Be rugged, because comfort never lasts
-Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه
In 2008, the same year as the Beijing Olympics, an American presidential election, and a global financial crisis, the world marked a far more momentous, though less recognized, development: for the first time in human history, over 50% of the world’s population resided in urban areas. Such rapid change over the course of scarcely a century poses monumental challenges for society in general, but particularly for Muslims, who face the loss of many ancient traditions deeply rooted in our faith as believers worldwide exchange their traditional lifestyles for urbanized living. For Muslims residing in the West, increasingly members of the professional-managerial class boasting college degrees, the tradition of masculine and outdoors pursuits has severely atrophied. Understandably, given the unwanted publicity Muslim women attract in the West as wearers of the hijab, there is a great deal of English-language literature discussing femininity and the role of women in Islam, but a dearth of similar resources discussing masculinity and appropriate male pursuits from an Islamic perspective. InshaAllah, this article is an attempt to level this discrepancy, and reintroduce the long-forgotten artifacts of our rugged tradition into the Western Muslim consciousness.
In the society we reside in, there is perhaps no practice as prevalent and yet as horribly misutilized as sporting. A system for moral betterment has degenerated into a mass industry of heedlessness. Athletes— the new beacons of idolatry— hawk killers of the body and soul to their worshipful admirers, athletic wear is proudly sported by inactive louts who revel in debauchery, and stadiums crawl with raucous crowds engaged in hooliganism and petty crime. By contrast, the noble tradition of sporting in Islam strengthens the mind, body, and soul. There is a higher purpose to the practice of sport in Islam than physical gain, and that is to acheive fana, the reduction of the human being and his ego to zero to match the individual’s desires to the will of Allah ﷻ. Each of the sports praised by the Prophet ﷺ and exemplified in his Sunnah reflect a distinct method of achieving fana. As reported by al-Tirmidhi, “all sports are baatil (idle) except for three: a man training his horse, the instigation of play with his family, and his shooting with the bow and arrow.” It is certainly no accident that ball sports (such as association football and rugby) are those most prone to hooliganism and degeneracy, while sunnah sports remain the favored pastime of aristocracy across the globe.
Unlike in the religions of the ascetics, such as Christianity or Buddhism, there is no nobility in physical weakness and frailty in the deen. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ stated that “The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, though there is good in both.” Despite the severe physical duress he endured throughout his life, the Prophet ﷺ was of excellent physical character, being strong and well-built with broad shoulders, and was not blighted by emaciation. To develop a similarly robust body through weight training in the absence of regular hardship should be considered a priority for the men of the ummah. The Japanese revolutionary-traditionalist author Yukio Mishima wrote in his essay “Sun and Steel” on the spiritually transformative nature of weight training, and how pain gives way to a sense of non-existence, blurring the boundary between where flesh ends and the steel begins. What he was describing was, of course, fana, though he lacked the aqeedah necessary to conceptualize this.
Swimming, one of the most accessible and yet undervalued sunnah physical activities, also functions as a test of the human spirit. The Prophet ﷺ practiced both traditional swimming and free-diving, though he preferred diving. The quiet desolation that exists underwater, freed from the constraints of surface gravity, serves to reduce the human being to zero by achieving a sense of masslessness, an art the Prophet ﷺ mastered as a child in the wells of Medina. Athletes today who have pushed the abilities of the human body to its limits in the discipline of “static apnea,” have discovered a similar truth as to its benefits.
