Sports and the Baha’i Faith

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Photo Courtesy: André Zehetbauer via Flickr

Every four years, the world witnesses some of the most incredible feats of speed, strength, and physical skill in the form of the summer Olympics. The hopes and dreams of nations often rest on the shoulders of the most physically skilled youth and young adults that countries have to offer. At times these hopes are dashed in the wake of defeat; at other times previously unknown individuals emerge victorious and are transformed into symbols of national pride. But regardless of the specific outcomes, it seems that every Olympics provides the world with dozens of captivating and inspiring narratives about perseverance, determination, and overcoming the odds.

Yet every Olympics also seems to rekindle the debate about the importance of sport and athletic competition in relation to other human endeavors. Are the Olympics a laudable venue for the celebration of physical prowess and the unification of countries, or does the fierce competition kindled by the Olympics simply reinforce the competitive mindset that often leads to conflict and contention among nations? How much value should we place on winning, or losing, in such competitions? And what is the role of sport and athletic competition in general in the broader scope of human affairs?

To my knowledge, the Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith do not explicitly discuss the Olympics in their Writings, but there are a few passages in the Bahá’í Faith related to sports in general, and many of these passages do appear to indicate that the amount of value humanity places upon athletics is both unwarranted and unproductive. The following passage from the Universal House of Justice, drawing upon Shoghi Effendi’s ideas from The Advent of Divine Justice, is telling:

One of the signs of a decadent society, a sign which is very evident in the world today, is an almost frenetic devotion to pleasure and diversion, an insatiable thirst for amusement, a fanatical devotion to games and sport, a reluctance to treat any matter seriously, and a scornful, derisory attitude towards virtue and solid worth.  (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 413)

Although sport is only one of the topics discussed in this passage, the House clearly condemns the often “fanatical devotion” that we place upon games and sport, as well as the way in which sport at times represents a “frenetic devotion to pleasure and diversion” and “an insatiable thirst for amusement.”

But while athletic competition in its extreme form has the potential to be more harmful than beneficial to humanity, the previous passage does not condemn sports in general, just the fanaticism that is often associated with them. Other passages from the Bahá’í Faith actually encourage sports, particularly for young children. In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian indicated that:

…playing games is not in the least forbidden. It should in fact be encouraged if they are of an athletic nature (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 294).

Although many descriptions of both the Guardian and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá highlight their complete determination to the Cause, their unparalleled intellect, and their inspiring sense of reverence and detachment, both of them were known for deriving great enjoyment from athletic activities. Riaz Khadem, the author of Shoghi Effendi in Oxford, compiled a number of personal accounts of the days the Guardian spent playing tennis:

 Although Shoghi Effendi was extremely busy during this vacation and barely spent time in Oxford, yet spring was the season he would begin to play tennis, a game he loved and in which he excelled. He played tennis with many students during this season as well as in the summer.

One of his tennis partners, J. C. Hill, gives a picture of Shoghi Effendi’s speed in hitting the ball and his enjoyment of the game:

… I used to play tennis with him in the Master’s Field, and marvellously active he was… He was ambidextrous and switched his racket from one hand to the other for a volley or the net with lightning speed – but not in a grimly earnest manner. On the contrary he was laughing … most of the time… [Letter from J. C. Hill to the author, 29 May 1969.]

(Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford, p. 102)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself was known for often going swimming, and both He and his future wife Fatimih, whom was later renamed Munirih Khanum by Bahá’u’lláh, derived great enjoyment from it:

At first, Fatimih lived in the house of Mirza Musa, Bahá’u’lláh’s brother. This was a house which had a view of the sea. That was nice for her. For ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sometimes went swimming in the sea and she could see Him from her window. How strong He was and what a good swimmer! (Hitjo Garst, The Most Mighty Branch, p. 46)

Although a number of reasons exist for why both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi enjoyed and encouraged athletic activities, one of the primary reasons is the relationship between the health of the body, mind, and soul. The Bahá’í Faith teaches that the body “is like a horse which carries the personality and spirit, and as such should be well cared for so it can do its work” (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 296). This is particularly important for children, as the following passage from one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s untranslated tablets illustrates:

…if a child is not properly cared for in the beginning of life, so that he doth not develop a sound body and his constitution doth not flourish as it ought, his body will remain feeble, and whatever is done afterward will take little effect. This matter of protecting the health of the child is essential, for sound health leadeth to insights and sense perceptions, and then the child, as he learneth sciences, arts, skills, and the civilities of life, will duly develop his powers… (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 293)

