Sports in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (s)

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad


1) are there any forms of exercise that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his companions did?
2) what are the benefits of these
3) which methods have been recommended
4) how often should these be done
5) i would welcome any other information on Islam and exercise


A beautiful and important question.

In the ancient world, sport did not originate for its own sake but, even in the West, in close connection with warfare, its arts and self-sacrificing, nation-building ethics. Nothing illustrates this better than the battle of Marathon giving its name to the highlight event of the modern Olympic games.

The sports and physical skills practiced and recommended by the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace, were all related to military training, such as archery, camel and horse racing, sword and spear among other weapon training, hunting (including tracking game and scouting), running, swimming and wrestling. All these sports and activities are part of the Prophetic Sunnah.

Shaykh Muhammad `Alawi al-Maliki said in his 1999 book entitled “The Connection of Sport with Religion and Its Role in the Upbringing of Muslim Youth” (Silat al-Riyadatu bil-Din wa-Dawruha fi Tanshi’ati al-Shabab al-Muslim), in which he used al-Kattani’s al-Taratib al-Idariyya’s review of the sports practiced in Madina, that even though the Prophet (s) was “imbued with a highly sportsmanlike spirit”, yet his rank is too exalted to be thus described, although he gathered in his noble person every excellent attribute imaginable, including physical ones.

It is right to say that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was the apex of “futuwwa“, a word that is is both nobler and more inclusive of moral qualities than the modern Arabic word for sport, “riyada” and which denotes four meanings: youth, virility, bravery, and generosity. Among the ideals subsumed in these four attributes is the modern concept of sportsmanship.

ARCHERY (al-rami)

“Archery is part of man’s primordial disposition” (al-rami min al-fitra), the Prophet is related to have said. Arabic bows are famed for their light weight, strength, and precision. Several hadith monographs were devoted to the topic of archery, perhaps the most reliable being al-Sakhawi’s al-Qawl al-Tamm fi Fadl al-Rami bil-Siham. A Turkish compilation of 40 such hadiths was translated into English.The Prophet said: “Practice archery. It is truly among your best distractions (fa’innahu min khayri lahwikum).” Narrated by al-Bazzar (§1146) with a strong chain cf. al-Haythami (5:268).When the verse {Make ready for them all you can of force and of horses tethered} (8:60) was revealed, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Lo! Truly, force is archery. Lo! Truly, force is archery.” Narrated by Muslim. He also said: “Truly, Allah Most High brings three people into Paradise because of a single arrow: its maker who intended goodness out of it, the archer, and the arrowhead fitter. So shoot or ride, but I love better that you shoot rather than ride.” (Abu Dawud) He also said: “Whoever abandons archery after learning it, becoming uninterested, it is a blessing he has denied.” Abu Dawud. In Muslim: “He has disobeyed.” In Ibn Majah: “He has disobeyed me.”

In one of the most moving and lesson-rich hadiths in the whole Sunna, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, passed by two groups competing in archery, whereupon he said, “Shoot, Banu Isma`il! Truly your forefather was an archer; and I am with the Banu Fulan.” Hearing this they stopped, so the Prophet said: “What is the matter? Why don’t you shoot?” They said: “Messenger of Allah, how can we shoot [against them] when you are with them?” So he said: “Shoot! I am with all of you.” Narrated by al-Bukhari. Ibn Hajar revealed in Fath al-Bari that the unnamed party was Mihjan ibn al-Adhra`.

In battle, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, encouraged Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas to shoot with a unique encouragement: “Shoot, may my father and mother be your ransom!” Our liegelord `Ali said, may Allah ennoble his face: “I never heard him ransom any man thus after Sa`d.” Al-Bukhari.

Sa`d himself explained the reason behind this immense honor: “I am the very first Arab ever to shoot an arrow for the sake of Allah Most High.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim) This latter reason is paramount for any military act to qualify for jihad: “My love is a must,” the Prophet said, “for whoever walks between the two targets carrying MY bow, not Chosroes’s bow.” Narrated by Abu Nu`aym in Riyadat al-Abdan.

Imam al-Shafi`i was a master of archery. Ibn Zhahira in al-Jami` al Latif (p. 266) mentions that al-Shafi`i had actually drunk Zamzam to three intentions: preexcellence in learning, archery, and entering Paradise.

