Selective Religiosity: Saudi's National Team Exempts Itself From Ramadan to Play Soccer

Published January 11th, 2018 - 04:22 GMT
Two Muslim soccer players in France pray during a match (AFP)
Two Muslim soccer players in France pray during a match (AFP)


by Rosie Alfatlawi

In ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, a strict interpretation of Islam dictates everything from dress codes to entertainment.


Soccer, however, seems to be a different matter.


The nation’s soccer federation has announced that its national team will be exempted from fasting next Ramadan, in order to prepare for the World Cup, Aajel website has reported.


Abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours for the month is one of the five pillars of Islam, considered mandatory for practicing Muslims. Those who are traveling may be released from the obligation, however, while some understandings of Islamic law allow for those engaged in hard labor to be excused.


Announcing the decision at a press conference, federation president Adel Ezzat pointed to the team’s demanding training schedules.


Saudis have questioned the decision on social media.  “There is no wasita in religion,” one suggested, using the Arabic word which refers to connections which can facilitate employment or circumvent bureaucracy.


“Train at night, why does it have to be during the day, [...] You don't have any excuse for abandoning a requirement in order to play... If football (soccer) distracts them from their religion, then I advise it as forbidden,” tweeted @qeuMv__.


Many have challenged Ezzat’s vague wording that the team would “get a license” not to fast, questioning which religious authority had approved that.


“And who granted them a license to scorn one of the pillars of Islam for football?” asked @i_abousaid.


“Adel Ezzat has transformed into a mufti, [giving out] fatwas like al-Qaradawi,” joked @grzggrrzz, referring to religious rulings given by theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi.


Others speculated that Ezzat had “bought” the fatwa.


@abotariq19962 sarcastically suggested they should be excused from prayer too: “Don’t distract them from their exercises!”


The decision has been seem by some to be an example of selective flexibility on religious matters. Arab American website Watan Serb described it as “reflecting the transformation of religion into a tool by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”


In fact, Islamic rulings in Saudi Arabia have often reflected state or national interests. Last September, for instance, women’s driving - previously condemned by prominent Saudi religious figures - seemed to have been deemed permissible overnight as the king announced a change to the law .


The matter of Ramadan falling around the time of sports events has long been problematic, with some Muslim athletes choosing to delay their fast.


The head of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) last month suggested that Ramadan was its “biggest problem,” ahead of the World Cup in the summer.


"If [players] refrain from eating, the chances of losing are increasing rapidly,” Abo Rida told Russia’s TASS, saying that the EFA would encourage players not to fast.


In 2014, most of Algeria’s soccer team opted to fast during the World Cup, despite sweltering conditions in Brazil.


This year the tournament, which will be hosted by Russia, will take place immediately after the end of Ramadan. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who will play against each other at the group stage, will be joined by Tunisia and Morocco in the largest ever representation from the region at the championship.


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