One of the benefits of sport and athletics is obviously greater physical health and its connection to the health of the mind and soul, but what about the competitiveness that athletics often promote? Given the fact that the fundamental purpose of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation is to unify all of mankind, anything that causes discord and disunity among individuals should rightfully be discouraged. However, once again it is not sports themselves that inherently breed disunity but rather the attitude of the competitors, and possibly the spectators, toward athletics. Many passages from the Bahá’í Faith do emphasize the destructive aspects of competition, but other passages actually promote competition, at least in a restricted sense. The following quotation from one of Bahá’u’lláh’s untranslated tablets, cited by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, is one such example:

Vie ye with each other in the service of God and of His Cause. This is indeed what profiteth you in this world, and in that which is to come. (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 83)

Interestingly, Bahá’u’lláh uses the language of competition to describe the attitude we should take toward service, but obviously this is a very different approach to competition than our traditional notions of the term. From my perspective, one of the fundamental differences between the widespread attitude toward competition and the Bahá’í perspective is that there are no “winners” and “losers” in vying with each other in service – such competition only leads to greater benefit for humanity.

It is true that none of these passages directly mention the Olympics, yet these examples do provide us with a different perspective on the Olympic games. Athletics and sport should be encouraged, but not to the detriment of the development of the mind and soul. We may derive enjoyment from watching athletics, but not to the point of fanaticism. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can be proud of the accomplishments of athletes from our countries and communities, as long as we don’t lose sight of that, in reality, all of the athletes are competing for the glory of the same nation. As Bahá’u’lláh reminds us:

 It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250)

About the Author

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.

Discussion 19 Comments

  1. I found this in the Baha’i Library on Line:

    The Function of Sports in Life
    by Shoghi Effendi
    published in The Students’ Union Gazette, pages 28-30
    American University of Beirut, 1914-15

    See also the original images below.

    FUNCTION OF SPORT IN LIFE.

    The word sport is a contracted form of “disport” which means to amuse, to divert one’s self. It includes play, amusement, entertainments or recreation. It is a word which signifies the outdoor recreations, the athletic work as contrasted with the serious intellectual occupation.

    Sports have existed in the past ages and have played an important role in the history of mankind. Whenever a nation, regardless of its resources and extension, realized the importance of sports and put that realization into practice she attained a notable stage in the history of the world.

    The ancient Greeks deeply felt the indispensability of sports, they stuck to it and it is out of these marvelous Olympian games that Sparta got such renown and reputation. The original Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain were an athletic race and the early Teutonic monuments abound in records of athletic prowess. Neither Ireland nor Scotland lagged behind England in these bodily amusements and work. In America early in the year 1870 people thought of organizing an association for amateur athletes and they succeeded, as we can judge by their present condition, in carrying out their plan and creating interest for sports in the American citizens.

    Such organizations soon were established in Canada, in Austria, and in the British Colonies. In American and England people were so convinced of the noble function of sports in life that they started to revive the old Olympian Games. They persevered in carrying out their plan and the result of their work is now deeply appreciated by the whole mass of Orientals. The Romans admired the success of the Greek athletic life, and under Fulvis Nobiler in 186 B.C. professional Greek sportsmen established a series of sports in Rome. The gladiators are nothing but an old revival of the Olympian Games and it is sufficient to say that the influence which these sports exerted upon the Roman citizens cannot be estimated.

    If we consider sports from a general point of view and consider their relation to the life of the ancient people we must inevitably come to the conclusion that sports if well conducted, have always raised the standard of the nation to a very high degree.

    Nations which have played an important role in the Ancient History have all felt the necessity of sports and have introduced these athletic contests in their own domains.

    Our next is to examine the results of sports or better, their function. The fact that athletics, a branch of sports, is of great advantage to life is evident to the experienced student of modern European Colleges. The argument which established its necessity is opposed by ignorant people yet it has grown nowadays into an irrefutable fact. Athletics are necessary if not indispensable for the future success of the nation as well as of the individual. “A sound mind in a sound body” was the motto of the Greeks and the model of the strong, healthy and vigorous Spartans. Their carrying out of the plan was a cause for the long existence of Greece and for its luxuriant literary culture. This model in just the same way should be put into action if we wish to have any success in this world.

    Athletics refresh the body, tranquilize and enlighten the mind, and develop moral character. As a concrete example let us take a student in his college activities. The student who does exercise is always fresh and vigorous, he seldom gets sick and tired. His jovial character, his good disposition and his interest in life are his chief characteristics.