The benefits of these sports are self-discipline and ennoblement as well as a noble social pastime and regimen of fitness and alertness with obvious applications to wartime preparations. The Prophet said, upon him blessings and peace: “The strong believer is better than the weak believer” (Sahih Muslim). The primary application of this hadith is physical as in the Qur’anic verse already cited (8:60), then spiritual. He also said: “Do not practice pelting (la takhdhifu), for neither can it be used for hunting, nor for checking the enemy; all it does is put out eyes and shatter teeth.” Al-Tabarani and Abu Nu`aym, Riyadat al-Abdan.

The Prophet also said that, except for a man’s training of his own horse, restringing or shooting his bow, and playing with his spouse, all sports are “idle and meaningless” (batil). The meaning of this hadith, however, is that everything that qualifies as preparation for jihad is constructive and meaningful. Moreover, the “batil” in the hadith is not an excoriation but a recommendation of preference. The proof for this is in the mursal Prophetic hadith from Ibn Shihab in Abu Dawud’s Marasil: “Relax the hearts from time to time.” Al-Bukhari strengthened this narration as stated in Fayd al-Qadir. It is in this sense that Abu al-Darda’ relatedly said: “Truly I recreate my soul with some of the batil so that I can arise for haqq.” Similarly, our liegelord `Ali, Allah be well-pleased with him and all the Companions: “Recreate those hearts, for they tire the way bodies tire.”

EQUITATION and camel-racing including breeding, training and competition

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, preferred horses above all other animals (al-Nasa’i). He was able to ride without saddle, as mentioned in the report in which one night a loud noise startled the people of Madinans who gathered and went out in the direction of the noise. They met up with the Prophet (s), who had already gone out to check and was now coming back, mounted on a saddleless horse and girded with his sword, and reassuring them with the words: “Fear not, fear not.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Among the hadiths on horses: “Goodness is tied to the forelocks of horses until the Day of Resurrection” (al-Bukhari) and “Let there be no race except between camels, horses, or arrows.” (Abu Dawud)
Al-Bukhari narrates that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, organised horse races and used both normal horses and horses which had been prepared for racing and warfare, called “mudammara“. The process of tadmir involves a reduced dietary regimen and the inducement of profuse sweating so the horse becomes lean and strong.He also narrated that when a nomad’s camel outpaced the Prophet’s she-camel, al-`Adhba’, which was known to be always first in racing, the Muslims felt sad. The Prophet consoled them and taught them the proper demeanour in sportsmanlike support of one’s team: “Almighty Allah has decreed that nothing shall have a permanent glory.”
Among the works composed on horses and horsemanship mentioned by al-Kattani in al-Taratib al-Idariyya are al-Hasan ibn `Arafa’s al-Khayl, Siraj al-Din al-Bulqini’s Qatr al-Sayl fi Amr al-Khayl (an adaptation of a work by al-Dimyati), Wali al-Din al-`Iraqi’s Fadl al-Khayl, al-Suyuti’s Jarr al-Dhayl min `Ilm al-Khayl, Ibn al-Qayyim’s al-Furusiyya, Ibn Hudhayl al-Andalusi’s Halbat al-Fursan wa-Shi`ar al-Shuj`an as well as Tuhfat al-Anfus wa Shi`ar Sukkan al-Andalus in two parts: jihad and weaponry including horses, Muhammad ibn al-Amir `Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri’s al-Safinat al-Jiyad (The Very Fast Steeds), and Shams al-Din al-Bakhshi al-Khalwati’s Rashahat al-Midad fima Yata`allaqu bil-Safinat al-Jiyad.


