Zainab Ismail has over 20 years of experience as a movement therapist, nutritional coach and personal trainer. Her years of health and fitness experience prior to her conversion to Islam includes working with top level athletes and celebrities. Zainab is also the Vice President of Nadoona, a movement based in the U.S and geared towards helping Muslim women become healthier.
M. Sadeel Allam: What defines you as a woman?
Zainab Ismail: Four and a half years ago when I had not yet embraced Islam, the first thing I would have said is my physical attributes–my beauty, my body, my level of fitness and my strength. As a Muslim, for the first time in my life, I have removed outward appearance as the marker of my identity. [I now define myself by how devoted I am to] helping people feel happy about themselves internally and externally. As a newer Muslim, I am still evolving. Being a Muslim is now such an integral part of my life; my day now revolves not just around my needs, but also my worship. I think the dedication to becoming a better human being in every aspect of my life is clearly what defines me as a woman, whether it’s working with my non-Muslim clients, teaching Fit For Allah at M.E.C.C.A Center, doing Nadoona Extreme fitness DVDs and teaching classes [across the country on behalf ISNA and ICNA]. It is all these things that make me sure of who I am meant to be: a person who helps people.
M. Sadeel Allam: Do you remember the moment in your life when you decided that fitness was going to be something you dedicate your life to?
Zainab Ismail: When I was 22 years old, I started seeing body fitness competitions in body building magazines. For some reason, I looked at the pictures of the competitors, and said, “Wow! They look amazing.” I wanted to be able to do that within a year, so I just set a goal–I want to compete in fitness. By the time I was 23, I had already competed in my first series of fitness competitions. I was very successful at it. In 1994, while doing a photo shoot at a Gold’s Gym, I saw a certification opportunity [to become an exercise and nutrition expert] and inquired about it. I got my certification and took a leave-of-absence from my accounting job, to which I never went back! I hated accounting because I was such a people person; although it made me feel removed from whatever my calling really was, it also came so easily to me, being such a type ‘A’ analytical person. Allah open the doors for me in the world of fitness. I went right into management and acquired my own Apex fitness and nutrition center. [I could not deny] the gratification I felt by helping someone who was sad or depressed, who had come to me wanting to lose weight and feel better. That’s what drove me.
M. Sadeel Allam: What’s one fitness goal you would like to accomplish in the next 10 years?
Zainab Ismail: I would like to do a half marathon and I would also like to do a biathlon, which is running for a couple miles, biking for say 20 miles and running again for three miles. I participated in these as a non-Muslim and I would love to do as a Muslim, but thus far I have not been able to due to my modest dress. It is a little difficult to run beyond the distance that I currently run in the attire I wear, although, I know hijabis who run marathons.
M. Sadeel Allam: What empowers you when you wake up each day?
Zainab Ismail: I think a sense of empowerment is something Allah gave me from a very early age. I have been on my own without my parents and without anyone’s help since I was 18. I don’t know anything else, but to get up and go because I’ve had to survive. There is no one I can rely on other than Allah obviously, but, in terms of a person, I have had to rely [entirely] on my own resources. If I don’t do it, no one is going to do it for me.
M. Sadeel Allam: What is your best advice to anyone reading this?
Zainab Ismail: That is an easy question. Do not judge people–not by how they look, not by where they come from, not by what they have or don’t have, not by their ethnic background, and not by their sex. Judging people is a destruction of humanity within every culture, [both] Muslim and non-Muslim.