The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will commence on June 14. This means that Ramadan – which falls this year between May 17, 2018 and June 14, 2018 – coincides with the period of intensive practice ahead of the games and with pre-tournament friendly matches. Furthermore, the first day of games, on which a match between Saudi Arabia and Russia is scheduled, coincides with the last day of fasting.
This situation sparked concern that fasting would interfere with the players' preparation for the games and affect their performance in the tournament. Religious scholars were therefore called upon to determine whether the players were permitted to break the fast for pre-tournament training (some of which takes place in training camps in Europe) and while participating in matches.
It should be noted that the debate about this issue is nothing new; religious scholars in Algeria were asked to address it in 2014, when the Algerian team made the previous World Cup. At the time, Sheikh Mohammad Sharif Kaher, head of the fatwa committee of the Islamic Supreme Council of Algeria, ruled that national team players were permitted to break the fast, which led to a flurry of reactions both for and against his ruling.
This report reviews the religious and public debate in Saudi Arabia and Egypt about players breaking the Ramadan fast before and during the World Cup.
Saudi Medina Imam Draws Fire On Twitter For Permitting Players To Break The Fast
In advance of this year's World Cup, too, fatwas were issued permitting the participating Arab national team players – from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – to break their fast. One of those who granted permission not to fast was the Saudi cleric Saleh Bin 'Awad Al-Moghamsi, an imam and preacher at the Quba Mosque in Medina, who said in an interview on Saudi television that players on the Saudi national team could break their Ramadan fast during the World Cup in Russia and during practice ahead of the games. He based this on the Quranic verse that permits Muslims who are traveling during Ramadan to refrain from fasting and make up the fast days they missed at a later date: "Whoever among you is sick or on a journey, then (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days" (Quran 2:184). Al-Moghamsi also said that, since the tournament receives international exposure, as part of which the players can elevate the name of Islam, they are also permitted to group together the prayer times, in other words, to recite some prayers early and others late, so that they can devote more time contributing to the success of the team.
Saudi sharia scholar Radwan Al-Radwan went even further, ruling that the status of a traveler who is permitted to break the fast applies to all Muslims participating in the World Cup, not only the players but also the spectators, journalists and referees.
The ruling by Al-Moghamsi, published on his Twitter account, evoked some supportive comments in which users thanked him for it and expressed their appreciation his lenient approach. For example, the user "Turki" wrote, "We want more [jurisprudents] like Saleh Al-Moghamsi these days..." However, the vast majority of responses expressed opposition to the ruling. User "Majda" wrote: "There is no might and no power other than Allah. You ruled for us about football, sheikh? Isn't it among the forbidden entertainments? The Prophet, may his name be blessed, and his Companions waged jihad when fasting in the intense heat of the Arabian Peninsula, so how do you permit the breaking of the fast for one who plays in Russia, when we all know just what the weather is like over there?..."
Another user wondered, "How can you equate the commandment to fast with a football game, and how will the religion be elevated if we abandon it for the sake of a ball[game]?! The Prophet's Companions waged jihad for the sake of Allah when they were fasting. Success is from Allah, not from eating on Ramadan." Yet another user, Hilal Al-Zaharani, wrote, "Who says they are traveling? Grouping together the prayers and breaking the fast are permitted only during the journey and not after arriving at the destination..."
Saudi national team players celebrate after making the World Cup (Source: 'Okaz, Saudi Arabia, December 2, 2017).
Egypt: Disagreement Between The Mufti And Al-Azhar Sheiks
The topic sparked public debate in Egypt as well. The religious establishment, which was called upon to rule on whether the national team players could break the fast, was divided on the issue, with Al-Azhar and the mufti taking different positions, as has occurred in the past.
Al-Azhar Fatwa: National Team Players Are Forbidden To Break the fast; National Team Coach: This Will Cause Difficulty
On December 19, 2017, the Al-Azhar International Center for Online Fatwas published a ruling that effectively forbade the players to break the fast. The ruling specified that the exemption granted to travelers does apply after reaching the destination, but only if the stay doesn't exceed three days, because a longer stay isn't considered part of traveling. The fatwa proposed that the players avoid the problem by practicing and playing at night, after breaking the fast. It added that if they had to play during the day, and found playing while fasting extremely difficult, they could break the fast – but they were not allowed to break it in advance because they anticipated difficulty. The ruling also mentioned that the early Muslims had achieved great victories while fasting during Ramadan, which indicated that fasting actually led to victory.
