top of page

Sport along the Silk Road: Faith & Football, Professor Leif Stenberg

Professor Leif Stenberg is the Dean of the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC). His latest research has been on the various intersections between football, religion and social identities. He recently organised an AKU-ISMC conference on the topic in May 2022, with an edited volume forthcoming in 2023. Professor Stenberg has recently published a co-edited a volume with Professor Philip Wood on the politics of studying Islam entitled What is Islamic Studies? He is also the author of AKU-ISMC’s new book, Poet and Businessman: Abd al-Aziz al-Babtain and the Formation of Modern Kuwait.

We talk to Professor Stenberg about his academic career, faith and football and sport along the Silk road.

What led to your interest in Islamic history and pursuing a career in academia?

I grew up in a family who shared an interest in world politics. My upbringing cultivated an interest in world politics, people in countries far away from my own, travelling, and an openness to various cultures and religions. After finishing school, I worked for several years, before beginning university. I began my studies in a programme devoted to the study of the Arab world in past and present, including the Arabic language. To these studies I added Sociology, more Arabic, and History of religions.

A paper I wrote on the history of Afghanistan was liked by the Professor in Islamology, Jan Hjärpe. He suggested that I should pursue a PhD in Islamology under his supervision. I was very happy to do so, and I defended my thesis entitled “The Islamization of Science: Four Muslim Positions Developing an Islamic Modernity” in 1996. Since then, I have been fortunate to work at many universities and to receive several research grants. In the “Acknowledgements” in my most recent book “Poet and Businessman: Abd al-Aziz al-Babtain and the Formation of Modern Kuwait”, I state that I have not said no to any opportunity in my work life, and today I think of my life as a series of coincidences. Luckily, they have mostly been good ones.

Today, I find myself to be in a privileged position, where I can work on topics that are very close to my heart. Therefore, I have chosen to study the relationships and intersections between Football and Religion. My answers to the questions below are only examples, and they merely scratch the surface of my thoughts on the role of football across the world. Hence, there is a lot more to say, and it is my hope that future research will dig deeper into the matter of football and religion to analyse and discuss contemporary societies.

How did you embark on your role as Dean of Aga Khan University International-Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations?

I became the founding director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Lund University, Sweden, in 2007. In 2009, we received a large grant to build a research centre focusing on the contemporary Middle East. We were a very small centre at the start but expanded quickly. We had strong support from the university leadership until 2015, and very quickly became an internationally recognised, strong research and teaching environment. A new university leadership, appearing in 2015, reduced their support of the CMES. They also had new ideas concerning the structuring the CMES that my colleagues and I simply thought was the wrong way forward.

In the middle of the turmoil at Lund University, I got a phone call from a recruitment agency asking if I was interested in applying for the job at Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC). I consulted my wife, I also had one of my sons studying in London at the time, and we decided to take the opportunity if I was appointed. It was a long process (which included many interviews); however, I successfully got the position and began my work at AKU-ISMC in April 2017.

In recent decades, football has challenged other sports and has become a global dominant force particularly when it comes to finances and popularity. How does this impact faith communities?

It is true that the beautiful game of football has undergone considerable change in recent decades. With millions worldwide watching and playing the sport daily, it has become a large international and highly profitable industry. But beyond the world of televised professional football, financial interests and a sport mediated by corporate broadcasting organisations, there is a web of complexity to be delineated if the desire is to understand the role of football in contemporary societies.

The impact for religious communities can be detected and analysed on many interrelated levels. Historically, religious communities were linked to football in the sense that several famous football clubs in Europe were started by Christian churches. In areas colonised by Britain, football was also part of a missionary conquest; the game, how it was played in a physical manner and its rules, were seen as a tool to teach moral lessons to local populations. In contemporary football, a part of a missionary activity persists, but other leaders of other religions have also understood the power of football. Today, religious denominations organise sports events and football tournaments to engage with their followers, especially youth. Linked to this is also the role of religious communities to promote a healthy life among believers. Most religious leaders realise that to engage their followers, the religion they represent should be part of the present and reflect the interests of their communities. To be part of the global football excitement becomes a matter of self-representation and how religious leaders would like their religion to be perceived.

