Gamedays start a little earlier than usual for Hany Mukhtar at this time of year.

As Nashville SC prepare to host the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP will awake around 5 am, and eat a rather substantial breakfast considering the predawn hour: Probably some overnight oats, avocado toast with an egg, and three to four large bottles of water infused with an electrolyte solution.

“Then I go back to bed,” Mukhtar told MLSsoccer.com with a chuckle this week. “I love gamedays because you can sleep in.”

Routine meets faith

That morning schedule is shaped by the German playmaker’s faith. It’s Ramadan, Islam’s monthlong commemoration of Muhammad's first revelation, which laid the groundwork for what would become the Quran, a time of prayer, reflection, service and daytime fasting.

Like some two billion other believers around the world, Mukhtar will abstain from all food and drink, including water, for the next 12 hours or so until breaking his fast at sundown. At that point he’ll eat a few dates – an ancient tradition dating back to The Prophet himself, and one which modern performance science has found is also nutritionally sound – and hydrate. It’s not until later that he’ll take iftar, a dinner that helps replenish after the day’s exertions.

It won’t stop Mukhtar from leading the Nashville attack that evening: He and other Muslims in MLS are given space to break their fast during games by the league’s policy of building ‘drinks breaks’ into matches during Ramadan, in much the same way as pauses for Video Reviews or hydration during hot weather.

“Our nutrition person, her name is Bre [Cecil], she's amazing. She helps me so much,” said Mukhtar. “They take care of me and so I can't complain. It's a month of [being] humble – you shouldn't eat like, a five-course meal at dinner, that's not the purpose of the whole month. So it's nice that they take care of me, I got a lot of supplements, different vitamins, Omega-3, fish oil, creatine, collagen. So all these things that normally you take during the day, we do it with supplements at night. And yeah, I'm very amazed how the team supports me.”

Hany Mukhtar dribbles

Deeper connection

While it might seem like a daunting limitation to keep pace with other high-level professional athletes under such conditions, Mukhtar says it’s actually the opposite. Islam grants exceptions for travelers and others who may not be able to fast under certain circumstances, allowing them to make it up on other days of the year. But he hasn’t often had to do so, fine-tuning his routines as he matured over the years.

“In general, I think it gives you a different scale of energy,” he said. “You don't have much water and food in your body, but you get the energy somewhere else. And it's hard to describe, but it's a very unique feeling. I feel like it's a month where you learn a lot about yourself.

“No, it's not easy, but it teaches you discipline and it teaches you self-restraint. So it's all these things we need as an athlete or as a soccer player – you have to have this discipline, to have this mental toughness, and that's what I think it gives you on a different scale. It pushes you.”

Ramadan runs far, far deeper than just self-denial and suffering, Mukhtar explains.

“People think that Ramadan is just fasting, and of course it's a part of it. But it's way more than just fasting. It's the month of peace, of forgiveness, of tranquillity, of cure,” he said. “To do good things, to read our holy book, to give a lot of charity. So for Muslims, it's the month of the revelation.

“This is the month where you purify your heart, where you purify your soul. I always say that you feed for 11 months your body, and this is for Muslims the month where you have to feed, a little bit, your soul.”

Hany Mukhtar - goal celebration

Creating community

He lives these values, too. Ramadan draws to a close next week with Eid al-Fitr, a celebration marked by feasting, fellowship and charitable actions, and the following Saturday, Mukhtar will commemorate the occasion by hosting a youth soccer tournament and kid-friendly carnival in partnership with a local Muslim community center. It’s an event close to his heart, influenced by his experiences growing up in Germany, and his excitement is evident as he notes that more than 120 children are already registered to play.

“I was one of them,” said Mukhtar, who grew up in Berlin, the son of a Polish-German mother and Sudanese father. “If you live in a country where it's not a major holiday, it's kind of hard sometimes for kids – and honestly, to be fair, for kids during Ramadan, it's like, it's harder to understand. ‘My parents are fasting, why can I not right now just go to a restaurant with them or something?’

“So I think it's very important also to show the kids like, hey, we celebrate our holidays, too. And yeah, I will go there, we will have a cool soccer tournament.”

As Nashville’s most accomplished and best-known player, Mukhtar is the face of the club, and by extension that makes him one of Middle Tennessee’s most prominent Muslims. The three-time MLS Best XI honoree pumps the brakes on the idea that he’s an ambassador for Islam, but those who know him well leave no doubt he’s setting a powerful example in Music City and beyond.

“Hany’s one of the best people that I've ever met, not just through soccer, but just in life in general,” said Nashville goalkeeping coach Matt Pickens. “He's a very genuine person. A guy who knows who he is, and I think that's really important, especially when you're going through these things in a country that probably doesn't observe it as much as some of the places he may be from or his parents are from.”

Hany Mukhtar - Nashville SC

Common ground

Pickens, too, is an observant Muslim. He adopted the faith after, while playing goalkeeper for the Chicago Fire in the mid-2000s, he met the woman who would become his wife: Loubna, who is of Moroccan descent.

“I think that kind of opened my eyes to something different, something that for me, made a little bit more sense,” said Pickens, who grew up outside St. Louis and credits his journey in soccer for opening up his worldview in ways he might never have imagined in his youth.

“Ramadan has a way of making you look internally as well, because it's such a discipline. It's a discipline that you're going through, and it's yours. It's nobody else's, it's yours. And I think that I can see where people feel this connection with themselves, with a higher being, and really have full confidence in what they're doing off the field, but obviously on the field as well. So I can see how that connection can be very beneficial for a player on the field.”

Mukhtar has experienced something similar on his professional path from Berlin to Portugal to Denmark and now to Nashville, a community he’s embraced. It’s there he found the best form of his career, pacing NSC’s strong start to life in MLS. It’s where he met his wife Ashley – they got married on the GEODIS Park pitch last year – and launched his own youth academy. Just last month, he signed a new contract that could keep him in those gold kits through 2027.

In Nashville, he’s found himself and can be himself.

“I always say Christianity, Jewish people and Muslim people, they have much more in common than not in common. And I think in general, I always try to show like, hey, we are very [much more] similar than different,” said Mukhtar.

“Honestly, I love the US anyway. My wife is from the US – my wife is a southern blonde lady – and I love that in general, the US is very open-minded. It's very comfortable. Growing up in Germany, the majority was not Muslim, but I didn't really experience too many bad things. Of course here and there you had someone who was saying something, but in the end, I can’t complain about a really bad experience.”

Hany Mukhtar claps

"Believe in yourself"

The former German youth international credits his father, Abubakr, for instilling the foundations in his youth, and with the passing of time has found greater and greater fulfillment in the rhythms of his faith.

“The older I got, it's more like the conviction about it – you're convinced about hey, this is something where I get a different energy from, and the energy is maybe not from food and water, but learning about yourself, having discipline, mental toughness,” said Mukhtar, who last week scored his first MLS goal of the season, snapping a league scoring drought that dated back to September 2023.

“How many times as a soccer player in the game do you have bad periods and you're suffering, but you have to stick through it? You have to believe in yourself. You have to stand up again in the next situation, and give all your effort into the next situation to be successful. And that's what is so amazing for me, learning about Ramadan each year – and each year is different.”