Healthy, Fit and Fabulous: An Interview with Zainab Ismail
Posted on 11 December 2019
Today on Zeena Uncovered, we sat down with Zainab Ismail, founder of Fit for Allah, a social media platform inspiring Muslims around the world to use Prophetic Nutrition and practical fitness methods to set their intentions for a healthier lifestyle. Born and raised in New York, Zainab is an unstoppable Puerto Rican phenomenon with over 20 years of experience as a movement coach, personal trainer and nutritionist. As a motivational speaker and dedicated volunteer, Zainab has a passion for helping others. Today, she shares her insight on how to lead a life rich with intentions and where she is headed along her own personal fitness journey.
"I came up with a name for my class that honors the intention of being fit for the sake of Allah. Fit for Allah was born out of that every action is by your intention." -- Zainab Ismail, founder of Fit for Allah.
Thank you so much for joining us and welcome to Zeena Uncovered. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you started on your fitness journey?
I have been an athlete my entire life. When I was young, my parents avidly promoted an active lifestyle. They played paddle ball, they ran, they biked. I grew up in that environment and didn't know anything different. From the age of 6 or 7, I was classically trained dancer. I was a high school and college cheerleader, but also a bi-athlete for competitions in running and cycling. I was a national level professional fitness competitor too. Fitness has been the only thing that I know.
What inspired you to found Fit for Allah?
In 2010, I was attending Islamic classes at the M.E.C.C.A. Center in NYC. They have a monthly halaqa there called The Sisters Circle. Since I was new to the school and I had only been Muslim for about seven months, they invited me to come to the gatherings. At the first meeting, the coordinator asked me, “What do you for a living?” When I told her I was an athlete and a personal trainer, she was so surprised, she said, “Oh my God! We need to learn from you! We need to have you teach!”
The next month, she invited me to talk about nutrition and exercise at the halaqa. I was shy about it at first, but I had to remind myself we had just finished learning that everything was by intentions. This concept was already ingrained in me as a ‘baby Muslim’ (I always refer to newer Muslims as baby Muslims, because that’s what it feels like!). I came up with a name for my class that honors the intention of being fit for the sake of Allah. Fit for Allah was born out of the concept that every action is by your intention.
After that first halaqa, the coordinator said, “You have to do this more,” and within the next month, we started a weekly Fit for Allah class for Muslim women. There was no other class that I knew of like this in existence anywhere in the country. There was really no one else doing it. Our roles as teachers are to bring hearts together, bring you closer to Allah and the Prophet (Peace be upon him). That’s it. So we kept the class going for several years…and then Fit for Allah was taught at several of the national conventions, like ICNA and ISNA. In 2013, we released the first women’s fitness DVD under the Nadoona brand with the premise of Fit for Allah. We opened every class and every lesson with a dua so the intention was made to do it for the sake of Allah, which really made it into an act of worship. For women who didn’t enjoy exercising, it made it easier for them to say, “I’m not only doing this for myself, I’m doing this for the sake of Allah.”
Today, primarily I only work with private clients. I regularly teach all over the world as a special guest speaker. I teach in California, Dubai, and Canada. It’s really busy the two months before Ramadan. For example, my 2020 schedule is already booked for speaking engagements. Ironically, it’s like the only time Muslims are like, “Wait! We need to know what to eat!” but I’m like wait…right now is when you need to know.
Can you tell our readers more about your personal health and fitness philosophy -- how to achieve a healthy body by nourishing your soul?
I think it’s so important to try to strike a balance in one’s individual lifestyle. The balance being between the dunya and your deen. Obviously, that balance can be different for everyone. So many people of all ages, from all backgrounds, struggle with being able to keep the dunya in your hand and not in your heart. It’s that daily struggle to implement the exercises of spiritual growth that can help us balance what’s actually happening outwardly – when we exercise – with what’s happening internally, or spiritually.
Until I made my second umrah in 2015 with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, I made the intention to take on tahajjud and all I have to say is…that’s really where the changes occurred. It’s really about what else can we implement in our lives? We can read Quran during the day, we can do salawat…but a lot of people don’t know enough about Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). He is the most beloved to Allah. He is the source, we must connect to Him. So, it’s really looking at our faith holistically and balancing the deen and dunya to say, “You know what, I can have this, but I need this. I can exercise, but I need salawat because sending blessings on the Prophet (Peace be upon him) will feed my soul and my heart.
