In a dimly lit, dusty basement gym in Bethnal Green, a neighborhood in East London, sweat lingers in the air. Tawshif Salam, a small but well-built 38-year-old with broad shoulders and a scruffy hazelnut beard in a vintage black-and-white Adidas tracksuit, is mustering the energy he needs to complete a set of barbell cleans. He adjusts his feet as three men around him — all stocky and sporting similarly shaped beards — shout words of encouragement. “Come on, akhi!” one calls out, using the Arabic term for “brother.” He’s recording Salam’s lift on his phone; later, he’ll post the video on his Instagram page. “This is easy work, bruv. Easy. Come on!”
Salam breathes deeply, revolves the palms of his hands over the barbell and jumps and lands on his feet, the weight resting under his chin. He drops it, and hugs each of the men, a celebration of his personal best. Taking pictures of him sitting on top of the barbell, they put the equipment away, change into their thobes — long, loose-fitting religious garments — and head to the nearby mosque for evening prayers.
Salam and his gym buddies are part of a WhatsApp group called “Sunnah Fitness,” a group of 10 Muslim men mainly in their early 20s and late 30s who organize meet-ups in gyms around London to lift together. Sunnah is an Islamic term that refers to the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In a theologic sense, it’s evoked when talking about the habits and obligations of Muslims, and the behavior they should strive to emulate.
For most Muslims, that means praying five times a day, fasting and abstaining from pork and alcohol. But Sunnah can mean different things to different people — especially depending upon how religious they are. For example, for more orthodox Muslims, following the way of the Prophet doesn’t just constitute explicit acts of religious devotion, it also involves small daily acts such as sleeping on the right side of the bed or using oil when washing your hair. The general idea is that while adopting these actions isn’t a religious necessity, they can help a Muslim become closer to God.
That’s why Sunnah Fitness isn’t another run-of-the-mill fitness group. Yes, on the surface these men do everything you’d expect of beefed-up gym bros — i.e., chug protein shakes and amino acid capsules and eat perfectly measured portions of chicken and vegetables out of Tupperware — but their reasons to get stronger aren’t aesthetic. “None of us are here because we want to look good on Instagram,” Salam laughs. “For us, getting strong is a religious duty. It’s important for Muslim men in particular to follow the example of the Prophet when it comes to physical fitness.”
Though Salam says he regularly played soccer and badminton growing up, he only began lifting weights a few years ago, around the time he became more serious about religion. “My wife had given birth to my daughter, and obviously when you become a dad, you want to make sure you’re physically able to look after the baby,” he tells me. “You also want to raise them in the religion. So I had to ask whether I was practicing Islam to my full ability.”
As a result, Salam began praying and attending his mosque more regularly. It was there one night in March 2016 that he started thinking about his physical wellbeing. In particular, he was reading a passage from Sahih Muslim, among the oldest, most important Islamic texts. The exact line that caught his eye translates to: “While there is good in both, the strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer.”
To Salam, the line wasn’t just referring to his spirituality, but also his physical strength. “If you look at all the notable Muslims who were with the Prophet,” he says, “they were physically fit. They were fighters. Men like Umar bin al-Khattaab and Ali bin Abi Talib. They needed to be able to defend the religion, to defend their communities, and they placed a lot of importance on men being physically strong.”
“But very few guys know this,” he adds. “I didn’t know anything about lifting or strength training when I started, and no one was taught about it when we were growing up as Muslims. All most people are taught is how to pray, and how to read the Quran. But it’s important to realize that being physically strong is also pleasing to Allah, too.”
He, however, is doing his best to change that. Namely, he actively encourages other young men at the mosque to take up lifting as well — a push that’s been received with great interest. On Saturdays, he says, “a lot of young guys come into the gym to learn how to do their lifts properly, and how to build muscle, for similar reasons as to why I started lifting weights.”
