Toronto has not only been a great center for commerce and politics, education and art, but like all great cities it has been and continues to be a great center of sports. Whether basketball, football, soccer, baseball, cricket, hockey, or watching the Olympics these days, Torontonians are passionate in victory and defeat. Although we are frustrated by the amount of time that has passed since the Blue Jays or our Maple Leafs have been championship teams, we nevertheless continue to watch, hope, and dream.
Athletes inspire us. Whether it’s a pick-up game in a gymnasium or the Olympics, sports bring us together as a community whatever our socio-economic class, ethnicity, or creed. How does that happen? A clue might be found in the linguistic meaning of the word. “Sport” is derived from the word “disporter,” meaning “any light-hearted recreational activity.” Its Latin root is the word “desporto” meaning “to carry away”. Sports carry us away from the intensity of the mundane. That’s why athletes are celebrated as heroes in our culture. It’s not just because they can make millions of dollars, but also because they struggle constantly to do the impossible, overcoming seemingly insurmountable hurdles and excelling in adversity.
Let us then consider the Prophet from a perspective we do not consider him with enough. Let us consider the Prophet as an athlete and reflect on the implications this perspective may have for the spiritual significance of sport and its importance for how we cultivate wellness in Muslim youth and in our community in Toronto.
The Prophet is described as being of medium height, which for the Arabs of 7th century Mecca was probably just over 6’0 feet tall, broad shouldered, with well-defined muscles. In his youth he learned to swim in a pool in the desert oasis that came to be called Medina and he used to encourage his companions to learn to swim.
He mastered the martial arts of his time. The early medieval biographer Ibn Iṣḥāq mentions that Prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, was challenged by a champion wrestler of Mecca and the Prophet pinned him with ease. Twice. The Prophet had extraordinarily sharp eyesight and excelled as an archer, hitting the bull’s-eye at distances and speeds his companions could not match. He said: “Practice archery; it is good for you” [Nawawi’s Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn]. He was a team player. It is narrated that his companions vied to have him join their side as they competed against each other. He was also an accomplished horseman and encouraged racing.
When threatened by his enemies the Prophet demonstrated critical, tactical and strategic skills. He was cool headed in the heat of conflict, brave in the face of danger. He would shield others with his own body when the heat of battle was hottest.
The Prophet demonstrated an excellent combination of intelligence, strength, speed, agility, patience, and courage that are the very qualities we prize in great athletes and heroes who we rely on in emergencies. These are also qualities that are characteristic of wholeness and wellness. Further, we cannot talk about sport and about heroism without also considering the importance of gender and I would like to submit the following account for your consideration:
The Lady Aisha, a wife of the Prophet, may God be pleased with her, was once journeying through the desert in the company of her husband. She challenged him to race and he consented. She said: “I raced the Messenger of God and won. Later, when I had put on some weight, I raced him again, but this time he won and said: “we’re even now” [Sunan of Abū Dawūd, Musnad of Imām Aḥmad].
Aside from illustrating the Prophet and his beloved wife’s enjoyment of exercise and competition, I think this account can also be taken to indicate something about the Prophet’s sense of fairness and what we would now call good sportsmanship. Muslim leaders who are sometimes uncomfortable or shy in advocating for girls and women to have the institutional support they need to exercise, play sports, compete, and live active healthy lifestyles, would be wise to think deeply about the fact that the Prophet himself engaged in racing and playfully competing with his wife.
The Prophet’s approach to athletic activity was characterized by a commitment to excellence, inclusiveness, and fairness. We can honour his noble legacy today by demonstrating our commitment not only in our engagement in sports, but our engagement in the civic life of our city. Without nurturing this ethos in our youth during their university experience, we not only neglect their physical health and spiritual wellbeing as individuals, but the health and wellbeing of the Muslim community of Toronto itself.