Sport and football are also a dilemma for religious leaders. There are several examples of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who are not convinced that football is a good thing. Their concerns revolve around similar themes, such as that playing and watching football takes precedence over religious practices, and the question of whether girls and women should play football or not. In the latter case, it is mainly about if playing football takes women away from the duties ascribed to them by their religion and if playing football or watching football is transgressing religiously motivated and justified gender barriers. A point in these discussions is that there are no commonly agreed standpoints among religious leaders in any religion on football. How to relate to football is a matter of interpretation and context, and that has generated many different opinions on what a religion has to say on the topic.

Football today is not only a dominant financial player, clubs across the world are also supported by religious and ethnic communities and are represented at various political levels. Is football associated with identity politics?

The connection between identity politics in various forms and football is strong, in both the past and present. To support a football club can be linked to a proclaimed identity of a neighbourhood, a city, a region, or a nation. More recently, football clubs have become international communities with fans across the world. Hence, players, clubs and fans and their identity constructions become significant in the framework of how identity is formed.

The points that can be made are many and divergent. They include the current manager of Manchester City, Pep Guardiola, and his support for Catalan independence, as well as the way the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran realised the importance of sport in cultivating a belonging and support for the Islamic Republic after their victory against the USA in the World Cup in 1998. From a historic perspective, football has always been connected to religious identities, ethnicities, and class. Beyond the actual history of clubs, this is also visible in symbols and colours of clubs.

Clubs are defined as Catholic, Shi‘a, Lutheran, Sunni, or Orthodox, but also as working class or more elite and business oriented. The Lebanese football league is good example of how clubs and their following are linked to religious and ethnic groups in a society that follows the general ethno-religious diversion of the country. The most referred to example in this framework is the connection between the al-Ahed Sports Club and the Hezbollah. Another example, in a neighbouring context, is the Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem and its attachment to Jewishness and to right wing politics in Israel. A third example of football and identity politics is the linking in Europe between clubs, especially parts of their fan base, and political sentiments such as the left-wing Union Berlin (Germany), Livorno (Italy) and Rayo Vallecano (Spain) and right-wing nationalist clubs Lazio (Italy), Olympiakos FC (Greece), and Zenit St Petersburg (Russia).

The aim in this context is to state that clubs, fans, and players are part of identity constructions, and they can promote the content and direction of how identities are shaped. However, ideas about what is at the heart of an identity may change. Hence, the role of football in identity politics is dependent on the context and, for example, if football, clubs, fans and players, are drivers behind change or if they are promoters of a status quo. On this point, I think it is important to say that football and footballers are not necessarily progressive.

Organisations like the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) can perhaps be seen as conservative regarding the opportunities football conveys to promote social change. At the same time, many wealthy top players in the European leagues support projects regarding education and health in their countries of origin that can influence identity politics and even, as in the case of George Weah who became the President of Liberia in 2018, support players political careers after the retire as footballers.

You are also interested in the links between sport and national identity along the Silk road – can you tell us more about this?

This idea developed due to an exhibition of photos taken by Christopher Wilton-Steer during his travel along the Silk Road. Inspired by his photos of everyday life in the countries he visited, I started to think about a research project in which football can be a lens to study current developments in various societies. The Silk Road is certainly many roads and, consequently, I have constructed a Silk Road that stretches from Istanbul to Western China. In the project, the thinking around what is going on in football mirrors various discussions happening in different states. In the portrayal and analysis of a few football clubs in Istanbul, the ambition and engagement of the state and the role of religion is scrutinised. In the case of Iran, football becomes a platform to examine gender questions. In Kyrgyzstan, football is a tool used to examine developments in a post-Soviet society, and Pakistan is an example in which I focus on the recent objective to start a new franchise football league in a country that football has not yet fully conquered. This touches upon financial aspects, but also on statements from religious leaders on football and women’s football. In this context, I am also discussing the role of football as an opportunity structure for young women in the North of Pakistan, who through their football skills can receive sports scholarship at universities across the country.