Nowadays, people are so distanced from Allah and His Prophet (Peace be upon him) that we’ve got to start moving in that direction little by little. When you’re drowning in the dunya – and you’re not fasting or saying your prayers – you have to anchor back to the foundation. That is where, in terms of our good character, it’s critical to take every opportunity we have to serve others at whatever level you can. If you give to others, Allah gives you tenfold. It all comes back to how you feel internally and how we fuel our bodies.
In my life, I call good deeds carrots. If Allah dangles the smallest good deed in front of you, that’s Allah giving you like a bonus in your day to relieve you of something that might have been a bad deed, or just to help uplift you. We are the walking example. Our manners, our behaviors, our etiquette. It’s really about staying away from being all about yourself and serving in the name of Allah.
Besides being a personal trainer, national body building champion and working with celebrities in Hollywood, you are very well-traveled! Can you talk about your volunteer work in Cuba and Mexico?
I’ve been traveling now to about four countries, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Cuba, and we are adding Columbia in February inshallah. They call me Ustedha (teacher) Zainab in many places, and I teach both in the United States and when traveling, which is so humbling and an honor for me. I have been under the guidance of certain senior scholars and authors from the US and while in these countries, I teach from the Islamic Sciences, such as basic fardh or obligatory knowledge. Basically, I teach what Muslim needs to practice and how to engage in a Muslim lifestyle. We have facilitated book translations in Spanish and Portuguese of “Being Muslim by Dr. Asad Tarsin”, but we also use other books on spirituality, family, matters of the heart. We also provide aid, whether it’s by zakat or sadaqah. We bring much needed Islamic items: prayer beads, hijabs, kufis, thobes, Islamic clothing…all the things you need to feel like you’re a Muslim, especially during Ramadan. It really depends on what the community needs.
You know, every country in the world has Muslims. In the most remote Muslim minority countries, it is only a miracle to see some of these teeny-tiny communities holding to the rope of Allah for dear life. They don’t really have access to the internet, or teachers or even people who visit them in person. There are no videos, books or live streams that can change that. We learn from sitting with our teachers – and that’s really how our deen has been passed down for generations: person to person.
Some things in life come full circle! It’s ironic that we started this interview talking about the halaqa you attended in NYC, and now you lead your own.
When I really do something, it’s because I love the people. I am all about empowering people to feel comfortable in their own culture. You don’t have to change who you are just because you became Muslim, but when you don’t have access to teachers or access to proper scholars and books in your language, you’re going to get a whole bunch of stuff that’s not Islam. I’ve been doing these trips for over five years. I’ve spent three Ramadans in Mexico and three in Cuba, for usually about seven to ten days each in the beginning of the month. Unfortunately, no matter where it is, the women are always an afterthought. If male teachers go to these places, there isn’t the same accessibility, so the women never get their questions answered, or the time they need. For me, first and foremost, it’s always about the sisters.
You have become such a positive role model for women of all faiths. Can you share with us the most interesting thing that has ever happened to you (as a Muslim)?
My first time going to Medina and putting my head down in the rawdah in the presence of the grave of the Prophet (Peace be upon him)…when I prayed those rakats in the rawdah, I tasted Islam. My life changed after that moment. It all came to life…every story, every ayah, every surah, every book. Everything came to life when I was in the rawdah, as well as going to the Kaaba. The Kaaba is a beautiful experience, but for me, there is nothing like Medina. It’s the one place on earth where there is a piece of Paradise. The blessings that come from being in the rawdah, in the presence of the Beloved, made me realize why I have sacrificed, changed my life, changed what I do and improve as a human being as a result of becoming Muslim.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle Muslim women face entering into the world of fitness?
