We were standing outside the dojang (dojo). They were taking the old sign down and the new owners were putting up a new sign. My children take tae kwon do classes. When I signed them for classes in this particular dojo years ago, it was run by a man from Jordan, (a non-practicing brother, named Master Jordan, who made a musalla (prayer area) in his office for us).
Along with the new uniforms and saying good bye to their beloved instructor, my children faced a big change in their martial arts instruction. They had to relearn many of the forms and learn their names in Korean. The friendly atmosphere had been replaced by formality. Last testing, when the kids were being handed their new belts, I saw that the Grandmaster was making everyone bow (almost like a sajdah) to him. Master Jordan never asked the kids (any kid) to bow down to him or to any another sensei. I walked up to the manager and told her that that my children would not be doing the bow.
Unceremoniously, an instructor (not the Grandmaster) handed the belts/certificate out to my children.
The dojo had been bought by a Korean family who were very traditional in the manner that they ran the practice.
After the ceremony, we went into the office and thanked the Grandmaster for the certificates. I explained the whys: why we do not bow down to anyone aside God, it is for religious reasons, etc. I offered several other culturally acceptable methods of showing our respect. We received a terse nod of acknowledgement and were asked to leave.
Lost in Translation
“Mama, they won’t let me test! I am so prepared for my blue belt.” My daughter was on the phone. A few months later and it was testing time again, and this time my husband had taken the kids to the center. “Give the phone to Mrs. Lee,” I said.
“Sorry, sorry, they have to come back on Friday, we test them when no one else is here!!” I could barely understand her. She was the wife and the manager and had moved to the U.S. from Korea 12 years ago.
“Please, Mrs. Lee,” I pressed,”the girls are so excited and they worked really hard; they are mentally ready to spar.”
She whispered something in Korean to her 18 year old son, he is 4th degree black belt and an instructor. Soon he was on the phone and his normally friendly voice was very contrived and terse. “This is Korean culture, you have to bow. I am doing you a favor by setting up separate testing.”
‘But Master Jordan never…”
“Don’t speak to me about him, he didn’t run this place in a ‘traditional Korean’ way.”
I interjected, “But none of your flyers, paperwork list any such rules.”
“Listen lady, I don’t want to argue with you.” He said that he had never heard of this religion issue. Generally, Korean society is pretty homogeneous but never heard of bowing only to God!?
I knew I was going to lose my cool; so I asked my husband to just bring the girls home. I wasn’t thinking about the instructor or his father, the Grandmaster; all I could think of was my disappointed kids.
My husband was upset, the girls were upset, and the Grandmaster was upset.
And I was really upset and frustrated as I had paid the fees upfront for the whole year. But to me bowing and sajdah are acts done solely for the sake of Allah, to Allah. The thought of making sujood to a human being had me riled up.
These thoughts rushed through my head as I wrote a quick email to my MuslimMatters resources. I didn’t want my behavior to reflect badly on all Muslims that the dojo may come in contact with but I wanted to make my point clear.
I didn’t want to create a scene, so I decided not to go in right then and make a fuss in front of all the parents who were there for an important time in their kids’ life, but I didn’t think it was fair for them to send my children home after calling them to test. I didn’t want my kids being treated like pariahs, testing separately like there was something wrong with them. Part of the fun of martial arts is the whole dojo testing together.
I understand that in a dojo martial artists hit & choke each other, they toss each other to the ground; they swing sticks, brandish swords and exchange a gamut of sophisticated bodily punishment. Without an honest and sincere demonstration of respect before and after an exchange, before and after class, they risk the creation of a contentious environment that promotes brawling and discourages mutual benefit. This is the reasoning behind the ‘small bow’.
As I researched further, I understood that paying respect can mean to thank someone for training with you. Martial artists also bow to their opponents and to fellow artists (this bow is more like a bending of the torso). “It can mean that you desire intensity of training. It can mean you desire slowness in training. It can mean that you admire someone for their abilities. It can mean that you want them to improve. It can mean that you want to see the best they have to offer. It can mean you want them to hit you as hard as they can. It can also mean you want them to go lightly on you. The word respect, to me, implies that you are cognizant of what is going on around you and you are intending to learn from it. It is an act of active participation, versus passive participation,” writes a martial artist. Bows are used to begin and end practice, sparring bouts and competitions, and when entering and leaving the dojo, or practice room.
More ever, a low, deep bow from Koreans at the end of a meeting indicates a successful meeting. A quick, short parting bow could mean dissatisfaction with meetings. Like traditional Muslim culture, elders are treated with respect due to to their age. I finally realized that in the GM’s eyes, I had disrespected him when I asked that my kids not bow to him.
Several of MM brothers and their families do martial arts as well and had similar experiences: Br. Iesa said that “when I took Aikido the sensei told me create a salute but I moved before I did, but nowadays in my jujitsu and kick-boxing classes the instructors don’t really care so I just nod my head when the rest of them bow.”
Br Siraaj said “My kids do wushu,the instructors are Non-Muslim and understand why we don’t do this (multiple families coming and explaining)”
Shaykh Yasir Qadhi replied to my email:
Bowing down in front of others for respect is haram (not shirk). At the same time your kids (not baligh) so rules are lax for them; maybe they could get by if they just ‘nodded’ and didn’t actually bend their backs?!? I had the same issue with my nephews and nieces and we talked to the sensei and he agreed to let them into class a few minutes late because they would bow at the beginning of the ceremony. They are not baligh so the Shariah would not be as strict on them. Parents needs to be as careful as possible and teach them what is appropriate. I wouldn’t want my kids to do that.