The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, owned several swords, among them one named Dhul-Fiqar (thus called because there were some small holes in its blade) which he had gained among the spoils in the battle of Badr as narrated from Ibn `Abbas by al-Tirmidhi and others, and another sword made by the Banu Hanifa who were famous for their craftsmanship. The day he entered Mekkah as a conqueror, he wore a sword whose handle and/or hand-guard was overlaid with gold and silver. He seldom parted with his sword and often delivered khutbah  leaning either on his sword or his bow. This gesture is actually a Sunna in the Jumuah prayer which is fulfilled by using any staff to lean on.
The Prophet was a keen spearsman as well. When Ubay ibn Khalaf showed up dressed in his armor on top of his horse at the battle of Uhud, shouting, “May I not survive if Muhammad survives!”, he wreaked havoc on the Muslims. Several of them intercepted him but none of them was mounted, so Ubay killed or maimed them all in one charge after another, including a woman, Umm `Umara Nasiba bint Ka`b, an Ansari woman of the Banu Najjar who fought together with her husband and her two sons. She got gashed in her shoulder, among other wounds she suffered in that battle. Then the Prophet ordered them to clear the way. When Ubay charged again, the Prophet took a spear and, according to the narrator, “sprang up with a motion that sent us scampering away from him like gadflies off the back of a camel”. He sighted the clavicle Ubay showing through a gap between the helmet and the breastplate, and he speared him there.

SPRINT RACING (sibaq al-`adwi) and long distance walking

The Quran in Surat Yusuf (verse 17) has the brothers of the Prophet Yusuf, saying to their father, the Prophet Ya`qub, upon our Prophet and them blessings and peace, {O father, we went racing with one another…} The term “nastabiq” in the original Arabic clearly refers to a race the brothers claimed they participated in. In the same Sura, verse 12 states: {Send him (Yusuf) with us tomorrow so that he may revel and play with us}.One time the Prophet raced with his wife `A’isha, upon him and her blessings and peace, and she beat him. Some time later, they raced again and he beat her. The Prophet then said: “One all!” (hadhihi bi-tilk). Abu Dawud, Ahmad, and Ibn Majah.

Ibn Sa`d narrated from Nafi` that when Waqid ibn `Abd Allah died of dropsy, Ibn `Umar prayed over him and buried him then he called the bedouins to gather around him and organized sprint races. Nafi` said: “I asked him: ‘You buried Waqid just now and you’re having the Bedouins race?’ He replied: ‘Woe to you, Nafi`! When you see Allah Most High bring something to pass, let it go (falhi `anh).'”

Ibn Mas`ud narrates that on the battle of Badr, which took place on Ramadan 17, the under-equipped, fasting Muslims went out three to each camel. The Prophet was teamed with `Ali and Abu Lubaba. When it was the Prophet’s turn to ride they would say: “You ride and we two shall walk” but he would answer: “Neither are the two of you stronger than me in walking, nor am I less in need of the reward than you!” (Ahmad and al-Hakim)


The Prophet said, upon him blessings and peace: “Everything other than the remembrance of Allah is idle talk and heedlessness except four things: walking between two targets [during archery practice]; training his horse; entertaining his spouse; and teaching swimming.” (Al-Nasa’i, al-Bazzar, al-Tabarani, al-Baghawi, al-Diya’ and others with a strong chain according to al-Haythami). Our liegelord `Umar ibn al-Khattab wrote to the Muslims of Syro-Palestine to make sure they taught their sons swimming. (Ibn Hibban, al-Tahawi and others)

Al-Bayhaqi and others narrated that he also said: “Teach your sons swimming and archery and teach women spinning.” Another version states: “What excellent distraction for the female believer in her home is spinning!”


Abu Dawud narrated from Anas that the Abyssinians practiced and played with their spears in Madina.

Upon seeing the Abyssinians “dance” (tazfinu) with swords, spears and shields in Madina the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, approved and said: “Let the Jews [of the city] know that, in our religion, there is leeway (fus-ha). I was sent with forgiving, pristine faith.” (Ahmad, al-Humaydi, al-Harith, and others.) Some versions precedes it with his harangue: “Play, Banu Arfada!” The Prophet also called his young wife `A’isha to watch. This play took place on more than one occasion.

Many great Muslims including the likes of the great general Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi were outstanding exponents of the art of fencing.

WRESTLING (mutaraha and musara`a)

Al-Tabarani with a strong chain according to al-Haythami, and Abu Nu`aym in Riyadat al-Abdan narrate that the Prophet would allow youths to join up for jihad only if they passed a wrestling test.

Imam al-Suyuti in his book on wrestling entitled al-Musara`a ila al-Musara`a (Nimbly to Wrestling), mentions that the Meccans were famed for besting all the other tribes at wrestling, and that our liegelord `Ali ibn Abi Talib was a particularly fearsome wrestler.