Just as every sin originates from what was once natural and pure, there too exist permissible and even laudable applications for those native desires. Masculine aggression, stifled by modern technology that has largely automated the role of the man, can be mastered and restrained in combat sports. In the absence of the threat of imminent war that all pre-modern civilizations regularly faced, combat sports must become prominent features of Muslim society in order to maintain a degree of martial preparedness. Of all combat sports, wrestling should take precedence, as the Prophet ﷺ himself was known to wrestle. In one of the most striking stories of the seerah, an unrivaled wrestler from among the polytheists, Rukana ibn Abdi Yazid, demanded proofs of Prophethood, to which the Prophet ﷺ requested a wrestling match between the two of them. Of hulking stature, Rukana agreed, only to find himself pinned down almost instantaneously. Repeating the match twice, the Prophet ﷺ once again easily defeated his far weightier opponent, much to Rukana’s shock. The entire global discipline of the martial arts, from the islands of Greece to the Korean peninsula, is inexorably bound up in philosophy. The Chinese-American martial arts superstar Bruce Lee famously instructed practitioners to “be like water,” which he would later explain as meaning to “not [be] without emotion or feeling, but [to be] one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked.” The notion of a measured detachment from the dunya, as opposed to a total ascetic disinterest in worldly affairs, finds strong parallels in the Islamic tradition. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told the sahaba, upon them seeing him laying upon an uncomfortable mat, “What is there between myself and the world? This world and I are just like a rider who stops to rest beneath the shade of a tree then goes and leaves it.” Muslims should prioritize martial arts emanating from Muslim lands, such as Indonesian silat, as they are interwoven with Islamic philosophy, as opposed to Taoist or Buddhist-inspired martial arts, which contain foreign elements. Similarly, sports that only serve to damage the body, such as boxing, are forbidden, as striking the face in combat is prohibited.
To master the art of horse riding is another highly lauded aspect of the deen. Horses are a particularly beautiful exemplar of Allah’s ﷻ creation. The Prophet ﷺ said that “There is always goodness in horses till the Day of Resurrection.” Like all sunnah sports, there is more to the art of equestrianism than meets the eye. To ride a horse, one must form a an unshakable bond with another one of Allah’s ﷻ creatures. While riding, the horse and its master must act as a singular entity united in common purpose. Such mastery necessarily entails the development of forbearance, impassiveness, and serenity. Equestrian training is also necessary in developing military readiness, as all the technological advancement of the last century has yet to wipe the horse off the global battlefield of guerilla warfare. It is because of this that horse riding has been listed as one of only three enjoyable activities whose practice is not useless, and contains real value in and of itself, so much so that the Prophet ﷺ even organized horse races. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ called upon his ummah to take both to the horse and to the bow— though to shoot was more beloved to him than to ride.
There is no physical activity or sport more heralded in the Quran and Sunnah than archery. It is difficult to overstate the revered position archery holds in the deen. Referring to the verse of the Quran, “And prepare for them (the disbelievers) all that you can muster of strength,” the Prophet ﷺ commented “Does not strength surely exist in archery?,” repeating the exclamation three times. For a single arrow, Allah ﷻ will enter three people into paradise: the one who creates it, anticipating good from his work, the one who shoots it, and the one who feeds it to the archer. Even beyond its obvious necessity as an instrument of war, archery combines the positive aspects of the other sunnah sports to become the ultimate vehicle for achieving fana. The sahaba were relentless in their practice of archery, firing bow after bow for hours on end, perfecting their marksmanship, drilling the same movement into their body and mind until they entered a state of self-annihilation. The sahaba would place targets at both ends of a field, so they could fire another arrow as they collected their first. The space in between the two targets was imbued with powerful mystic qualities. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said that “Whoever walks between two targets will have a reward for every step that he takes.” To walk the space between the targets is to be as though in the midst of paradise, a reward even greater than to journey to a masjid. In our modern age, in which pleasure abounds and every second of life must be continuously filled with amusement and diversion, our nights lit ceaselessly by the eerie glow of an electronic device, we have been transformed into voracious dopamine addicts, incessantly jonesing for another hit of heedless distraction. The result has been widespread misery and despair, as all our technological innovation inevitably leaves us feeling hollow inside. The only cure for the e-depression that ails us is a return to physical hardiness and the rugged activities of the sunnah. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Whenever depression takes root in any one of you, then one but needs to take to one’s bow, such that through it one’s depression is abated.” Those who seek the antidote to modernity should follow suit and simply take to the bow.
