Faith, family and friends are the foundations that have allowed Arnaut Danjuma to flourish as a pro baller at the highest levels of the game. Playing across four European countries, he’s had to learn multiple languages and embrace new cultures and customs all whilst ensuring he plays his very best football. But the one constant that’s kept Danjuma centred – regardless of geography – is his faith and commitment to Islam.
Being a Muslim is to believe that nothing can happen without the grace and permission of Allah. From getting an assist in his Club Brugge debut to an explosive Champions League campaign with Villarreal last season, Danjuma believes his on-pitch success is a direct result of his relationship with Islam. By placing his forefinger in the air after scoring to represent Tawhid – the oneness of Allah – Danjuma routinely shows the world he’s a man of faith in his proudest moments. A Muslim first, and footballer second.
As the sacred month of Ramadan approaches, a time dedicated to focusing on Islamic worship and spiritual growth, Danjuma will practise Sawm: the act of fasting. On the day VERSUS sat down with him to talk about his faith and football, he entered the studio holding his personal Quran in one hand and his thobe in the other.
Making himself familiar with the studio environment, Danjuma made sure to engage intently with everyone who spoke to him and ensured he greeted everyone within his eyeline. As the day drew to a close, he showed the same courtesy on the way out, even putting aside time to take pictures and sign shirts for those in attendance. Actions that are testament to a life guided by grace and composure.
VERSUS sat down with the Nigerian-born Dutch international to talk about growing up in an Islamic household and why he waited until he was an adult to become a practising Muslim, the challenges associated with fasting during the height of the football season, and the invaluable teachings his faith has provided him with over the years.
Photography by Henry Jay Kamara for VERSUS.
VERSUS: How are you and how does it feel to be back in England after spending time in Spain with Villareal?
Arnaut Danjuma: I’ve been doing very well! And it hasn’t been very difficult to adapt to England, at all to be fair.
I have a lot of friends here, family too, and before joining Tottenham Hotspur I played for Bournemouth, so I’ve spent some time in the country over the years – I’ve had a very warm welcome back!
Ramadan is fast approaching, and in recent years, it’s taken place in the summer. But now, it’s right in the ‘business end’ of the season. How have you navigated this during your career in previous years and how are you currently preparing?
To be honest with you, for me Ramadan is always an exciting time. Even during the season – obviously it would be easier if it was during the off-season! – but it’s about getting your nutrition right. And as a professional athlete, that is the main thing you just cannot afford to lose, especially as Ramadan is an entire month. Something that really helps me, and I understand how blessed I am that this is the case, is using a particular chef every year during Ramadan. So far, I’ve managed really well so I guess..that might be a secret – or mine at least – to navigate the month from a nutritional point of view.
As someone who was raised as a Muslim but came to practise Islam later in life, talk to me about when it was you decided to take that step and become more connected to your religion?
I would have to dedicate that to my family and friends. I am a born Muslim – raised a Muslim – but started practising the religion a little later in life. The older I got, the more I started to ask questions that inevitably led to me practising Islamic teachings. My family and friends have always helped me on the journey, and still do. In our religion, the idea and practice of enacting togetherness and brotherhood is huge. That has helped me to stay close to my religion. The older I’ve become, the more Islam has become a foundation of my life. I wouldn’t be able to live my life now without practising my religion in this day and age.
The older you get, the more curious and conscious of the hereafter you become, too. My curiosity about what life’s about grew over time, and the only way to maintain your level on the face of this earth is to make sure you keep your foundation of religion. I wouldn’t be able to live my life without my prayers, my supplications, pondering over what religion has the power to teach us, knowing that you must prepare for the hereafter. Islam is the foundation of my life, and because of that, I can cope with whatever life asks of me.
“Islam is the foundation of my life, and because of that, I can cope with whatever life asks of me.”
What does the day-to-day life of being a professional footballer and practising Ramadan look like? How much does your schedule have to change to accommodate this holy month?