Rukana ibn `Abd Yazid, the strongest of the Quraysh in physical power, happened one day to meet the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessingsand peace, in one of the mountain passes, and the latter said: “Will you not fear Allah, and accept the revelation which I offer you?” He replied, “If I knew what you say to be true, I would follow you!” The Prophet asked, “Will you know my statements to be true if I wrestle you to the ground?” Rukana said yes. The Prophet continued, “Then rise that I may throw you down.” Rukana rose to the attack, but as soon as the Prophet seized him, Rukana fell to the ground helpless. He said, “Once more, Muhammad!” But he was knocked down again. Rukana ran away saying: “This is sorcery! I never saw anything like it. By Allah, I was completely helpless until he pinned me down.” Ibn Ishaq in his Sira, Abu al-Qasim al-Taymi in Dala’il al-Nubuwwa, Abu Nu`aym in the Hilya, and al-Suhayli in al-Rawd al-Unuf.

Ibn `Asakir narrated mursal in his Tarikh (59:87) from the junior Tabi`i `Urwa ibn Ruwaym that a Bedouin came to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and said, “Wrestle with me.” Mu`awiya got up and said, “I shall wrestle with you!” The Prophet said: “Mu`awiya will never lose!” Then he wrestled down the Bedouin. At Siffin, our liegelor `Ali said: “Had I remembered that saying I would have never fought Mu`awiya!”

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, asked: “Whom do you consider a wrestler among you?” The people replied: “The man whom the others cannot defeat in wrestling.” He said: “No, it is he who controls himself when he is angry.” (Abu Dawud.) This is confirmed by Ibn `Abbas’ reaction when he came across some weight-lifters who were practicing jerk-and-lift with rocks (yarba`un hajaran): “Allah’s workers are stronger than those.” Abu Nu`aym, Riyadat al-Abdan, and Lisan al-`Arab.

The Prophet’s physical strength, upon him blessings and peace, is also illustrated by the report in which he asked a man to place a rock on top of `Uthman ibn Mazh`uns grave; when he was unable to move it, the Prophet rolled up his sleeves and helped him and the whiteness of his arms was visible. Narrated from an unnamed Companion by Abu Dawud and al-Bayhaqi in al-Sunan al-Kubra (3:412) with fair chains cf. Ibn Hajar, Talkhis al-Habir (2:134); Ibn al-Mulaqqin, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj (2: 29), and al-Arna’ut’s edition of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Zad al-Ma`ad (1:506).

The Naqshbandi sources mention that the great and pious Sayyid Amir Kulal al-Bukhari was a champion wrestler in his youth. One day, a spectator thought to himself: “How is it that a person who is the descendant of the Prophet and a scholar, is practicing this sport?” Later, he dreamt that the Day of Judgement had risen. He felt that he was in great difficulty and that he was drowning. Sayyid Amir Kulal appeared before him and rescued him, saying “Did you witness my power in wrestling and my power in intercession?”

In Bosnia to this day, the highlight of the Sunnet or “circumcision festival” is oil-wrestling competitions between adult males as boys (up to 150 all at once) get circumcised.

From all the evidence above it can be deduced that martial arts, riflery, sharpshooting and markshmanship, riding and racing (including motoring), and all the traditional forms of athleticism are also recommendable, as well as individual or organized outdoor activities such as fishing, camping, trekking, and scouting.

Next in recommendation are the sports that develop fitness, coordination, and team work since all these attributes are needed in jihad. In such a scenario, rugby, soccer, handball come before tennis, squash and badminton. But the primary benefits of such as golf, bowling, and pool billiards are {but play and distraction (la`ibun wa- lahw)} as Allah Most High described human life in three places in the Qur’an (6:32, 47:36, 57:20), meaning batil in the meaning discussed above, although some professionals derive a good living from such sports.

And yet the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also countenanced and tolerated physical displays unconnected with jihad but purely festive, such as the Abyssinian type of light male dancing already mentioned, as well as the “hajal” which some Companions of the First Emigration extemporaneously took up around him once. Our liege-lord `Ali, Allah be well-pleased with him, said:

I visited the Prophet, Allah bless and greet him, with Ja`far (ibn Abi Talib) and Zayd (ibn Haritha). The Prophet, Allah bless and greet him, said to Zayd: ‘You are my freedman’ (anta mawlay), whereupon Zayd began to hop on one leg around the Prophet (hajala). The Prophet, Allah bless and greet him, then said to Ja`far: ‘You resemble me in my creation and my manners’ (ashbahta khalqi wa-khuluqi), whereupon Ja`far began to hop behind Zayd. The Prophet, Allah bless and greet him, then said to me: ‘You are part of me and I am part of you’ (anta minni wa-ana mink) whereupon I began to hop behind Ja`far. Narrated by Ahmad and Ibn Hibban.

