Friday, October 07, 2011

Martial arts and the Journey to Islam

I am honoured to have been mentioned in an article that my good friend, Daliah Merzaban wrote on martial arts and its intrinsic relationship to Islam. Thank you Daliah, it was an enjoyable process helping you in producing this article. The article can be found on Huffington Post here, and at Daliah's blog here.

Training at Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Seremban, Malaysia
Photo: Asma Faizal 

A close friend introduced me to the idea that practicing martial arts has the potential to assist a Muslim in achieving a higher spiritual connection with God. Since I had always associated martial arts with Asiatic culture and Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism, the connection with Islam did not immediately occur to me.

But after sitting in on one of my friend Imran’s Aikido and Karate classes at a dojo in the United Arab Emirates this month, the correlations began to unfold before my eyes. The mood was set when, just before starting two hours of rigorous and meticulous training, a number of students and the sensei assembled to pray Islam’s sunset prayer, known as maghrib.

Each technique they practised during the sessions that followed was precise, demanding mastery of the subtle movements of leg, arm, hand and back. Students of various backgrounds and faiths exhibited tremendous patience as they repeated these motions, striving to take any tiny step closer to precision of combat technique.

Basic Aikido movements. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia
Photo: Asma Faizal 

Aikido, which originated in Japan, is typically done in pairs and practitioners learn to defend themselves while protecting their attackers from injury. Karate emphasises hard training and precise movement using a series of punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes.

While learning defensive fighting skills is the core purpose of training, interactions between students were remarkably cordial. A deep sense of equality filled the room; no matter how advanced in skill an apprentice, young or old, happened to be, s/he made an effort to enrich the experience of peers. Whether the belts they wore around their waists were black, brown, purple or white, everyone appeared to derive some value from the session.

Sensei Gerard Ratnam with Aikido student at Shudokan
Photo: Asma Faizal 

This was inspiring for me because of the commonalities I saw with Islam. Muslims at varying stages along the spiritual path share a common ambition: to forge an intimate bond with the one Almighty God. Islam embodies an undeviating path to peace of mind, attained by aligning one’s physical, mental, financial, family and community affairs to this primary goal, which we should help each other work toward.

For a martial artist, the journey of perfecting technique doesn’t end with a black belt, it demands continual dedication and training, Imran told me later than evening. “Karate is like a pot of boiling water, and constant training is the fire that keeps the water boiling,” he said, citing wisdom from a prominent Karate instructor that can underlie both martial arts and Islamic devotion.

The comment brought to mind the concept of Al Insan Al Kamil in Islamic theology, describing the perfect being who has achieved unity with God in mind, body and soul. Attaining this level of consciousness demands a series of traits, such as steadfastness (istiqamah), self-inventory (muhasabah), improvement (tahsin) and humility – each honed to perfection.

Such traits are at the heart of martial arts as well, although a practitioner need not be driven, as Imran is, by a desire to please God. There are, furthermore, a few martial arts practices that go against sharia which, for instance, discourages blows to the face and bowing to other human beings.

Sitting in seiza. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia
Photo: Asma Faizal 

To bridge gaps inherent in some martial art forms and supplement his training, Imran added an exercise technique known as Senaman Tua, native to his homeland Malaysia, to his martial arts regimen. Most-easily understood as an Islamic form of yoga, Senaman Tua requires that in addition to physical development, students take a journey toward self-realisation.

One who trains in Senaman Tua will eventually have all the core skills to learn and master Silat, a martial art practised in Malaysia and Indonesia, rooted in Islam. The goal of each Silat practitioner is to improve their art for the sake of God, explained Mohd Nadzrin bin Abdul Wahab, Imran’s Senaman Tua instructor, who has offered Silat training in Malaysia since 2003.

Sensei Thamby Rajah, father of Malaysian Aikido, instructing me on the finer points of Ikkajo
Photo: Asma Faizal 

“The basic idea behind silat is softness is strength,” said Nadzrin, 34. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Nadzrin was drawn into Silat after seeing how Islam was woven into each lesson of his first guru, Muhammad Radzi Haji Hanafi. “Every other word” he uttered was an Islamic principle, related Nadzrin.

Silat teaches practitioners that they should dedicate their whole self, mind, body and soul to the intention of performing the art for the sake of God in order for the goal to be worthwhile. Apprentices should strive to be truthful, keep promises, and act with strong conviction without disrespecting their parents and teachers.

“Every martial technique depends on a preset, pre-thought movement of the human body,” explained Nadzrin, who has written extensively on Silat on a series of blogs. “A possible stumbling block to spiritual development is the practitioner's ascribing of his development or prowess to himself ... Thus, we are taught in Silat that all gerak(movement) belongs to Allah, The Mover, in every sense of the word.”

Children at play, Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia
Photo: Asma Faizal 

While certain varieties of Silat became controversial because they deviated from Islam, most Silat styles in Malaysia are sharia-compliant, he said. Some schools, meanwhile, have modified techniques used in other martial arts like Aikido and Taekwondo to ensure they comply with Islam by, for instance, including bows that do not reach the level of sujud, prostration in Islamic prayer. Silat and Senaman Tua styles are now offered in many countries, including the United States, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Singapore.

