Islamic History Month: An Interview with Ibrahim “Obby” Khan
If I could only use one word to describe Ibrahim “Obby” Kahn, it would be “genuine.” In conversation, Khan is open and friendly and he feels like someone I’d love to grab a coffee or tea with, just to shoot the breeze. Khan’s energy and determination also shone through in our interview – after all, this is the same Obby Khan who played nine successful seasons of pro football with the Canadian Football League (CFL) and has since become a successful entrepreneur with two burgeoning businesses in Winnipeg.
Perhaps what was most obvious in my interview is that Khan is a man who lives by his principles. Whether it is his involvement with charity, his work with different faith communities, or how he approaches everyday conversations, Khan always aims to act on the values he’s learned from his family, his community and his religion.
October is Islamic History month in Canada. What does that mean to you?
Wow – it means we’ve come a long way in Canada. I remember growing up as a young Muslim in Ottawa in a very traditional Pakistani Canadian Muslim family and I never heard of Islamic History Month. Not many people knew a lot about Islam. And now to have a month celebrated for Islamic history – we’ve come a long way! It’s something that I take a lot of pride in – what Islamic history means to myself, being a Muslim.
While you played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, you were the only Pakistani Canadian player in the CFL. Did you feel a responsibility to be a role model, particularly to young Muslim Canadians?
I’ve always kind of felt that responsibility, as a visible minority, six-foot-four, three hundred pounds, Pakistani Muslim guy with a big beard. Also felt that responsibility as a Muslim – to be a role model. The CFL gave me a platform to show that a little bit more and I’m so grateful for that. I’ve had kids and parents come to me from all over and say [things like]: wow, nice to meet you, wow, you’re a Muslim, wow, you’re Pakistani, we’re so proud of you, it’s amazing, we can do it, I can do it if you did it! It was really awesome. It was a real joy for me – and my family.
My mom and dad used to come to the Ottawa Renegades football games, when I played for the Renegades, and my mom wore her Pakistani outfit with her hijab and my father with his big beard and his traditional clothes and prayer hat on. And they would sit there in the player’s section and just have a riot. That was a real sense of pride for my father – he’d say hey, that’s my son playing – and I’d feel real proud to look up at the crowd and see my mom and dad there watching the game even though they didn’t understand anything about football.
Do you see connections between sports and human rights? If yes, what are those connections?
Well that’s a tough question! I think there’s a connection for sure. I think in every aspect of life, we should always view it with a lens for human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of choice. Everybody has the right to say and feel what they want – that’s why we live in this beautiful country, so that we’re afforded the opportunities we are. That’s why we love Canada and that’s why I’m proud to be here.
You have been involved in many charities in Winnipeg, including the Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Islamic Social Services Association and Give 30, the fundraising drive to support Winnipeg Harvest during Ramadan, just to name a few. Why is this kind of work important to you?
Charity work is all about giving back. My father, from a very, very young age, instilled in me the value of charity. In our faith it’s mandatory for us to give back, to give Zakat.1 It’s one of our five pillars, to give Sadaqah.2 Sadaqah is another form of charity, basically. My father used to always say, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to have money – a smile, a greeting, opening the door – they’re all considered acts of Sadaqah, or acts of charity. I think that’s been a life lesson to me – to always be kind, always try to do the right thing, always make a difference. You never know what a smile can do for somebody. You smile at someone, ask how their day is going and it can really have a ripple effect, making everyone’s day and their life and society that much better.
My father, he’s one of my greatest role models and he always gave back. It was instilled in me at a young age by my family and my faith and I continue to do that. I just think it’s so important. We’re so blessed, so many of us here, with everything we have – the privilege we have, the breaks we have – when you live in the same country with some people who don’t have those, I think it’s our duty to give back as much as we possibly can.
Do you think that your work as an athlete, philanthropist and entrepreneur helps to challenge stereotypes about Muslim Canadians? Do you think it’s important to challenge these stereotypes?
Without a shadow of a doubt it’s important to challenge stereotypes in the world we live in. Being a professional football player, being afforded that platform was a great opportunity to be engaged and share my faith with people.
One story that comes to mind is in the locker room with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it was myself and couple of offensive linemen sitting around after practice. It was around the time of [the anniversary of] 9/11. We were talking about the events and the conversation grew to five, ten, then fifteen guys in the locker room, a lot of them being American players who didn’t know much about Islam other than what they saw in the media. As I was explaining to them what Islam is and what it means, they were all just surprised and shocked. Their comments were things like: “We had no idea who Muslims were,” “We thought Muslims were all the same” and “We didn’t even know you were Muslim; we just thought you were a nice guy!” It really opened up a lot of conversations, a lot of dialogue for these guys.
So I think you always have to challenge that, you always have to be out there representing your faith and I was lucky – playing sports really gave me that opportunity. Public speaking events, Islamic events, charitable events – I’ve been asked to speak at dozens of churches, I’ve been asked to come to numerous bar mitzvahs. When I started to make my bar mitzvah circuit, it was quite the rounds! It was a great time to go out there and share that with fellow brothers of the Old Testament. I love building those bridges and sharing your faith with other people, showing them how beautiful your faith is and seeing how beautiful their faith is to them. You share those common bonds with each other. Being a pro athlete really afforded me the opportunity to do that.