The Crescent Sports League was started in 2007 by a group of Muslim friends, and it has grown beyond basketball into a multisports organization that also has softball and football leagues. In addition, Crescent's leaders organize cricket and bowling games, and they try to preserve the organization's roots by maintaining a 50% balance between Muslims and non-Muslims, Newsday's Jamie Stuart reports. Credit: Newsday/Reece T. Williams, Howard Schnapp

Inside a school gym in Queens, a basketball game paused as four players, led by an imam, knelt toward Mecca for the sunset prayer, known as Maghrib, asking Allah to shower them with blessings.

Other players milled around silently, then the game between the Tigers and the Guardians resumed with the usual “Watch it!” and more shouts from the sidelines.

Faith and sports intertwine in the Crescent Sports League, founded by Long Island and Queens Muslims to reflect the tenets of the Quran and Prophet Muhammad. Cursing, alcohol, drugs, fights and too much bare skin are barred. Postponing games or taking off for the holy month of Ramadan to fast and pray is accepted. Heeding the call — even during games — for five daily prayers shows devotion to Islam’s command to put religious duties first.

Off the field, forgiveness and second chances are encouraged. And if a player needs help, whether it’s advice about a family problem or finding a job, the Crescent “brotherhood” steps in because even the non-Muslim players learn that the Islamic faith calls for kindness and charity.

Nazmul Hasan makes contact in a Crescent Sports League softball...

Nazmul Hasan makes contact in a Crescent Sports League softball game at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. The league began with basketball in 2007, added softball in 2008 and football in 2017. Credit: Howard Simmons

“They think they’re just joining a league,” said Crescent co-founder Farooq Saleem, 50, an East Meadow resident who’s considered the backbone of the league. “But we think they’re joining a community full of brotherhood.

“It’s not a cult. We’re not trying to convert people. This organization connects everyone together. It gives everyone an opportunity to learn from each other, to grow together. We genuinely get to know you.”

Word-of-mouth over the years has drawn about 1,000 players of various faiths, colors and abilities to the league since it kicked off in 2007 with about 50 members for the Crescent Basketball League, followed by softball in 2008, then football in 2017. At various games this spring were father-son duos on the same team, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Dominican and Bangladeshi immigrants, Latinos, Afghans, out-of-state families and more — some of this year’s 400 or so Muslim and non-Muslim members.

What started out as exclusively Muslim has turned into an inclusive league, spreading from Queens to Long Island as Crescent’s founders and Muslim families became established and bought homes. Crescent now holds most matches at Nassau County parks, primarily Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, while the basketball teams compete weekdays at school gyms in Queens.

Each sport has several divisions, such as Retro, for men whose skills may not be top-notch, and Elite, for the best. Boys and girls ages 6 to 12 join the Crescent Youth League for workshops on baseball, cricket and other games.

“There’s a lot of love here,” said Orri Cohen, 27, of Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, a middle school teacher who observes the Jewish holidays at home.

He joined the Cookie Monsters basketball team eight years ago as a point and shooting guard: “Everybody welcomed me with open arms, and I saw what a nice space could be with diversity.”

Boys and girls participate in the league’s workshops on baseball,...

Boys and girls participate in the league’s workshops on baseball, cricket and other games at Eisenhower Park.  Credit: Howard Simmons

A FAMILY ENVIRONMENT

An inclusive league was not a priority when Crescent was formed.

The idea was hatched by a dozen or so Muslim friends who had played Thursday night pickup basketball games about 20 years ago at a Jackson Heights private school.

The men, in their 20s and 30s, were often frustrated by their weekly meetups. There might be 50 guys one week and nine the next, the latter not enough for a game, Crescent co-founders said. They wanted structure, like a time clock and uniforms, Saleem said.

Kamil Ahmed remembered his discomfort when non-Muslim players sometimes brought loud music, girlfriends, alcohol and fights. “It was getting rowdy,” said Ahmed, 45, a nurse and Crescent co-founder who lives in Astoria. “We wanted a family environment.”

Often, the Muslim friends had watched leagues play around New York City and Long Island, unable to join, they said. They lacked the athletic skills. Or they didn’t fit other criteria, such as religious beliefs.

The lives of the Thursday night basketball players took different paths, then converged in 2006, when they attended the haqiqa of Shafi Hashemi’s son Shuaib, a celebration of the child’s one-month mark. At the start of the party, friends chatted about the New York City-based South Asian Softball League looking for teams, and by the end of the party three hours later, they had formed a softball team named Damage Inc. and outlined what would become Crescent.

“We were excited about playing organized baseball,” said Hashemi, 44, of North Babylon, vice president in a software engineering company. “It brought everybody back together on the weekends.”

Isa Nawaz of Levittown handles the ball at a Crescent...

Isa Nawaz of Levittown handles the ball at a Crescent League basketball games at a school gym in Queens. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The Crescent Sports League became official in 2007, with eight teams for the Crescent Basketball League, one of the country’s few Muslim sports organizations.

The next year, softball teams were formed, and at recent games under the stars at Eisenhower Park, the only serious pressure was making sure games were finished before the lights turned off just before midnight. Laughter from Crescent co-founders filled the night as they ribbed one another about their ages and abilities.

