TIME Religion

God, Soccer, and the World Cup

Soccer may be just a sport to most, but for Imam Sohaib Sultan, the game has been a series of lessons in spirituality

Across much of the world, soccer is known as the beautiful game. For me, soccer first opened my mind and heart to the experience of the existence of the transcendent – that which could not be explained away by the simple laws of physics – and the game taught me invaluable lessons for life’s spiritual journey.

Let me explain. This may sound heretical if not blasphemous, but if I were to write an honest spiritual autobiography, I would say that much of what I learned about faith in a higher power and of what it takes to reach greater heights within myself came initially not through any formal doctrine or religious study, but rather through my love (okay, obsession) with playing and watching soccer.

I first fell in love with the game during the 1990 World Cup. At the time, I did not have a favorite player or team nor did I even know that much about soccer. But, there was something about the preparation before matches, the exquisite athleticism and skill during the game, the winning combination of teamwork and strategy, and those moments of pure magic and genius, that drew me to the game. Soon after that world cup, I took to playing the game myself and even aspired to become a star on the field.

Looking back on it all, there was something in that pure joy of being an early convert to the game of soccer that was deeply spiritual. When Roberto Baggio neatly played off of his teammates to dodge through the entire Czechoslovakia defense and score his first goal of the tournament, it was a divine experience that, as a young boy, opened my senses to believe in transcendence. In that moment I witnessed something greater than physics and pure skill, it was something much more. And, I witnessed this again and again throughout that world cup and beyond in awesome goals, inspired passes and spectacular saves.

And, when I stepped on to the soccer field for the first time myself, I really wanted to experience something of that transcendence myself. But, as I learned the hard way it did not come easy. Instead, almost every time I touched the ball it was an embarrassment. Chances would come and go, but making something of those moments felt impossible. It was through that experience, that I learned one of the most important lessons of life – that training, discipline, hard work, commitment, struggle, courage, sacrifice and much more were needed if I ever wanted to experience what all the greats experience. For years I honed my skills everyday as a defensive midfielder and backup goalkeeper (mostly playing left bench for my teams) hoping to experience something special. It was not just about a game, it was about believing in something greater than self. Every time I stepped on the field, I would make a sincere prayer. I believed that God could make it happen for me if I just gave it my all.

Then, one day, it finally happened. The soccer club I used to play for in high school had reached the semifinals of the intramural tournament. Just before the match our star goalkeeper fell ill during warm up. He was out. The coach looked at me, handed me the goalkeeper’s gloves and off I went to defend the goal. For the most part I was just called upon to make simple saves behind a great defense. But, with a minute left in the match and my team leading just by a single goal, a forward from the opposing team somehow managed to get just behind my team’s defenders as the ball bounced perfectly for him right in front of goal to volley home the goal that would send the game into overtime. As we held our collective breath, my first instinct was to just throw myself across the mouth of goal and toward the spectacularly well struck soccer ball. I felt the spinning ball barely touch my shoulder as I tumbled to the ground expecting the worst. Instead, as I gathered myself and looked upward, I found the striker with his face buried in his hands instead of celebrating and all of my teammates running toward me with euphoric joy. Moments later the final whistle blew and we had won the game. It felt like one of those moments that you live for. My coach hugging and congratulating me asked where I had learned to make such an incredible move. In reality, I did not. I experienced a moment that defied my own physics and what I was truly capable of on a daily basis (as future matches proved!) I experienced something really special in that moment.

But, I knew then as I know now that if it weren’t for all the pre-requisite years of commitment and discipline, that moment would never have been possible. And, I realized then as I do now that all of those players I watched for hours and coaches who helped me along the way deserved much gratitude. I also knew that my magical moment would have been for naught if it weren’t for the victory that we achieved as a team. And, as a team we achieved success because of our values – patience on the ball, assisting and strengthening one another, and showing courage to move forward.

As a struggling spiritual seeker and now Imam, I have found that the spiritual journey is not dissimilar to the path a soccer player needs to take. Seeking God necessarily required of me daily disciplines of praying, chanting, fasting, serving, and so on. And, I found that I can’t do it without role models and mentors, living and dead, who show me the way through instruction and inspiration. And, finally, I discovered that journeying to God with a community of people who have the same goal and orientation is that much more realistic and fulfilling, and that it is in community that we can strive toward the highest values and virtues.

Religion and soccer, when rooted in simplicity and beauty, have great power to bring people together and to nurture higher values in people. Sadly, institutionalized religion and the organizing soccer bodies, such as FIFA, are too often corrupted by the pursuit of power instead. Both are in need of much reform if they are to play the critical role they must play in a broken world.

Enjoy the world cup starting on Thursday and make it a point to watch it with people, those you know and those whom you do not. It might be the start of something really special.

Sohaib N. Sultan is a chaplain and the first full-time Muslim Life coordinator at Princeton University.

TIME Religion

A Response to the Question: “Why Aren’t Muslims Condemning Boko Haram?”

It's time we ask a different question.