The biggest change I make is waking up at night for longer periods of time. People might assume that we don’t wake up at night to eat, and as a Muslim you have to wake up for the night prayer regardless. As I said earlier, it doesn’t change too much for me other than having to ensure staying on top of my nutrition is a priority.
Even aside from a Muslim perspective of Ramadan, from a scientific one the benefits of fasting are immense. There are so many benefits for your body, for your brain, your nervous system – there is such a huge blessing in fasting. I look forward to Ramadan but I don’t change my day-to-day life too much, even training and fasting simultaneously for me…it’s just two blessings in one!
Faith provides many of us with strength. Last season in the UCL not only did you knock out the German Champions, Bayern Munich, whilst fasting, but you were also in amazing form throughout the league campaign. Talk to me about that period of time and how you felt physically and mentally.
Honestly, even before my time at Villarreal and during my time at Bournemouth, I always scored the most goals during Ramadan! I know quite a lot of people who fast for non-religious reasons, and from personal experience, I do feel really strong the longer I maintain fasting.
The first week is always difficult because your body must adapt. By the second week you notice that your body has made some changes, but by the final two weeks you literally feel like you’re flying. That’s why when I said earlier, fasting and training at the same time feels like a blessing. Fasting actually makes me feel as if I am gaining health benefits, not at any point do I feel like having to fast is a burden. Fasting makes me feel stronger, and that in turn means I perform better on the pitch. I have proven it several times already during my career, and I hope to prove it again very soon!
“Fasting makes me feel stronger, and that in turn means I perform better on the pitch.”
A massive part of faith is practising commitment and dedication. How do you find the balance of doing this in-line with your demanding career?
For me, rather than considering this as something that’s difficult or needs balancing, I see it more as something that provides me with strength. My religion allows me to perform at the highest level in football. The morals, values and standards religion sets – and the tranquillity it provides – it helps me to be a better player and person.
To maintain my current level in football, and to ensure I am bettering myself both on and off the pitch, I need my religion and its teachings.
We are seeing more footballers show they’re religious, whether it’s through celebrations – like yourself – or by publicly discussing faith and its importance to their development as players and people. This brotherhood is growing in football. How important is it to have that community amongst footballers?
It’s very important. One of the biggest blessings in football is that you do get to meet so many people. You end up establishing friendships and connections that last a long time, and they’re ones that provide support and guidance both professionally and personally. Brotherhood is so important! Having a relationship with people around you who not only care about your performance as a footballer but also understand that you’re on your own journey – mine being one that’s strongly tied to faith – it’s a blessing. That level of support lifts both parties up.
What is your favourite Ayah in the Quran? I can see you’re smiling…
To be honest, I don’t have a favourite one.
Well, I can share my favourite and then you can share yours if that makes it easier?
My favourite is: “so, surely with hardship comes ease”. It’s my favourite because Allah is promising that there will be ease after whatever difficulties you come up against in life.
I was going to say that, too!
Yeah! “Fa inna ma’al usri yusra, inna ma al usri Yusra” (94:5, 94:6). It’s got me through some difficult times in life. It’s always a good reminder, especially with football. Allah mentions not once but twice: “so surely with hardship comes ease”, and when you go through hardship and you can’t see the end of it…it’s a good reminder to be patient and patiently endure those hardships because you know at the end of the tunnel, there will be light. That is one that is most relevant to my situation right now.
Last summer, you attended Islamic classes at Darussalam Mosque in London. In terms of your journey with faith, why was this important to you?
I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make is living passively and not pondering on what it is you’re actually doing with your life.
If you want to grow as a person, better yourself as a person, improve yourself as a person…then I think the best and biggest way – for me – to achieve that is through religion. Hence attending Islamic classes.
