Soccer and the Sacred

FIFA has spent more than 60 billion U.S. dollars getting ready for the competition now underway in South Africa. It’s a staggering amount for a month’s worth of entertainment. Many South Africans are still trying to figure out what’s in it for them. So far it has done nothing to reduce poverty and massive unemployment for the masses in Johannesburg and Soweto.

And even when the contradictions are so incredibly stark, the game of soccer has a certain magical quality that converts people from curious onlookers into ardent fans. Could there be a sacred dimension to the game of soccer?

There are many who will disagree. They have lumped soccer into the category of play and amusement or worst, declare it to be forbidden. God Almighty reveals in the Quran:

Wa Mā Al- Hayāatu Ad-Dunyā ‘Illā La`ibun Wa Lahwun  ۖ  Wa Lalddāru Al-‘Ākhiratu Khayrun Lilladhīna Yattaqūna  ۗ  ‘Afalā Ta`qilūna

What is this life but play and amusement. Far better is the abode of the hereafter for those who are God-fearing. Have you then no intelligence? (6:32)

The two important words in this verse are la’ib and lahw. According to the classical Quranic interpretations, la’ib is defined as play or sport that has no benefit. Lahw, on the other hand, is a form of amusement — a temporary distraction from the mundane and does not require the use of the intellect.

Like most verses of the Quran, there are deep secrets encoded in its verses. Human beings were created with a propensity to play and amuse themselves in sports, but ingrained in their DNA is a recognition that there is a higher calling and that what is to come when this life is over is much more important than the here and now.

The meaning of the word religion, after all, from the Latin ‘religio’ means “to bind.” In other words, religion is meant to bind man to his contract with God Almighty. From a purely sociological perspective, religious rites emerged to remind men and women of their sacred contract.

In traditional societies, sports such as stick-fighting, gladiatorial games, jousting, yoga, swordsmanship, martial arts, wrestling, chess and archery emerged out of religious rites. Sports was a relief from the strict concentration and discipline required when fulfilling religious obligations.

The meaning of sport, from the Middle English word ‘disporter,’ means light-hearted recreational activity, or from the Latin ‘desporto’ which means ‘to carry away’ such that amusement momentarily carries us away from the tediousness of daily life.

In Spartan society sports was a means of educating, disciplining and inculcating virtues in the youth. The gymnasium in ancient Greek culture was designed to help transition men and women from the levity of childhood to the responsibility that comes with maturity.

According to Imam At-Tabarani, the Messenger of Allah a instructed his companions to “practice archery – it’s good for you,” he is reported to have said.

In the collection of Sahih Al-Bukhari Salama bin Al-Akwa narrated that the Prophet a passed by some people of the Tribe of Bani Aslam while they were competing with each other. The Prophet said: O Bani Isma’il practice archery because your father Isma’il was a great archer. Keep on shooting your arrows, I am with Bani so and so. In other words, the Prophet, desiring to participate in the competition, picked a side. Asking why the opposing side was suddenly backing out of the competition, they said, ‘how can we compete when you’ve taken their side? To this the Prophet said: “Keep on competing, I am with all of you.”

In another hadith, this time in Sahih Muslim, the Apostle of Allah, said: “Allah Most High, will cause three persons to enter paradise for one arrow: The maker, when he has a good intention in making it, the one who shoots it, and the one who hand it off; So take aim and release and ride (your horse), but archery is dearer to me than your riding. Every form of amusement is vain except three: when a person is training his horse, enjoying the company of your spouse, and competing in archery. If anyone abandons archery after becoming adept at it through distaste for it, it is a blessing he has abandoned, (or he said), for which he has been ungrateful.”

There are some Muslim scholars, sure enough, that will say these ahadith pertain to Jihad. Yet the word Jihad is never mentioned nor implied in either ahadith. What is clear is that God’s Messenger is equating a recreational activity with the reward of paradise.

We know these ahadith because they were handed down from generation to generation of Muslims in an unbroken chain going back to the Messenger of God. Around 1835 Sultan Mahmoud II, one of the greatest patrons of the Ottoman archer’s guild, commissioned Shaykh Mustafa Kani bin Mehmet to collect 40 ahadith pertaining to archery. In one hadith the Prophet is reported to have said that Angel Gabriel gave the first bow to Adam. In another, Prophet Ibrahim was the first to receive a composite bow from the Angel Gabriel and he and Prophet Isma’il were celebrated archers of their time.

In the community of believers the Prophet’s cousin and companion – Sa’ad bin Abi Waqqas – emerged as the archetypal model for the Muslim archer and his name was invoked by members of the archer’s guild during the era of Ottoman Khilafah which ended less than a hundred years ago.

According to Eugen Herrigel’s 1950’s classic “Zen in the Art of Archery,” the archer’s aim is not directed at an external target but at the spiritual target within. The archer, Herrigel says, must master his aim until he is able to hit the bull’s eye blindfolded.

Since the art of archery has a sacred dimension, likewise the game of soccer too has sacred overtones. It is an edifying and wholesome sport that is good for both the soul and the body.

The ball represents the unpredictability of life itself and when one gets possession, skill, patience and a calm composure, often lead to making the correct decisions and a good outcome.

Soccer is played within strict boundaries and rules, much like religious life, and each player must respect them and the referee’s decision, to succeed.

Scoring a goal is a victory not against your opponent, but against the ego of our lower self.

Soccer teaches the virtues of sacrifice, patience, self-control, temperance, courage, decisiveness, courtesy, friendship, generosity, nobility, humility, contentment, not forgetting team work, strategy and memory. It is only through these qualities that victory in the world can be achieved and a place in the hereafter can be guaranteed.

As we cheer on our favorite teams may we become inspired  to imitate the virtuous conduct we observe in the game.

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