To own arms is a highly commendable feat for any Muslim. Upon his deathbed, the Prophet ﷺ left nothing behind in the world except a mule, a piece of land to be given as sadaqah, and his arms. While in the early days of the khalifah, this meant swords and bows, the new frontier in personal weaponry is of course, the firearm. Some, though not all, of the benefits of archery outlined in the hadith may also be found at the gun range, such as those in mastering the skill of marksmanship. Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه admonished Muslims to train their sons in sharpshooting, a sport more commonly practiced with firearms in the modern day. Knowledge in handling arms is also a necessity for the ummah at large when it comes to preparing for war. While a true khalifah capable of declaring offensive jihad does not exist at the moment, Muslims, regardless of where they reside, must continue to pass down martial skills from one generation to the next, lest they fade from our heritage forever. Furthermore, arms ownership is a necessity to provide for the security of one’s self, family, community, and property. Violence may break out at any moment, and a man must be prepared for it when it does. The khalifah placed such a prestige on the power and importance of the right to bear arms that it was explicitly denied to the ahl-e-kitab, being reserved solely for believers. Muslims living in countries with permissive laws on gun ownership, such as the United States, should take advantage to arm themselves and their communities.
There is no activity as universally cherished and honored, across cultures, creeds, and ages as the hunt. There is something about the pursuit of game that cuts deeply to the heart of a man’s soul, beyond its obvious potential for nourishment. The Quran approves of purposeful hunting; “…All good things are lawful for you, what you have taught your birds and beasts of prey to catch, teaching them as God has taught you, so eat what they catch for you, but first pronounce God’s name over it. Be mindful of God: He is swift to take account”, and in our modern age of convenience, in which meat is found not in the quiet stirrings of the forest, but pre-cut and packaged in the coolly refrigerated aisles of a supermarket, hunting has become even more important in purifying the soul. The hunter, more than any man except perhaps the farmer, understands and appreciates the principle of rizq and tawakkul. A man’s sustenance is never assured, it is Allah’s ﷻ decree alone that guarantees a successful hunt. Thus, every trained hunter, no matter how talented, occasionally fires a missed shot, and every amateur, no matter how incompetent, occasionally comes home with a full bag. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset writes in his treatise Meditations on Hunting that hunting entails “a conscious and almost religious humbling of man which limits his superiority… [h]unting submerges man deliberately in that formidable mystery and therefore contains something of religious rite and emotion in which homage is paid towards what is divine, transcendent, in the laws of Nature.” Hunting is, by nature, a solitary activity. Alone in the wilderness with only his hunting dog or bird of prey beside him, the hunter develops a sense of sabr and forbearance by necessity. In entering the domain of his prey, he leaves behind the crass world of modern civilization and accepts to himself the reality of his existence as being totally at Allah’s ﷻ mercy, where so much as a broken twig can mean the dashing of all his hopes and dreams. In the Islamic method of hunting, this reliance comes full circle upon the firing of the bow or gun, when the hunter says the bismillah and puts his full trust in Allah ﷻ to guide him to his target. Should he be successful, he now must come face-to-face with the fallen body of his prey. Ortega refers to the hunter’s feeling of melancholy regret over loss of life as an “uneas[iness] in the depths of his conscience,” an ambivalence which ultimately strengthens man and furthers the human experience. For Muslims, this means embracing the inevitability of Allah’s ﷻ decree and the end of our material existence. By distancing us from the origin of our food in sterile, bloodless supermarkets, modernity distracts us from the remembrance of death. Hunting begins with embracing uncertainty, and ends by embracing the final certainty.
