October 7, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 245

Anti-Soccer Fatwas Led Saudi Soccer Players to Join the Jihad in Iraq

October 7, 2005 | By Y. Admon*
Saudi Arabia, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 245

The Saudi daily Al-Watan reported recently that Islamic extremists were inciting Saudi soccer players to quit their teams and wage jihad in Iraq. According to these reports, the young athletes were influenced by fatwas forbidding the game of soccer except when played under certain conditions and with the express intention of using the game as physical training for jihad. Saudi sheikhs and intellectuals have criticized the fatwas and the religious authorities that issued them.

On August 22, 2005, Al-Watan reported that the soccer players involved in this affair were from the Al-Taif region, and that some of them belonged to the region's well-known Al-Rashid team." [1] In another article, Al-Rashid captain Ja'far 'Attas said that three of his players had left the team. [2] A few days later, team members confirmed that the three had become devout and, under the influence of various fatwas, had begun to believe that soccer was forbidden by religious law. [3]

One of the three, Majid Al-Sawat, was arrested while planning to carry out a suicide bombing in Iraq. He appeared on Al-Iraqiya TV four months ago, claiming that he had fallen victim to one of the disreputable groups which take those who come to Iraq and hold them against their will in order to make them commit acts of terrorism. [4]

Fatwa from 2003: Soccer is Forbidden Except When Played as Training for Jihad

One of the anti-soccer fatwas was published in full in Al-Watan on August 25, 2005. According to other sources it had been issued by Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Najdi. [5]

The fatwa declared that it is only permissible to play soccer when its rules are different than the accepted international rules. This was based on a hadith [Prophetic tradition] which forbids Muslims to imitate Christians and Jews. [6] The fatwa read:

"1. Don't play soccer with four lines [surrounding the field], since this is the way of the non-believers, and the international soccer rules require drawing [these lines] before playing.

"2. One should not use the terminology established by the non-believers and the polytheists, like: 'foul,' 'penalty kick,' 'corner kick,' 'goal,' and 'out of bounds.' Whoever pronounces these terms should be punished, reprimanded, kicked out of the game, and should even be told in public: 'You have come to resemble the non-believers and the polytheists, and this has been forbidden.'

"3. If one of you falls during the game and breaks his hand or his foot, or if the ball hits his hand, he shall not say 'foul' and shall not stop playing because of his injury. The one who caused his injury shall not receive a yellow or a red card, but rather the case shall be judged according to Muslim law in the case of a broken bone or an injury. The injured player shall exercise his rights according to the shari'a, as [is stated] in the Koran, and you must testify together with him that so-and-so tripped him up intentionally.

"4. Do not set the number [of players] according to the number of players used by the non-believers, the Jews, the Christians, and especially the vile America. In other words, 11 players shall not play together. Make it a larger or a smaller number.

"5. Play in your normal clothing, or in Dishdashas [traditional Arab long garb], or something like that, but not in colorful pants and numbered jerseys. Pants and jerseys are not appropriate clothing for Muslims. They are the clothing of the non-believers and of the West, and therefore you must be careful not to wear them.

"6. Once you have fulfilled [these] conditions and rules, you must play the entire game with the intention of improving your physical fitness for the purpose of fighting Jihad for Allah's sake and preparing for the time when jihad is needed. One should not waste time in celebrating a false victory.

"7. Do not play for 45 minutes, as is the practice among the Jews, the Christians, and in all of the countries of non-belief and atheism. This is also the length of time that is accepted in the soccer clubs of those who have strayed from the righteous path. You must be different than the non-believers, depart from their path, and not imitate them in anything.

"8. Do not play in two parts [i.e. halves], but rather in one part or in three parts, so as to be different than the sinful and rebellious, the non-believers and the polytheists.

"9. If neither side has defeated the other and neither side has inserted the ball between the posts, do not waste further time [in an extension] or in 'penalty kicks' until someone has won, but rather leave [the field] immediately, since this kind of victory is precisely an imitation of the non-believers and [adoption] of the international soccer rules.

"10. Do not appoint someone who follows the players around and is called 'a referee', since, after canceling the international rules such as 'foul,' 'penalty kick,' 'corner kick' and so on, there is no need for his presence. Moreover, his presence is an imitation of non-believers, Jews and Christians, and constitutes adoption of the international [soccer] rules.

"11. In the course of the game it is forbidden for groups of youth to gather and watch, since if you are gathering for the sake of sports activity and physical fitness, as you claim, why should they be looking at you? You must make them participate [in order to improve] their physical fitness and prepare for jihad; or else say to them, 'Go propagate Islam and seek out moral corruption in the marketplaces and in the press [in order to correct it], and leave us to improve our physical fitness.'

"12. When you finish playing, be careful not to talk about the game, and not to say 'we play better than the opponent,' or 'so-and-so is a good player,' etc. Moreover, you should speak about your body, its strength and its muscles, and about the fact that you are playing as [a means of] training to run, attack, and retreat in preparation for [waging] jihad for Allah's sake.

"13. If one of you inserts the ball between the posts and then starts to run so that his companions will run after him and hug him, like the players in America and France do, you should spit in his face, punish him, and reprimand him, for what do joy, hugging, and kissing have to do with sports?

"14. You must take the three posts or iron rods which you use to construct [the goal], and into which the ball is kicked, and replace them with just two instead of three. In other words, take out the cross-post or rod… so that [the goal] will not be similar to what is customary among the non-believers, and in order to violate the despotic international soccer rules.

