I want to ask, respected Shaykh, Is the playing of sports such as Rugby League or American football permissible in Islam?
Islam is a very moderate religion (or way of life, rather) that is free from any type of extremism or laxity. It disapproves of useless and futile entertainment that has no worldly or religious benefit, but at the same time encourages relaxing the body and refreshing the mind to a certain limit with the various means of enjoyment.
We see for example in the book of Allah, the condemnation of useless entertainment:
Allah Most High says:
“There are among men, those who purchase idle tales without knowledge to mislead from the path of Allah and throw ridicule. For such there will be a humiliating penalty.” (Surah Luqman, 6)
“Never comes (aught) to them of a renewed message (verses of the Qur’an) from their lord, but they listen to it in jest while their hearts toying as with trifles.” (Surah al-Anbiya, 2)
“So leave them to plunge in vain talk and play about, until they encounter that day of theirs which they have been promised.” (Surah al-Ma’arij, 42)
“Or, did the people of the towns feel secure against the coming of our punishment in broad daylight while they played about.” (al-A’raf, 98)
The above and many other verses of the Qur’an indicate that useless play and entertainment (lahw & la’ib) is severely disapproved. Islam emphasises a life to be spent with a true purpose and aim wherein each moment is spent in some beneficial manner. For this reason, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said:
“From the beauty of one’s Islam is to leave things that have no benefit in them.” (Sunan Tirmidhi & Sunan Ibn Majah)
However, at the same time, Islam does not totally prohibit every form of enjoyment and means of satisfaction; rather, it encourages relaxing the body and refreshing the mind. It recommends removing boredom from one’s self and gain alertness and agility in order to focus fully towards the main objectives of life. This enjoyment, however, must be within the limits and boundaries laid down by Islam and not fall within the category of useless entertainment (lahw & la’ib).
Such beneficial means of entertainment are not only permissible, but have been proven from the practice of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace), his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all) and scholars of this Umma.
Qur’anic verses, Prophetic statements and sayings of the Jurists in this regard:
1) Allah Most High says:
“And He (Allah) has imposed no difficulties on you.” (Surah al-Hajj, 78)
2) Allah Most High says:
“Allah intends every facility for you, and He does not want to put you to difficulties.” (Surah al-Baqarah, 185)
3) Allah Most High says:
“Say: With the bounty of Allah and His Mercy, in that let them rejoice.” (Surah Yunus, 58)
4) Sayyida A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) once passed by some people who were playing in Madina, so he stopped by them and I was observing them from between the two ears of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace). He said to them: “Carry on playing O Banu Arfida! Let the Jews and Christians know that there is broadness in our religion.” (Recorded by Daylami in his Musnad, also see: Kanz al-ummal, no. 40676 and Jami’ al-Sagir of Suyuti)
In another narration, he said: “Carry on playing and enjoying yourselves, for I dislike harshness to be seen in your religion.” (Suyuti, al-Jami’ al-Sagir and Sunan al-Kubra of al-Bayhaqi)
5) In one narration, it is stated: “Refresh your hearts from time to time.” (Abu Dawud in his Marasil)
6) Sayyiduna Zayd ibn Arqam (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) used to say (in supplication): “O Allah! I seek your protection from powerlessness (ajz), laziness (kasl), cowardice (jubn), miserliness (bukhl), and weakness (harem).” (Sahih Muslim)
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) also encouraged certain sports and means of entertainment, he said:
7) “Every game a person plays is futile except for archery, training one’s horse and playing with one’s wife.” (Sunan Tirmidhi, Musnad Ahmad, Sunan Ibn Majah)
8) In another narration, a fourth sport is also mentioned, “Anything which is not included in the remembrance of Allah is useless and futile (lahw and la’ib) except for four things. Playing with one’s spouse, training one’s horse, walking between two targets (while aiming arrows), and learning how to swim.” (Kanz al-Ummal & al-Jami’ al-Sagir)
9) Sayyida A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) narrates that she was in the company of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) on a journey. She says: “I competed with the Messenger of Allah (i.e. in running) and overtook him. Later, when I had put on some weight, I once again competed with him, but this time he overtook me and said: “we’re even now.” (Sunan Abu Dawud & Musnad Ahmad)
10) Imam Nawawi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his monumental commentary of Sahih Muslim: “In these narrations of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace), the virtues and importance of archery and paying special attention to it with the intention of Jihad has been emphasised. Similar is the ruling for spear-throwing and learning to handle all other weaponry. Also, horse-racing and other sports are encouraged. The objective of all these sports is to train oneself for Jihad, acquire skill and exercise the body.” (Commentary of Sahih Muslim)
11) The great Hanafi Jurist, Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his Durr al-Mukhtar: “Every useless activity is disliked (makruh), for the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Every useless activity of a Muslim is unlawful except three: Playing with one’s spouse, training one’s horse and practicing archery.” (See: Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhatr, 6/395)
