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Games and Sports

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Games and Sports

    Islam has long recognized the value of physical activity and recreation as a way to relax the mind and refresh the body. Until recently, however, physical education and organized sports were generally ignored in Muslim countries, and women who aspired to be athletes faced many obstacles. Today Muslims compete in regional, national, and international sporting events. In some parts of the Islamic world, women have opportunities to become active sports participants.

    Historical Snapshot.

    Muhammad endorsed several sports and games as beneficial for his followers. These activities included horseback riding, wrestling, spear play, swimming, chess, and backgammon. According to the hadiths, Muhammad also encouraged people to learn the art of archery and to engage in footraces. It is reported that he even raced with his wife A'ishah. He warned archers, however, against shooting at chickens for target practice, because he believed that humans should not have fun at the expense of other living creatures. In addition to the health benefits of these activities, some of the sports the Prophet recommended proved to be useful for combat training.

    Early Muslims included games in some of their rituals. In the 600s, for example, the followers of Muhammad used Egyptian ball-and-stick games during spring celebrations.

    Historically, certain factors have limited the popularity of sports among Muslims. The hot and arid climate in many parts of the Islamic world is not conducive to year-round outdoor physical activity.

    During the colonial era, European nations introduced physical education programs to their Muslim colonies. Based on French and British models, these programs focused on gymnastics, military drills, and calisthenics—rhythmic exercises performed without equipment. Physical education programs at the elementary school level encompassed a wide range of activities. Secondary schools, by contrast, offered limited choices. Physical education was not part of the secondary school curriculum, and so teachers and parents gave it little importance. Interested students could, however, participate in sports after regular school hours.

    Beyond Spectators.

    In recent years, Muslim schools have placed a greater emphasis on physical education programs. Such programs are broad in scope and required in many nations. All scholastic levels, from primary to university, now include physical education classes. Islamic universities in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere offer training for teachers of physical education.

    The popularity of sports varies among Muslim cultures, but athletic pursuits have generally made great gains. Some governments fund, organize, and administer sports clubs to identify talented individuals and to provide training for them. Muslim nations have also created federations to develop various sports and prepare teams for international athletic events. Soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, and fencing are among the popular sports at this level of competition.

    For years, Muslim countries have participated in the Olympic Games, and many athletes have excelled at individual sports, such as track and field and weightlifting. Islamic nations have also made advances in team sports, such as soccer. The men's soccer team from Nigeria won the gold medal for that sport at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Tunisia qualified for the first round of the 2002 World Cup soccer playoffs.

    Traditionally, cultural restrictions limited opportunities for Muslim women to participate in sports. Although Muhammad encouraged his followers to play games and engage in physical activity, Muslims generally believed that a woman's place was in the home. In recent years, however, this situation has changed. Girls now receive physical education instruction in school. Women regularly compete in local, regional, and national sporting events. A modest but growing number of Muslim women contend for Olympic medals. When competing in public, Muslim women usually wear sport dresses and headscarves.

    In 1993 , the first Muslim Women's Games were held in Tehran, Iran. This Olympic-style event, held every four years, gives athletes from Islamic countries the opportunity to participate in an international competition while adhering to regulations about appropriate clothing. Women wear full traditional Islamic dress for the opening ceremonies, which are open to male spectators, coaches, officials, and media representatives. For all other events, only women may be present. The games feature competition in badminton, basketball, chess, handball, swimming, volleyball, and karate. See also Education; Women.

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