Sports should be practiced in moderation and should not interfere, among other obligations, with the fulfillment of worship and the pursuit of livelihood. To a student who wished to learn archery the early Hanafi master and ascetic Dawud al-Ta’i said: “Archery is fine but your days are counted; look well how you spend them.”

The Prophet warned about the self-delusion of many people when it came to the proper use of two things: health and free time. Many Shuyukh have said time and again how extremely sad it is to see Muslims East and West waste the precious leisure time of their lives as well as their resources on watching grown men kick an air-filled hide back and forth for hours on end, chasing after the news of profligate, tattooed soccer players as if they were role models, and displaying their images and even the cross-emblazoned flags of their favorite teams on their cars, in their homes, and on their very heads and chests with caps and shirts. When some football club thousands of miles away defines who you and your family are, you are a truly bankrupt person.

Sports fanaticism giving way to hooliganism and other disordered behavior, and gladiator-like competitiveness bordering on brutality and cruelty are, of course, even more out of order.

Blood sports are extinct, but, alas, not yet for animals. Certain gladiator-like spectator animal sports thrive on cruelty to animals such as cock-fighting, dog-fighting, and other such duels. In Asia, dung-beetles are set upon one another in ludicrous “beetle sumo” matches until one snaps the other in two, to the oohs and aahs of children watching.

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, strenuously forbade the use of live animals for target practice or exposing them to suffering for entertainment. This is an important aspect of the Religion which is unfortunately ignored in many parts of the Gulf as well as elsewhere in the Muslim world (such as one Central Asian nation most recently in the news), where live pigeons or even cubs and pups are routinely used by falconers as practice preys for their hunting birds.

To conclude, some luminous words on sports in Islam from Shaykh Seraj Hendricks of South Africa:

It would do us well to remember that in Islam sport has a number of very specific functions. Firstly, it has a military function whereby the discipline of sport may be harnessed to prepare the individual for the exacting task of fighting a legitimate battle. Allah says in surah Anfaal, verse 60 : {Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war...}

Secondly, it has a social function in bringing people together which is in keeping with one of the chief purposes of Islam and that is to foster a spirit of mutual love, co-operation, respect, and friendship amongst all members of society. In Islam the spirit of sport is one of seeking the general upliftment of everyone, and not a spirit which encourages competition against the other, where the ‘other’ is imagined to be different in race, religion, or nationality. Hitler’s attempt at the Berlin Olympic Games to show the superiority of the ‘Aryan Race’ over everyone else is one example of what the Islamic spirit is most decidedly not. Barbarous discrimination in sport, apartheid style, is another.

Thirdly, and closely linked to the second, is the recommended attempt at developing mastery and control of the self. While to win might be a commendable achievement, in Islam to overcome and conquer the lower self is even more commendable. It was Lao Tzu who correctly observed that ‘he who overcomes others is strong; [but] he who overcomes Himself is mighty.’

Fourthly is the relationship between the body and soul. In Islam divisions between the sacred and secular hold little meaning. Everything we do here in the earthly domain has an immediate impact on the sacred and spiritual domain. A healthy body can act as nothing less than a healthy home for the numerous challenges and demands made upon the soul. Ghazi ibn Muhammad in his work, ‘The Sacred Origin of Sport and Culture’ says: ‘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 strong and fitter. Thus one of the Companions of the Prophet, Abu al-Darda, explained: ‘I entertain my heart with something trivial in order to make it stronger in the service of the truth.’

And Allah Most High knows best.


`Abd al-Hayy al-Kattani. Nizam al-Hukumat al-Nabawiyya. [Al-Taratib al-Idariyya].
Abu Nu`aym. Riyadat al-Abdan.
Al-Maliki. Silat al-Riyadati bil-Din wa-Dawruha fi Tanshi’ati al-Shabab al-Muslim.
“Sport and Islam” by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, Muslim Views (November 1998).


GF Haddad