SPORT AND ISLAM
by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
(Muslim Views - November 1998)
Any discussion on sport and Islam would necessarily be complex and varied, but like sport itself, is nevertheless quite exciting.
The Quran, and particularly the Sunnah, are replete with references to sport. But while sport during the days of the Prophet or anywhere else at the time for that matter were not as succinctly classified and categorised as today, the principles, goals, and spirit for Muslims at least ought to remain the same.
The Quran, in surah Yusuf verse 17, has the brothers of the Prophet Yusuf saying to their father, Prophet Yaqub, "O father, we went racing with one another..." The term "nastabiq" in the original Arabic clearly refers to a type of competition the brothers claimed they participated in. In the same surah, verse 12 states: "Send him (Yusuf) with us tomorrow so that he may revel and play with us."
In the Hadith collections of both Bukhari and Muslim the fact is recorded that when the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) entered Madinah after the Hijrah from Makkah, the Ethiopians (Habasha) celebrated his arrival with a display of their prowess at spear-throwing. Furthermore, Bukhari also records that Aisha (RA) narrated that both she and the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) watched the Ethiopians playing with their spears in the Mosque. Umar (RA) tried to stop them whereupon the Prophet (SAW) intervened and ordered them to continue. The Prophet also said: "Everything not linked to the remembrance (dhikr) of Allah is mere frivolity and play except four things: for a man to play with his family, to train ones horse, to practice archery, and to learn how to swim." (Suyuti).
The Prophet himself was also an excellent wrestler as evidenced by the fact that he had beaten Rukana, the master of wrestling during his time, in a wrestling match. The fascinating consequence of this dual was that Rukana, after being outclassed, embraced Islam. This is a striking example of the effect that excellence in performance can have on the minds and hearts of people. It is remarkable that here the example is clearly linked to the potential effect of excellence in sport.
It is a known fact too that Imam Shafi was the uncontested master of archery during his time. Many other great Muslims far too numerous to mention here, but including the likes of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi were outstanding exponents of the art of fencing.
At this point it might be noteworthy to mention that the four types of sport originally encouraged by Islam viz. archery, horse-riding, fencing, and swimming, are largely known for their elements of grace, beauty, and skill elements of character and conduct which are generally encouraged by Islam itself.
However it would do us well to remember that in Islam sport has a number of very specific functions. Firstly, it has a military function whereby the discipline of sport may be harnessed to prepare the individual for the exacting task of fighting a legitimate battle. Allah says in surah Anfaal, verse 60 : "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war..." Secondly, it has a social function in bringing people together which is in keeping with one of the chief purposes of Islam and that is to foster a spirit of mutual love, co-operation, respect, and friendship amongst all members of society. In Islam the spirit of sport is one of seeking the general upliftment of everyone, and not a spirit which encourages competition against the other where the "other" is imagined to be different in race, religion, or nationality. Hitlers attempt at the Berlin Olympic Games to show the superiority of the "Aryan Race" over everyone else is one example of what the Islamic spirit is most decidedly not. Barbarous discrimination in sport, apartheid style, is another. Thirdly, and closely linked to the second, is the recommended attempt at developing mastery and control of the self. While to win might be a commendable achievement, in Islam to overcome and conquer the lower self is even more commendable. It was Lao Tzu who correctly observed that "he who overcomes others is strong; [but] he who overcomes himself is mighty." Fourthly is the relationship between the body and soul. In Islam divisions between the sacred and secular hold little meaning. Everything we do here in the earthly domain has an immediate impact on the sacred and spiritual domain. A healthy body can act as nothing less than a healthy home for the numerous challenges and demands made upon the soul. Ghazi ibn Muhammad in his work, "The Sacred Origin of Sport and Culture" says: "Indeed, a proper balance of work and relaxation is the way to strengthen the souls capacity and endurance for work, just as a proper balance of physical exercise and rest makes the body strong and fitter. Thus one of the companions of the Prophet (SAW), Abu Darda, explained: I entertain my heart with something trivial in order to make it stronger in the service of the truth."
Nevertheless it is a regrettable fact that so little has been written about sport in Islam in contemporary Islamic literature, particularly in the light of the fact that Muslims are such keen sportspeople. A challenge facing Muslim scholarship today is to open discussion on, and provide greater exposure, to this important facet of contemporary living.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
24 November 1998
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