What is the advice of the Prophet (pbuh) about swimming, archery, horse riding, etc.?

Details of the Question

What is the advice of the Prophet (pbuh) about swimming, archery, horse riding, etc.?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

“Swimming, Archery, Horse riding” in hadiths:

The Prophet (pbuh) dwelled insistently on the games that have a purpose since they are related to the military for men and uttered many hadiths to encourage them. The issues that he dwelled on the most were archery, horse riding, walking and swimming.

When the Prophet (pbuh) lists the duties of a father toward his children, he mentions teaching archery and swimming along with “feeding them with halal sustenance” and “teaching writing”. In a narration that Tirmidhi states to be "sound", all of the entertainments of man are declared to be wrong except "archery, riding, swimming, walking and having fun with one’s spouse"; it is stated that they are "appropriate".

Let us deal with the incentives about them separately:

Shooting (Archery):

This is the one that is encouraged insistently and mentioned the most among the games that are described as having a purpose. We should state that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) does not say archery (throwing arrows) but throwing (shooting) in general when he praises “throwing” and does not limit it with arrows, which were the weapons thrown in his age, as we will see in the interpretation of the relevant verse by the Prophet (pbuh), he praises throwing in general; this word includes the means of throwing in all ages – including atoms, rockets, etc. in our age. Thus, as long as the deed "throwing" is dominant, the call of the verse will maintain its validity fully.

"Against them (enemies) make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war..." (al-Anfal, 8/60)

The Prophet (pbuh) interprets the word “strength” mentioned in the verse of the Quran above by saying,

"Know it that strength is ramy (throwing), strength is ramy, strength is ramy."

Thus, he interprets the word strength as "throwing" and gives an exceptional importance to "throwing" or "shooting".

According to the Prophet (pbuh), throwing is a skill that needs to be learned at a young age and that should not be forgotten until death. It is the most legitimate means of entertainment when one feels bored and needs to have fun. The following is stated in a narration:

"When one of you feels bored and troubled, the only thing he can do is to take his bow and arrows and to be relaxed by shooting arrows."

The following is stated in a narration of Muslim:

"None of you should keep away from having fun with his arrows."

He used the following statements and similar ones for those who learned shooting but gave up afterwards: "They are not of us; they have disobeyed me", "They have shown ingratitude to a boon of Allah". Some narrations tell us that some Companions practiced shooting arrows even when they were old due to those threats.

The Prophet (pbuh) describes shooting as "the defeat of the enemy"; he regards shooting as the most distinguished game among military games by saying, "shooting is more important than riding." According to the narration of Utba Ibnu Abi Hakim, when “bow”, which is a tool of shooting, was mentioned in the presence of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), he said,

"No weapon overweighs it."

Sarakhsi states that the Prophet encouraged the warriors to practice shooting by saying that bow is the strongest instrument of jihad.

"Learn shooting because the place between two targets is a garden of Paradise."

When Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) met a group who were practicing shooting, he repeated the same statement and walked barefoot in the field of shooting by taking off his shoes.

When he was told that a group of Companions went out to have fun, he showed displeasure but when he was told that they went out for shooting practice, he said,

"Shooting is not entertainment; shooting is the best thing among the ones that you have fun with."

He states the following in another narration:

"Angels are not present in any of your games except shooting and horse riding."

The Prophet (pbuh) said that the archers (shooters) would not be regarded to have broken their vows when they said "By Allah, I have hit the target, by Allah I will hit the target, etc." in order to provoke and encourage one another; when the people stopped uttering such statements because the Prophet (pbuh) arrived, he encouraged them to go one. 

The narrations show that the Prophet (pbuh) complimented on the people who shot well. He used the sentence, “May my mother and father be sacrificed for you”, which he used for nobody else, for Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas, due to his shooting on target during the Battle of Uhud. Sarakhsi uses this incident among the evidences that shooting is superior to other games; it is narrated that when Abu Talha, who was said to be among good archers, shot an arrow, the Prophet (pbuh) would “crane his neck” to see the place where the arrow went. It is stated that every arrow that is shot for Allah’s sake will be “a light for the shooter on the Day of Judgment” whether it hits the target or not and will protect that person from fire as if he freed a slave.

