[By Shaykh Sharif ibn Farid]
The Roots of African Martial Arts in the `Amal of Medina
In his Sawq al-Umma Ila Ittiba` as-Sunna, Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio narrated two prophetic traditions which establish the lawfulness of practicing martial arts; combining it with the drums, poetry and entertainment; similar to the Caporeira system the Africans developed in Brazil; but in addition to the formation of a system of martial arts the two prophetic traditions establish that this martial tradition was connected with the `amal of Medina among the Africans of the city.
The first narration by the Shehu cited with his chain to the Saheeh of al-Bukhari on the authority of Abu Hurayra who stated:
“We were present when some Abyssinians were making entertainment in the presence of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, with their lances when Umar entered. He (Umar) then reached for some pebbles and began to stone them with them. He, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said: “Let them alone O Umar!”
The meaning of the words of Abu Hurayra, may Allah be pleased with him: “We were present when some Abyssinians”; it is said that this cognomen is a reference to the descendants of Habash ibn Kush ibn Haam ibn Nuuh, who are the traditional neighbors to the people of Yemen, and are only cut off from them by the Red Sea.
Historically, the Abyssinians conquered Yemen before the time of Islam and took sovereignty over its land. Also Abraha made the well-known military engagement from their kingdom against the Ka`aba and its people accompanied with his elephants, and were known as ‘the Companions of the Elephant’.
This event occurred in the year in which our master Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace was born. Allah ta`ala says about them:
“Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Companions of the Elephants? Did He not bring their stratagem to nil; and sent against them swarms of flying creatures, which pelted them with stones of baked clay; and made them like green crops devoured.”
This is evidence that the lands of Yemen and parts of the lands south of the Hijaz were under the sovereignty of Abyssinia until the event of the Elephant.
Ibn Hajr al-`Asqalani said: “The kingdom of Abyssinia lay in the direction of the west of the land of Yemen, and its distance is extremely vast, and they are divided into many ethnic types. All of the divisions of the Blacks fall under the sovereignty of the ruler of Abyssinia.”
This statement is proof that any mention of the name Abyssinia in the prophetic traditions is a designation for all Blacks in general. The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “…were making entertainment”; is that the entertainment of the Abyssinians with their lances, was actually their convention and custom by which they trained in the art of war; and this should not be assumed that they were performing some kind of dancing for amusement.
It was called ‘entertainment’ (la`b) although it was primarily a form of practice in martial arts, and it was performed with gravity although it resembled entertainment, because of what was in it of mock jabbing and stabbing, even though this was not actually done. And those participating would give the false impression that the fighting was real, even when they were fathers and sons; and Allah knows best. In this is evidence for it being highly recommended to train and practice boxing, swordsmanship and other than these from the sciences of martial arts.
The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “…in the presence of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, with their lances”; is intrinsically connected to the reality that this practice was their custom during every `Eid celebration. It also indicates that this was an authorization that they were accustomed to with the advent of the `Eid.
There was no contradiction between their actions and the religion in that their arrival to perform coincided with the day of the `Eid. This is because it was among their custom prior to Islam to entertain themselves in this fashion during all their holiday festivals. Thus, they did that as a convention, and then eventually they made this form of entertainment on the day of every `Eid.
This was corroborated by what was related by Abu Dawud on the authority of Anas who said:
“When the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace arrived in al-Medina the Abyssinians made entertainment out of joy for that by making amusement with their lances.”
The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “…when Umar entered”; is based upon what Ibn at-Teen said: “It is conceivable that Umar did not actually see the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and was not aware that he was actually observing them. Or perhaps he assumed that he saw them but was too modest to prevent them from doing it.”
The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “He (Umar) then reached”; is that he made the obvious objective with his hands for reaching for the stones.
The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “…for some pebbles”; is that the expression ‘hasaa’ (pebbles) is the plural of ‘hisaat’, and are pebbles small enough not to cause injury if thrown at someone. It was not Umar’s intention to punish them, but to deter them.
The meaning of his words, may Allah be pleased with him: “and began to stone them with them”; is that he threw the pebbles at them as an objection to what they were doing. Umar did this based upon his own ‘ijtihaad’ (independent judgment) considering that their behavior was not appropriate for the masjid, because it resembled the behavior of the words of Allah ta`ala: “…and their prayer in the House is nothing but shouting and the clapping of hands.”
Thus, Umar objected to their making entertainment based upon the apparent meaning of the words of Allah ta`ala: “The life of this world in nothing but entertainment and amusement, while the Abode of the Hereafter is better for those who are fearfully aware”; assuming that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace was unaware of what they were doing.
Umar held the view that making amusement and entertainment in any way was not appropriate for the masaajid, because Allah ta`ala says: “And the masaajid are solely for Allah.” And Allah knows best.
The meaning of his words, upon him be blessings and peace: “Let them alone O Umar!”; is leave them alone because their behavior is permitted or highly recommended, and consistent with the Sunna. That is to say, that demonstrating adroitness and dexterity with weapons in mark combat is not reprehensible, especially when it is done to entertain the Muslims during their holidays.
It is clear that Umar did know this ruling when he was throwing the pebbles at them until it was said to him: ‘Let them alone.’ That is to say, let them alone because they are not doing something which is displeasing to Allah and His messenger.
If Umar knew of the presence of the Messenger of Allah and yet he made his decision to deter the Abyssinians from making entertainment in the masaajid, is evidence for the permissibility of the Companions making independent judgment in the presence of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.
