you and God — but I’m not taking that chance.”

But that doesn’t mean the fast is easy, by any means. The Hamilton team played seven games that day, and players didn’t get to break their fast until the end of the sixth game. “The hardest part is not being able to drink any water,” Beauvais said. “It’s really a shock to the system.”

“Saying we were quite thirsty would be an understatement. By the end I was totally drained. Really tired.”

A trying test in summer heat

Fasting during Ramadan is mandatory for Muslims, except for people who are ill, travelling, or women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or on their period. The fast also extends to smoking, having sex and sometimes other behaviours that could be interpreted as negative like swearing and procrastination. Food and drink is served before sunrise and after the sun goes down.

The Islamic calendar is lunar, so every so often Ramadan happens during the summer. That means longer, hot days and longer fasts — something that can be very trying. All of the mosques in Hamilton follow the Fiqh Council of North America method to measure the calendar, Beauvais says, which uses a calculation rather than the sight of the moon to determine when fasting should start.

Because of that, Beauvais and one other player started fasting for Ramadan on Saturday while most of the other cities in the GTA started on Sunday. The intensity of the experience really helps with self-discipline, he says. “It helps us understand the plight of the underprivileged. We understand it a little more.”

It’s the travelling exemption that some teams with Muslim players at the World Cup have been able to use as a reason to break their fast. While heading to a basketball tournament in Mississauga doesn’t really count, a trek to Brazil to play in one of the biggest sporting events in the world does for some.

Postponing the fast

Algerian team captain Madjid Bouguerra pointed out in interviews with the Algerian press that it is a challenge Muslim players in European clubs have long faced and when he was with the Glasgow Rangers, he fasted but made sure he kept his performance up.

"The hardest thing is staying hydrated, but it's OK, the weather's good here," he said. "Some players will postpone their fast for another time, but depending on my physical condition, I think I will do it."

From a religious standpoint, however, it becomes a bit more complex. Islam lacks a central hierarchy like the Catholic Church and any imam can issue an opinion that is then obeyed depending on how much respect they command.

Even in Algeria, which celebrated a qualifying birth for the second round of the World Cup for the first time in its history this year, there were a range of opinions from religious scholars, with some coming out quite strongly against fasting exemptions.

But Beauvais says even on one of the world’s biggest sporting stages, there’s still only one option that he would be comfortable with. “Even in something like that, sports has to be secondary,” he said.

“Nothing else can be as important.”