Awaab Ahmad, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK
Throughout his blessed life, the Holy Prophetsa never exhibited signs of physical indolence. On the contrary, his entire life was marked by ceaseless vigour, a trait he persistently advocated within his ummah. He taught us:
الْمُؤْمِنُ الْقَوِيُّ خَيْرٌ وَأَحَبُّ إِلَى اللّٰهِ مِنْ الْمُؤْمِنِ الضَّعِيفِ وَفِي كُلٍّ خَيْرٌ
“A strong believer is better and is more beloved to Allah than a weak believer.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-qadr, Hadith 2664)
This hadith conveys the importance of physical strength and wellness; the healthier you are, the better equipped you are to worship Allah. In this article, I will elucidate how the Holy Prophetsa embodied this significant teaching throughout his life, thereby offering us a blueprint to emulate. This article will elaborate on the Holy Prophet’ssa simple yet effective fitness habits, such as walking. It will underscore the necessity of physical well-being as a means to sustain oneself and one’s family.
Nurturing sheep in the Arabian Desert
During his blessed childhood and adolescent years, the Holy Prophetsa cared for sheep. Our master, the Holy Prophetsa, once said:
مَا بَعَثَ اللّٰهُ نَبِيًّا إِلَّا رَعَى الْغَنَمَ
“Allah did not send any prophet except that he cared for sheep.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-ijarah, Hadith 2262)
Imagine shepherding a flock of sheep from a tender age in the blistering Arabian Desert, guiding them from one location to another in pursuit of optimal pastures. It was commonplace for shepherds to live among their flock for extended periods, familiarising themselves with each animal’s individual characteristics. Unlike camels, which can endure long periods without water and even longer periods without sustenance, sheep require regular maintenance, thereby necessitating greater physical exertion by the shepherds. Hence, Throughout his tenure as a shepherd, the Holy Prophetsa would have remained active, regularly walking to safeguard the wellbeing of the sheep in his care.
The Holy Prophet’ssa practice of climbing Cave Hira
In the context of walking – arguably the Holy Prophet’ssa primary form of exercise – there is the following hadith narrated by Hazrat Abu Hurairahra:
مَا رَأَيْتُ أَحَدًا أَسْرَعَ فِي مِشْيَتِهِ مِنْ رَسُولِ اللّٰهِ صَلَّى اللّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّم
“I have not seen anyone quicker in his walking than Allah’s Messengersa.” (Jami‘ at-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-munaqib ‘an rasulillahsa, Hadith 3648)
An illustration of the Holy Prophet’ssa robust physical activity was his ascents of Cave Hira, where he received his first revelation. It is worth mentioning that even before his first revelation, he would frequently visit the cave. Situated atop the Jabal an-Nur mountain, the journey to the cave, even with the modernly constructed steps, requires approximately an hour and a half. This ascent was accomplished by the Holy Prophetsa without the aid of stairs. Walking is one of the very simple but hugely effective ways the Holy Prophetsa has shown us to stay fit and healthy.
The Holy Prophetsa walked at a brisk pace, yet embodying grace and dignity in every step and not conveying an impression of laborious effort. (Ash-Shama’il Al-Muhammadiyah, Bab ma ja’a fi mashiyati rasulillah)
Today’s society often struggles to incorporate physical exercise into their busy routines. However, in an analysis from the University of Cambridge, it was discovered that exercising for only 11 minutes every day, through even basic means such as brisk walking, significantly lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and early death. (“Walking for 11 Minutes a Day May Add Years to Your Life, New Study Says”, www.eatingwell.com/article/8033210/walking-minutes-day-add-years-to-life-new-study/)
This finding implies that health maintenance does not always require specific workouts or dedicated times, as even modifying our walking patterns, as modelled by our Holy Prophetsa, can contribute to our health and well-being.
Inspiring a healthy lifestyle and unity through exercise
Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmadra, MA, writes, in his book, The Life and Character of the Seal of the Prophets:
“[…] Due to engagement in war, the Holy Prophetsa arranged for a few horse races. Even generally, the Holy Prophetsa would encourage his Companions to keep horses and master the art of riding. Ke[e]ping Jihād in view as the primary purpose for this, the Holy Prophetsa considered such training to be a source of great spiritual blessing. As such, those Companions who possessed the means, keenly kept horses with great interest. In one narration, there is also an indication that the Companions would also practise jumping techniques on horseback. Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa would also arrange for camel races. The Holy Prophetsa himself also owned a she-camel which generally maintained its position ahead of the rest. In actuality, it was a common practice of the Holy Prophetsa to emphatically encourage his Companions to exercise and develop military skills, and in order to develop a keen interest, at times, he would even participate himself. On certain occasions, the Holy Prophetsa arranged for and spectated competitions in archery and swordsmanship as well. The Holy Prophetsa would also exhort that Muslims should remain active and walk briskly so that the enemy would remain in awe of their strength and activeness, and so that Muslims also felt alert themselves. For the purpose of war, some of the Companions would even practise sprinting. In this respect, a Companion named Salamahra bin Akwa‘ was so outstanding that certain narrations relate that he could even outstrip a horse at times. Once or twice, even the Holy Prophetsa himself raced Hadrat ‘Ā’ishahra. Even though this be in the form of leisure, this demonstrates the lively and active spirit of the Holy Prophetsa and his Companions, of which even the ladies were not bereft.” (The Life and Character of the Seal of the Prophets, Vol. 2, p. 512)
It has been narrated that the Holy Prophetsa participated in walking or running races with his wife, Hazrat Aishara:
“I raced with the Prophetsa and beat him in the race. Later, when I had put on some weight, we raced again, and he won.” (Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-jihad, Hadith 2578)
The Holy Prophet’ssa involvement in these activities underscores the importance he placed on physical strength and agility, not only for himself but also for those around him.