Yet Silat on its own is no replacement for a Muslim’s intellectual training in religion. It is rare to find instructors who are also qualified religious scholars, which had been commonplace between the 11th-19th centuries, Nadzrin said.

“I have discovered that the only way to learn Islam is to learn Islam directly, not going through the goggles of a martial art. Some martial arts teachers aren’t qualified to teach or misrepresent it. However, in martial arts, you get to see the practice of Islam in muamalat (interactions),” he said.

Islam, Arabic for ‘submission to God’, embodies an entire lifestyle whereby followers integrate acts of worship into everything they do, such that expressions of gratitude to God become the goal of each activity, even beyond the five daily prayers.

In the area of fitness, we are encouraged to live in a healthy, beneficial way, consistently keeping our egos and impulses in check. In one Hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised Muslims: "Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding”.

International students gather for Karate seminar in Kerala, India

Photo: Asma Faizal 

Martial arts help people attain these goals, according to Nadzrin, because with proper training they encourage alignment and coordination between mind and body. He said participants gain many benefits, including equilibrium, muscular strength, stamina, cardiovascular maintenance, hormonal balance, improved kinesthesis and their senses become more receptive.

When a Muslim’s body is healthy and fit, s/he is better equipped to, for instance, apply greater focus in prayer. In this context, one’s pursuit of fitness is not driven by a desire to feed one’s vanity and ego by attaining a toned figure or buff muscles, but rather to strengthen one’s body to be better able to practise faith.

Reflecting back to Imran’s training, I am impressed at how the mastery of combat techniques actually moves martial artists away from negative energies like anger and closer to the serenity inherent to the Islamic state of mind.

“Martial arts teach us awareness,” said Imran. “The more we train, the more aware we become. The more aware we become, the less likely we would get involved in a situation of conflict. So ironically, the more we train, the less use we will have for our violent techniques. We attain peace.”

Me training at Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Seremban, Malaysia
Photo: Asma Faizal  

*Special thank you to my wonderfully patient wife Asma Faizal for sharing photographs for this piece.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Aikido Bootcamp!

Sensei Noveen smsed a bunch of us on Wednesday and said there'd be an evening class if anyone was interested. My first couple of classes had gone quite well, so I thought why not. Little did I know what was waiting for me.

Turns out it was to be the Aikido torture bootcamp class from hell. Multiple flips, running laps back and fort across the dojo, endless Kihon Dosa. Just when everyone thought things were over, it suddenly was time for sit-ups, back and abdominal exercises.

Now I'm not complaining, it was more concern for my fellow Aikidoka, I mean, they're kids. Just look at the immense pain and torture in their faces.

Hmm ok, Azim doesn't look so bad, but maybe it's the angle...

Ok ok, I guess he did quite ok, but then there's Daria, poor poor girl...

Hmm... (she actually did a whole extra session before the actual one, unbelievable!)

Ah hah! As I suspected, half dead! Ok ok, he's just pretending, I forced him to pose that way.

Anyway that's not the point. I think the kids are secretly grateful that they have an amazing senior like me. The pinnacle of fitness and determination. Someone they can always look up to for inspiration...

Ok maybe not.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Aikido: Finally, my first class after a while

I finally went to Aikido class on Sunday morning. Pretty tiring, but worth it as we learnt new moves. Performed Kihon Dosa Renzoku, a combination of the six basic moves in Yoshinkan Aikido. Also practiced a couple of side entering throws, and some basic Judo take down and arm bar techniques.

My heartiest congratulations also goes to Sensei Thamby Rajah, who received an ANS (Ahli Setia Negeri Sembilan), at the Istana Seri Menanti on Thursday. It is recognition that is overdue, and totally deserved for his incredible list of achievements.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yoshinkan Aikido International Senshusei Course

International Senshusei Course

The Senshusei Course is a year long intensive aikido course for those who really want to dedicate themselves to Yoshinkan Aikido. The course is the only one of it's kind in the world having been originally developed in the early 1960's to train the Tokyo Metropolitan Riot Police in Yoshinkan Aikido as a traditional budo form. It continues to this day, with a small but elite group of men and women having had the distinction of graduating from the Senshusei course.*

*Excerpt from International Yoshinkan Aikido Federation website

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kendo Grading

Some pictures from my recent Kendo grading :)

Registration and number assignment

Woot! Ready to go!

My turn! (2nd from the right)

Younger (and higher ranking) kids, grading in armour

Waiting for results

Lowest ranked amongst the three

Moral Support

Woohoo! My results just got announced! :)

Sunday, July 08, 2007


On 07/07/07 I passed my Kendo grading... to 7th kyu :)

Kendo armour here I come!

Update: Just realised while looking at my photo that the number I was assigned also adds up to... 7! :)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Aikido: Hard Sessions

Migi Kamae

Aikido session yesterday was intense, and tough. Spirit seems to be strong in the dojo all round. Body aching all over, but it's all good, just hope to be ok for Kendo on Wednesday.