Those classes teach me everything I need to know in this life and the hereafter. There is nothing better in this life than beneficial knowledge, and the most beneficial learning I can gain is via my religion. It has an ‘after effect’ on my entire life, whether it’s football, my manners, how I conduct myself…anything I do really! It’s all a reflection of what Islam has taught me. It’s all related to making sure I don’t stand still and I’m always improving my relationship with my creator by making sure I continue to gain knowledge. During the football season it’s a little more difficult because you’re focused on making sure you perform to the best of your abilities, but once the off-season comes around, it’s a blessing because I can calm myself, take a step back and reflect.
Masjid al-Haram (Mecca) is something many people may have seen but don’t really have an idea about. What was your experience of going and what did it mean to you?
This is the only question I can never give an answer to! You know what’s funny? It was my first time being there, my first time doing Umrah (pilgrimage), my first time going to Masjid al-Haram…but I had known quite a lot of people who’d been there before so I asked them the same question you’ve just asked me. “Explain to me what it’s like?” Every single person tried to describe the whole experience to me but there are honestly no words in my vocabulary to tell you what it’s like. I cannot do justice to describing the feeling you have when you’re there. You have to go there for yourself to truly know.
When I went there – I’m not lying! – I experienced a level of tranquillity that is inexplicable. The togetherness…I just can’t explain it, if I tried, it would undermine any feeling I had whilst there.
“My religion teaches me the best way to behave, to cope with hardship, to maintain patience and so for me, it’s at the centre of my life.”
Was it the best feeling you’ve ever had?
Yeah. Once you are there you don’t want to leave and once you leave, you just want to go back.
May Allah allow us all the opportunity to visit there at least once.
Ameen ya rabb, Ameen.
As someone who has lived in different countries, what are the differences you have seen and experienced in terms of practising faith?
England has been the most multicultural and accepting nation I have lived in so far when it comes to me practising my faith. To be honest, I only have good things to say about the United Kingdom as a whole. Coming here I’ve felt welcomed, I’ve felt warmth through acceptance and being able to express myself and practise my religion openly. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place like London. It’s so diverse and there’s a big Muslim community alongside so many others – all of them so accepting of one another. It makes living here, and living together, very enjoyable. It’s a special community to be a part of.
When you look at your life – from your upbringing to where you are today – what is it about your faith that helps you to stay locked in?
I think I have faced quite a few challenges in life but my personality is one that is very competitive. Since a very young age, I’ve always been fixated by success and being the best at everything I do. Whether that was football, being a man of my family, taking care of my loved ones. I would always embrace being the best. My religion keeps me focused and it guides me towards finding the best way to achieve my goals. My religion teaches me the best way to behave, to cope with hardship, to maintain patience and so for me, it’s at the centre of my life. And because of that, it keeps me grounded and humbled. Whatever I do in my life, I try to make sure I maximise whatever opportunities come my way.
After I have lived a number of years in this world, I can look in the mirror and make sure I have given everything, and I have done my best. I think if I approach life in a way that my religion has taught me, then the older I get, the more satisfied I will be.
I will be very disappointed if I become old and have regrets.
As someone who is now a role model, what words of advice would you have for someone – especially those from the younger generation – about holding onto your faith during challenging times or in challenging environments?
First of all, I would say: don’t ‘take me’ as your role model. There are so many other people who have more knowledge and have achieved a lot more in life than me. So, I would say choose them as your role model please. I am only trying to be a better version of myself.
Secondly, a piece of advice I would give is: don’t lose sight of your goals and don’t get too caught up in things that don’t really matter. At least that’s how I live my life and that’s helped me to stay on the right path, one fuelled by faith. If you set a goal for yourself and you really want to achieve it, then don’t give up! Make sure you give absolutely everything you have to achieve it. I think the time we currently live in, there are too many people who seem to give up and that’s down to not having patience. You must be patient and keep pushing through hardship.
In my own life and through my own experiences, I have come across many hardships and difficulties but if I had given up then, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Any piece of advice is never give up, keep firm in your beliefs, keep firm in your faith. If you stay true to your faith, you will be victorious regardless of hardship.