Leisure and Sports in Madinah during the Prophet's Time

In Islam, people are not allowed to overtax their bodies. Since bodily energy has a limit, it cannot withstand long excessive pressure. Even excessive 'ibadah (worship) has been shunned for the same reasons. Whenever a person gets exhausted because of his work, study, or any other occupation which is aimed at fulfilling his needs and the needs of his family as well as the community (Ummah), he is to take a break and relax. The Prophet (pbuh) said: "... Your body too has its rights on you; your eyes too have their rights on you."

Spending free time by practicing certain sports that entail no harm is strongly recommended by Islam, so that Muslims can keep fit and make their bodies healthy and sound. Once fit, the body is bound to contain a healthy mind too, and the cultivating of sound morals in it, then, becomes a less challenging proposition. The Prophet (pbuh) said that children should be taught swimming, archery and horse-riding. He also said that a strong believer is better and more beloved by Allah than a weak one.

During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), the Muslims used to spend their leisure time at home, in private gardens, in mosques, and in some open and public areas in the city of Madinah.

At home

In Islam, the best recreation is that which is a family affair where one spends his free time talking, joking, sporting and playing around with his household. Indeed, the best model to us in this regard is nobody else but the Prophet (pbuh). A'ishah, one of the wives of the Prophet (pbuh), said that while she was on a journey along with the Prophet (pbuh), she had a race with him and she outstripped him on her feet. However, later when she became somewhat fleshy, she again had a race with the Prophet (pbuh), but now he outstripped her. He said to her afterward: "This is for that outstripping."

Once a man called Aqra b. Habis presented himself before the Prophet (pbuh) who was playing with and kissing his grandson Hasan. The man was astonished to see this and said: "O Messenger of Allah, you also cuddle children. I have ten children, yet I have never shown any affection to them." The Prophet (pbuh) replied: "What can I do if Allah has deprived you of love and compassion." The Prophet (pbuh) also said that if a man plays with his wife, such is one of the best forms of amusement.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the house in Islam is recommended to be as spacious and comfortable as considered necessary for meeting all the family needs. There is nothing wrong in making a spacious and comfortable house for the sake of facilitating the attainment of some noble goals in it, while at the same time staying away from the influences of vice and sin. Admittedly, a big house can function better than a small one. The former's potential is a lot greater. The functions of a big house can easily be increased and diversified, something that is very difficult to achieve with a small house. It stands to reason that an excessive and unnecessary asceticism in housing, whereby the required performances of the house institution might be severely affected, is not recommended.

Moreover, that was one of the reasons, too, that dictated the proliferation of courtyards as an integral part of Islamic domestic architecture in most sections of the Muslim world, as soon as the pure Islamic architectural identity started to assert itself. Apart from all the technological and environmental advantages that courtyards could offer, they, in addition, warranted almost all the advantages desired to be enjoyed in a dwelling: they were the places for carrying out domestic works and errands, for manufacturing some products, for cooking, for keeping small domestic animals, for planting vegetables, flowers and trees, for both children and adults to play, for entertaining guests, for discussion and study, for safe and undisturbed day or night relaxation and retirement -- for both men and women -- away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, etc.

Hence, the Prophet (pbuh) once said that of man's happiness are a good wife, a spacious house, a good neighbor, and a good mount. Similarly, he said that the house is where potentially both fortune and misfortune lie. Fortune lies inside the house when, along with a few other factors, it is spacious, and misfortune comes to the house when it is narrow. The Prophet (pbuh) himself prayed to God to forgive him, make his house more spacious and bless his sustenance. Once a companion Khalid b. al-Walid complained to the Prophet (pbuh) that his house was too small to accommodate his family and its needs. At this, the Prophet (pbuh) asked him to build more rooms on the roof of the existing house and to ask God for abundance.

At home, the people of Madinah used to conduct their favorite legitimate pastimes, play and sing during the two 'Ids (Festivals), have wedding celebrations, celebrate births, rejoice at the return of a traveler, socialize, etc. An atmosphere of joy and happiness was always intended to be thus generated, and very often by means of singing and playing, so as to comfort the soul, please the heart, and refresh the ear.

