Sports have been part of the human experience throughout history, as far back as Sumerian times (4000 BCE), and ancient Egypt. They were often associated with religion, making sports a sacred activity. In those times, common sports included wrestling, archery, and martial arts, each requiring meditation and intense concentration.

The first Olympic Games were held in Greece in 776 BCE as an appreciation of what the human mind and body could achieve. Indeed, the ideal of physical perfection for the Greeks was a muscular and athletic body, as evidenced in their sculptures. Later, during Roman times, blood sports emerged, such as with gladiators, reflecting Rome's focus on conquest. Native Americans preferred to illustrate their skill and speed with horses and weapons to ward off rivals as well as for hunting.

In Muslim history, it is reported that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) enjoyed sports, and encouraged parents to teach swimming, archery, and riding to their children. The ancient sport of Polo hails from Central Asia, and followed the nomads’ migration to Persia; Historical miniatures and manuscripts show women and men enjoying the sport. Later in history, archery was designated as the traditional sport of the Ottomans for centuries.

Sports can be a beautiful and graceful spectacle, as in the choreography of a synchronised swim team, ice skating, a rugby team handing the ball down the line in an orchestrated linear movement or the actions of a rowing team gliding its oars through a river, as one composite body. Many sports offer a mixture of the ultimate test of teamwork, endurance, and strength.

In more modern times, sports have become more organised, at all levels in society, from schools and leagues, to national tournaments and international events. Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, in a 1931 broadcast in London, said that public health could be promoted "both by education thereon and by the encouragement of physical culture, hiking, sports, and games." He enjoyed golfing and horse riding, but in the 1940s he had also encouraged the Jamat to play sports "vigorously," for health reasons; and Jamats around the world went on to initiate such programmes. Mawlana Hazar Imam himself was an avid skier, participating in the 1964 Winter Olympic Games. He also participated in ice hockey and football as a student.

The importance of sports for the Jamat is underscored by the inclusion of Aga Khan Youth and Sports Boards in many Ismaili Councils, which encourage sport and wellbeing initiatives. The most recent examples of major sports events organised by Jamats were the Jubilee Games of 2008 and 2016, held in Nairobi and Dubai respectively.

Today, there are countless exercise and sports options to pursue for individuals, such as running, bicycling, weight training, aerobic exercises, and yoga. Organised events such as basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and cricket are among the most common but even surfing, skateboarding, and climbing are now considered official Olympic sports.

No matter the choice, exercise remains at the heart of all active sports, the health benefits of which have been well documented. But organised sports have other advantages; they instil discipline, concentration, teamwork, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of one's own team and of opponents, the need to put the team before individual ego, respect for rules, and sportsmanship. It has been said that “It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” While many would disagree, claiming winning to be more important, the larger point being made is that competitive sports should accord respect to all players, and be played with integrity.

Sports are also about values, and can be useful in the development of children. Obvious positive values sports can encourage include respect for others, humility, patience, perseverance, commitment, the importance of physical health, resilience and dealing with loss, teamwork, and the pursuit of excellence. These traits usually affect one's character and how one leads their life. In a 2014 article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, authors Dawes and Simpkins assert that "Participation in sports creates character, builds character, and reveals character." 

While many external facilities exist for exercise, our Jamati institutions have provided  platforms for sports and recreation for our youth, as well as our seniors. It is for us to make the most of them, and encourage our youth to participate - for our own physical health and mental well-being.


During the month of April, The.Ismaili will shine a spotlight on community initiatives, and achievements of members of the Jamat of all ages in the realm of Sports and Recreation.

The European Sports Festival (ESF) will be hosted in Nottingham, UK from 19-21 April. Inspired by the values of the Jubilee Games, and building on previous sports festivals, this year’s theme is Meet, Compete & Unite. The aim is to foster the spirit of One Jamat.