MMA – The Muslim Martial Artist: The Islamic Perspective on Combat Sports
If you haven’t yet heard, the Muslim Dagestani fighter, Khabib Nurmagomedov, defeated the uber-popular Irishman Conor McGregor this past weekend in one of the most watched events in the history of competitive combat sports. The fight has sparked much controversy, from the cultural clash of their fan bases to the melee that ensued after the event which has ignited heated discussions revolving around the difference between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence.
Amongst the jubilant celebrations of Muslims worldwide following Nurmagomedov’s triumph, a major talking point has been ‘what is Islam’s perspective on fighting anyway?’ And ‘is fighting even Islamically permissible?’. Most people, I hope, were asking the question because they were genuinely intrigued. Of course, there are also people who are not even interested in combat sports and for some reason try to justify their disinterest through a self-righteous stance on how ungodly the sport is, or how viewers were no better than the spectators of Rome. Comments such as these reek of ignorance, both of combat sports and of the Islamic perspective on the issue.
First of all, when you read ‘martial arts’, please don’t think of the UFC straight away. The UFC is the commercialised (and most prominent organisation) manifestation of modern day MMA (mixed martial arts), but that is merely the peak of the iceberg. The pre-fight trash-talking bravado of the fighters has proved a money making machine for the UFC, and that is what is most important when it comes to the entertainment industry. However, the essence of MMA is very different, and there exist fighters on the current UFC roster who still uphold the true, honourable values of martial arts. In any case, this article is not about the UFC but about martial arts, which covers a wider spectrum.
The truth is, martial arts is a combination of philosophy and art with sport (4) – it is an engagement of the heart and mind, and a true language of the body. Bruce Lee, widely regarded as the founder of MMA through his fighting philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, eloquently describes the true spirit of martial arts in an interview from decades ago:
“Ultimately, martial arts mean honestly expressing yourself. To express myself honestly, not lying to myself. That is very hard to do. Expressing yourself through movement, through anger, through anything. You see yourself in a combative form. It is the art of expression of the human body. Here is natural instinct and here is control, you are to combine the two in harmony, going to neither extreme. If you have one to the extreme you would be very unscientific, another to the extreme and you would become, all of the sudden, a mechanical man. Running water never grows stale, it keeps on flowing. And you have to train. You have to keep your reflexes, so that when you want it it’s there.”
This spiritual outlook on combat most distinctively resonates when looking at the Samurai and their code of Bushido (way of the warrior), in which a life of fighting was simultaneously fused with one of wisdom and tranquillity. It is through this parallel balance of the inner and outer, the strong and the gentle, the yin and the yang that one reaches true spiritual equilibrium. When it comes to Islam, there exists a code of honour that very much resembles bushido. Special fraternities based on chivalry have historically thrived in the Islamic tradition, with combat skill at the heart of them – built upon a philosophy known as ‘futuwwat’. The name is derived from the root word of ‘fata’ commonly understood as ‘youth’, which in time took on a greater meaning more related to ‘mystical youth’, a spiritual warrior who lived by this code of honour. Futtuwat is traced back to Ali ibn Abi Talib, one of the greatest legendary warriors not only in Islamic literature, but in Arabian and global literature too. Imam Ali is deemed as the founder and main representative of the futtuwat spirit as the ultimate manifestation of the inner and outer equilibrium, through a lifetime of balancing spiritual struggle with military warfare (1). The famous narration is then understood with greater depth:
‘La fata illa Ali wa la sayfa illa thulfiqar’ – ‘there is no mystical youth/warrior/knight save Ali, and no sword except Thulfiqar’.
In the centuries to follow, the futtawat tradition bought about the initiation of the fityan, an order of young men who became spiritual knights, a symbol of rebellion against all evil and striving for sincere servanthood to God (2). This order of knights was built upon brotherhood bound by rites drawn from the principle of chivalry and the life of Ali ibn Abi Talib as the ultimate archetype. The tradition produced countless men throughout history who combined moral virtue, mercy and generosity with proverbial physical strength (3). Pahlawan Mahmud Khwarazmi (1322) is one such wrestler knight, a Persian legend of futtuwat who still has stories told about him through all of Iran until this day – and is one of the reasons why wrestling still thrives there as such a popular sport. What is relevant to our topic is that these men lived with a spiritual warrior mentality, in which they were very physically capable and athletically efficient yet they manifested the greatest acts of mercy and forgiveness, just as their master, Imam Ali, did. How could one truly be a spiritual knight of futtuwa if they still cannot express their body in combat form? It was imperative upon the fityan to engage in constant physical training. As the famous line goes, ‘learn to fight so that you won’t have to’. It is to have skill, confidence and mastery of one’s own self yet not having to use it. To respond to anger with mercy whilst one could very easily respond with violence. The greatest combat we will ever have to perform takes place within each and every single one of us. To become a true spiritual warrior whom battles the immaterial demons of the modern world, then it is only natural to manifest strength on the physical level. In the words of Sayyed Hossein Nasr:
‘The fitrah (innate nature) is a light that shines at the center of man’s being even if it has now become covered by the veils of passion and forgetfulness. Futtuwah creates a condition in the soul that allows the spirit of man’s fitrah to triumph over the darkness of this world and to conquer man’s fallen nature rather than remaining within him in a state of potency. The goal of futuwwah is to make possible the transfer of the light of fitrah from potentiality to actuality. The greatest battle of the veritable knight is this struggle to make possible the re-conquest of our nature by the light of fitrah. Spiritual chivalry on the highest level is the art by means of which we become ourselves and gain full awareness of our primordial nature.’ (5)