The Al-Azhar ruling was apparently unacceptable to the coach of the Egyptian national team, the Argentinian Héctor Cúper, who heavily pressured the players to refrain from fasting during the training period, so as not to adversely affect their fitness. On February 8, 2018, the sports website kooora.com quoted remarks made by Cúper to the Argentinian daily La Nación: "...The month of Ramadan falls [just] before the World Cup. The players fast from dawn to dusk, so when can I hold practice? At five in the morning?"
On March 5, 2018, the Egyptian Al-Dustour daily reported that Cúper had requested another clarification from the Egyptian religious establishment regarding the issue, stressing that the team's success would bring joy to the millions of Egyptians who had been waiting for this moment for several years. In this context, Al-Dustour and other Egyptian papers quoted a fatwa by former Egyptian mufti 'Ali Gum'a, from 2008, in which he permitted professional footballers to break their fast if necessary, based on the religious permission granted to those who do hard physical labor, such as farmers. Gum'a stressed that the exemption applies only to professionals who earn their living through their sport and only if they are unable to play and practice at night instead of during the day.
Egyptian Mufti: The Players Are Exempt From Fasting
Eventually, some two months following the remarks by Coach Héctor Cúper, current Egyptian mufti Shawki 'Allam addressed the subject in statements he made on April 16, 2018 to the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. 'Allam said that the players were exempt from fasting because they were traveling, adding that, according to some jurisprudents, the exemption is valid for the entire duration of the trip, until one returns home. He thus contradicted the claim of Al-Azhar that travelers were exempt from fasting for only three days only after reaching their destination. He added that the permission to break the fast on the grounds of physical difficulty applied only to individuals, whereas teams were allowed to break it on the grounds of being on a journey.
Coach Héctor Cúper with members of the Egyptian national team (Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, January 5, 2018.
Several Al-Azhar sheiks came out against 'Allam's ruling. Dr. Ahmed Karima, a lecturer on Islam, told the Mobtada news website that football does not count as hard physical labor, and that Quran 2:184 (which exempts from fasting those who are traveling or are ill) applies only in cases where fasting would endanger the individual's health.
Former Head Of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee: Whoever Breaks The Fast Is An Apostate Who May Be Killed; Egyptian Columnists Respond: Al-Atrash's Comments Are Reminiscent Of ISIS
An more extreme position was voiced by another cleric, Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash, former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee. Implicitly criticizing the clerics who had permitted footballers to break the fast, he said in a televised debate that the fast is one of Allah's gifts to the Muslim nation and one of the fundamental principles of Islam – so whoever breaks the fast is an infidel whose life is forfeit. Addressing the claim that the footballers are exempt because they have the status of travelers, he said that this exemption applies only in case of a journey undertaken in order to fulfil a religious duty – such as waging jihad to liberate Jerusalem – and not for the purpose of committing a sin (i.e. playing football). He added that the exemption no longer applies because, in the modern age, traveling does not involve the hardship of riding a pack animal but rather a comfortable plane journey. Al-Atrash wondered why the World Cup was not postponed until after Ramadan.
Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash (image: Al-Dustour, Egypt)
Al-Atrash's statements sparked furious responses from Egyptians who saw them as a call to kill players if they broke the fast. The Al-Dustour daily reported on May 16 that an Egyptian attorney, Hisham Hatata, had filed a lawsuit against Al-Atrash with the Prosecutor General for incitement to murder. In addition, two Egyptian columnists criticized Al-Atrash, as well as other extremist clerics, for harming Egyptian sports and polluting the religious discourse.
Liberal journalist Khaled Montasser, who writes for the Al-Watan daily, lamented that the players were being distracted with religious nonsense instead of being allowed to concentrate on football, and compared Al-Atrash and clerics of his ilk to ISIS. He wrote: "All the countries whose teams made the World Cup are now busy with preparations, with advanced practice, and with pre-tournament games against leading teams in order to prepare the players physically and mentally... These serious countries are now recruiting the best sports experts and the best doctors to determine their play strategy and study the rival teams... All the countries are doing this, except for Egypt, which has put aside this unimportant nonsense to concentrate on the most sacred and important issue that is sure to bring it the victory... Egypt launched into the following debate: Will the players on its team fast, or will they be allowed to break the fast?! [This debate raged] until the former head of Al-Azhar's Fatwa Committee ['Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash] reassured [us] by issuing his brilliant fatwa, proclaiming that, if anyone breaks the fast during the World Cup [games], his life immediately becomes forfeit!...
