It’s mid-January, and a runner from Michigan readies herself to add a significant checkmark to her list of accomplishments. Rahaf Khatib, a Syrian American hijabi runner, already has four of the six major marathons under her belt—Berlin, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Just a few days ago, she got the green light to participate in No. 5, London.
The preparation for this upcoming race in April will require much more than Khatib’s normal training routine. It will be physically strenuous, mentally challenging, and this time, perhaps emotionally overwhelming as she raises money for a charity that hits very close to home.
This past Thanksgiving, Khatib’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“This is not how I imagined to be running London, but SubhanAllah, this is how it worked out,” says the mother of three. “Ever since my dad’s diagnosis of brain cancer, I [thought], ‘What if I can do something? What if I can help in some way?’”
And so, Khatib decided to run for a charity that supports brain cancer research. With London Marathon 2018 right around the corner, Khatib is fundraising diligently in an effort to help her father and those suffering from the same illness. To help her reach her goal, click here.
“It’s hard to see your parent sick and struggling. My father is really proud of me, what I’ve accomplished, and what I’m doing,” Khatib says. “[Running London is] one more thing he can witness.”
Since her running career began in 2012, Khatib’s father witnessed her build up an impressive list of accomplishments. She transformed from a mother who enjoyed physical fitness and didn’t know what a 10K was to an avid runner who completed nine full marathons (that’s 26.2 miles each), over 15 half marathons (13.1 miles), and several other 10K races (6.2 miles). In addition, this Damascus born super athlete finished two sprint triathlons and even a few 30 mile biking events.
It all started when her son’s gym teacher approached her to run in a 10K six years ago.
“I thought it was a great idea because I’m the type that likes to challenge myself, and I found that fitness and going to the gym wasn’t fulfilling enough for me,” she says. “I did my best at the time as an amateur runner in April 2012 and actually crossed the finish line. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on running.”
Not only did Khatib become a familiar face at the races in her home state, but she made national news on more than one occasion. The first was during her campaign to be on the cover of Runner’s World Magazine. She beat out thousands and thousands of entrants and became a top ten finalist to be on the cover. The contest was based on garnering votes from people all over the world, and Rahaf did great thanks to the help of her Instagram page, @runlikeahijabi, which at the time of writing has 15.3 thousand followers and counting.
But Khatib faced a dilemma. Runner’s World wanted to have her on the cover while posing with a man that chooses to run in a speedo. Needless to say, she turned down the offer.
Little did Khatib know, a different publication had its eyes set on her. A few months following the fallout with Runner’s World, Women’s Running Magazine wanted her as one of its top 20 game changers in the sport and its cover girl for October 2016.
“SubhanAllah going from one magazine to the other,” Khatib says. “God works in mysterious ways. He took away something from you, but then He gave you something even better. I’m one of the first hijabis ever to be on a magazine [cover], period.”
From grocery store stands to your crammed social media feed to your Muslim friend’s Snapchat story—Rahaf Khatib donning her hijab and running gear on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine was everywhere. The milestone was yet another accomplishment added to her already lengthy list.
“It’s not very common to see a hijabi running in mostly a predominantly white sport,” Khatib says. “Most people run for numbers. They chase time, a pace, goals. For me, running is so much more than that. I feel like I run for social change.”
While Khatib says she gets funny looks from fellow runners, she understands her peers are naturally inquisitive and curious. She gets it—she looks different. With her long tights, long sleeves, skirt, athletic hijab, and cap all incorporated into one ensemble, how could she not?
More than the negative remarks (those usually rear their ugly heads on Twitter), however, Khatib says she gets compliments. At one of her workouts in the gym, she sported a long top from Sukoon, a modest activewear apparel line. A fellow gym goer expressed her love for the covering shirt. On another occasion during the Bayshore Marathon in upper Michigan in May one year, the weather was particularly hot, humid, and rainy. Khatib dressed as she usually does and heard one man hilariously comment, “Well, aren’t you dressed for the rain!”
“That’s the dawah part of it; it kind of comes automatically,” Khatib says. “Every opportunity I get, I feel like it’s from God.”
Khatib says lots of Muslims are teaching Quran and explaining Islamic jurisprudence as their methods of dawah—and rightfully so. But for her, the spreading of her faith takes on a different form.
“It just came to me. How can I refuse it?” she says. “Even if I can change one person’s mind about Muslims, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much.”
Gracing the cover of a worldwide magazine in hijab, crossing countless finish lines in epic fashion, raising $16,000 during the Boston Marathon for Syrian refugees in her home state, being well on her way to fulfilling every marathoner’s dream of running the six majors, all while crushing Islamophobic stereotypes of Muslim women…
Yes, Rahaf Khatib has accomplished so much. Masha’Allah.
A version of this article was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Islamic Horizons. Featured image credit: @runlikeahijabi