Modesty And The Muslim Athlete

Ummah Sports

First, we must acknowledge the hypocrisy: That is, how college and pro football players can make a play that sends thousands of fans in the stadium — along with millions watching on TV — into wild celebrations and cues elaborate dance routines from a squad of cheerleaders … but those same players are sometimes penalized and (at the pro level) even fined if they join in the celebration and dancing.

College football conferences have explored the idea of penalizing schools whose rowdy fans tear down goalposts in the name of celebration, and some have in recent years adopted monetary punishments to deter such actions. So in other words, while a mob of football fans endangering lives and destroying property on the field might get in trouble, a single football player who strikes a “Heisman” pose or does the “Nae Nae” dance in the end zone probably will get in trouble.

How does that look if you're an athlete? Basically, everyone else in the building is free to revel in your accomplishment to the point where they could actually hurt themselves and others — but you will get punished for not being above the fray.

A recent instance of this double standard happened during Week 10 of the NFL season, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scored a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans and launched into a one-man dance that went on just a little too long for the liking of Titans linebacker Avery Williamson. With referees and players trying to separate the two, Williamson — who had done his own dance after sacking Newton earlier in the game — confronted the QB to let him know he didn't appreciate the celebration. Newton, of course, responded by dancing some more.

The main story line from Panthers-Titans could have been Carolina (who will be playing in this Sunday's Super Bowl) getting the victory to remain one of just two undefeated teams in the league at the time, or Newton adding to his 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player resume this season, or Newton winning the QB duel with Tennessee rookie sensation Marcus Mariota. Instead, the dominant narrative became Newton's TD dance and the reaction to it.

That narrative has somehow endured all the way to Super Bowl week, in which Newton's personality has been a more popular media angle than his play on the field.

Newton was not penalized on the field or fined by the NFL for his post-TD routine. But soon after that game, a fan from Tennessee wrote a letter to Newton that was republished in the Charlotte Observer, chastising him for his actions and accusing him of setting a bad example for her 9-year-old daughter and other kids who watch football. The fan even blamed Newton for inciting boorish behavior in the stands by visiting Carolina fans and for the equally boorish responses by Tennessee fans. Because if you've ever been to a football game, you know that alcohol- and adrenaline-fueled fans only act like animals when a player on the field makes them do it.

In an ironic twist, as arguments were (and still are) being made among fans and media about whether the NFL should take stronger steps to thwart Newton and other players from offending public sensibilities with dance moves and “in your face” celebrations, the Panthers' next opponent after the Titans was the Washington Redskins.

So while the NFL spends the days between games deciding whether to punish its players for dancing — like Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, who was fined this season for a pelvic thrust during an on-field celebration — the league continues to promote and profit off a team whose nickname is a racial slur. Priorities?

Even though I tend to defend athletes who are being subject to unfair admonition or undue criticism, I can't exactly stand up and advocate for college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays to turn into weekend-long episodes of “Soul Train.”

I am Muslim, after all, and modesty is a big part of Islam. And serving up Chris Brown moves with a side of Soulja Boy after scoring a touchdown is not modest.

U.S. Olympic fencer and fashion designer Ibtihaj Muhammad

U.S. Olympic fencer and fashion designer Ibtihaj Muhammad

When we talk about modesty as it relates to Muslims, it should be clear that modest does not always translate to boring, bland or unreasonably restrictive.

So much of the world remains ignorant to the basic tenets and pillars of Islam, but one thing even the FOX News crowd knows is that Muslims are — or at least strive to be — modest in our daily lives.

“Every deen (religion) has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty,” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) once said.

The most visible embodiment of modesty in Islam is in how Muslims dress and how Muslim men and women interact with the opposite gender.

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! God is Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their chests, and not to reveal their adornment.”
–Qur'an 24:30

But modest dress is not limited to a black niqab covering a woman from head to toe, or a full-length thobe and kufi for a man. And modest interaction between Muslim men and women does not mean no interaction at all. Those forms of dress and methods of interaction are more cultural and traditional than religious, as the major Islamic schools of thought have not come to a consensus on exactly how men and women should dress and exactly how they should interact with the opposite gender. Much is still up for interpretation, and as is the case with people all over the world regardless of religion, culture and tradition helps shape an individual's look and behavior.

Muslim women around the globe — some with hijab headscarves, some without — dress in some of the most colorful and vibrant fabrics and prints you can imagine, and it still falls under the halal definition of modesty. Muslim men and women around the globe are making our planet a better place as we speak through positive and productive interactions in schools, mosques, workplaces and community organizations, all within the bounds of modesty.

Modest also does not equal meek or timid. There are Muslim rappers who perform with the same intensity as Tupac Shakur; Muslim authors who are as bold as Eve Ensler; Muslim filmmakers as daring as Michael Moore.