"15. Do not do what is known as 'substitution' — that is, putting in a player in place of a player who has been disqualified — since this the custom of the non-believers in America and elsewhere." [7]

Saudi Ulama Respond: Soccer is Permitted by the Shari'a ; The Authors of the Fatwa Should Be Prosecuted

Senior Saudi ulama rejected the fatwa and claimed that Muslim religious law permits playing soccer according to the international rules. They even demanded the prosecution of those who issued the fatwa which led the soccer players to quit their team and join the jihad in Iraq.

The Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Ibn 'Abdallah Aal-Sheikh, called on the appropriate authorities to "prosecute those involved in the publishing of these fatwas in a shari'a court for the crime they have committed." He also called on the Saudi religious police in various areas to "track down those involved and prosecute them, in view of the dangers and the venom with which they are trying to influence society." Aal-Sheikh warned Muslims around the world "not to act according to any fatwa until they have checked its authenticity and source, and verified that it is being issued by people who are qualified to do so… so that nobody who is not an expert in these areas will come along and issue a fatwa that will lead him and others astray." [8]

Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Abikan, an advisor in the Saudi Justice Department, said that soccer is permitted so long as various shari'a prohibitions are not violated. According to him, the interpretation concerning the "rules of the game and the prohibition against using terms such as 'foul,' 'out,' 'penalty kick,' etc. is misguided, since even the Prophet Muhammad used non-Arabic expressions in the hadith, and even Allah used some non-Arabic words in His book [the Koran]. Therefore there is nothing wrong with occasionally using a language that is not [the language] of the Arabs, and this is not considered imitation [of the non-believers].

"There is nothing wrong with the lines [surrounding the field], the referee, and the soccer rules. All things that come from the West but are not unique to it are permitted. Soccer has become a world sport and does not belong only to the non-believers. The conditions that some people have established in order to distinguish [Muslims] from non-believers are extreme and derive from a lack of understanding of the shari'a and the literature of religious law." Al-'Abikan also warned the youth not to heed fatwas of this kind and recommended that they approach senior religious authorities and ask them to issue fatwas on important issues like these. [9]

Saudi Columnists: We Need to Reexamine Our Religious Discourse

Criticism of the fatwa was also heard from the ranks of Saudi columnists, who claimed that fatwas such as these lead the youth to lose their religious and national identity and cause them to espouse extremism. Columnist Hamud Abu Taleb wrote in Al-Watan: "[What we are talking about] is youth playing soccer in the pleasant Al-Ta'if environment… They are not insane or troubled, and they don't come from homes that encourage a particular ideology. All of a sudden, they are faced with this fatwa that was published in Al-Watan, [a fatwa] without rhyme or reason. This is a fatwa that even someone living in past centuries could not implement. Nevertheless, someone was willing to disseminate it… in order to turn youth into machines that just carry out orders, even if they lead to a cruel death amidst bullets and bombs…

"The newspaper was right to publish this fatwa which is attributed to 'some sheikhs'. However, we were hoping that their names would be published, since there is no logic in hiding them. People need to know who stands behind this devastation… There is need to take a firm and determined stand that is not lenient towards those [who are responsible for this], since young men are being burned to death and the [sponsors] of death want to burn down the homeland and its citizens. How long will we continue to delay the solutions?" [10]

Another columnist, Youssef Al-Dini, wrote in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The key to solving cases such as these is to analyze their ideological reasoning. The extremist ideology and these misleading fatwas turn soccer into a crime and a sin by claiming that it is an imitation of non-believers. They also target young Muslims through preaching, so that the youth will exchange Islam as a social identity and a natural faith for an extremist ideology…

"This requires us to reexamine our religious discourse and to correct it, in order to protect our youth… from the claws of ideological and religious extremism. This [can be accomplished] by finding [religious] sources that will encourage moderation and by finding effective alternative activities, centers, and youth movements that will take in these youths, strengthen their religious affiliation and their national identity, and correct their basic religious conceptions which for a long time have been warped and distorted." [11]

* Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2005.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 23, 2005.

The players referred to are Tamer Al-Thamali, who disappeared two and a half years ago, Majid Al-Sawat, and Dayf Allah Al-Harithi. Six others were also convinced to quit: D. Al-Harithi, M. Al-Salmi, T. Al-Thamali, S. Al-Madkhali, Z. 'Ali, and K. Al-Harithi. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2005.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 25-26, 2005.

[4] Al-Sawat's father told Al-Watan that his son "and a number of other Saudi youths were held by disreputable groups for five months, and were told to commit suicide operations." When Majid refused, the leader of the group, Abu Sa'ad, told the prisoners that they had "two options: [to carry out] suicide operations, or to blow up crowds of Shi'ites." When Majid persisted in his refusal, Abu Sa'ad placed him in an unfamiliar vehicle, promising to take him back to his country, but instead, drove him to an Iraqi police checkpoint and left him alone in the car. When the police arrived to inspect the vehicle, Majid learned that it was full of explosives that had apparently failed to explode due to a timing malfunction.

The father also said that his son "appeared on 'Al-Iraqiya' and told the story of how he got to Iraq, claiming that jihad is a personal duty on all young people and basing his statements on some religious rulings...[He said that] sheikhs whom he knew, but didn't mention by name, convinced him in Al-Ta'if that he is not obligated to tell his father about [his going to] the jihad." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2005.

[5] The fatwa was posted two years ago on the internet site:

[6] The prohibition against imitating non-believers is based on the Prophet's saying (hadith) that "whosoever imitates a group of people becomes one of them" (Musnad of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, 50/3; Sunan of Abu Daud, 5021), and on the hadith: "Don't resemble the Jews and the Christians," which is included in the Sunan of Al-Tirmidhi.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 25, 2005.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 26, 2005.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 25, 2005.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 28, 2005.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 26, 2005.

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