Modesty and the Muslim athlete

Cam Newton (#1) aggravates the Tennessee Titans.

Cam Newton (#1) aggravates the Tennessee Titans.

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” in the end zone probably will get in trouble.

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

A recent instance of this double standard happened in 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 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 getting the victory to remain one of just two undefeated teams in the league, or Newton adding to his MVP 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.

Newton was not penalized on the field or fined by the NFL. But soon after the 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. She 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, while arguments were (and still are) being made among fans and media about whether the NFL should take action 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 recently 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 isn’t modest.

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 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.”
–Quran 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.

U.S. Olympic fencer and fashion designer Ibtihaj Muhammad

U.S. Olympic fencer and fashion designer Ibtihaj Muhammad

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 the globe 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 this year, 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, almost like he was celebrating a victory before he’d finished the fight.

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 [swt]?

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 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.

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 the sports would not accept their religion?

Pro bodybuilder Mamdouh "Big Ramy" Elssbiay

Pro bodybuilder Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay

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 this site — 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

Early in November, 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 meant out 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 [swt] says in the Quran: “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 Quran 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.

2 replies

  1. I quote you here, “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 modest in our daily lives. The most visible embodiment of modesty in Islam is in how Muslim men and women interact with the opposite gender.”

    Are you kidding me. Whoever wrote this article is completely IGNORANT of how Muslim men interact with the opposite sex, even in public. This is nothing more than some idiot writing what they “WANT” the public to believe Muslims are like, NOT WHAT THEY ARE TRULY LIKE.

    Just look at the news. Muslim men are reported “groping” women in public but the hundreds, raping women, and totally disrespecting women in public and in dark places at night in public. Muslim men being MODEST in how they interact with the opposite gender is a blatant lie.

    You Muslims lie in your writings, news articles, and news interviews. You say what you want people to believe you are, but in reality, it is simply just a LIE and propaganda trying to portray Muslims and Islam as something modest, honest, respectful and with integrity. When in FACT, Muslims and those who promote and say they follow Islam are disrespectful to women, disrespectful to anyone who is not Muslim, incites violence and rioting, and tries to overthrow the established state or country where they are. They disrespect our God, while trying to demand that we respect their god. They come into our country, but hate our government and our laws, trying to establish their tenents of Islam and Sharia Law.

    This article, Modesty and the Muslim Athlete, is nothing more than a lie, a joke and propaganda.

  2. No matter what classification of men we were to use — any religion, any race, any nationality, any income, any level of education — we could find plenty of reports of men who fit that description groping, raping, totally disrespecting and generally being disgusting toward women in public and in private.

    Does that then make it a “blatant lie” to say that the rest of the men from those groups who do respect women and act modestly and honorably around women are not striving to be modest and honorable?

    If you’re going to quote the article, do it correctly. I wrote: “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.”

    The teachings of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are pretty clear when it comes to men respecting women, and Islam is pretty clear about placing a high value on modesty.

    That does not mean that you will never find Muslim men who don’t follow the teachings. That does not mean you’ll never find Muslim men who are flat-out wrong and deserving of punishment in this world and/or in the hereafter for their treatment of women and for being immodest.

    If you were to see the millions of examples of Muslim men all over the world who are modest and respectful toward women, and they outnumbered your examples of Muslim men who do not act that way, would that mean it was a “blatant lie” to claim Muslim men are disrespectful and immodest?

    Ironic that your blanket accusations of Muslims — as you wrote, “Muslims and those who promote and say they follow Islam are disrespectful to women, disrespectful to anyone who is not Muslim, incites violence and rioting, and tries to overthrow the established state or country where they are. They disrespect our God, while trying to demand that we respect their god. They come into our country, but hate our government and our laws, trying to establish their tenents of Islam and Sharia Law” — are more dishonest propaganda than anything written in the article.

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