"Teach your sons the art of swimming, sharp shooting, and horseback riding," said Omar, the second Caliph (successor to Muhammad) who ruled from 634 to 644. Why were these "sports" so important to young Muslim men in medieval times? It was because sports helped to prepare them to do well in other areas of life, such as war, leadership, and business.
There were many popular sports for rich and poor alike. Many sports were contests, like racing and wrestling. Even games like chess were contests that helped train one's mind for war and competition.
There were many kinds of races in medieval times: horse racing, camel racing, boat racing, and more. These competitions helped train people to work or fight better, and to build strength.
1. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, camels were used as the most important animal in warfare in the desert. Today camel races remind us of the speed of battle and attack so important long ago.
2. The beautiful Arabian horses belonged to the wealthy Arabs. Horses were also used in warfare and were better in quick attacks than the camel. Even though they couldn't survive very long on the desert, they could live in many other places. With the arrival of the Mongols and Turks centuries later, smaller but stronger horses were ridden into battle. So horse racing helped train the cavalry (horse soldiers). Horse racing was popular in medieval times, as it is today. However, in medieval times, horse racing had a definite military purpose and was not only a sport.
B. Archery & Hunting
Archery was another sport that helped prepare young men for warfare and hunting. In spite of the dangers of war, a young man could make a good living by being skillful as a warrior. The Turks and Mongols, especially, were famous for their skills in archery. Above, a rider demonstrates his skills before the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks and some foreign visitors. He was able to shoot his bow at any angle and hit his target.
Hazrat Ibn Umar (R.A) narrates that Rasulullah (Sallallâhu alaihi wasallam) said: "Teach your sons swimming and archery and teach your daughters sewing."(Baihaqi)
The Prophet (Sallallâhu alaihi wasallam) once wrestled with a man called Rukanah who was well-known for his strength, throwing him down more than once. (Abu Dawood).
This Hadith has been explained as follows:
"The Hadith mentioning Rasulullah's wrestling with Rukanah is not encouragement for sport because the event took place at the request of Rukanah who wanted to ascertain whether Muhammed (Sallallâhu alaihi wasallam) was a Nabi or not. Rasulullah's victory over Rukanah was by way of Mu'jizah. This Hadith is not an encouragement for sport."
A number of sports have been explicitly prohibited by the Qurân and Hadith. These include:
a. Playing with dice
The Prophet (Sallallâhu alaihi wasallam) is reported to have said: "He who plays with dice is like the one who handles the flesh and blood of swine."(Muslim, Abu Dawood, Ahmad)
b. Games of Chance and Card - playing
Abdullah bin Amr reported that the messenger of Allâh (Azza wa jall) prohibited intoxicants, games of chance, card - playing and Gabairah (a kind of wine).(Abu Dawood)