Allama Ibn Abidin whilst commentating on the above states in his super commentary (hashiya): “This impermissibility (of all the useless activities) includes the activity itself and also listening to it, such as dancing and musical instruments. Also, all those activities will be impermissible that resemble a particular custom of the non-believers.” (Radd al-Muhtar)
Allama Ibn Abidin also States:
“al-Quhustani relates from al-multaqat that it is permissible to play Sulajan (m, a game similar to polo) for the sake of acquiring skill and expertise in horse-riding. Also, a narration has been reported indicating the permissibility of wrestling in order to acquire strength for Jihad, not merely for entertainment, for that will be Makruh.” (Radd al-Muhtar, 6/402)
Imam al-Haskafi states:
“Wrestling is not impermissible except when it is played for entertainment, for then it will be Makruh.” (Durr al-mukhtar)
Allama Ibn Abidin also states the following:
“Lifting rocks, (m, or weight lifting), if practiced with the intention of acquiring skill, strength and bravery, then there is nothing wrong with that.” (ibid)
The Rulings Regarding Sports and Games
With all of the foregoing evidences from the Qur’an, Sunnah and the statements of the scholars, and also keeping in mind Islam’s disapproval of engaging one’s self in useless and futile entertainment, the following can be considered as the decisive principles with regards to sport and games:
a) Those games that have been explicitly prohibited in the Ahadith are not lawful, such as chess, backgammon, animal fighting, etc…
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Whosoever plays with backgammon is as though he dipped his hands in the blood and flesh of a swine.” (Sahih Muslim)
Also, the impermissibility of Chess, making animal fight, etc has been related from the Companions (Allah be pleased with them all)
b) Games that consist of other sins will also be unlawful, such as betting, gambling, and exposing of the Awra, music, nudity or those games that are unique characteristics of the non-believers.
c) Games that prevent one from the obligatory (fard) and the necessary (wajib) will also be unlawful, for all those activities that make one neglectful of his obligatory duties, such as Salat, etc can not be termed lawful.
Imam al-Bukhari (may Allah have mercy on him) states in his Sahih:
“Every form of entertainment is baseless and useless if it distracts one from the obedience of Allah.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
d) Those games that have no worldly or religious benefit and has no purpose to it, and it is played only to past time can also not be deemed permissible, for Islam disapproves of useless entertainment and wasting one’s precious time, as it was stated earlier.
e) Those sports that are very aggressive and there is a very high risk of the participants being injured or harmed will also be disapproved. If sustaining injuries is very common, then the game would not be permissible.
Allah Most High says:
“And make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction.” (Surah al-Baqarah, V: 195)
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said:
“An individual should not harm others or be harmed by others in return.” (la dharar wa la dhirar). (Mustadrak al-Hakim, 2/57)
f) The game must be free from extravagant and lavish spending, for money should be spent on more purposeful and meaningful things. Yes, if one was to spend moderately, then there seems no harm, especially when the sport consists of potential (worldly) benefit.
Allah Most High says:
“And do not be extravagant, for Allah loves not the extravagant.” (Surah al-An’am, V: 141)
Therefore, if a sport conforms to the abovementioned six points, then it will be permissible to take part in it. Hence, to play Soccer, Cricket (provided it is not played for a long time in that other obligatory acts are neglected), Tennis, Volleyball, Badminton, Basketball, Polo, Ice-skating, Squash, etc would all be permissible, provided no other impermissible element is involved. One may use the above principles in determining whether a sport is permissible or not.
American Football and Rugby
The ruling with regards to playing American Football or Rugby (regarding which you have asked) will depend on how one plays the sport. If the sport is played in a very aggressive way whereby there is a high risk of the players getting injured, then it would be disapproved if not permissible.
Also, there is an element of extravagance, as a very high sum is required for protective equipment which leads to extravagant spending, and as mentioned earlier, to spend heavily on something that is merely an enjoyment is very unreasonable.
However, if the sport is not played in an aggressive and hostile way, there seems to be no reason for its impermissibility, especially when the sport provides a very good opportunity to exercise the body.
Finally, it should be remembered that all permissible things become acts of worship when they are coupled with good intention. Thus, when playing sports, one should make an intention of removing laziness, exercising the body and staying healthy in order to worship Allah in a better way. By doing this, one will also reap the rewards by Allah Most High, Insha Allah.
Note: This answer was primarily based upon the work of my respected teacher, Shaykh Mufti Mahmud Ashraf al-Usmani of Karachi, Pakistan titled ‘Amusements and Play, its limits in Islam’ translated into Arabic and English from Urdu.
And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK