Professional Wrestling view on Muslims

Historically, professional wrestling has not been kind to Muslims. Those who grew up during the 80s wrestling boom will likely remember The Iron Sheik. The Iron Sheik real name Hossein Vaziri was a legitimate Olympian and native Iranian. The Iron Sheik has a portrait of an anti-American villain on WWE programming, despite being quite fond of America in real life. This is largely due to an attempt to cash in on the Iranian hostage crisis and helped to turn The Iron Sheik into one of the most hated men in America. During this period, he earned the dubious distinction of being the first man perpetual American hero Hulk Hogan defeated for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.

Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, WWE exploited America’s renewed hostility towards Muslims by introducing a character known as “Muhammad Hassan”. Though an Arab-American character, An Italian-American from Syracuse played Hassan. Much like The Iron Sheik, Muhammad Hassan was a dastardly cheat who spouted anti-American slogans between matches.
They pulled the character out from television as the WEE went too far. They aired footage of him praying while a gang of masked men attacked his good-guy rival The Undertaker on the same day as the London
Bombings.

The Iron Sheik and Muhammad Hassan are just two of countless examples of pro wrestling companies portraying Muslims as detestable freedom-hating zealots. Today, however, wrestling’s attitude towards Muslims is finally starting to change for the better. At the time of this writing, WWE – the world’s largest professional wrestling organization – employs a number of Muslim wrestlers. Performers such as Ali and Mansoor portrayed as good guys who just happen to be Muslim. Both men deserve an article of their own. Today, however, we want to take a look at Sami Zayn. He is the person who helped portray Muslims different in professional wrestling.

Sami Zayn: Wrestler

Sami Zayn began his wrestling career as an independent wrestler. For those who are unfamiliar with independent wrestling, it’s basically WWE-style wrestling in front of much smaller audiences. It’s not uncommon for an independent show to attract ten people or less and performers routinely leave with no payment for their work.

During his time on the independent scene, Zayn wrestled under a mask and went by the name “El Generico”. Once he got to WWE, however, he removed his mask and took the Sami Zayn ring name. Clad in tights decorated with Arabic writing, Zayn quickly became WWE’s NXT Champion.  During his reign as NXT Champion, Zayn was a firm fan-favorite, despite his faith.

Samy Zayn is still active in WEE and has the admiration and respect of his fans and wrestlers alike.
Insiders consider him to be one of the greatest in-ring performers on the WWE roster. He has also been praised for his charisma and ability to draw the fans in with his pre-match interviews. It is this positive reaction to Sami Zayn that helped to lay the foundation for the aforementioned Mansoor and Ali being embraced as heroes by wrestling fans of all creeds.

Sami Zayn: Muslim

So now that we know a little bit about Sami Zayn the wrestler, let’s take a look at the man behind the character. Sami Zayn’s real name is Rami Sebei. He was born in Quebec in 1984 to Syrian immigrants. While many Muslims who immigrated to Canada and America during the 1980s abandoned their religion in an attempt to fit in, Zayn’s parents raised him in their faith. They shared with him the principles of Islam, encouraged fasting during Ramadan, and taught him Arabic. To this day, Zayn speaks Arabic regularly. In fact, a quick YouTube search will turn up multiple videos of him addressing fans in Arabic to a thunderous ovation. Not too long ago, a wrestler speaking Arabic would have been met with boos and jeers from fans.

Zayn is quite secretive about his personal life. For that reason, we can assume it’s pretty important to him to improve the perception of Muslims in professional wrestling. Unlike every other aspect of his personal life, Zayn does not just acknowledge the fact that he is Muslim, but actively flaunts it. This has turned him into a beacon of inspiration and encouragement for young Muslim wrestling fans, who have not always had the chance to see someone of their faith portrayed positively on WWE programming.

Sami Zayn: Humanitarian

According to Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:

“To give something to a poor man brings one reward while giving the same to a needy relation brings two: one for charity and the other for respecting the family ties.”

This is one of Islam’s many teachings on charity that Sami Zayn likely had in mind when he launched his Sami for Syria campaign in the summer of 2017. Officially started on the day of Zayn’s 33rd birthday, Sami for Syria was a fundraising campaign with the goal of creating a mobile clinic in Syria. At the time, the need for such a clinic in Syria was at an all-time high. The WWE Superstar was so determined to meet this need that he promised to match every donation made to the Sami for Syria fund up to the value of $5,000. When the fundraiser finally achieved its goal, Zayn took to Twitter to declare it “the proudest day of my life”. He also tweeted a series of pictures displaying Syrian children receiving the medical help they desperately needed.

But Zayn’s charitable acts did not end in 2017. In July 2019, shortly after the news broke that he had been banned from attending a WWE event in Saudi Arabia because of his Syrian heritage, the former NXT Champion announced that he would be launching another fundraiser. Much like the original Sami for Syria campaign, this second fundraiser partnered with the Syrian American Medical Society with the aim of bringing medical aid to the people of Syria. The campaign is ongoing at the time of this writing. Those who would like to help Sami and SAMS achieve their $144,000 goal can do so by clicking here.

A Final Word

For decades, Muslim professional wrestling fans had nobody to look up to. Week in, week out, they had to watch caricatures of themselves being booed by American audiences for no other reason than their religion. The Iron Sheik, a skilled Greco-Roman wrestler, was turned into a towel-clad foil for whatever American hero interrupted his scripted anti-America tirade. It looked like Muslims – and Arabs in general – were to be forever typecast by the pro wrestling world as cheaters and villains.

Almost single-handedly, Sami Zayn changed the negative portrayal of Muslims in pro wrestling. Through his hard work, charisma, and in-ring prowess, he became one of the most popular performers on the most-watched professional wrestling show in the world. He has proven to American wrestling fans and, perhaps most importantly, Muslim wrestling fans, that nobody should be limited by the God they choose to worship. Nor should they be forced into portraying a problematic character simply because they hail from a certain part of the world.

Sami Zayn’s immense popularity among pro wrestling fans has been complemented by his relentless acts of charity. To date, he has raised more than $200,000 through his Sami for Syria campaign, proving that he is anything but a foreign bad guy. With his second fundraising venture ongoing, Zayn could conceivably raise in excess of $1 million to help those impacted by the situation in Syria.

Yes, Sami Zayn has changed professional wrestling. Rami Sebei, however, has changed the world.