And there are Muslim athletes who celebrate like Cam Newton.

Well, maybe not quite like Cam Newton.

Naseem Hamed, the former featherweight world champion boxer who retired in 2002 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015, is perhaps the most flamboyant Muslim athlete in history — and probably the second-most brash after fellow Hall of Fame boxer Muhammad Ali.

Nicknamed “Prince,” Hamed was known for his extravagant walks to the ring and explosive knockouts. In between those famous entrances and exits, he was known to clown opponents in the ring and constantly play to the crowd, as if he was celebrating a victory before he'd finished the fight.

YouTube Preview Image

In a 2009 column for Boxing News 24, writer Matthew Thomas Potter speculated if a deeper religious conviction was among the factors in Hamed's relatively early retirement from the sport before the age of 30:

Hamed was becoming more deeply and openly religious as his career progressed, he often surrounded himself with religious symbolism, and consigned himself to promoting his Islamic faith; a faith that was under scrutiny after the September 11th attacks. It was not an easy time to be a Muslim in America; it was more difficult still for a high profile sports star, known for flaunting that faith at every given opportunity. Perhaps Hamed felt it was the correct decision to withdraw from the limelight, as his religious convictions became increasingly passionate, studious and all consuming.

Did Hamed find it impossible to continue in a violent sport as he evolved in his deen as a man of peace? Or did he perhaps find it impossible to put on the cocky and flashy yet undeniably marketable and immodest “Prince Naseem” persona as he drew closer to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

Even for those less outrageous than Hamed, there is often a compromise that must be made by Muslim athletes who want to compete and also want to adhere to Islamic rules of modesty.

Muslims should dress in clothing that does not display one's awrah (private parts) to those who are not permitted to see it. But athletes in football, baseball, wrestling, gymnastics, and track and field, to name a few, could simply by the norms of their sport regularly wear uniforms and apparel that don't follow those Islamic rules of modesty.

Muslim athletes who resist the norms of some sports and do compete in halal apparel — e.g. full sleeves and headscarves for women, longer shorts and bigger jerseys for men — may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by wearing bulkier or more restrictive apparel than their more aerodynamically-clad competitors.

And then there are Muslim athletes who are not being restricted in competition due to their apparel, but are instead restricted from competition due of their apparel and their desire to be modest on the field of play.

FIBA, basketball's international governing body, still has a rule in its book (currently under review) that prohibits players from wearing headgear on the court aside from a headband during international competition. Which means Muslim women cannot wear hijab headscarves during events like the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup, just like Jewish men cannot wear yarmulkes and Sikh men cannot wear turbans. While some teams and players have challenged the rule, and some officials choose not to enforce the rule, it has effectively prevented many Muslim women from achieving their Olympic dreams and has cost some Muslim women their basketball careers.

One such example is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a record-setting high school basketball player from Massachusetts who went on to star at the University of Memphis and Indiana State University. In her freshman year at Memphis, Abdul-Qaadir made history when she became the first NCAA basketball player to wear a hijab headscarf during a game. After graduating from ISU in 2014, Abdul-Qaadir was exploring the possibility of playing professionally when she learned of the FIBA rule.

So even though the former all-conference point guard is certainly talented enough to play for some team in some league somewhere, Abdul-Qaadir has not played competitively since the end of her college career due to a discriminatory rule that is essentially punishing her being Muslim.

The international governing bodies for soccer and weightlifting only recently lifted similar anti-hijab rules. But how much damage was done before those decisions? How many athletes missed their prime years of being able to compete on the world's stage? How many would-be athletes never seriously pursued these sports because they were told these sports would not accept their religion?

One sport that appears to break every Islamic rule of modesty (and more) is bodybuilding.

Competitive bodybuilders leave little to the imagination with what they wear on the performance stage — which makes sense in that the goal of their sport is to sculpt the perfect body and then show it off to be judged. Our most negative stereotypical bodybuilder is not only immodest, but also vain, self-centered and obsessed with their appearance. And for a Muslim bodybuilder being viewed that that lens, are they really finding time to pray five times when they spend all day in the gym? And are they really fasting during Ramadan when they typically eat five or six meals per day with a large caloric intake?

Ahmed Arifi, a recreational bodybuilder who runs and has been featured on Ummah Sports — and a man who debunks many of the negative stereotypes about bodybuilders — is among those who practices bodybuilding as an activity but chooses not to compete because he believes that would go against his religion.

“It felt tempting (to compete) but it is not halal,” Arifi says. “I know many Muslims who compete and are successful at it and they are great guys, but it is clear that mixing on stage with the opposite gender and being stared at by both genders while wearing competition underwear is unacceptable Islamically.”