Valon Mujaj smiled as his 16-month-old son, Aldin, high-fived players. Mujaj, first baseman on the No. 1 Retro softball team, the Snipers, hopes the two will one day play together in the league.

“It is nice to have a safe haven,” said Mujaj, 34, a Queens accountant of Albanian descent.

That same night, Shuaib Hashemi, now 16, was practicing his swing steps from his father, who recorded the scores and reminisced with other league founders.

“We are all living our childhood dreams in our 40s,” Hashemi said with laughter. “We wanted to create something exclusively for the Muslim community. But if there was a non-Muslim that wanted to join, we never said no … Otherwise, I don’t think the league could have survived.”

PRESERVING MUSLIM ROOTS

During a break in Crescent League play, basketball players Naveed...

During a break in Crescent League play, basketball players Naveed Ahmed of East Meadow, Shah Mirza of Queens, Imran Khan of East Northport and Hyder Khan of Brooklyn, from left, discuss their game at the Van Wyck school on May 24. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The dream has not been struggle-free, as league leaders instituted rules and penalties to preserve Crescent’s Muslim identity.

At one point, teams had to be 50% Muslim, but organizers said it could be hard sticking to that percentage.

The rules now stipulate an overall league membership of 50% Muslims — and key players who aren’t Muslim are called grandfathers and counted as “honorary Muslims.” This means some teams are predominantly Muslim and others have more non-Muslims.

Organizers also had some trouble stirring up enthusiasm for softball itself. A lot of Muslims wanted to play basketball, but softball is not well known in the Muslim world, league leaders said. Plus, while it takes just a hoop and a ball for basketball, softball requires more equipment and a large field. On top of that, a softball game calls for more people on the field than the five per team on a basketball court.

“It was very hard to find very good Muslim players in softball,” said Nazmul Hasan, 37, who joined Crescent in 2013, helped reorganize the softball league and became a commissioner two years ago.

The league a few years ago instituted a rule requiring at least five Muslims to be on the softball field at any time, a way of meeting two goals. Crescent leaders wanted to keep the league’s roots by encouraging teams to welcome Muslims who might not be good players. They also wanted to ensure parity among teams so that no team was too strong or weak, taking excitement out of games with foregone conclusions.

So for every Muslim that a team fell short of on the field, the opposing team could get three runs added to its score, a penalty later relaxed to one run.

“Before they even got to the field, the score would be 1 to 0,” recalled Hasan, of Jamaica Estates in Queens. “Teams wanted to enforce this so they could get runs, and other teams would get offended by this. We realized it had become sensitive.”

Crescent leaders compromised for the league’s needs, replacing the rule with a point system that preserves parity and the Muslim roots.

Hasan said Crescent leaders value experimenting to see what works. When one team took off the month of Ramadan, its games were rescheduled as four straight games in one night two weeks in a row. “That’s some tournament,” the commissioner said with a chuckle. “We push some boundaries at Crescent. It could be a really fun experience, or it could be really brutal. But it turned out to be a really fun experience.”

Some players value Crescent for giving them a chance when having zero experience in sports made it hard for them to get on to teams. Some came from different cultural backgrounds or were immigrants whose families prized work and education, leaving little time and money for sports. As adults, they focused on jobs or worked long hours. Or they played other games, such as cricket, in their native lands and never knew softball existed.

“Our parents never encouraged us to play sports,” said Ahmed “Fatehsher” Ali, 45, a Deer Park softball player who was born in Pakistan and grew up in New York City. “It was like, ‘Get good grades.’ ”

A FAITH FOUNDATION

Play at Van Wyck Middle School is paused while Ahmed...

Play at Van Wyck Middle School is paused while Ahmed Ahad of Brooklyn leads Muslim prayers during a basketball game; other players, from left, are Ismail Ahmed of Brooklyn, Abir Khandaker of Queens and Jabbar Ahmed of Brooklyn. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Sports may draw members into Crescent, but for many, other aspects keep them in the league.

The idea of a Muslim league intrigued slugger John McQuade of Long Beach when a Crescent softball commissioner asked him to join last year.

“I felt I may stand out awkwardly but was looking forward to having novel cultural interactions,” said McQuade, 27, an assistant supervisor in Nassau County’s housing department and an outfielder on the Flying Dutchmen team.

Like many others in the league, Ali Khalid, 22, credits Crescent connections for his budding work record. The league’s informal network helped him get his first job at age 17, working part time in Verizon sales. He studied engineering after discussions with a league member. In his first internship at age 19, he was put in charge of two projects at Kennedy Airport. With that resume, he said, he nabbed his current job as a Lexus lease consultant.

“It’s the only league where I don’t play aggressive,” said Khalid, a New Hyde Park resident who plays power forward on the Replacements basketball team. “Everybody is like a brother here. I don’t get in anybody’s face because that person can help me later on in life.”

Crescent’s Muslim origins have also opened dialogue over religion and even deepened some players’ beliefs in their own faiths.