(Please excuse the frankness of our discussions, we love our shuyookh and love that we can ask them questions) As our discussion grew, Br. Wael, a martial artist asked “why would you say that bowing for respect is haram? There is a big difference between someone arrogantly demanding that others bow for him (or rise for him) when he enters a room, and two people bowing to each other as a greeting. The martial arts bow is mutual. The instructor bows to the students, and the students bow to the instructor. Then, when students pair up to work on techniques, they bow to each other. Quite obviously it is not worship, and has nothing to do with worship. No one in Asian culture imagines or thinks that bowing is related to worship in any way. Secondly, the martial arts bow (or Asian cultural bow) is not a deep, 90 degree angle bow like our ruku’. It is a relatively shallow bow. We need to put things in their cultural context. If a Western “noble” walked in the room and expected people to bow, obviously as Muslims we cannot do that. But in East Asia, bowing is a simple greeting. It’s a deeply ingrained part of Asian culture. In Japan and Korea (and China to a lesser degree) people bow when greeting a friend or a colleague, or even just running into a friend on the street. Indigenous East Asian Muslims do it as much as anyone else. Are they all committing sins every day by greeting each other in this way? In many parts of South East Asia, people (including Muslims) greet each other or show respect by putting their palms together in front of the chest. In the West, people shake hands. Arabs often hug. Well, East Asians bow. Are we to declare all other greeting traditions valid, and the East Asian tradition haram?”
Some sisters shared Islam Q&A fatwas through which this hadith was shared:
Al-Tirmidhi (2728) narrated that Anas ibn Maalik [ra] said: A man said: O Messenger of Allah, when one of us meets his brother or friend, should he bow to him? He said: “No.” He said: Should he embrace him and kiss him? He said: “No.” He said: Should he shake hands with him? He said: “Yes.”
A great part of being MM Family is the access to a variety of scholars, so here is Shaykh Yahya Ibrahim’s take which slightly differed from Shaykh Yasir’s:
Some take a very conservative stance and refuse any form of bowing. That of course is acceptable and prudent.However, if the children are young, taught well about our worship and how none deserve it but Allah, I find it is acceptable to acknowledge others with a movement of the head and torso that meets the expectation of respect without compromising our faith and education of our kids. I think the compromise offered is great. I grew up, for 6 years, in tae kwon do gyms… I bowed with a movement from the head and torso slightly throughout.
Wa allahu a’laam
The Big Bow
But the big bow as it is called in many dojos was the major issue. This bow is literally called the “90 degree bow” (90도 인사) in Korean because it is. It’s a form of utter respect, an intentional showing of service and obedience. Sabae (큰절) or deep bows that are reserved for special occasions, for example the Korean News Year’s. Many Korean traditions stem from Confucianism. Although Confucianism is sometimes described as a religion because of it allusions to ancestor worship Confucius himself never endorsed ancestor worship. He stressed devotion to ancestors out of reverence to their wisdom and moral leadership not as a means of worshiping their spirits.
Here is what Shaykh Abdul Rahman Mangera says:
In the name of Allah the Inspirer of truth. It is not permissible to bow in these circumstances. Although it may not have any religious significance to the art, however, as a Muslim it is an empathetically prohibited act for you. It is an act reserved for Allah alone, and doing it for other than Allah is either unlawful, or can leads one to kufr if done with intention to worship. If it had been permissible, even as to honor someone, it would have been permissible to do it for the Prophet (upon him be peace) or one’s elders, which is not the case.
I realized what a great learning opportunity this is for my kids. The kids and I spoke about Sujud- the meaning of the word, sajdah:
S J D-lowly, humble, submissive, worship, adore, prostrate, make obeisance, lower/bend oneself down towards the ground, lower the head, to salute/honor/magnify, to pay respect, to stand up, to look continually and tranquilly.
A sajdah is our body hymning the submission of our souls. How metaphorically we do Sajadah when we obey Allah. We spoke of how one can do superficial prostration while disobeying God.
In our discussion on the MM listserv, we did veer off topic and talked about how sad it is that most parents will not or can not get their kids to make even ruku’ to Allah, but will find time and put in the effort to put their kids in karate schools to make ruku’ to an instructor. And the reality is most Muslim families are not even getting their kids to pray five times a day.
I wanted to share this topic with our readers as many of us face live in a multicultural environment where our actions/interactions may upset another based on their cultural norms. Bowing to other than God is not a modern issue but its ramifications in a martial arts setting maybe new. I want to share how my family and friends have handled this situation and how shurah with people that you trust can help guide you through a complex situation that may initially seem black and white. My children learnt the important of sajdah, a seemingly physical act and it’s profound metaphysical and spiritual meaning in a way that I could not have explained to them if they didn’t have this experience. They also learnt how respect is expressed in other cultures.
My children continue to stand up for their belief and refuse to bow down to anyone except to their Lord. They tested separately until the Grandmaster yielded. As a sign of respect, we took flowers for their instructor to show them respect at their ceremonial testing (American style). Until we left California, when we entered and exited the dojo we did a quick nod of greeting and respect. We hope that their instructors are richer in learning that there are others whose views may differ from theirs, and that respect can be expressed in many beautiful ways. As I search for a new dojo for them in our new city, I will keep my MM brothers’ advice in mind.
For my children only Allah is the Grandmaster, Alhamdulillah. May Allah always keep them firm in their iman.