We even see that the Prophet (pbuh) watched archery matches and supported some archers. However, when the other party gave up shooting by saying, "You support the other party", the Prophet said, "Throw! I support both of you."

As a natural result of those incentives, the Companions gave importance to shooting and they competed even after the evening prayer until it got dark. It is stated that Hz. Anas sat on a pillow and practiced shooting arrows in front of his child. Once, Anas saw his children shooting but did not like their shots because they did not hit the target; he took the arrow from them and shot a few times, hitting the target in all of them. When Uqba Ibn Amir heard the hadiths about the virtues of shooting, he said, "I will not give up shooting arrows even if my hand is cut off."

Hz. Umar often gave advice to the people of Madinah in his sermons and sent instructions with letters to the people living in places like Damascus and Azerbaijan, and to his commanders like Abu Ubayda Ibn Jarrah, telling them about the hadiths mentioned above and asking them to give importance to military practice like shooting, riding, swimming and running and to teach them to children. 

Various narrations show that children practiced archery by setting certain targets. We sometimes see that children use some living animals as targets in shooting; such deeds are strictly forbidden.  

Riding:

As we have mentioned above, the Prophet (pbuh) regarded shooting as superior to riding but ordered people insistently not to neglect riding, to learn and to teach it to children and to include them among daily entertainment; he also encouraged horse and camel races.

It is understood from narrations that the Prophet (pbuh) sometimes organized races and rewarded the winners financially. According to some narrations, - the Prophet (pbuh) himself took part in two races on a camel; in one of them the camel was a trained one but in the other it was an untrained one; he rode six miles between Hafya and Thaniyyat al-Wada with the trained camel and one mile between Thaniyyat al-Wada and the Mosque of Zurayq with the untrained one. However, it can be deduced from the following narration that the Prophet (pbuh) raced more. Hz. Anas (ra) narrates:

"Adba, the camel of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), was very fast in races and it was almost impossible to surpass it in speed. There came a Bedouin riding a camel of his, and that camel outstripped it in the race. That result was hard on the Muslims. The Prophet (pbuh) stated the following to console them:

"It is the law of Allah that every rise has a fall."

It is also mentioned in narrations that the Prophet (pbuh) made a camel race with a horse.

Swimming:

The Prophet (pbuh) learned how to swim in Madinah when he was a child; he appreciated swimming and “was pleased with the people who could shoot and swim”; he encouraged his ummah to learn swimming. We saw above that swimming was encouraged along with writing, shooting and riding. We will not repeat the same narrations here. However, it is understood that Muslims gave more importance to swimming than writing in the periods that followed. Abdulmalik, the caliph addresses Sha’bi (in Ibn Qutayba's narration, Hajjaj addresses the teacher of his son) as follows:  

"Teach my children how to swim because they can find someone who will write for them any time but they cannot find anyone to swim for them at the moment of danger."

Walking and running:

We see in some narrations that walking is also advised along with shooting and riding and that the Companions gave importance to it. The Prophet (pbuh) states the following in a narration reported from Abu Dharr:

"There is a reward for every step of a person who runs between two targets."

He states the following in another narration:

"Compete in archery and harden your body; walk barefoot." (Majmauz-Zawaid, 5/136)

The following statement is reported from Hz.Umar:

"Teach your children how to swim and to walk barefoot between targets."

Mujahid narrates that he saw Abdullah Ibn Umar running very fast between two targets and said, "I have come, I have come" as he approached one of the targets. It is also narrated that Hudhayfa ran between two targets in Madain without wearing an izar.

