I once attended an Islamic ceremony where Imam Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute postulated that one way to understand Americans on an individual level is to understand the nature of sports in American society. Having been a competitive athlete myself for almost 20 years, I have to say that Yusuf is not far from his claim.
There’s just something about sports that captivates Americans. Perhaps it’s the ancestral connection to Greece and Rome where sport was literally a religion. It is perhaps the story of rugged individualism that saw Americans scale the mountains of the West, tame horses across the wide open plains, and ford rivers from sea to sea. Or perhaps it is a deeper spiritual connection that one gains when the body is trained for peak performance.
But whatever drives the sport, it’s undeniably a metaphor for contemporary American life. In recent years, this metaphor has been tainted and distorted by rabid materialism and shameless self-glorification on the part of athletes. However, I would say that this metaphor still retains its overall integrity and furthermore is not as far removed from an Islamic metaphor for life as one might think.
Consider that Islam demands of its adherents a strong sense of purpose and a stubborn determination to stay the course of religious righteousness in a world that urges to do otherwise. Many Muslims look at American society and assume that Americans just don’t have a taste for religion in the context of what Islam demands. After all, if Americans seem incapable of going to church once a week, then how on earth could they go to a mosque five times a day, every day for the rest of their lives?
It may be true that church attendance has declined in recent years; but that does not necessarily mean that aspects of religiosity considered necessary for godliness are lost on Americans.
If I think back to my own life, I remember the years when, day after day, I got up before dawn to train for two hours. Then I spent my day eating foods that optimized physical performance. Then in the evening I trained again for another three hours. I went to bed early every night and woke up to start my routine again the next day.
During my workouts, I was forced to deal with physical pain, emotional doubt, boredom from the monotony of it all, illness, injury, and a host of other hurdles and obstacles. But for me, it was worth it, because I harbored hope that one day I would be a world-class athlete and maybe even an Olympic champion. In other words, I understood the concept of sacrifice for deferred reward. In my case, Olympic glory was that delayed reward.
In the case of Muslims, paradise after a lifetime of struggle is the deferred reward. And the same things that make great athletes make great Muslims; and vice versa. In fact, the Companions of Prophet Muhammad (saws) would actually compete with each other to excel in the religion of Islam. For them, good deeds were things to strive for with all efforts and they would not hesitate to seize opportunities to improve.
It is not so different from the contemporary athlete who is ready to run a race until he is exhausted to the point of nausea and collapse. In fact, there have been recent cases of football players dying of heat stroke, simply because they wouldn’t leave their training sessions for fear of losing a step in their quest for a reward. delayed. Imagine that – a martyr for a sport!
Of course, neither martyrdom nor training is lost on Muslims. To be a chahid (martyr) is one of the greatest stations a believer can aspire to. And to be a good Muslim, one must implement tarbiyyah, or training.
So the real problem is helping non-Muslim Americans see that much of what they know culturally is, to some extent, Islamic. It was this realization that ultimately helped me hide/return to Islam. My training as an athlete made me recognize that if I only put my trust in Allah (swt), that I would have the courage to be a Muslim; for many of the tools of a Muslim were already known to me through athletics. It was only a matter of applying them to another deferred reward. And what reward could be better than heaven. A gold medal is surely nothing in comparison.
By Ali Asadullah