There has been lots of great commentary on the UFC match between Khabib and McGregor, especially on race and power, but I’d like to make an intervention in an internal Muslim debate centering on the Islamic prohibition of “striking the face.” I believe there is a crucial component to this issue which commentators miss.
To start, I would like for us to conceive of martial arts in the Caucasus as an act of religious devotion. This framework helps to understand the deeper significance it carries and (as I argue) how it serves as a mechanism for articulating an indigenous Islam in the face of state repression.
For Muslim men in the Caucasus, martial arts and wrestling (broadly defined) are central mediums through which they are able to contest the social, religious, & political limitations imposed on them by an authoritarian state apparatus seeking to regulate, circumscribe, and/or suppress any form of Islamic symbolism, behavior, and practice in the public (sometimes even private) arena.
Because of the heavy hand of the state, martial arts becomes the chief means through which communal bonds of brotherhood are formed and strengthened; the spaces where it is practiced become centers for the preservation and generational transmission of a conscious Muslim identity; and at its core, it becomes a means of survival, affirmation of oneself, and a form of subversive activism against the state.
Now, one may say that “activism” must be deliberate & organized, with a clearly defined methodology toward a specific, tangible set of goals. But the very fact that martial arts in the Caucasus does not fit neatly into such a model is precisely the point. To apply a term coined by Middle East scholar Asef Bayat, it is a “social non-movement.” Bayat describes “social non-movement” as “the discreet and prolonged ways in which the poor struggle to survive and to better their lives by quietly impinging on the propertied and powerful, and on society at large.”
Khabib comes from a tradition where martial arts is not only a cultural inheritance, but a means to express religious devotion, and as I argue using “social non-movement” as a conceptual framework: a type of activism. For Muslims in the Caucasus, the very act of asserting this tradition in the world is thus both religious devotion and activism. Such a way to “be Muslim” is unconventional to those outside of this context, but perfectly organic to those within it.
Thus, a strictly “legalese” approach devoid of social or historical or context (citing the general prohibition on striking the face) comes off not only as dismissive, but as insufficient to serve as the final word on the issue. Indeed, I do not believe it far-fetched to suggest that Islam would have waned away from the hearts of people had it not been for the availability of this avenue of religious expression. Certainly the spiritual harm of that prospect far outweighs the general prohibition of “striking the face.”
The human experience is complex, and generalities must always account for specifics. I have yet to find an analysis that accounts for this context.