Guidance. Education. Feeling like they can do it. Not having the resources and not knowing who to ask. Humility. I’m Gen-X and I don’t know if this is a Millennial thing or not, but social media has obliterated the importance of knowledge and earning proper credentials! There are a lot of so-called experts or gurus, but I think social media has glorified something visual that’s not REAL. I have a different lens because I’ve seen it all, but I’m not impressed by steroids or plastic surgery. Most people can’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. What I find is that people will only reach out when they want something, but never to learn. They under-utilize the importance of knowledge and lack the humility to ask, “Hey, I respect what you’re doing, can I ask a few questions? What certifications should I take? What should I do?” There's nothing we're doing today that people haven't done twenty years ago. You've got to reach out to mentors.
Many women shy away from gyms and personal trainers because they have trouble finding the right balance between dressing ‘athletically’ and preserving their modesty. As a Muslim woman, what do you look for in modest workout gear?
I’m very conscious of how I present myself. On Eid, you might see me get dressed up, otherwise I wear workout clothes 85% of the week, 24/7. As a movement professional working in a Madison Avenue, high-profile environment, I look for what achieves my level of modesty and what I’m comfortable with. I live in one of the most fashionable cities in the world, so fashion really speaks to your personality and who you are. As an athlete, I look for high performance fabric with a very clean New York City style aesthetic. If I’m going to be hot, it won’t work for me. If I have to layer, it won’t work for me.
So many workout fads, programs, videos and trainers value getting ‘shredded’ or achieving a ‘beach-worthy six pack’. What message do you hope to spread?
What you see is not going to work for every single person. Everyone is an individual. We are all born inherently with our own likes and dislikes, and it’s finding a balance that works for each person. Being in a gym is not the only way to get in shape or improve. Fitness is not just for losing weight. If that were the case, no athlete would ever be getting better, because every athlete has a team of coaches, whether it be a coach for their sport, an athletic coach at the gym, a personal trainer, physical therapist, etc. Fitness is about a well-rounded life and you have to have balance. Just like any act of worship, it has to be what YOU can do. Do that which you can do consistently, even if it’s little. You earn greater rewards. Allah always opens the door to help you.
How did you earn the nickname “The Hijabi Drill Sergeant”?
Everyone says it. Every person that was in my class and couldn’t walk for five days afterwards! You know when you’re about to go into sujood and you’re like, “Oh!”…basically throwing yourself on the floor? A lot of Muslim women have never worked out like that. When I came to teach fitness, I was like, “Yoga is not my thing. We’re going to get it in – without you getting injured – but, we’re going to get it in!”Tell us more about the delicious recipes you share on Instagram. Any thoughts about releasing a Prophetic Nutrition cookbook?
It’s on my list, but it’s not in my top three! We are starting to put together a team of people to help me, but I’m not trying to be famous. I’m not trying to be anything. My senior teachers have told me, “Zainab, this is something you have to do since like 2015.” But honestly, it sounds good, and inshallah, Allah will open my heart to really dedicate the time to it, but everything is with ihsan. If I’m going to do a book…I want it to be legit! I would say, I’m much closer to doing it than not.
What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started in leading a healthier, more active lifestyle?
#1 - Start a walking program. Make sure that you’re tracking your steps on your phone or a FitBit, whatever it is, give yourself a target. If you go to the mall, park as far away as possible to get your steps in. Try to encourage movement into your life. A walking program is the easiest way to get started.
#2 - Start a journal. Keep track of what you’re eating, how you feel, what inspires you. It is a known fact that people who keep a journal are more successful long-term. By having a written journal, you have accountability and you’re seeing what you’re doing, so it’s much easier to figure out what you’re not doing.
#3 – Set a realistic goal. Write down your goals in your journal. Have a self-realization talk with yourself. See where you are now and plan where you want to be in the future.
#4 – Do whatever you choose to do with a friend. Whether it’s a friend or a family member, just like having a Fajr buddy, it all comes down to accountability.
#5 – Have the family support. If you’re being healthier for the sake of Allah, you have to get the family on board. It can’t be one way for you and another way for yourself. If I were to throw in one last piece of advice, work with a qualified professional.
Thank you so much Zainab for joining us on Zeena Uncovered and sharing your excellent advice! To learn more about leading a healthier lifestyle, Prophetic Nutrition and to see the full recipes, follow Zainab Ismail on Instagram @Zainab_FitForAllah.