Focused a lot on Kihon Dosa, or basic movements, with an extra half hour drill at the end of class. Technique wise, learnt a move invented by Sensei Soh Har, who was there on the day to teach us! At the end of it, my legs were ready to give way, and fainting seemed to be a pleasant option at the time.

All worth it though, as at the end, Abang Zaki treated us all to some good food, as a way to celebrate his son's (Azizi) great performance in the Japan Open International Taekwondo Championship in Osaka recently. He received a gold and silver medal as well as the Best Performer Award! Well done Azizi! (Click here)


Sweet message from Awang

Thanks Abang Zaki!

Teachers, family, friends

Arrgh forgot to Photoshop my belt!

Soh Har Sensei

Thamby Sensei, Father of Malaysian Aikido

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Kendo: I <3 Kiri-kaeshi

Went to my second Kendo class since I got back from London today. First class last week was a bit slow, as I had to train with total noobs, doing basic swings (zzzz....) Today was soo much better! Trained with the seniors, met my old dojo mates, and got to do practice drills (waza-geiko) with the seniors. Did my fave drill, Kiri-kaeshi (see vid below) I like! Still kinda rusty, missing the target a few times, and need to focus on proper posture and form.

Still, was a good session, looking forward to next class.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Aikido: Yoshinkan Aikido demonstration

Aikido Yoshinkan (養神館, Yōshinkan, lit. House for Cultivating the Spirit) is a style of aikido founded by Gozo Shioda (1915-1994) after World War II.

Yoshinkan Aikido is occasionally called a "hard style" because the training methods are a product of the grueling period that Shioda spent as a student of Morihei Ueshiba. It is also generally closer to aikijujutsu than so-called "soft styles" of aikido, and has sharper, more angular movements. The unusual emphasis placed on correct form rather than correct flow and timing further contributes to its image as a "hard style." However, the merit of such terms as "hard" and "soft" is generally believed to lie on the superficial level of describing a style's "feel", rather than saying anything about the heart of the style itself.

Source: Wikipedia

Monday, May 07, 2007

Aikido: Sokumen Iriminage

Second class since I came back was good. Still feeling a bit slower and more sluggish than before, but much better than last week. Class also seems a bit more intense now, more drills, rolls and flips, which I love. Did a few techniques as usual, but concentrated on sokumen iriminage throws and a few variants. All in all, very satisfying, and can't wait for next class.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Aikido: Yubi Dori

Yubi Dori (Finger Lock)

Coming back soon and looking forward to resuming my Aikido training. A short clip of a practical use of Aikido for self defence, in this clip, controlling an agressor using his fingers.

Sensei Joe Thambu of Shudokan Aikido Melbourne


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kendo: UCL Kendo Club Pt 2

More Kirikaeshi practice (see Part 1), and head, hand and body strikes practice. Then today moved on to uchikomigeiko practice...


Uchikomi (single-step striking) practice is designed to allow students to attack a passive receiver. The receiver typically makes a target available to the student, who strikes and follows through just as if it were a real match. It is in uchikomi practice that the student perfects the coordination of sword stroke, body movement, and intent. The goal is to bring all one's physical and mental powers to bear upon the target at a precise moment in time.


Interesting, and more challenging. Lots of work still to be done, on everything from footwork to strikes and timing. Also learnt Hiki-men, attacking while moving backwards from a tsubazeriai (stand-off). Not as easy as how the senseis make it look tho.

Hiki-men (vid of kids as I could not find any better ones)

Stuart 'Gibbo' Gibson

Oo also found out that I actually have the privilege of training under Stuart Gibson, who is currently 4th time national champion and 2nd time British Open champion. He was also awarded the Fighting Spirit award at the World Championships in Taipei December 2006. Whoaaaaa! If even a little knowledge rubs off on me, I am very lucky indeed.

Stuart 'Gibbo' Gibson (tallest guy in the middle, standing)

Some useful phrases

Hiki-men - Strike to the head while moving backwards
Tsuba - Sword guard
Tsubazeriai - Sword guard against sword guard (stand-off before attack)

*Definition taken from

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kendo: UCL Kendo Club

Did Kiri-Kaeshi, the staple of Kendo practice. Involves hitting another person, which was a first for me. Only did basic solo practice swings before this. Felt weird at first, but I got into the swing of things (groan) towards the end.
Kiri-kaeshi: Basic strike to the head, followed by alternate left/right strikes to the head while moving (4 strikes forward, 5 strikes back).

"Relax your shoulders!"
"Shout louder!"
"Control with your left arm!"
"Footwork! Footwork! Footwork!"
All this and more on Day 1, and I think this was one of the lighter days. Looks like some tough classes coming up, but that can only be a good thing :)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Outing with me cuzzies

I heart my cousins, and they heart me :)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Raya Pics

Hi all!

Lazy to write as usual, so this is gonna be short and sweet. Summary of Raya in pics.





Some bunga api...


Woooo duit raya! (So happy, still got some this year woohoo!)

And finally, back to this... yeay!!

Selamat Hari Raya everyone!