    Moreover in exercising, the student gets animated, his blood is purified and consequently his mind becomes more apt to receive the ideas and thoughts found in his lessons. The health which he acquires will help him to work harder and he becomes more successful. A weak person seldom can endure the hardship of school-life, the trouble of memorizing and persevering in his daily lessons. Lastly when a student is busy with athletics during recess time his ideas do not deviate any more to the path of impurity, to think of such trivial things and the health and strength which he acquires will help him in overcoming such temptations. Generally a healthy person is endowed with a will stronger than that of a weak person.

    We see therefore that athletics ameliorate the condition of a person during all his college course.

    Sports, in general, have had an important and estimable function in life and will inevitably in future be regarded as the indispensable factor for intellectual and moral growth.

  2. I love the stories of Shoghi Effendi playing tennis, it shows how important being healthy is to tackle all those other things in life, and it is nice to picture him having fun and getting healthy when he did so much work – a balanced and thoughtful article.

  3. Lee, thanks for your great find! I hadn’t seen that piece from the Guardian before, really interesting stuff. And thank you all for your comments, I really appreciate them!

  4. at first glance of the opening paragraphs in the article I found myself in a spot of bother for I was afraid that the article would suffer from being far too one sided. As I read through the text in its entirety however, let’s just say i was never more glad to be wrong. really very well done. i particularly loved the inclusion of the account of Shogi Effendi and his interest in tennis. It is my humble belief that far too many articles of such quality are not shared with enough people. With that said I am intent on presenting some excerpts from this with as many of the friends in my community as i can via oral presentations for one at two of our upcoming devotional gatherings. I am trying to desist from relying solely on communicating information via the internet particularly in a community like mine where many people do not have a regular internet source and for those who have, they would generally not pay attention to every post. On one last note I was almost immediately able to picture the following account, via the link below, within the context of your article. For the the great research and great writing i say to you many thanks my friend. Allah’u’abha.

    http://239days.com/2012/06/21/swifter-higher-stronger/

    1. Thanks so much Dwight! It’s definitely an interesting topic that I don’t know a whole lot about, so if you stumble across any other interesting teachings on the subject please share.

  5. Fantastic article! Very timely and relevant with all of the Olympic fervor. I really enjoyed the balanced perspective, and the holistic guidance you included from Baha’u’llah, Abdul Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the UHJ. Thank you!

  6. Nice article Matt.

    I was just wondering why you used the generic term “The Baha’i Faith teaches that” for the quote that talks about the body being like a horse that carries the personality and spirit, rather than giving the actual source (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 3, 1947) like you did with the other quotes.

    1. Good question Pedram, I actually don’t recall intentionally using different language for that quote. It was probably just a stylistic decision. I might have thought that it wasn’t as important to emphasize that Shoghi Effendi used that analogy since ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ used the same metaphor to describe the relationship between the body and the mind/spirit/soul. For example, ‘Abdu’l’-Baha’ also states: “The soul acts in the physical world with the help of the body. When it is detached from the body, it acts without an intermediary… “… The body is the horse, the soul is the rider, and sometimes the rider moves without a mount” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Divine Philosophy, 1928 ed., p. 127).

      1. OK then. It just seemed a bit out of place compared to the others when written like that, but no big deal :-).

  7. I am looking forward to the Paralympics, because our English text had 2 stories about different Paralympians.

    One of the problems with the Olympics media coverage is that quite suddenly we are deluged with stories of individuals from our own culture which we didn’t know anythng about. that there is a very small space time wise left over for equally compelling stories of athletes from other countries. There is this intense flood for 10 days or so and then, its all over. finished, old news. To my mind the most important thing about the olympics from a spectator’s point of view is the internationality of the event you are watching. In one race , one heat 8 or 9 doifferent countries are represented. And sadly we know nothing about so many individuals. They are seen for just a fleeting amount of time, and we know intellectually they spent years preparing for this heat, this chance…. We can’t look into their eyes, we can’t get their interviews, because there is so much in so little time to do it all. So, I think we are left cheering for our own country’s performances. And we call them heroes?

  8. “Vie ye with each other in the service of God and of His Cause.” — this quote is so difficult to understand in light of the endless seemingly opposite quotations about co-operation, preferring others to yourself, putting aside egotism, etc. Any other thoughts?

  9. Thank you, it was a good view of the Baha’i Faith in connection to sports. You put it in proper perspective. I am a Baha’i, and had some questions, in many connections. Now, it is nicely explained, I agree with what you have said. Thanks!

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