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A World Cup clash in Qatar

What happens when Islamic law and global sports collide?

A man takes a selfie in front of a FIFA World Cup sign in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 11. Associated Press/Photo by Hassan Ammar

A World Cup clash in Qatar
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Every four years, billions of soccer fans around the globe eagerly anticipate and closely watch the World Cup. The event lasts for about a month and is one of the most important sport festivals, with billions of dollars invested, spent, and gained. While in the United States the focus has often tended to be on other sports, in recent decades the World Cup has caught attention here as well.

The World Cup competition will begin in about a week in Qatar—a Muslim-majority country that claims to apply Islamic laws and adhere to strict Muslim cultural values. Over a million international visitors are expected to travel to Qatar to enjoy outstanding soccer. Many of these fans are accustomed to looking for partying and drinking, among other things, which clearly collide with Islamic values and rules.

In following the updates of the last few days before the event begins, we can see a clear tension in Qatar between its strict adherence to conservative Islamic rules and its hopes to promote Islam as an appealing world religion in a secular age.

Some Qatari Muslim writers openly recommended promoting Islam among the soccer fans during the event, encouraging the government to display Muhammad’s sayings publically. Of course, these alleged sayings will be carefully selected. They must present a version of Islam that appeals to tolerance, love, and coexistence. Any statement that underlines the exclusivity of Islam, the logic goes, is unneeded and can definitely wait.

In the streets of Doha, Qatar’s capital, one of the displayed murals claims that Muhammad said, “He who is not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully.” Another claims that he had said, “Every good deed is a charity.”

The goal of these murals is to introduce multitudes of soccer fans to Islam, which has at its roots the major religious duty of calling non-Muslims to believe in Allah and Muhammad as his prophet.

Of course, these selected sayings fit a version of Islam that appeals to public demands for a form of diluted Islamic claims. Not only can we not be certain that Muhammad actually said these, but other sayings attributed to him—in the most trusted Islamic texts—cannot be promoted publicly. That would not fly.

Qatar wants to promote Islam, but the country is stuck as its version of Islam cannot appeal to liberal demands.

You won’t find a mural highlighting his reported saying, “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you [women]. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” Nor will you encounter a public display of his reported statement “of the deficiency of a woman’s mind” and his prediction of fighting the Jews: “You will fight against the Jews and you will kill them until even a stone would say: Come here, Muslim, there is a Jew (hiding himself behind me); kill him.”

These statements cannot be publically displayed as they violate the Qatari goal of promoting a progressive Islam to international soccer fans. This is clearly evident in a growing public clash over homosexuality in Qatar before the event starts next week.

Reuters reports that Qatar World Cup ambassador says that homosexuality is a “damage in the mind.” He declares that the visitors of Qatar “have to accept our rules here,” as homosexuality “is haram,” meaning legally and doctrinally forbidden.

His opinion is theologically correct according to Islam, but not politically correct, according to progressives in the West. This describes the severe tension taking place in front of our eyes as the World Cup begins. Qatar wants to promote Islam, but the country is stuck as its version of Islam cannot appeal to liberal demands. Not only is homosexuality illegal in the strictly conservative Qatar, but it is also forbidden in Islam and punishable by death.

In response to the ambassador’s statements, Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser stated, “Obviously these comments are terrible.” To comfort the soccer fans visiting Qatar, Faeser said that Qatari local interior minister and prime minister assured her of the protection of LGBTQ fans.

There is no doubt that Qatar is in a tough spot. If the country adheres to its version of strict Islamic rules, many of the demands of the soccer fans cannot be met. If they allow drinking and homosexual behavior, for instance, they are in clear violation of Islam’s doctrines and commands.

The world is watching as Qatar struggles between its commitment to a strictly conservative Islam and the loud and clear secular demands of the day.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to watching some riveting soccer matches.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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