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The Parallels between Islamic Knowledge and College Athletics

By Harun Saleh

Before I made the move to begin studying the Islamic Sciences, I was a college athlete competing in the Hammer Throw. I was very passionate about the sport and put a lot of time and effort into it. From shoveling snow on the throwing circle to timing my throwing practices in Ramadan (the holy month where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown from food and drink) either right after fajr (dawn prayer) or right before Maghrib (sunset prayer) there was not much that could stop me from keeping on track. Fast forward to today and I see myself in studying Islam finding many parallels between that and being a college athlete. These parallels I find to be consistent throughout all disciplines in life and I thought I would share my thoughts on what I find them to be here.

Having the proper guide

In Islam, this is having the right shaykh while in sports it is having the right coach. It is the single most differentiating factor between those who make it and those who do not. Without a guide, you are left to reinvent the wheel and trying to figure things out on your own whereas, with a guide, you can bypass the pitfalls those who came before you fell into, and build off of the predecessors of our Islamic tradition. However, it is not enough for one to simply have a guide. One must find the right guide. In Islamic terms, this would entail finding the shaykh who is knowledgeable and acts upon his knowledge. The one who has precision when he speaks pays attention to interdisciplinary differences between the Islamic Sciences and blends them together in a way that is suitable. In sports, this would be finding the coach who has in-depth knowledge of the sport who has a proven method of coaching successful athletes before you. This coach should have a precise eye having the ability to notice slight movements an athlete is making which is causing the errors and inefficiencies in the athlete’s performance. The most important thing I have noticed between the two is the ability to say I don’t know. The great imam Malik who was the founder of one of the 4 main Sunni schools of thought said that half of all knowledge is to say I don’t know.

Once a man came to Imam Malik from a very far distance to ask him 40 questions. Imam Malik only answered four of them and for the rest of the 36 questions he replied, “I don’t know.” The man was surprised and asked Imam Malik, “what should I tell people about these 36 questions for which you said (I don’t know)?” Imam Malik replied that the man should tell the people that Malik says, “I don’t know.”

Of course, there are many reasons for this which are out of the scope of this article. In short, Imam Malik actually did have the answers to these questions. However, the man, coming from a far distance asking these questions, would not be able to ask Imam Malik again after going back to his land. This man is coming to ask about things that could greatly impact life where he is from; by saying Malik said, much change would take place in that society. At the time, the questions Imam Malik said I don’t know to are questions that he wanted to think about more before ruling. If he changed his mind after the man left there would be no way for him to correct his answer and his answer could potentially do damage to those societies. Imam Malik always tried to carefully avoid this.

In sports, finding a coach who is willing to say he does not know something is hard. In a field surrounded by men who are always trying to outdo each other, saying those 3 words can be very intimidating. However, they are the sign of a great coach. These are the qualities I saw in my coach who I would drive to every Sunday morning for 2 hours to train with. I remember one time when I was training there was something very off about my throwing. My coach said, “There is something wrong with what you’re doing; I can tell it’s somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd turn. However, I don’t know yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, and I will figure it out.” Once he said that I had full confidence in my coach’s ability and eye. The ability to instinctively figure out where something is going wrong in any discipline is a sign of true mastery. In Islamic terminology, we call this malaka which I like to translate to as sort of a 6th sense. It is when you master something so well that you instinctively know when something isn’t right, even if you are not quite sure what it is yet.

I guarantee that most other coaches looking at my throws that day would have come up with anything to say I to make it look like they know what’s going wrong. This is a sign of their insecurity. Just as Imam Malik was afraid to rule on something that could potentially adversely affect the lives of other people by not being precise enough in his answers, my coach was careful enough to not give me a random cue that might reinforce the errors I was making.

The ability of an experienced shaykh or scholar to say they do not know the answer to something actually reflects their confidence in themselves.


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