Sports as Sacred and Secular Activities

A Book Review of the second half of The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture by Ghazi bin Muhammad

The modern world is witness to how sports have transformed from merely physical (and at times mental) exercises to economic, cultural, and even political forces to be reckoned with. Hundreds of thousands of people gather for entertainment and joy as millions – if not billions – more watching via worldwide live broadcasting share the same spirit. So much attention has been paid to “mere” sporting events, with the most recent example being Qatar, the first Muslim country to host a World Cup, reportedly spending $220 billion on the event.

At first glance, it might be inconceivable to think of sports as having anything to do with spirituality. However, in his monograph titled The Philosophy Behind Sports: The Origin, Meaning, and Nature of Sports, and their Practice in the Modern World – the second half of the book which is under review – H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad argues that despite its despiritualized and industrialized form today, the popular pastime of sports turns out to have a sacred origin and importance.

He begins by referencing the Olympic Games as, “the most famous ancient religious rite associated with sports.” [1] The games were full of symbolism, much of which was religious in nature, such as the sacrifice of the victorious horse in a race to the Olympian gods and holding the race in seven rounds, which was compared and consecrated to the sun’s “journey” in the sky. [2] In many religious traditions, other sports such as wrestling, archery, and yoga are also regarded as “sacred sports.” [3] In Islam, for example, sports are linked to war, which is conceived in the idea of the inner and outer Jihads. [4] The practice of Hajj also includes physical activities such as circling the Ka‘ba and running between Safa and Marwah. [5]

In order to make the connection between sports and man, it is pertinent to briefly address the conception of man as understood in this monograph. Shunning mainstream secular anthropology, Ghazi acknowledges the tripartite division of man: the spirit (ruh), the soul (nafs), and the body (jism). [6] Consequently, sports are not seen as strictly physical, but rather they are also laden with spiritual and mystical content. He then proceeds to quote the example of the relationship between Zen mysticism and archery, given by Professor Eugen Herrigel, “By archery…the Japanese does not understand a sport but, strange as this may sound at first, a religious ritual.” [7] 

Taking into account their spiritual origin, sports are seen as “edifying and wholesome in nature and thus beneficial to both body and soul of those who practice them.” [8] With regards to the soul, sports are rife with considerable “subconscious value” due to their beauty, nobility, and spiritually correct symbolism. [9] In addition, virtues familiar to sports such as discipline, effort, sportsmanship, teamwork and organization are also of paramount importance.

The connection between sports and the soul can be expanded upon further. First, in sports it is not only the result of the game that matters, but how it was played (i.e. whether it is played with sportsmanship). Similarly, “the mere activity of playing sports can and should teach a contemplative person that it is the moral content of life that matters above all, and not worldly or financial achievements.” [10]

Second, winning in sports requires performing at one’s best. This is similar to the concept of itqan (i.e. “mastery” or right action stemming from total commitment). Furthermore, this “mastery” is the first step towards the “spiritual victory” over the vices and evil of one’s ego. [11] Therefore, the concept of “winning” is ultimately not to be subject against one’s opponent, but rather one’s very self.

Third, there is also an aspect of communal sacrifice, especially relevant to athletes representing their country, club, or region. However, it is important to maintain that the sacrifice made by a group is not be intended to show the superiority of a certain group (ex: the superiority of one race over others). Rather, it should be done “in the spirit of bringing different people together in friendship, mutual respect, and cooperation.” [12]

Fourth, beauty is also associated with sports. This can manifest in the grace of actions, skills, technical correctness, and even virtues of the competitors. Take for example some martial arts practices such as Kata (Karate) and Poomsae (Taekwondo), where athletes are judged for the precise execution of their moves. Of note here, Ghazi also argues that this is where the “billion dollar industries” ball-games, sports such as soccer, rugby, baseball, etc. fall short. “The ball-games….can be said to afford certain undeniable displays of skill, but have nothing like the grace inherent in any of the other, already-mentioned sports…[F]rom a traditional philosophical point of view the aesthetic value of ball games as such is not particularly high.” [13]

Fifth, the relaxation aspect of sports is beneficial to the soul. Just as the soul needs “expansion” to counteract the pressure of “contraction,” inhaling and exhaling are also necessary for the body. The author writes, “Indeed, a proper balance of work and relaxation is the way to strengthen the soul’s capacity and endurance for work, just as a proper balance of physical exercise and rest makes the body stronger and fitter.” [14]

Aside from the spiritual benefit of sports, the more obvious physical benefit of sports is also briefly addressed. It is well-known that sports are a way to maintain physical health, and it is unanimously agreed upon that carefully planned physical exercises are preventative measures, much better than the constant consumption of medicine. As famously stated by the Roman poet Juvenal “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.” (You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.)

