London, Asharq Al-Awsat—There is a growing movement within Iran’s hawzas, Islamic seminaries, calling for more emphasis on physical exercise, placing the responsibility for its promotion firmly with religious scholars.
Iran’s religious scholars gained a leading position in the country following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and today hold prominent positions in all political, social and cultural fields. But more than 35 years since the revolution, the Islamic Republic’s religious establishment remains woefully under-represented within national sports.
Now calls are steadily growing more attention to be paid to this area, particularly as Islam emphasizes physical, as well as spiritual, activity. In fact, one of the Prophet’s most famous hadiths advises: “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding.”
In 2011, the former governor of Qom—home of the largest Shi’ite seminary in Iran—Hojjat Al-Islam Mohammad-Hossein Mousavipour, spoke of the importance of drawing up a national Islamic sports policy.
He said: “We must consider establishing a major nationwide sports project based on Islamic orientation and culture. It is essential that the seminaries support sports and physical education. Senior religious officials must offer their support and assistance to ensure the success of this project.”
The first such sports teams were formed by religious seminary students in Tehran during the Ahmadinejad era, following a decision by Science Minister Kamran Daneshjoo. (The Ministry of Science has oversight over much of Iran’s higher education system.) Daneshjoo decreed that seminary students were entitled to participate in local as well as international competitions within the framework of the seminary programs, with the aim of presenting and promoting Islam’s rich cultural heritage to the world.
But Daneshjoo’s pledges were not fulfilled on the ground, and there was only a limited participation of religious scholars in the field of sports. This was limited to participation in so-called “outdoor retreats” where the focus was solely on promoting Islam and putting forward moral advice, with little involvement in actual sports.
A quick look at the history of sports in Iran demonstrates that prominent Islamic figures have shown little or no interest in the field, with most scholars viewing it as a minor issue. Even those religious and political figures who do engage with sport fail to do so publicly.
Some of Iran’s religious scholars are known to be involved in sports privately, but solely as a means to maintain their physical fitness. A photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hiking in northern Tehran went viral in December last year, showing the president is no stranger to physical exercise; a similar photograph of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hiking in Kordestan also gained public attention. In a famous tweet last year, Khamenei said: “Sometimes I go mountain #climbing around #Tehran & notice number of young ppl r few regarding Tehran’s population.” He also tweeted: “I feel sad that why our young people are not benefiting from such a beautiful nature | Ayatollah #Khamenei #Sport #Iran.”
Hojjat Al-Islam Husseini Bushehri, the director of the Qom Seminary, affirmed in 2007 that participation in sports in Iran’s seminaries was limited to male students. Female students were not allowed to participate.
The female students of Iran’s religious seminary schools are known as Nisa’ Al-Jalsat (Women of the Sessions) and are not able to hold such titles such as hojjat al-islam” or ayatollah. Iranian women are also prevented from taking part in some professional sports and face restrictions in taking part as amateurs, and hiking—one of the more popular physical activities in Iran—is also out of their reach.
One female Tehran seminary student, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said: “There are many women who would love to take part in sports but are facing numerous restrictions. For example, at my seminary there are female students who enjoy working out, aerobics and even playing basketball, but are unable to do this because of the lack of proper facilities. If they were to go the pubic sports hall, they would be confronted in an antagonistic manner, and so they are unable to take part in sports.”
In the holy city of Qom, there are a number of major religious seminaries housing close to 40,000 students and teachers, but they lack sufficient sports facilities both for male—and particularly female—students, especially when compared to other governmental and non-governmental higher education facilities.
But things may be beginning to change. The Entizar 1 Sports Center was recently established in Qom. During the club’s inaugural ceremony, the official in charge of sports activities at the seminary affirmed: “There are two dimensions to sports; the physical and the cultural. The seminary is responsible for the physical, as well as the spiritual, health of its students.” He added that there are proposals to establish more sporting clubs along the lines of Entizar 1, offering activities ranging from shooting to martial arts like Judo, Karate and Taekwondo.
He added: “Establishing just one sports club is no good, we need more sporting programs and projects. We should also take into consideration problems, such as obesity among religious scholars—and that have led to increased turnout at gyms—to avoid health problems and ensure better physical fitness.”
Mohammad Jaafar Nekoy, a student at the Qom seminary, told Asharq al-Awsat: “The phenomenon of obesity has spread among some religious scholars because of the lack of gyms and exercise. While physical education is [available at] universities with sports halls and gym facilities, this subject is not on the syllabus of religious seminaries. This is something that means university students have a head start in sports.”
Nekoy said: “Martial arts, swimming and shooting are the most popular sports among seminary students.”
‘”We [also] have basketball and football teams, but these are not on the same level of university teams. This is because, for seminary students, our time is limited because we spend most of our time studying and in promoting religious issues, and so we do not have as much time for team sports,” he added.