More broadly — thanks in large part to social media — weightlifting and strength training is becoming more prevalent in Muslim youth culture writ large. Ummah.com, one of the world’s most popular forums for Muslims, regularly features threads and discussions about what constitutes the “Sunnah male physique.” (Most users suggest that lean, muscular bodies fit the desired aesthetic.)
Meanwhile, Instagram and YouTube accounts like Muslim Muscle post training tips, nutritional information and videos on how to lift weights specifically tailored to Muslim audiences, ranging from halal ways of getting enough protein to training during Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and water for more than half the day.
Notably, the channel combines the modern gym routines that permeate fitness magazines and litter men’s fitness YouTube pages, with Islamic advice to “grow your beards brothers. The beard is the Islamic identity of the men of Islam.”
But the proliferation of fitness content geared toward Muslim men is as much about community as it is religion. “Many young Muslims feel isolated when they go to normal gyms,” says Mahbub Hussain, a strength coach based in Coventry, a town near Birmingham. Hussain, 43, has been strength training for more than a decade, and also teaches young Muslims how to lift properly and maintain their bodies. For him, mainstream gyms “don’t offer support to guys who are new to fitness, and it’s very much you have to train on your own unless you have the money to pay for a personal trainer, which few young lads have.”
“The internet is another issue, because you see lots of young [men] get their health advice from Facebook and YouTube videos and a lot of that is crap,” he continues. “So for young Muslims around the country, they need to have people in the community who know what they’re doing, who can lead them on the right path. It’s like when you go to a mosque — you’ll listen to the imam because he knows what he’s talking about, you don’t listen to any random guy. The same goes for the gym.”
Moreover, there are parts of fitness culture that can conflict with the Muslim faith. Music is one example. Some Muslims believe it to be forbidden. Another, Hussain says, is male modesty. “Men shouldn’t be wearing tight clothing, or clothing that’s revealing of their private parts,” he explains. “They also can’t wear clothing that shows off their bodies. So even showing off their muscles is prohibited. Obviously that’s hard to stick to when so much of men’s fitness is about showing off, especially when you see so many young guys generally showing off their gains on Instagram.”
“We live in an Instagram age, where much of life is about aesthetics and how you present yourself,” says Amanullah De Sondy, senior lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork in Ireland, and the author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities. “So the appeal of fitness and gaining muscle for young Muslim guys has similarities with why any other man in their 20s or 30s would want to work out.”
He adds that while the warrior mythos of historical Islamic figures can provide a source of inspiration for Muslims who want to emulate their physique, attraction to gym culture also represents a “changing way that young people are thinking about their faith.” He explains, “Back in the time of the Prophet, there obviously wasn’t a gym. The men were strong because they were warriors. They were in battles, and they were performing jihad, a holy war. And at the time, jihad was considered just that — a physical battle to establish Islam. So in that case, having a strong body was essential.”
“Nowadays, that’s not the case,” he continues. “No one goes to the gym to train for war, and in light of recent events like those in Syria, you find that more young people are distancing themselves from that kind of thinking.” Instead, De Sondy suggests, guys like Salam see fitness more as a way to improve themselves as Muslims. “Islam is a very physical religion. When you pray, you stand, you prostrate, you kneel — so there’s a level of physical fitness that requires you to perform your obligatory forms of worship. At the same time, Islam also places an emphasis on having a healthy body and a healthy mind — that the two work together and you can’t have one without the other.”
Like he mentioned before, Salam feels this best explains his relationship to strength training, and he hopes that by thinking about fitness as part of religious worship, he can set a good example for his daughter and the next generation of young British Muslims. “At the moment, strength training is still considered to be a ‘weird’ sport in our community. People see it as something you do when you want to be a bodybuilder,” Salam says as we walk from the gym to the mosque. “I want to help people see that when you’re stronger, you feel better and you enjoy worshipping more.”
“From my perspective,” he says, “your physical strength is essential to keeping Islam strong.”