What the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace said to Umar was not an objection to his independent judgment, or his duty to command the good and forbid evil. On the contrary, the Messenger of Allah commended the ijtihaad of a mujtahid even when he errs, by his words, upon him be peace:
“When a jurist gives a judgment based upon his independent judgment and he gets it correct, then he will have two rewards. And if he gives a judgment based upon his independent judgment and he makes an error, then he will have a single reward.”
Thus, with respect to giving ijtihaad, every single mujtahid is correct in his judgment. Thus, Umar was correct from one perspective and incorrect from another. The silence of the Prophet, upon him be peace during the entertainment of the Abyssinians in the masjid is evidence for its permissibility according to the shari`a, since the sunnan were established by his words and actions and sometimes by his silent approval of what he saw from the Companions.
The silence of the Messenger of Allah, of the Abyssinians and his censure of the actions of Umar, corroborates the lawfulness of martial games or demonstrations the Africans were doing. For this reason it states in the at-Tawdeeh:
“The playing at martial arts games is a Sunnah because it is a preparation for encountering the enemies, and disciplining of the people for that.” It should be noted that no mention was made in the prophetic tradition of singing and dancing.
However, there are many of those who are associated with the Sufis who utilize this prophetic tradition and the one regarding the two Abyssinian girls singing as evidence for the permissibility for singing and dancing as a form of worship. It is sufficient to refute them with the fact that the entertainment of the Abyssinians was a form of exercise and training with shields and lances, and this was a custom of theirs for recreation, and not a type of worship.
The scholars differ regarding the permissibility of singing. A large group from the people of the Hijaz allowed it, based upon a narration on the authority of Malik, however, Abu Hanifa and the people of `Iraq said that it was prohibited. The view of as-Shafi` considered it reprehensible, which is also the most famous view of Malik.
Those who consider singing permissible take reliance upon the above cited prophetic tradition, while others refute them by citing that the kind of singing that the Abyssinians performed was that regarding bravery, fighting, adroitness in fighting and the like, which has no corruption in it. This is in contrast to the kind of singing which comprises provoking the lower souls towards evil and inducing them to that which is false and obscene.
Whatever the case, the above cited prophetic tradition establishes the fact that it was a sunnan for the Africans, the Blacks (Sudaniyuun), the Abyssinians, etc of the city of Medina, to train in martial arts, and to give entertainment in the form of weapons demonstrations in the presence of the Prophet inside the masaajid. We can see that is far easier for a Sufi Zawiyya to be a place for the purification of the soul accompanied with martial training; than let’s say a zawiyya where the Sufis sing and dance.
The second prophetic tradition which Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio cites with his chain of authority going back to the Saheeh of al-Bukhari which establish the fact that the Africans of the city of Medina formally practiced a form of martial arts and gave regular demonstrations before the people of Medina during their Eids; is what was related on the authority of A`isha, may Allah be pleased with her who said:
“On the day of the `Eid, the Blacks were playing with leather shields and lances.”
The meaning of the words, of A`isha may Allah be pleased with her: “On the day of the `Eid, the Blacks were playing”; is a reference to the Abyssinians. This is proof that the names Abyssinian and Blacks were interchangeable, and that the name Abyssinian is a cognomen designating all Blacks, as we mentioned previously.
They were playing in the masjid as it was stated explicitly in the narration of az-Zuhri: “…and the Abyssinians were playing in the masjid.” In the narration of Mu`aliqa it added: “…with their lances.”
Muslim related from the narration of Hisham on the authority of his father: “The Abyssinians came and began to play in the masjid”; in that it was their custom to do so during every `Eid, as we mentioned.
In the narration of Ibn Hibban it stated: “When he arrived, the Abyssinians assembled and stood and played in the masjid.”
The meaning of her words, may Allah be pleased with her: “…with leather shields”; is that ‘the leather shield’ is among the instruments of war which are necessary for the people of this art to take up as a defensive implement against the weapons of the enemies.
It is said that the leather shield is a type of shield made from leather and contains wood without a stump at its end. It is well known that the Companions of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace used to utilize them for defensive purposes.
The meaning of her words, may Allah be pleased with her: “…and lances” is that the expression ‘hiraab’ is the plural of ‘harba’, which is weapon shorter than a spear, as Ibn al-`Arabi said: “The lance is not to be included among the types of spears.” This means that the lance was categorized as a close quarter combat weapon; while the spear is for long distance and keeping the enemies at a distance.
This prophetic tradition gives evidence of the permissibility of playing with weapons by way of exuberant movements for the purpose of practicing for war and vitalizing oneself for it. It is what the people of China call ‘chuan’ (organized martial movement) and the people of Japan call ‘kaataa’ (a martial arts form).
Further, what can be extracted from it is the permissibility of fencing and swordsmanship and what it comprises of training the hands in the art of war. These kinds of exercises also invigorate the metabolism and make the body healthy in order to worship Allah.
The fact that A`isha, may Allah be pleased with her was the one who transmitted this prophetic tradition through eye witnessing indicates the permissibility for women observing the actions of men, even though it is reprehensible for them to gaze upon their attractiveness with the objective of taking pleasure from that, as Qadi `Iyad mentioned in his as-Shifa.
In these times when Muslim national minorities all around the globe are the targets of summary attacks by bullies, thugs and xenophobes; it is time that we revive the dead Sunnah of martial training for our men women and children.