And yet competitive bodybuilding is very popular in Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Oman and Bahrain, to name a few. The way they get around it is to eliminate gender-mixing in competition. Any male bodybuilding competition in those countries is a no-females-allowed event.

In countries where Muslims are the minority, however, controlling the interaction between men and women in the sports arena is more difficult and therefore presents dilemmas for some Muslim athletes and misunderstandings between them and non-Muslims over the issue of modesty.

Moroccan soccer star Nacer Barazite

Moroccan soccer star Nacer Barazite

In November 2015, Moroccan soccer star Nacer Barazite drew the ire of fans and media in the Netherlands when he refused to shake the hand of a female reporter after a match. For non-Muslims who are raised in societies where shaking hands is a sign of respect regardless of gender, Barazite was only furthering another negative stereotype — that Muslim men disrespect and look down on women. But in reality, a Muslim man not shaking hands with a woman who is not related to him is (for Muslims) a sign of total respect and modesty.

Beyond dress and the interaction between genders, modesty is also about how one behaves when things are going their way.

Webster's Dictionary's second definition of modesty reads: “The quality of behaving and especially dressing in ways that do not attract sexual attention.”

But its first definition reads: “The quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities.”

Meanwhile, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Qur'an: “And do not turn your cheek [in contempt] toward people and do not walk through the earth exultantly. Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.” (31:18)

This may lead one to believe that Muslims cannot celebrate anything. That belief is no doubt strengthened by the fact that even the West many Muslims do not celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays. So what room is there for a devout Muslim to have any fun in something as simple as sports?

Idris Tawfiq, a British teacher and lecturer who was a Catholic priest before converting to Islam, wrote in a column for Qur'an Reflections:

Let us be crystal clear: Islam does not forbid us from having clean, wholesome fun. What it is opposed to, however, is making fun of others.

Islam is balanced and encourages Muslims to search for sources of healthy fun, as it does not want us to paint ourselves with a dismal gloomy appearance, no, not at all.

The list of the different ways of having fun is endless, from playing board-games to climbing trees, to cycling and swimming, to visiting relatives and friends, cooking together, or just pondering over a crossword puzzle.

Different people of different times and ages have to be creative in looking for decent forms of entertainment. At the same time, it is important to avoid extravagance, laziness, idleness and luxury.

This is why — contrary to another misconception about Muslims that is surprisingly common — Islam does allow its followers to play sports. Sports are healthy for the body and the mind, and are (mostly) a wholesome form of fun. Life lessons can be learned and lifelong bonds can be built through sports. Prophet Muhammad himself competed in archery, horseback riding, wrestling and running.

And at the highest levels, when the games we once played just for fun become big business — when confidence makes kings and egos can run amok — it should be known that there is still room for the modest Muslim athlete.

4 Responses

  1. Cliveey

    We do constrain extremes of behaviour here in the UK. Mild mockery of opponents is not so bad but nasty personal insults are clearly wrong. I do not know the USA situation and I was born in an area where Muslims were integrated decent neighbours.
    Most of my Muslim neighbours are good people I get along with easily and there is an Islamic school in my road. On the other side there are clear terrorists in my area who thankfully are detected. I have discussed with ISIL people in my local market before they attempted to establish themselves in Syria. I have also met banned groups of young men who wanted to throw people like myself from cliff tops. The irony was I suspected they were gay. Christianity has a very few bigoted people but very few have the extremes and hatred ISIL Daesh display. I have heard such hypocrisy from some members of the Islamic community. I am told there is no homosexuality where there clearly is. The way “Modesty” is used seems to me a way of keeping people politically supressed and lacking a sense of their own individual worth. Some parts of Christianity try to use “Humility ” in the same way. Both can be good things in moderation.
    WHY should we be modest if people take care of their health, appearance and hygiene and enjoy looking good and pleasing others by so doing? That should not be by being arrogant but quietly proud. There is justice too as people who look fantastic during one age group can look ugly later on. Ugly children grow to great looking teenagers or elderly people. Few people look fantastic throughout their lives. Young people who build their lives around their good looks can become very llonely sad people when they get to 25 or 30 and their looks decline. What do you think?

  2. Aafia

    I have heard a Scholar’s advice that Islam is concerned with man’s well-being in both body and soul, and it encourages all kinds of sport that will strengthen the body and maintain good health as well as providing relaxation and leisure, such as swimming, shooting, horse-riding, sword-fighting and wrestling.
    But when Islam accepts sports and encourages us to engage in them, it does not make them a goal in and of themselves, rather sport is considered to be a means of protecting the sacred limits of Islam and the dignity and rights of the Muslims, in the belief that strength is one of the most important means of achieving victory and prevailing in the face of challenges and warding off the threats that face Islam.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.