"What sort of team, what sort of ball[games] and what sort of sports can we expect to achieve in a country that has sold its brain in the market of intellectual slavery controlled by the pimps of religion...?! We have singlehandedly proclaimed the loss of our team even before it began playing [when] we preoccupied its members with this convoluted bullshit... Allah help you, [coach Héctor] Cúper. Fate has cast you into a society that fasts [i.e., avoids] progress, conscience and truth and willfully places its neck under the guillotine of the ISIS members who live in Cairo's resorts and palaces. These people issue fatwas about the minutest details of our lives, providing live ideological ammunition for the ISIS members who live in the caves of Sinai. [And] after that they ask you, Mr. [Cúper], to win the World Cup. Believe me, Cúper, you had better resign, for you are not involved in sports [here] but in an exorcism ceremony."
In his June 4 column in Al-Masri Al-Yawm, sports correspondent Yasser Ayyoub likewise rejected the fatwa, writing: "Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash... surprised everyone with an outrageous announcement on television, after he was asked whether the [Egyptian] team members may break the fast during the World Cup [tournament]. He replied that breaking the fast means leaving the fold of Islam and that [these players'] lives would be forfeit – that is, that it would be permissible to kill them as apostates. I am no cleric and I am not qualified to rule on such issues, so I leave this task to those whose job it is. But I cannot accept or imagine that a football player who must break his fast while participating in the upcoming World Cup [games] is [considered] an infidel and an apostate deserving of death...
"Such fatwas present a [false] face of Islam, which is [actually] a religion of moderation and lenience... The controversy [regarding the issue of breaking the fast] is understandable, but the same cannot be said of the fatwa stating that a player who breaks his fast is an infidel deserving of death. I am certain... that no team member who breaks his fast during the World Cup will be proclaimed an infidel or expelled from the fold of Islam. I am not saying this to defend [the idea that] players may break the fast or in defense of the demand that they do so... [I am simply expressing] my objection to this bizarre fatwa that eradicates any difference between ourselves and ISIS or other extremists that have harmed Islam more than they have helped it."
National Team Players In Egypt Defy Their Coach, Insist On Fasting
Despite the religious dispensation they received from the Egyptian mufti, the majority of the players on the Egyptian national team, led by soccer stars Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny, announced they would continue to fast at the training camps in Italy and Belgium (where, due to longer daylight hours, the fast is even longer than in the Middle East). Hani Abu Rida, chairman of the Egyptian Football Federation, spoke to the players and tried to persuade them to listen to coach Cúper who was at his wits end: "The revered and exalted Lord of the World [Allah] has permitted to break the fast and compensate for this on other days, and therefore you must prepare with all your might for the World Cup and [later] make up the days you missed... In the coming days the physical fitness [training] will become more intense, requiring a redoubling of effort to achieve the objectives set by the coach. An 18-hour fast in Italy at this point and a similar number of hours in Belgium is likely to significantly threaten your readiness for the World Cup."
However, it seems that the exhortations of the coach and the federation chairman were to no avail. An article published in the Egyptian magazine Al-Ahram Al-Arabi stated that Egyptian footballers, past and present, believed that Allah punished players who broke the fast and caused them to lose. A past star of the Al-Ahali team told the magazine that, during the 1990s, the team's foreign coach had forbidden the players to fast during the African Cup of Nations. After the players lost a match to a weaker team, "the coach entered the dressing room and found the players very sad. He was amazed when we told him we had lost because we had broken the fast and disobeyed Allah. He had no choice but to allow us to fast, and was amazed every time we won despite fasting."
 Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), March 30, 2018.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 11, 2018.
 Sabq.org, March 29, 2018; twitter.com/SalehAlmoghamsy, March 29, 2018.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2018.
 Twitter.com/t_qmo, March 29, 2018.
 Twitter.com/majoud, March 29, 2018.
 Twitter.com/lananaic33333, March 30, 2018.
 Twitter.com/helal645233, March 29, 2018.
 In 2009, the professional staff of Egypt's national youth football team asked the Egyptian fatwa institution, headed by the mufti, to permit the players to break the Ramadan fast so that they could train properly and stay fit in advance of the world championship for national youth teams. The institution allowed this, sparking opposition from some Al-Azhar scholars. Masrawy.com, May 24, 2018; Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), March 30, 2018.
 Azhar.eg/fatwacenter, December 19, 2017.
 Kooora.com, February 8, 2018.
 Al-Dustour (Egypt), March 5, 2018.
 Dar-alifta.org, August 21, 2008.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 16, 2018.
 Mobtada.com, March 2, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), April 18, 2018.
 Al-Dustour (Egypt), May 16, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), April 20, 2018.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 4, 2018.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), May 26, 2018; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 31, 2018.
 Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), March 30, 2018.