Thursday, October 28, 2004

Faith is integral part of Muhammad's game

By Bill Koch
Enquirer staff writer

Jihad Muhammad's devotion to his religion is one of his strong points, says coach Bob Huggins. "I think everybody has to have strong beliefs. He's a great kid. I think having strong beliefs does nothing but help you. I don't see how that's a detriment in any way."

It's 3 p.m., time for the start of basketball practice at the University of Cincinnati. The players are making their way onto the court at the Armory Fieldhouse on this Friday afternoon, but one is missing.

"Where's Jihad?" someone asks.

"He's still praying," someone else says.

A few minutes later, Jihad Muhammad runs onto the court, his striking dreadlocks tied back and bouncing behind his head, ready to join his teammates.

Muhammad, a 5-foot-11 junior point guard from Plainfield, N.J., is a practicing Muslim. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is prayer five times a day - morning, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening - while lying prostrate facing in the direction of Mecca.

"I try to get them all in," Muhammad said, "but especially now during Ramadan. It's a full day. If you do it every day all year round, it's nothing new to you. It's just something you've got to do."

Contrary to what many Americans believe, "Jihad" does not mean "Holy War" in the sense of outwardly attacking other people. It's an Arabic word, the root of which is "Jahada," which means to strive for a better way of life.

Name: Jihad Ahmad Muhammad
Class: Junior
Birthday: Sept. 19, 1984
Hometown: Plainfield, N.J.
Junior college: San Jacinto J.C.
Height/weight: 5 feet 11/175 pounds
• Consensus junior-college All-American in 2003-04 at San Jacinto.
• Averaged 16.8 points and 5.6 assists for 27-4 high school team.
"It means a holy war within yourself," Muhammad said. "It's not like a war against somebody else."

Muhammad, who transferred to UC this year from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, where he was a junior-college All-American, is competing for the point guard job with junior Chadd Moore.

The UC coaches liked Muhammad's quickness and his ball-handling ability when they first saw him play. But before they seriously recruited him, Muhammad let them know that his religion was very important to him and that it might require some minor adjustments from the coaching staff.

UC coach Bob Huggins didn't hesitate.

"I think everybody has to have strong beliefs," Huggins said. "He's a great kid. I think having strong beliefs does nothing but help you. I don't see how that's a detriment in any way."

"We respect that," said associate head coach Andy Kennedy, who recruited Muhammad. "That was very key. We found out it was something that's really important to him. It hasn't affected his play. It's been nothing but positive as far we've seen in him."

Muslims traditionally fast during the 30-day period known as Ramadan, which occurs during the ninth month of the Muslim year. They are to avoid eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn until sunset. But the 30-day fast is optional if it's considered too much of a burden.

"He came to us and asked us what we think," Kennedy said. "I said, 'That's something you've got to decide.'  "

Muhammad discussed it with his father, Ahmad, and decided not to fast for the full 30 days this year. He'll still be required to fast for six days at the end of Ramadan, to make sure he prays every day and to perform charity work.

"Last year I did it when I was in juco," he said of the 30-day fast. "It wasn't rough. It was just all mental."

Adjusting to Division I college basketball, learning a new offensive system at a new school and forging relationships with new teammates is difficult enough without fasting. But so far, Muhammad has handled the transition well.

Muhammad, one of 14 children, grew up in a large Muslim community from which he drew support. He already has begun to make connections in Cincinnati with others who share his religion.

"When I came out here, I met a couple of Muslims on campus," he said. "There's a lot of love."

There would seem to be a lot of pressure on Muhammad playing for a team whose point guards have struggled the past few years, but he says he doesn't feel it.

"I'm real relaxed," Muhammad said. "My religion really humbles me and it helps me."


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