Muslim traditions in horse racing

Feb 02 2009

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Omani women take part in the annual Royal Horse Racing Festival in Muscat. The Arab peninsular is famous for the horses breed by Bedouin Arabs. Over the centuries and through selective breeding the Bedouins developed an Arab horse which was tough and yet beautiful and which today form part of the breeding pedigree of European race horses. —AFP
THERE is a general misunderstanding in our society that horse racing is unlawful in Islam. Reason being, it involves betting which comes under the definition of gambling – an unlawful transaction according to the Islamic Law. This misunderstanding is based on the incomplete knowledge of the teachings of Islam.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) who not only allowed horse racing but practically took part in it, had this aspect of the issue in his view. He, by creating the institution of ‘Mohallil’ for this purpose, converted the betting on horse races into prize-money.
However before explaining the details of this institution, it seems pertinent to point to the important position enjoyed by this animal in various human societies.
Horse had been an important part of all the ancient societies. It was only an important instrument of battle but also most of the day to day activities of those societies were centred round it. The climate of Arabia was very suitable for the breeding of horses and the Arabian horses were and still are famous throughout the world for their best quality. It encouraged the Arabs not only to breed best quality horses for their personal use but also for export to other parts of the world. Eventually it resulted into their natural love for this animal.  So much so that they preferred it over their children. There are cases in the classical Arabic literature when the Arabs deprived their children of their share of food and provided it to their horses.
Islam did not place restriction on this love of the Arabs for their horses. Instead to encourage horse breeding, it enhanced the status of horse in the Muslim society. So much so, that Almighty Allah vowed by the racing horses in the following verses of the Holy Quran: ‘By the snorting coursers, Striking sparks of fire. And scouring to the raid of dawn. Then, therewith, with their trail of dust. Cleaving as one, the centre of the foe.’ (C.l-5).
Due to this importance of the animal, the teachings of Islam, had laid great stress on the proper breeding of horses. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) took every possible measure for maintaining the interest of the Arabs in horse-breeding. Of the three sports allowed in Islam, one consisted of various games related to horses including the horse races.
According to an authentic Hadith, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) brought up horses for this purpose and personally arranged their race. The Hadith containing details about this race has been narrated by almost all the authentic collections of Hadith such as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. (Nail Al-Autar vol: Vm, p-81).
In another report by Hazrat Abu Hurrarah, which has been carried by all the six authentic books of Hadith, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) allowed as a prize money in only three cases i.e. races of the camels, horses and spear-playing which is known in our society as Naiza Bazi. (Ibid) Thus the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) such things for the breeding of horses which ordinarily seemed unusual to the laymen.
In these Ahadith, the Arabic word ‘Sabaqa’ has been used for such a prize-winning horse race.  According to the Arabic lexicographers, it is a race in which the winning horse is paid the agreed money of a bet in the shape of a prize. After quoting this definition, Imam Shaukanai, the author of ‘Nail al-Autar’ remarks that there is consensus of all the jurists of Islam that such a type of race is allowed in Islam. (Ibid) on the very next page of his book, he has carried another Hadith reported by Hazrat Abdullah Bin Umar that the Holy Prophet himself arranged a horse race and allowed betting as prize-money for the winning horse. This Hadith has been reported by Imam Ahamd Bin Hanbal in his Masnad and Imam Abu Daud in his Sunnan. (Ibid, p-82) It is apparent from these details that the betting in the shape of prizes on the horse races was allowed to encourage the believers to take interest in the proper breeding of good horses.
According to the Holy Quran, gambling was an evil habit of the Arab society. The Arabs used the horse-races for the purpose of gambling also. One party was always the looser while the other was winner and gainer. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) disallowed such type of betting. However to make this transaction lawful, he suggested that if a third person or a party without any betting be included in the race, then the betting of the first two parties would become lawful and considered as a prize. This third person or the party was given the title of ‘MohalliP i.e. the one who makes the transaction of betting-cum-prize money lawful.
Hadith about the legality of ‘Mohallil’ has been reported by Imam Abu Daud on the report of  Hazrat Abu Hurrarah. (Ibid, p-84).
As ‘Mohallil’ was an important person for legalizing the betting and converting it into prize-money, the Muslim jurists had explained it in greater details with practical examples. The chapter on horse-races in all the books of Islamic jurisprudence starts with the importance of the horse for the Muslim society. It has been mentioned there that for the defence of the Islamic State, breeding of good horses is obligator on all Muslims and for this purpose horse racing is allowed in Islamic society. Details of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence about this issue are similar but for our purpose, the details contained in the books of Hanafite jurisprudence would be sufficient as this school is followed by the majority of the Muslims in our country.
These are as under: ‘Everybody should know that the betting for rewarding the winning horse in the horse race is only allowed if it is offered from one party of the race. If the party betting the prize-money, itself wins the race then it will retain its betting money itself and the loosing party would not have to pay anything. The other legal form of the betting is that a third person offers a bet-money for the winning horse. But it would be illegal if both the parties taking part in the race equally betted for the purpose as it falls under the definition of gambling. However if a third person or a party enters the contest without any betting, then the whole transaction would become legal provided the horse of this third party is equal to the horses of the first two parties in all respects. In Islamic terminology, this third person or party is called ‘Mohallil’ i.e. the one who makes the transaction lawful. In this situation if the horse of the ‘Mohallil’ wins the race, then all the betmoney will go to him as a prize and if one of the first two parties wins, it would not demand anything from the ‘Mohallil’ but instead may take all the bet-money offered as prize-money. In this type of horse race, the ‘Mohallil’ has to pay nothing. However he gains if his horse wins the race and loses nothing in any case. (Al-Fiqah ala Mazahib al-Urba vol: II, p-86, 87).
The jurists of the Jafriah school of jurisprudence also hold the same views and their views have been incorporated in almost all the authentic works of their school. A look on ‘Fiqah al-Imam Jafar Sadiq’ volume IV, p-26 (Beirut Edition) will be sufficient to convince the readers about the legality of horse races in an Islamic society. In the light of this verdict of Imam Jafar Sadiq Imam Khumini has allowed continuing horse races in the Islamic Iran after fulfilling the conditions details of which have been given above. In short all the Muslim jurists agree that for creating interest in the proper breeding of horses, horse races and other games connected with this animal are allowed in Islam.
It may be mentioned here that inspite invention of deadly weapons in this age, the need of horse for defence of the country can not be denied. But it is unfortunate that our horse-breeders have replaced their horses with cars. It has badly affected the breeding of this animal in our society. It is therefore imperative that steps should be taken to check this unhealthy trend and to maintain the interest of the traditional breeders; some incentives should be offered to them. This incentive can be provided by encouraging sports related with horses on national level and imposing ban on the free import of cars in the country.