A'ishah, one of the Prophet's wives, said that the Prophet (pbuh) came to her apartment during the 'Id Festival while two girls were singing beside her about a war which had taken place between the tribes Aws and Khazraj before Islam. On entering, the Prophet (pbuh) lied down and turned his face to the other side. Then Abu Bakr, A'isha's father, came and spoke to A'ishah harshly, saying: "Musical instruments of Satan near the Prophet (pbuh)?" The Prophet (pbuh) turned his face towards him and politely said to leave them because it was a festive occasion ('Id).

A'ishah also narrated that she once prepared a lady for a man from the Helpers (al-Ansar or the natives of Madinah) as his bride and the Prophet (pbuh) said: "Haven't you got any amusement (during the wedding ceremony) as the Helpers like amusement?"

When the Prophet (pbuh) returned from one of his military expeditions, a black slave-girl came to him telling him that she had made a vow if he returned safe and sound she would play a tambourine (daff) and sing in front of him. The Prophet (pbuh) replied: "If you had done so, then go ahead (play and sing), otherwise I would not let you do it." So, the woman played and sung until all of Abu Bakr, Ali b. Abi Talib, Uthman b. 'Affan and Umar b. al-Khattab entered the house. Umar b. al-Khattab was the last to enter and when he did the woman stopped playing and singing. Thereupon the Prophet (pbuh) disclosed that even Satan is afraid of Umar, and that was the reason why the woman did not stop until he entered.

Some people used to have cats and even birds as pets at home. A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Hurayrah, or "the kitten man", was so called because he was very fond of cats and often had a kitten to play with. The Prophet (pbuh) loved cats too.

There was a boy in Madinah called Abu Umayr, the brother of Anas b. Malik, who had a sparrow or bulbul (nugar), which he used to nurture and play with. However, one day the bird died and the boy became very sad. When the Prophet (pbuh) met him in such a state, he tried to console him by saying in a rhythmical style: "O Abu Umayr, what did the small sparrow do (Ya Aba Umayr ma Fa'ala al-Nugayr)?" It goes without saying, however, that hunting and keeping birds was governed by a set of strict Islamic rules and regulations pertaining to the treatment of animals. Besides, in the seventh year following the migration (Hijrah) from Makkah, after Madinah had been designated as a sanctuary (Haram), hunting and keeping any animal species within the city's designated precincts, became forbidden completely.

In mosques

Some amusement as well as sports activities were held in the Prophet's mosque, and in other mosques, too. A'ishah reported that one day during the 'Id Festival she saw the Prophet (pbuh) at the door of their house watching some Ethiopians who were playing in the mosque proper displaying their skill with spears. The Prophet (pbuh) told them: "Carry on, o Bani Arfidah!"" Thereupon, A'ishah joined the Prophet (pbuh) and watched the play until she "got tired (of it)". The same or another group of Ethiopians 'Umar b. al-Khattab scolded, but the Prophet (pbuh) politely asked him to leave them alone. And to them he said that they were safe and should carry on. It was the practice of Ethiopians to play with their spears at almost every joyful event, sometimes in the Prophet's mosque and at other times on streets or elsewhere. Even when the Prophet (pbuh) arrived from Makkah to Madinah as a migrant, some Ethiopians performed their distinctive play as a welcoming gesture.

Furthermore, immediately after the sunset Prayer (maghrib), some companions would occasionally practice archery inside or barely outside the Prophet's mosque in the Prophet's presence, till the full darkness descended and the targets became no longer visible. Practicing archery under the said circumstances was a feasible thing, taking into consideration the size and design of the mosque, as well as considering the fact that at the Prophet's time a kind of pavement (balat) on the eastern side of the mosque existed. There were also some gardens close at hand.