If we are to strip away the skills of combat from the Islamic tradition, then one must wonder about the great warriors of Islamic history and how they trained their bodies. How did Abu Fadhel al-Abbas, Malik al-Ashtar or Mokhtar al-Thaqafi come to be such skilful fighters without physical training? They were men whom had to wield swords on the battlefield, and it is only a logical conclusion that they must have trained for their moments of truth. During the battle of Jamal when Imam Ali gave the banner to his son Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, he said:
“Mountains may move from their position but you should not move from yours. Grit your teeth. Lend your head to Allah in giving yourself to Him. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Have your eye on the remotest foe and close your eyes to the number of the enemy. Remain assured that support is only from Allah, the Glorified.” (6)
In preparations for another battle, he called out to his soldiers to ‘lower their voices, to pray, to be one in the heart, to draw their swords and to display their power.’ (7)
Narrations such as these are numerous. If we are to contemplate Imam Ali speaking to his soldiers in the multiple battles he was a part of, then it is clear that he is not speaking to farmers or to laymen. To heed his advice of combat skill and battalion organisation then one must be a fighter, and to be such a fighter takes physical training. The type of training specified in the narrations differ and are suitable to the context of their time. There are traditions of lifting heavy weights to train the body, on the importance of the skillful wielding of the sword, of archery and of horse riding – all of which were necessary and primary skills of a knight in that time. There even exist reports that Hassan and Hussain used to wrestle each other in their youth. (8)
If one is to open ‘Kitaab al-Jihad’ in ‘Furoo’ al-Kafi’, numerous classical traditions traced back to the Imams of the Shi’a Ithna Ashari school and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would be found pertaining to these skills of combat. If I was to narrate the following quote: ‘all of goodness is in the sword, under the sword and in the shadow of the sword’ (9) and tell you that it was said by a man named was Mistumishi Miyoto, it would not be far fetched to understand it in the context of a sacred Samurai code. The truth, however, is that the quote is attributed to Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, a man who had not even taken part in a battle in his entire lifetime, yet was a master of the bow and arrow. It is not merely about fighting. One must penetrate deeper through the layers of the words of the Imams to understand that this is the rhetoric of a spiritual warrior. There is a plethora of resources available through which the following understanding may be derived: that to be a spiritual warrior one must physically train with the condition of God consciousness infused through it all. The Imam’s words to his fighters before war were always infused with God consciousness, displaying the spiritual dynamic to combat, for in Islam they are fused, one and the same.
So, concerning the fiqhi outlook – are martial arts/combat sports legally permissible in Islam?
Firstly, there is no issue with watching combat sports, even when it comes to the UFC. As for practicing, Iraqi scholar Sayed Sistani’s answer is that they are permissible as long as there is no significant danger to one’s health. This notion of significant danger, though, is referred back to the individual on a case by case basis which in fiqh is called tishkhees al-mawdoo’. What may be permissible to one individual may be impermissible to another depending on the circumstances. It is not merely a black and white, halal/haram answer, and it is upon the individual to make a sound personal judgement based on research and knowledge concerning the specific context. You must consider whether or not sparring is included or if it is just technique work. If sparring is included then how heavy is it, and how often does it take place? How protective is the gear? In essence, how much precaution is taken to avoid injury? How likely is it that the injury would be serious if suffered? The skill level of the practitioner would also be taken into consideration. For example, if a beginner enters into a national tournament to fight professional fighters then that is likely to be deemed jurisprudentially impermissible. However, if one carefully plans out their progress then there is no reason why martial arts would become a significant danger to one’s health. These questions do not pertain only to combat sports. I would ask very similar questions to a person playing any other sport. In fact, if one is only to check the several surveys that can be found online and contrast the statistics, then we would find that basketball, American football, football (soccer), baseball, gymnastics, cycling, and skating are all more likely to lead to injury than martial arts (11). It is because martial arts are essentially based on fighting an opponent that it is so misunderstood, and often times feared?
Of course, there will always be those who practice martial arts with wrong intentions. Violence and revenge take over their hearts and minds. However, there are also people of all religions and of no religion who study and practice martial arts in order to learn respect, discipline and gain skill and strength. As a Muslim, safely practicing martial arts with the correct intention is deemed a form of worship when infused with God consciousness. How else can one truly seek the inner if they are weak in the outer?
In his 15th century treatise on Futtuwat, Kashifi Sabzawari lists a 12 point code of honour for the combatant spiritual knight of Futtuwat and what makes a true champion: (12)
- Fear of God
- Obedience to religious law
- A strong body
- A good manner of speaking
- Impeccable wisdom
- Complete patience
- Absolute knowledge
- Unceasing effort
- A pleasing character
- Abstention from what is unlawful
- Enduring blessing
May peace be upon those who follow His guidance.
- Reza Shah Kazemi, The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam: the Teachings of Ali ibn Abi
Talib, pg. 135
- Resit Haylamaz, Ali ibn Abi Talib: The Hero of Chivalry, 2013, pg 1
- Sayyed Hossein Nasr Islamic Spirituality Manifestations: Spiritual Chivalry, , 1997, pg 304
- Ibid, pg. 308.
- Nahj al-Balagha: Sermon 11
- Al-Qadi al-Nu’man, Da‘a’im al-Islam, 1/372
- Husayn Waiz Kashifi Sabzawari, The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry, pg. 299
- Muhammad ibn Yaqoub al-Kulayni, Furoo’ al-Kafi, Chapter 5, pg. 9
- S.M.R. Shabbar, Story of the Holy Kaaba and it’s People