But as much as sports have a spiritual origin and connection, it comes as no surprise that sports today are mostly detached from spiritual values, transforming them into secular activities. To this end, Ghazi enlists many criticisms of the modern, industrialized and despiritualized practice of sports. Simply put, there is very little understanding of the real worth and sacred origins of sports; too much time, energy, and money are wasted on modern sports, compromising the natural balance between the body and the soul.

Ghazi expands on this critique of the phenomenon of professional sports, writing:

Professional sports ignore the fact that work and play are two different, separate human needs…[P]rofessionalism in sports…has enabled commercialism so entirely to hijack the purpose and spirit of sports in the modern world, for professional athletes are financial hostages to the sports they play and it is they that are there for the convenience of those sports rather than vice versa. [15]

This is not to mention the problems that the modern world is already aware of: hooliganism, performance-enhancing drugs, match-fixing, etc. To summarize, the quoted passage from Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s book A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World correctly captures the whole scenery: 

Today sports have become like a religion in the modern West…The worship of sports heroes and the continuous quest for record breaking and the domination over nature…reflect the attempt of the soul to immerse itself completely in immediate bodily and sensual gratification [and is a priori a result of] the excessive importance given to the body. [16]

Despite the author’s severe criticisms, it should be made clear that “the abuse of sports in the modern world speaks negatively of the modern world first and foremost, and not necessarily negatively of sports themselves.” [17]

Given the brief 81 pages, the second half of The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture successfully captures the true use of sports in the traditional world and its misuse and abuse in the modern world. Two appendices on the symbolism of chess and concentration in modern sports are available for the curious reader to explore. And while detailing the perils of modern sports, the author still concludes with the statement: “sports, despite all the ills, corruption, and perversion they now involve, remain in themselves and such a generally positive phenomenon, useful, edifying, healthy, and commendable.” [18]

There remain, however, some gaps that the author leaves to be explored. For example, he failed to elaborate on the “mental” aspect of sports (except for chess in Appendix A) from the Islamic perspective. This is important point as we see find that the root of the Arabic word for mathematics (riyāḍiyyāt) is the same as that of sport (riyāḍah). In addition, the concept of adab, succinctly defined by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas as “the discipline of body, mind, and soul,” can also serve as grounds for further exploration of the Islamic philosophy of sports. [19] In any case, Ghazi’s monograph certainly serves as a starting point, but it should not be the first and final words on the matter.

Works Cited:

[1] Ghazi bin Muhammad, The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture, Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1998, p.62. 
[2] Ibid, p.63.
[3] Ibid, p.65.
[4] Ibid, p.68.
[5] Ibid, p.69.
[6] Ibid, p.73.
[7] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (trans. R.F.C. Hull), New York: Vintage Books, 1971, pp.14-15. Quoted in The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture, p.88.               
[8] Ghazi bin Muhammad, The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture, p.99.                         
[9] Ibid, p.100.
[10] Ibid, p.102.
[11] Ibid, p.103.
[12] Ibid, p.105.
[13] Ibid, p.106.
[14] Ibid, p.107.
[15] Ibid, pp.116-117.
[16] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World, Chicago: KAZI Publications, pp.232-233. Quoted in The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture, p.115.
[17] Ghazi bin Muhammad, The Sacred Origin of Sports and Culture, p.112.
[18] Ibid, p.125.
[19] Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, On Justice and the Nature of Man: A Commentary on Sūrah Al-Nisā’ (4):58 and Sūrah Al-Mu’minūn (23):12-14, Kuala Lumpur: IBFIM, p.14.

Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

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Juris Arrozy

Juris Arrozy is an Indonesian currently living in The Netherlands to pursue his doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering. While not too busy reading papers and doing experiments in the lab, he also spends considerable time in following and analyzing the discourse between Islam and the modern world, with an emphasis on modern science & technology.

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