That there was a fairly spacious pavement near the Prophet's mosque could be verified by an account in which the companion Jabir b. 'Abdullah is said to have tied his camel on the pavement near the mosque's eastern gate before meeting the Prophet (pbuh), as narrated by al-Bukhari. Al-Bukhari also recorded that an adulterous Jewish man and woman, both married, were stoned to death on the mosque's pavement (stoning to death is a penalty prescribed by the Jewish law for the said offense). The pavement appeared to be much wider than an ordinary thoroughfare and it served different functions. A few or more roads leading from the neighboring houses to the mosque might have converged right at the pavement, making the entrance to the mosque from the pavement more commonly used compared to some other entrances of the Prophet's mosque.

As mentioned earlier, when the Prophet (pbuh) got married with one of his wives, the mother of the companion Anas b. Malik prepared some food and sent it to the Prophet (pbuh). The number of his guests was about three hundred, all of whom had come upon invitation. As they could not enter the house at one time, they stayed in the mosque, in the suffah, waiting for their turn to go in the house and eat.

We have also mentioned that their favorite pastime, spinning (gazl), i.e., forming thread by drawing out and twisting wool or cotton, many women carried out in their houses. However, every so often some women would perform spinning even in the Prophet's mosque, and they continued to do so until the caliphate of Umar b. al-Khattab when he put an end to the custom.

On the streets and in other public open spaces

Apart from private houses and mosques, a number of legitimate amusement and sports activities were carried out in Madinah, sometimes on the streets and at other times in vast open public spaces, on sole condition that thereby no harm was to be inflicted on humans, animals, or property. While returning from the battle of Tabuk in the ninth year, when the Prophet (pbuh) and the Muslim army approached Madinah, women, boys and girls came out to welcome their heroes singing (chanting): "The full moon rose over us, from the valley of al-Wada'; we are duty-bound to show gratefulness, so long as there is call to Allah". Whereas some scholars opine that this event actually happened during the Prophet's migration to Madinah, and not after the said battle, al-Kattani in his "al-Taratib al-Idariyyah" inferred that it actually might have occurred during both occasions: during the Prophet's first entrance into Madinah (Hijrah), and again after the said battle of Tabuk. Al-Samahudi, however, in his "Wafa' al-Wafa" mentioned the event of the people's festive welcoming of the Prophet (pbuh) only in connection with the Prophet's arrival in Madinah as a migrant.

Also, when the Prophet (pbuh) arrived in Madinah and his camel knelt down in the courtyard of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari's house - the Prophet's provisional residence - a group of neighboring young girls from the rank of Helpers came, and while playing tambourines (daff, dufuf) they recited (sang): "We are the young girls from (the clan) Banu al-Najjar; how nice it is that Muhammad became a neighbor!"

Practicing archery, horsemanship, horse racing, camel racing, wrestling, fencing, high jumping, weight lifting, stone tossing and swimming -- by and large - were the most widespread outdoor leisure activities. Those were the forms of training for traveling, jihad, seeking provision, living healthy lifestyles, etc.

The Prophet (pbuh) said that a man's training of his horse, his playing with his wife, and his shooting with his bow and arrow, are the best forms of amusement. He denounced very much if one learned the art of archery only to neglect it afterwards.

The Prophet (pbuh) and his companions used to hold races between horses and camels. Both the horses which had been made lean by training, and those which had not been made lean, participated. Races between the lean horses were held from al-Hafya to the valley al-Wada' (a distance of about five to six miles), and races between the unprepared horses were held from the valley of al-Wada' to the mosque of the Banu Zurayq clan (a distance of about one mile). In one of such races, Abdullah b. Umar, the son of Umar b. al-Khattab, took part. He won the race and his horse jumped into the mosque with him.

Once in a race a bedouin's camel outperformed the Prophet's camel called al-Adba'. The Muslims felt sad and the Prophet (pbuh) noticed their distress. He then said unto them: "It is Allah's law that He brings down whatever rises high in the world."

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This article is an excerpt from the author's book "The Prophet Muhammad and Urbanization of Madinah" http://rms.research.iium.edu.my/bookstore/Products/502-the-prophet-muhammad-pbuh-and-urbanization-of-madinah.aspx


Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at spahicoyahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org  .

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Older Comments:
Thank you for this very informative article!