By James M. Dorsey
Sunni scholars in Saudi Arabia and their Shiite counterparts in Iran may be at war over who is a Muslim, but there is one thing they agree on: soccer detracts from religious obligations. Iran, in the latest skirmish between soccer and Islam, is debating the propriety of playing a 2018 World Cup qualifier against South Korea on October 11, the day Shiites celebrate Tasua, the 9th day of the month of Moharram, one of the holiest days in the Shiite calendar on which the faithful commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.
The Iranian debate erupted six years after Saudi clerics parked flatbed trucks in front of Internet cafés to persuade fans to break away from watching matches being played in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa at prayer time. Imams rolled out red carpets to entice fans to pray.
The incident highlighted the concern of conservative men of the cloth irrespective of what branch of Islam they adhere to who see soccer as competition because it is one of the few things that can evoke the kind of deep-seated passion in the Middle East and North Africa that religion does.
Saudi-Iranian tensions, the Sunni-Shiite affinity with regard to soccer notwithstanding, erupted on the pitch earlier this year when Saudi clubs refused to play Asian Football Confederation (AFC) matches in the Islamic republic because of deteriorating relations between the two countries as a result of a struggle for regional hegemony.
The Iranian debate was also being waged three years after Iran and Saudi Arabia played another crucial game days after President Hassan Rouhani was elected into office. Iranian authorities worried at the time that the match could become a venue for anti-government protests if Mr. Rouhani were to be defeated by a hardliner.
In the end, the match provided an opportunity to celebrate two victories: Mr. Rouhani's electoral triumph and the success of the Iranian national team.
The current debate erupted when Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a former head of the Iranian judiciary and ex-hard line member of the Assembly of Experts that elects and monitors Iran's Supreme Leader, took Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Mahmoud Goudarzi to task for allowing next week's match to go ahead on Tasua. A stark critic of Mr. Rouhani's more liberal social and cultural policies, Ayatollah Yazdi currently heads the Society of Seminary Teachers in the holy city of Qom.
The date for the match was fixed long before it was clear on what days the commemoration of Imam Hussein's death would fall. Precise dates of Muslim holy days are often determined by moon sightings.
Deputy parliament speaker Ali Motahari, scion of another prominent Shiite scholar, ridiculed the ayatollah's criticism, according to Al Monitor, in an open letter. "Imagine that Iran scored against South Korea and some people cheered. Does that mean that the people are cheering the martyrdom of Imam Hussein? If someone after years meets his mother, father or child on the eve of Ashura, should he then not be happy and smiling to avoid violating the sanctity of the imam?" Mr. Motahari asked.
In an apparent understanding of the power of soccer, Mr. Motahari warned that Ayatollah Yazdi's approach would ultimately mean soccer's defeat of Islam. The ayatollah's position, he said was comparable to "the activities of the Catholic Church in medieval times that resulted in the Europeans' escape from religion."
The debate has sparked a rumour mill of unconfirmed reports on how the Iranian soccer association may be trying to mediate the opposing positions. Various reports suggested that Iran had requested that Korean fans restrain their expressions of support for their team or that the Korean national team wear dark coloured shirts rather than their traditional red ones as an acknowledgement of the mourning of the death of Imam Hussein.
Ambivalence towards soccer among Saudi and Iranian scholars is deep-rooted.
Soccer's popularity in Iran forced the mullahs shortly after their toppling of the shah in 1979 to drop their initial opposition to the game. The mullah's hesitancy toward the sport was expressed in a pamphlet published a year after the revolution by the government's propaganda arm that argued that money spent on soccer would be better invested in social and economic development.
Saudi Arabia's religious establishment has similarly struggled with soccer. The official fatwa website of the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (Fatwa) has endorsed the game but banned competitions - a ruling the Saudi government has consistently ignored.
To Saudi Arabia's Muslim scholars Iran's Shiites are heretics. Iran denounces Saudi Arabia's puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as the inspiration of Sunni Muslim jihadism. There seems little that the two countries and their religious establishment can agree on, which makes the meeting of the minds on soccer all the more remarkable.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.