It is also reported that the Prophet ran a race with Hz. Aisha twice, that she won the first race and that she lost the second race due to her weight and that the Prophet (pbuh) said to her, "This is the answer to the first race; we are even now." (see Abu Dawud, Jihad 68)

Wrestling:

It is possible to include wrestling in this group. A mursal narration from Muhammad Ibn Abi Ali states that Hz. Hasan and Husayn wrestled in the presence of their grandfather. According to what is stated in the narration, the Prophet (pbuh) supported Hasan; when he was asked why, he said, "Jibril is helping Husayn and I want to help Hasan."

According to a narration from Ibn Hisham, the Prophet himself wrestled. Rukana Ibn Abdi Yazid, the famous wrestler of Makkah, asked the Prophet to wrestle him and beat him if he wanted him to be a Muslim. The Prophet (pbuh) accepted his offer and Rukana, who had very strong biceps, lost; this astonished Rukana very much. (see Ibn Hisham, Siyar, 1/390)

The Islamic scholars deduced from the hadiths encouraging games that have a purpose mentioned above that they encourage all kinds of practices and exercises that will help the struggle in war and that will help people to be skilled in them and various sports that develop organs. They say, "For, they elevate the religion and weaken the enemy."

The Prophet does not encourage only the games and exercises that are related to the military; he also gives importance to the tools used in those games and exercises and their preparation. For instance, he states the following for the arrow, which was the tool of “shooting” at that time:

"Allah admits three people into Paradise because of one arrow:

1. The one who makes it, doing so with a good intention,

2. the one who shoots it,

3. the one who hands it over to the archer."

Similarly, those who raised and fed “horses”, which are the means for riding, were also appreciated very much. They were given the following glad tiding: "Horses fed for jihad, the dusts and traces on their feet, the sweat, excrement and urine coming out of them, in short, everything, will gain their owners rewards and they will be weighed on the Day of Judgment. (see Bukhari, Jihad 78)

The last point we will mention here is the issue of the origin of those tools. The narrations state that war equipment should be native and that foreign war equipment should not be used if there is native war equipment. According to a narration coming from two separate ways with some small differences in detail, the Prophet saw a soldier carrying a “Persian bow” during the conquest of Khaybar and said to him,  

"Throw it away because this bow and the person who carries it are damned. Use Arabian bows and arrows. For, Allah made your religion glorious with it and enabled you to conquer various countries with it."

The age of military training:

There are narrations confirming that learning shooting, riding and swimming and being skilled in them started at early ages. In one of them, we see that Hasan and Husayn, the grandsons of the Prophet (pbuh), shot arrows and competed in the presence of their grandfather. If it is taken into consideration that when the Prophet (pbuh) died, Hasan was 7 and Husayn was six years old, it is understood that they started shooting arrows at a very early age.

We can mention the narration about the races in which the Prophet (pbuh) participated related to the age of riding horses and camels. For, it is stated in those narrations that one of the racers was Abdullah Ibn Umar. The year of the incident is not mentioned but we know that Abdullah was fifteen years old during the Battle of Khandaq and that he took part in that battle. When the possibility that this race took part before the Battle of Khandaq is taken into consideration, it means a person who reached the age of joining the army (14-15 years old) became skilled enough in riding to take part in races. In fact, that he was recruited as a soldier at that age means that he had learned skills like shooting arrows, using a sword, horse riding and camel riding, which were necessary for the military.

Finally, we can look at a statement written by the author of Qabusname to have an idea about the actual practice related to the issue of age. He states the following for children: 

"After the Quran (...), send him to a master of weapons so that he will learn how to use weapons, that is, how to shoot an arrow, how to poke with a bayonet, how to hit with a sword and how to ride a horse. It is necessary to for the child to learn those skills and how to swim..."

After that, he states that he was sent to a master of weapons called Abu Mansur Hajib when he was ten years old, that he received military education and that he learned how to "ride a horse, poke with a bayonet, throw spears, play chawgan (a kind of polo) throw a lasso, etc."

(Prof. Dr. İbrahim Canan, Kütüb-ü Sitte Tercüme ve Şerhi)

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