Shafi Shah, 26, always knew being charitable was one of Islam’s five pillars. But that didn’t sink in until he spent time playing Crescent basketball with his relatives and childhood friends who regularly donated or solicited for charities that help families in their native lands.

This spurred the Hicksville resident to pay more attention to his little cousins in Afghanistan who might not have the nutrition they need, prompting him to send money regularly.

“It gives me a better understanding to see how much a community influences your life,” said Shah, who manages his family’s Bronx restaurant and is the shooting guard for the Afghan Ballers basketball team.

McQuade says he grew up in the post-9/11 era of “polarized” sentiment toward Muslims, but Saturday mornings at Eisenhower Park, along with Crescent league WhatsApp group chats, have exposed him to the diversity among Muslims, from their views to their backgrounds.

“I don’t think they feel a lot differently than me on a lot of issues,” McQuade said. “This league affirmed my hope and belief that we are really all the same.”

Rishi Rampal of East Meadow, center, is a Hindu but...

Rishi Rampal of East Meadow, center, is a Hindu but was asked to be a softball commissioner — an example of league inclusiveness.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

East Meadow resident Rishi Rampal, a talent recruiter for a nonprofit that helps young adults, noted that he is a Hindu, yet league leaders asked him to be a softball commissioner. “Just me being in a leadership position says a lot,” said Rampal, 32, who plays on the Flying Dutchmen. “People say it’s a Muslim league and it’s run by Muslims. We want to change the narrative, show people that it’s not about religion but about sports.”

At games, there’s a sense that the guardians of the league, whether or not they’re co-founders, try to ensure players exhibit “high character.” Other leagues have some of the same sportsmanship rules but don’t always enforce them, Crescent members said.

When a young player took off his jersey after a fast-paced, sweaty basketball game, Ahmed and two other players advised him to keep his shirt on — Islamic teachings call for modesty. And he did.

“Everyone tries to observe the best morals and ideals they can,” said Ahmed, who captains the OGZ, which stands for Old Guards. “We have a product, and we need to keep standards a certain way.”

As the league plans for growth, its co-founders see Crescent as a field of dreams made of lifelong friends, of youth who aren’t out clubbing but batting with their fathers and of members helped by the league’s network.

Because of interest from potential members, the softball league may add a third division, Hasan said.

It’s a far cry from 2018, when the league had just one division, the commissioner said. Rained-out games that year and disorganization prompted players to quit, leaving the league with six teams instead of seven, he said.

There are no women’s divisions — yet — though occasional games have been played. Crescent leaders said they’re looking for women willing to organize their own divisions and hope some of the girls in the youth camps will grow into those roles.

The Retro basketball season ended this month with the Replacements as returning champions, composed of players who joked that no one wanted them, so they made their own team a few years ago.

In keeping with Crescent’s Islamic beginnings, Saleem said the goal is not recruiting “jock types” but people who are looking for friends or who have never experienced the fun of sports.

“This is a place where they’re not judged,” he said. “I personally do not want to grow the league. I want to sustain it with good-quality people who help the community.”

A FITNESS TRADITION

A Google search of “sports" and “Quran" turns up questions asking if sports are halal,  meaning permitted, or haram, forbidden.

The Quran, the holy book of Islam, and Prophet Muhammad certainly saw sports and exercise as halal, with certain limitations, experts said.

“If you’re not going to be physically healthy, you can’t be mentally healthy,” said Kamil Ahmed, a nurse who lives in Astoria, Queens, and who cofounded the Muslim-oriented Crescent Sports League.

That wholistic philosophy is reflected in the Hadith, a record of the prophet’s actions and sayings.

Muhammad promoted horseback riding, spear throwing, running and archery, among other sports, said Imam Muhammad Ajmal of the Masjid Darul Quran in Bay Shore, one of Long Island’s largest mosques.

In one well-known story, he and his third wife, Aishah, raced each other. She outran him in the first race, but later, in a second race, she lost because she had gained weight.

The prophet wanted people to be physically healthy because their families and friends have “rights” over their bodies, the imam said. A person is part of a community and being healthy allows the person to contribute to the well-being of family and friends, Ajmal said.

But first, sports activities must not interfere with prayers and religious duties, the imam said.

Also, certain sports, such as boxing, are often frowned upon in the Muslim world, the mosque leader said: “Islam does not encourage people to hurt themselves and each other.”

Much of the sports-related controversy in Islam has centered around women.

While the Islamic tradition is for men and women to compete separately, it does not bar them from competing against one another or playing together as long as they wear appropriate clothing and are not touching, Ajmal said.

In recent year, some major and local sports associations have made headlines by barring female athletes from competing in a hijab, the traditional covering for the hair and neck, forcing the athletes to choose between faith and sports.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has been fighting prohibitions on the hijab in the United States and abroad.

Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national spokesman, said sports group like the Crescent Sports League help counter the negative stereotype of Muslims: “These kinds of stories put Muslims in a human context. They’re just like everyone else.”

— Ellen Yan

MORE INFO

To learn more about the Crescent Sports League, visit crescentbball.com,  crescentsoftball.com and crescentfootball.com.