Modernity’s fervent desire to separate us from the realities of our existence has never been more evident than in the dilapidated state of the trades in modern consumerist society. Up until a century ago, a man could explain the origin of all the common appliances that punctuated his everyday life. If he did not build them himself, he would be on good terms with the local craftsman who did, and would be more than capable of making basic repairs. Since then, the focus of technological innovation has been to distance man from the tools of his own existence, outsourcing more and more of his everyday life to faceless drones millions of miles away. We do not know what keeps our cars moving, our toilets flushing, or our refrigerators cooled. The main career paths generally promoted to young, affluent Muslims comprise white-collar, professional-managerial “knowledge work,” requiring a college degree. The trades seem by comparison something paltry and low, but why? Prophet Muhammad ﷺ praised manual labor, saying “No food is better to man than that which he earns through his manual work.” Prophet Dawud ﷺ ate only out of his earnings from manual work. To aid an artisan in his work was listed as one of the great deeds a Muslim could do, right below manumitting a slave. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, self-proclaimed “philosopher-mechanic” Matthew B. Crawford explains the aversion modern, educated man feels towards the trades as stemming from a sense of inadequacy: “The problem isn’t so much that [the tradesman] is dirty, or uncouth. Rather he seems to pose a challenge to our self-understanding that is somehow fundamental. We’re not as free and independent as we thought”. While many intellectually-minded Muslims today rightfully condemn individualism, and the devastating anomie it has wrought on Western civilization, too often they risk tossing the baby out with the bathwater in condemning individuality and self-reliance as a whole. To free oneself from reliance on anonymous drones of corporations or the State in favor of working directly with one’s hands, “to be the master of your own stuff,” in Crawford’s words, is a highly commendable skill. Muslims should consider skilled manual labor as the Prophet ﷺ did, and elevate them to a position to aspire to in the community. For those consigned to white-collar employment, this is still no excuse not to take up the do-it-yourself lifestyle and become a personal handyman, skilled in affairs of the wrench.
Never before in human history has such comfort been so accessible and so prevalent than in the modern West. Diasporic Muslims now have access to luxuries their ancestors could only have dreamed of. We generally view luxuries as obscene extravagances that no decent person could abide by, from gold-plated Ferraris to diamond-studded Rolexes, but these are merely the excesses of a common syndrome that infects us all. Why must we abide by the tyranny of plumped pillows, smooth-tiled floors, and houses alternately heated and cooled to the owners’ tastes? The ambitions of Muslims living in the West today tend far more towards conquering Silicon over Death Valley, to deleterious effects on the community at large. Comforted living might fatten the body, but it emaciates the soul. The modern obsession with removing all discomfort and unpleasantness or hints of the real world from daily living is anathema to the soul. Real emotions wilt and sour, only to be replaced by their exaggerated, funhouse-mirror equivalents. We don’t feel real happiness anymore, but ecstasy, not sadness, but misery, not anger, but mindless rage, not solitude, but boredom. As John the Savage, Aldous Huxley’s enduring archetype of the modern man, furiously exclaimed: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness.” Embrace nature, journey into what Allah ﷻ has created, and revel in His majesty. Remain aloof from the dull inanities of modernity, even if you must physically reside within it. Not that we should desire pain, but rather, we should learn to embrace discomfort as a reminder of the brevity and inconsequence of this temporal existence. Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه said, “…throw away the stirrups and jump onto your mounts. You should wear rough clothes and practise archery, and keep away from luxury and the dress of the non-Arabs, and be wary of silk.” In other words: Be rugged. Choose to live dangerously.
- Jami at-Tirmidhi. Volume 3, Book 20, Hadith 1637.
- Sunan ibn Majah. Volume 1, Book 1, Hadith 79.
- Sunan ibn Majah. Volume 5, Book 37, Hadith 4109.
- Sahih al-Bukhari. Volume 4, Book 56, Hadith 837.
- Sahih Muslim. Book 20, Hadith 4711.
- at-Tabarani, Fadbir-remy: 23/a.
- As-Saghir at-Tabarani, with different wording: “There is no harm for any of you to take up your bow when you are overtaken by care, and thereby do away with your worries.”
- Qur’an, 5:4.
- Sahih al-Bukhari. Volume 3, Book 34, Hadith 286.
- Musnad Ahmad. Book 2, Hadith 208.
About the Author: Luqman Quilliam is a guest contributor. He aspires to one day become a student of shariah. His interests include indigenous British Islamic heritage, statecraft, Islamic economics, and film.