A Sound Mind in a Sound Body
by Mohamad K. Yusuff

Immigrant Muslims living in America today and enjoying a better standard of living are faced with the new paradigm of "Rest & Relaxation" (R&R) through holidays and annual vacation, especially during the spring and summer months when the beaches, parks, zoos, museums, and other centers of fun and entertainment are opened to one and all. This American style R&R is a new experience that is generally not known to most of us, except for the well to do. And so the question most frequently asked is: How much R&R is acceptable from an Islamic viewpoint?

Simply put, Islam is an easy religion to understand and practice, if we follow the true teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophetic sunnah. As Muslims, we believe that Islam is not merely a religion of ritual devotion and ceremonial worship; rather, it is a complete way of life, for it provides its adherents divine guidance to attain spiritual salvation in the hereafter as well as pragmatic and practical advice to enjoy the material life to the fullest. Islam teaches us to pray for success in this world as well as for success in the hereafter. Thus, the good work we do here would determine our status in the next world.

However, some Muslims with good intention, but advocating the harshest form of orthodoxy, try to discourage R&R. They propose that Muslims utilize all their free time in prayer, meditation, and other "good" work. They consider engaging in wholesome R&R as not spiritually beneficial. We do not support this view. Allah (s.w.t) has created us with certain natural, instinctive needs, such as, desires for food, drink and sex; but we are also endowed with the inherent capacity for belonging to social groups and the need to engage and participate in group activities with other children and families, and with our friends and neighbors (especially after a hard week’s work), all of which are part and parcel of the Islamic way of life.

Islam does not prohibit Muslims from enjoying the good things in this life. In fact, "happy" believers make the best believers, for, they would be more apt to adhere to Allah’s guidance, to thank Him for all His blessings. Thus, Muslims should feel free to participate in all kinds of wholesome recreational activities to alleviate the pressures and stress of modern day living in this twentieth century America. Most types of physical activities are permissible. These include cricket and most Olympic-type games, such as, track and field, baseball, soccer, wrestling, archery, spear or sword games, camel and horse racing, horseback riding, hunting (except when prohibited), among others.

Going to "open, public beaches" is one type of R&R that Islam's orthodox `ulama' has deemed un-Islamic, irrespective of how much one is covered up. Obviously this is a polemic issue, the rules of which have to be worked out to comply with Islam's standards on modesty (click here for a related question and answer on beaches).

We all need to find ways to refresh and replenish our physical and mental capacities to cope with the vicissitudes of today’s tough times. Here, the old Latin adage (by Juvenal) comes to mind, mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, is especially apt. A healthy mind in a healthy body is imperative because no one can really give one hundred percent all the time if the body and mind is not properly calibrated. Hence, there is no harm in wholesome humor and laughter, sport and play intended to relax the body and energize the mind.

The fourth Caliph, `Ali ibn Abu Talib (r.a), is reported to have said: "Minds get tired, as do bodies, so treat them with humor." He also said: "Refresh your minds from time to time, for a tired mind becomes blind." In a very famous hadith, Hanzalah al-Usaydi, a companion of the Prophet (p.b.u.h), accompanied by Abu Bakr (r.a), complained to Allah’s Messenger (p.b.u.h) that when they were away from the Prophet and involved with their wives, children and business affairs, they "forget much." The Messenger (p.b.u.h) replied: "By Him in Whose hand is my soul, if you were to continue at the same level at which you were when with me in remembering Allah, the angels would shake hands with you when you are resting and when you walk about, but, O Hanzalah, there is a time (for this) and a time (for that)." -- a phrase the Messenger (p.b.u.h) repeated three times." [Muslim]

At the same time, one should be mindful about laughing at other people because this is prohibited. The Qur’an states: O you who believe, let not some people mock at other people; it may be that they are better than you . . . [Al-Hujurat/The Chambers/49:11]. Similarly, making jokes about something which is false is equally forbidden. Allah’s Messenger (p.b.u.h) said: "Woe to the one who says something which is false in order to make people laugh! Woe to him, woe to him!" [at-Tirmidhi]

Posted September 20, 1999. This article was printed in the June-July 1999 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area). It was previously printed in the October 1994 issue.