As a leader in the Muslim community, just about every time a crazy Muslim or group of Muslims do something insane in the world, I am asked or prominently hear this question being asked, “Why aren’t Muslims condemning this?!” The latest example of this is calls to condemn the cult known as “Boko Haram” in Nigeria who have kidnapped 300 girls.

Well, there are two problems with the questions itself – and both are based on false premises. First is the assumption that Muslims have not, in fact, condemned other violent extremist Muslims. This is simply untrue. Muslim religious scholars, intellectuals, activists, organizations, and countries have all condemned Boko Haram and the kidnappings in unison. All you have to do to know this is type in google search “Muslims condemn Boko Haram” and articles will abound.

The second problem with the question of why Muslims, supposedly, don’t condemn evil actions from other Muslims requires a bit more explanation. The problem with it is this inherent assumption that somehow radical violent extremist cults can legitimately speak for Islam – one of the great world religions whose contributions to civilization over the course of fourteen-hundred plus years speaks for itself (Just browse through 1001 Muslim Inventions online if you have your doubts). And, that if Muslims don’t come out and spend all of their remaining days on earth condemning evil at the hand of other Muslims, then somehow this inherent assumption becomes true.

It’s true that Muslims today suffer from a crisis of authority and the question of who speaks for Islam is not an easy question to answer. But, rest assured that this does not mean that Muslims are operating under some sort of Wild, Wild West where everything and anything goes. Muslims have a divinely revealed scripture, established teachings from the Prophet Muhammad, and a system of morals and ethics that have guided the majority of Muslims to live purposefully and righteously in the world.

Now, the problem with the second problematic assumption is that in the West, today, we continue to grapple with age old misinformation and biases about Islam and Muslims that have resulted in deep seated fear and mistrust. This began way before the travesty and tragedy of 9/11. It begins centuries earlier when Muslims and Christians were engaged in bloody wars and competition for power. The rallying cries for war were couched, naturally, in propaganda against Islam’s prophet, scripture, and way of life as just evil and worthy of destruction. Even though we would like to think of ourselves as much more educated and enlightened today – and, I think we are, in some ways – the impact of old propaganda cannot be wished away. Indeed, much of this propaganda is to be found in a lot of works by Orientalists up to the present time – albeit, often, in much subtler ways. It takes intellectual courage and independent thinking to think about Islam and Muslim history through new lenses.

This historic bias has too often led to Muslims simply being written out of the books across academic disciplines in the West – unless it reinforces the bias. Even in universities when we study science, philosophy, law and ethics, and even world history – Islam and the contributions of Muslims rarely gets much attention. Muslim intellectual history and discourse is just assumed to be irrelevant. Some of this is just the problem of an ethno-centric educational system and worldview, but a lot of it is deeper than that.

All of this, then, results in seeing Muslims as exotic, as the other, as belonging to a different civilization and ethos. Thus, Muslim Americans, for example, are always asked about condemning evil in some foreign land which is largely beyond their control and sphere of influence, but rarely thought of as equal partners for building coalitions against injustices right here at home.

A lot of this is the fault of Muslims. We constantly buy into the narrative rather than producing our own narrative. And, we are often quick to condemn injustice “over there” and act like we don’t give a damn care in the world when injustices happen at home. Just think of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the painful silence of too many Muslim organizations and public figures. Think of the gross injustices of the prison industrial complex and how rarely that becomes a point of concern in Muslim circles. And, the list can go on. Too many Muslims have accepted their social categorization as the “other” despite a lot of talk about being American and proud of it. It’s time for us to own issues domestically as much as we do internationally if we are serious and want to be taken seriously.

The Prophet Muhammad said that when you encounter an injustice you must try to prevent it with your own actions; if you cannot, then with your words; and if you cannot, then to at least to hate it within your heart.

In part, when Muslims are asked to constantly condemn or do something about what’s happening abroad, it is an attempt, consciously or subconsciously, for us as a society to shift our focus from some of the ugliness we have to confront when we look into our own mirror. It’s much easier, especially in this age of globalization, to spend our waking hours following the latest news on the kidnapped girls in Nigeria than it is to confront our own problems with sex slavery, rape, and pornofication of women right here at home. It’s more convenient to ask why Muslims are killing each other in places like Iraq and Afghanistan than to admit that we’ve completely failed generations of young Americans whose lives are scarred by inner-city gang violence everyday in this country. And, it’s more comforting to shake our heads at terrorists who kill at random than to condemn our own government for the use of drones that have killed innocents – including children – and have taken it in their own hands to be judge, jury, and executioner in this elusive war on terrorism.

So, let’s remember, the next time we want to point our finger and ask why someone else isn’t doing something to condemn or stop evil in the world, there are four fingers pointing right back at us. And, the next time we want to shake our head and condemn Muslims for not condemning other Muslims, let’s pause and ask a different question: “What can I do to work with Muslims against all of the injustices in the world I live in?”

Sohaib Sultan is the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University and directs the university’s Muslim Life Program in the Office of Religious Life. He is the author of The Koran for Dummies (Wiley, 2004) and The Qur’an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths, 2007).

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