For many people, when they think of martial arts, the first thing that comes to mind is Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris; and when they think of a Muslim, the first image that comes to mind is that of an Arab. So how about a Latino Muslim who is also a martial artist? Something of a samurai Latino, but one who only bows down to Allah SWT —this is who I am.
Muslims throughout history have had a reputation of being disciplined, strong, and courageous. We can see and learn about this through the stories of the companions
My parents migrated from Ecuador in the late 70s. In 1980 I was born and eight years later, I found myself in a black uniform and belt, kicking and punching on a green mat in Union City, New Jersey. I had started practicing traditional Tiger Claw Kung Fu and continued to do so all through my youth and teenage years up until my freshman year of college. Martial arts was a major and crucial part of my life because it helped keep me disciplined and focused. I didn’t hang around in the streets like most kids, I didn’t join a gang, or get into trouble because I was too busy focusing on training and maintaining a healthy way of life.
When I entered college in 1998, I decided to push my training aside and focus on my education. During my college years, I was exposed to Islam and embraced it as my way of life in 2001. As I learned more and more about Islam — worshipping Allah alone and the sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (peace be upon him) — I realized that many of the things we practiced during our Kung Fu training were not acceptable Islamically, including bowing, working out to music, and intermixing with the opposite gender. However, there were other aspects that coincided with Islam such as honor, responsibility, mercy and love, discipline, dedication, perseverance, and loyalty.
I found no solution to the conflict between the great benefits of training and the aspects of it that were not in accordance with Islam. Fast-forward to 2009. After having married and having two children, I moved to College Park, Maryland. At that time I was very unhappy with the condition of my health. I was 5’4” and over 200 pounds, which is considered obese according to medical standards. I remember thinking that the only way I could change would be if I began martial arts training again. When I started a new job at the local masjid in the administration office, I found out that one of my co-workers was training in the karate program that the masjid hosted. I was so happy that I finally found the opportunity I had been waiting for.
I went the first day and immediately joined. I dedicated myself the same way I had during my teenage years. I shed 50 pounds and earned my Black Belt in a little over a year, all in an Islamic environment, training with other Muslims brothers, and worshipping Allah along the way. What I found here in College Park was a unique program. It is something that I encourage all communities to strive to establish and invest in to promote discipline, leadership, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle.
Today, I am one of the head instructors of Aqabah Karate at Dar-us-Salaam/Al-Huda school, coaching in Korean Tang Soo Do and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We run a solid program with 11 Black Belts and 5 Black Belt candidates. We have classes for men, women, and children starting as young as 5 years old. It gives our community members an opportunity to exercise and feel good about themselves while learning practical self-defense techniques.
The Martial Arts: A Great Opportunity
For many, including myself, Aqabah Karate is more than just an exercise class, a hobby, or an afterschool program; it is a complement to our way of life as Muslims. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said in an authentic hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, “The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, but in both there is good” (Reported in Sahih Muslim).
Many scholars have stated that this hadith relates not only to faith (eman), but also to physical strength because it is a means to increase eman. Physical well-being allows one to perform more acts of worship. The one who exercises, stretches, and eats right will feel much more energetic and alive compared to the one who does not. This energy contributes to the ability to stand in prayer longer, wake up on time for fajr or tahajud, and do charitable acts and other good deeds.
In addition, the martial arts bring about so much benefit for the one who engages in the discipline as a journey toward self-mastery. It increases confidence and leadership abilities and develops agility, flexibility, and coordination in the practitioner. And, of course, it provides the practical knowledge of self-defense. Martial arts teaches the practitioner to be humble, respectful, honorable, and one who always strives to maintain self-control, self-awareness, and integrity in all his or her actions; and it provides the tools needed to overcome all obstacles, insha’Allah.
Too many youth today are involved in sedentary pastimes that have little to no benefit such as video games and television. There is a huge increase in obesity and the associated diseases that affect the heart and digestive system. This is amazing, especially knowing that the Messenger of Allah stated in an authentic hadith, “The son of Adam will never fill a container as something worse and [more] evil than [that of filling] his stomach. It will suffice him some morsels [of food] that will keep him on his feet; otherwise, he should divide his stomach into three parts: one third for his food, the other for his drink, and the other third for his breath” (Ibn Hibban).
There is a need for programs such as Aqabah Karate in our communities in order to help put a stop to the obesity epidemic. Muslims throughout history have had a reputation of being disciplined, strong, and courageous. We can see and learn about this through the stories of the companions such as Omar ibn al-Khataab, Khalib ibn al-Waleed, Osama bin Zayd, Abdullah ibn az-Zubayr, and many more. When we read about their lives, we learn that they were, in a very real way, true martial artists. They may not have had Black Belts in Karate or Kung-Fu, but they lived by the code of conduct integral to the martial arts — loyalty, obedience, respectfulness, mercy, honor, courage, intelligence, and an indomitable spirit. These are the standards of behavior that Aqabah Karate upholds and passes on to their students.
Practice of the martial arts is indeed an essential discipline that can bring great benefit to Muslims in this age of sedentary lifestyles and obesity. Strength training and conditioning to build endurance and cardio health; grappling, sparring, and self-defense to increase confidence and acute awareness of one’s surroundings; and general principles to instill leadership, discipline, and honor — these are excellent physical, mental, and character assets for men, women, and children alike. Islamic centers and masjids can serve their communities well by establishing such programs. This is a means for all of us to be better than the weak believers and be of those who are more beloved to Allah.