We find numerous instances in the ahadith describing how the Holy Prophetsa used to embark on hiking trips for various reasons. Hence, it is mentioned in a hadith:
“The Prophetsa once climbed the mountain of Uhud with Abu Bakrra, Umarra and Uthmanra.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab fada’il ’ashabi n-nabisa, Hadith 3686)
Hiking is also an excellent form of exercise, and socialising with your friends and family can and should also be done through exercise. One does not always need to be seated in the comfort of one’s home, as typically imagined, to socialise; it can also be integrated with physical activity.
Swimming, archery, and self-sufficiency in the teachings of the Holy Prophetsa
Another means of exercise that was emphasised by the Holy Prophetsa is evidenced in the following hadith:
عَلِّمُوا غِلْمَانَكُمْ الْعَوْمَ وَمُقَاتِلَتَكُمْ الرَّمْيَ
“Teach your children swimming, and teach your fighters archery.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 323)
It is widely acknowledged that swimming is an excellent form of exercise. Its significance was so profound that the Holy Prophetsa actively recommended that children be taught this skill. Apart from its health benefits, swimming is an invaluable life skill.
The Holy Prophetsa is reputed to have frequently emphasised the importance of archery in his teachings. This was particularly relevant in the context of physical Jihad at that time. A notable hadith where the Holy Prophetsa declared, “Strength is in archery, strength is in archery, strength is in archery” (Riyad as-Salihin, Kitab al-jihad, Hadith 1332), emphasises that learning skills can serve as an outstanding means of exercise. The focus on archery and maintaining physical fitness implies that physical wellness alone is not sufficient for spiritual development. As true believers, we should aim to strengthen our bodies to increase their resilience. While – as per the saying of the Holy Prophetsa – Jihad of the sword is not required in this era (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-’anbiya’, Bab nuzuli ‘isa ibn maryam), maintaining physical fitness remains crucial in order to actively and efficiently engage in the Jihad of the peaceful propagation of the beautiful teachings of Islam.
Furthermore, the Holy Prophetsa has many times expressed the importance of one providing for himself rather than begging for things. As such, it is mentioned in a hadith:
“If one of you were to carry a bundle of firewood on his back and sell it, that would be better than asking a man who may or may not give him something.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i, Kitab az-zakat, Hadith 2584)
A very simple lesson in this hadith is to take advantage of one’s bodily strength and work in whatever legal way to earn a living and be a beneficial member of society rather than a liability. In order to do this effectively, one of the most important traits one must possess is physical vitality, again stressing the importance the Holy Prophetsa placed on keeping healthy.
Physical benefits within Islamic practices
It is crucial to understand from the outset that the primary aim of various modes of Islamic worship is not physical exercise. Nonetheless, Allah, in His infinite wisdom, has introduced a form of worship that subtly promotes physical activity. Such integration not only prevents worshippers from succumbing to lethargy but also imparts the auxiliary benefits associated with physical movement.
One could argue that within the pillars of Islam – the five daily prayers, Hajj, and fasting during Ramadan – lie some often overlooked facets of exercise. These essential practices, while nurturing spiritual development, also yield physical benefits. Take, for instance, the salat. The recurring upper torso movements, encompassing bowing (ruku‘) and prostrations (sujud), can be viewed as beneficial whole-body exercises. These rhythmic actions foster the strengthening and maintenance of joint flexibility across the body, potentially enhancing blood circulation and aiding digestion. Consequently, consistent engagement in these daily prayers emerges as a practical means of preserving health – a principle exemplified by the Holy Prophetsa himself.
The rites associated with the Hajj and ‘Umrah provide another compelling illustration of physical activity within Islamic practices. Prolonged walking is a key component of these rites, underscoring the significant role walking holds within Islamic lifestyle recommendations.
In conclusion, I would like to draw attention to a profound saying of our beloved master, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa: he once described believers as travellers in this world. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab ar-riqaq, Hadith 6416) The primary interpretation of this hadith advises against excessive attachment to worldly pleasures. However, when we take into account the term “traveller” in the context of this discourse, it brings to light another crucial facet: the necessity of physical fitness. Be it travelling physical distances or embarking on the spiritual journey towards God, a robust state of health is instrumental. As such, this wisdom once again affirms the intertwined nature of spiritual and physical well-being in Islamic teachings.
On another occasion, the Holy Prophetsa also said, “All of you are shepherds, and each of you is responsible for his flock.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab, an-nikah, 5200) This guidance also underscores the need for physical health to effectively fulfil our responsibilities, be they towards our own bodies, to God or to His creation..