Most of us struggle to do enough exercise. In an exhausting world of work, study, family, and friends, it’s no wonder that spending time doing physical exercise slips to the bottom of our to-do lists. This is a great shame for modern Muslims, as sport has a long and proud history in Islam. It’s a tradition that started with the Prophet Muhammad himself, may peace and blessings be upon him, and continues until this day.
Physical exercise and sport are often dismissed as aimless, worldly activities that have no place in the life of a Muslim. The truth is quite far from this, as there are actually many spiritual benefits of exercise. You don’t need to spend hours in the gym or buy yourself some new running clothes. Exercise can be simple, and done in short bursts.
In this article, I will discuss some of the key spiritual benefits of physical exercise as well as some of the sports which are closely associated with Islam.
Benefit Number 1: It Builds Focus and Resilience
One of the key attributes of Islam is that it teaches us to strive to better ourselves with the aim of attaining a good place in the hereafter. This process involves focus, struggle, and endurance. When we put our bodies through exercise, we help build these faculties into our being. As we push our bodies harder, our minds learn to dismiss the immediate satisfaction of giving up for the long-term comfort of achieving our goals.
Exercise gives us goals to pursue, whatever our starting point. Athletes always have room for improvement, and developing such improvement is a lifelong process. This is kind of attitude is reflective of the pursuit of goodness in this world that Islam asks us to pursue.
Mohammed Farah is among the most famous Muslim athletes of our age. When asked before a race about his motivations he told a reporter, “It also says in the Qur’an that you must work hard in whatever you do, so I work hard in training and that’s got a lot to do with being successful” . It’s clear that Farah understood Islam’s demand for us to strive in this world, and for him, this translates into striving in sport.
Benefit Number 2: It Develops Community Strength
A sense of community is central to Islam, after all, we are all one ummah regardless of our colour, gender, or nationality. The bond between fellow Muslims should be strong, and good Muslims use this bond as a platform to encourage each other towards good deeds. Islam provides us with many ways to build this sense of community, among them attending Jumma prayers and performing Haj.
However, outside of this religious context, Muslims can find it difficult to form a sense of community with each other. While non-Muslims engage in activities such as clubbing, dancing, dating, and partying, many Muslims feel at a loss as to how to spend their leisure time bonding with their community. Muslims who work and live in a non-Muslim environment can be particularly subject to feelings of isolation from their community.
Team sports can provide the solution to this issue, providing Muslims with a platform to have fun and meet each other. Working together with a common aim, such as scoring goals or shooting baskets, results in connections being forged that last long after the game has ended, inshallah. Inshallah, you will also develop skills in communication, teamwork, and resilience.
Some readers may have concerns about the presence of non-Muslims in such environments. While this can be intimidating, sport can also offer a positive opportunity to rebuild peaceful relationships with the non-Muslim community, perhaps you could even give some dawah. Islamophobia often has its roots in ignorance and fear, and numerous studies show someone is much less likely to hold Islamophobic views if they actually know a Muslim. In a political environment where cultural divisions are deep, community sport transcends divisions and can bring us together.
Ask around to see if there are any local sports groups you can join. If there isn’t one, why not start a sports club? You don’t need to be professional at your sport, you just need to be willing to organise a small group of people. Leading a sports group will also look stylish on your CV.
Benefit Number 3: It Diverts Our Attention Away from the Haram
Muslim parents will know that among the many challenges of raising a child in the West are the haram cultures that compete for your child’s attention. A combination of boredom along with easily accessible haram activities such as alcohol, explicit material, gambling, and pre-marital relationships are a dangerous mix for anyone growing up in the West. Even for adults, many of us will be tragically familiar with members of our community who have slipped into these vices.
Whether it is building muscle in the gym or training for our next soccer game, sport demands our time and energy. As we pour attention into improving our physique and developing our skills, our attention is diverted from that which is harmful to our deen.
Sports Recorded in the Sunnah
While there exists an association between physical exercise and Islamic values, there are some specific sports that were close to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him.
It is even recorded that he used to race Aisha, dispelling the myth it is not appropriate for Muslim women to play sport. Other forms of exercises supported in the hadiths include archery, horse riding, swimming, and wrestling .
Although at times difficult, there are many spiritual blessings in taking part in physical exercise. When practised in moderation and in remembrance of Allah, sport can develop our resilience and focus, while re-building broken relationships and diverting our attention from the haram. Whatever your age, gender, or fitness status, now is the time to start thinking about exercising more.
Please note in the context of the pandemic, playing team sports with members from outside your household is not encouraged, and may be illegal depending on your location. We suggest that you consult your physician before beginning a program of physical exercise, especially if you have underlying health issues. Any physical activity is undertaken at the risk of the individual.
1. Cahal Milmo, (2012). Mo Farah seeks a peaceful haven as he prepares for a second date with Olympic destiny. The Independent, Friday 10 August 2012. Available here.
2. Sunnahsports, available here.