In all the cases, Turkey, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and in western China, national identities are important and discussed. In these states, the considerations concerning national identity are not conducted in a similar way, but in all cases, they are linked to religion. Hence, the idea is to study the intersection between nationalism, religion, and football alongside developments in society. The aim is to comprehend the social, financial, political, and religious role football can play in the modern history of a country.

How does football create communities?

In Europe, football has been part of the development and organisation of communities since the industrial revolution. Clubs were at the soul and heart of neighbourhoods and cities, uniting people from various strands in life. Clubs had, and still have, identities connecting them to religious communities such as Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, and to working class and sometimes even more precisely to a profession like the dock workers at the Isle of Dogs in London and their support for Millwall FC. The international and financial success of football in recent decades have made the biggest and most successful clubs’ global brands and businesses. A similar historic development can be seen in the states mentioned above as in former Soviet republics, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. In these states, we also find clubs connected to a specific sector of society such as railroad workers, police force, army, a bank, an industry, and other commercial companies. Hence, the history of football is intimately related to the shaping of communities since the second half of the 19th century.

Football fans have over the years become more organised. Today, in a world in which identities are multiple, being a football fan is one identity of several, and a belonging to one of many communities an individual is part of. At the same time, for many current fans of football, the commercial success and globalisation of a club’s fan base is also a threat, understood by some fans as diluting the feeling of community and belonging among the fans coming from a neighbourhood or the city of the club, and families that have supported the same football team for generations. Today, clubs of a reasonable standing usually have several communities among their fans such as the ultras, the official supporter clubs, or the local, national, or global business community supporting the club. To be a football fan can also extend beyond the support of a specific club and can be the glue that binds people together. This was evident in the Gezi protests in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2013 in which fans of all three big Istanbul clubs Besiktas, Fenerbache and Galatasaray, especially the Carsi, the ultras of Besiktas, came together and were very active in the largest public protests in Turkey since the 1970s. The role of football fans has also been highlighted regarding the protests around the Tahrir square in Cairo against the Egyptian government led by President Mubarak.

Drawing on the example of Turkey, many of the devoted fans of the biggest clubs can be seen as representing a secular opposition to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of President Erdogan. At the same time, President Erdogan is rubbing shoulders with famous footballers like the German-Turkish player, Mesut Özil. Hence, football is related to the initiative by Erdogan’s government to control cultural production, arts, and sport. This statement builds on the idea of the Turkish republic to employ sport as a paradigmatic example of the state’s modernisation process. However, in this case, the aim is to regard cultural production, including football, as a tool to create a community of virtuous Muslims. There are many other examples linked to national and international politics in which football play a role. The above mentioning of how the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran attempts to translate the public support for the national team into a support for the government is one example. Another is the discussion around the Syrian national team and if it is a force that can contribute to the unity of the country or if it is just another tool of the regime to create support for the repressive government led by President Bashar al-Asad. A third example is the recent victory of England in the women’s Euro 2022 and how the comments and the celebrations following the success of the English women’s team takes a nationalistic colour.

Finally, it should also be mentioned how football can create and strengthen the feeling of community on a local level. Here, I am referring to support for the struggling village team, the successful team of the school, or to teams that represent a particular group like the London based Sisterhood FC and their ambition to give Muslim girls wearing the hijab an opportunity to play the game they love.

Can football be used as a tool to build understanding in wider society?

There are many examples of how football is a tool in building understanding in societies. Currently, projects that concern football, use the popularity of the game and the fact that it is easily organised to improve integration, mental and physical health status of children, develop creativity and create a sense of joy in a safe environment. The NGO Fútbol Más is a foundation that strives to create community cohesion focusing on children in vulnerable environments. At the same time, the NGO train neighbourhood leaders with the ambition to make them into role models for children. Currently this NGO works in 10 countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, but also in France and Spain. As stated above, one can find similar projects in many countries and in migrant dominated suburban areas in European cities.

On a local level, most of the professional British clubs today have a Community Trust and charity support associated with the club. The ambition can differ, but commonly the Trusts works to provide sporting opportunities, taking health initiatives, support homeless through food donations, develop the opportunities for disabled to play football, and encourage the development of women’s football. The idea is to anchor the football club in the local environment and in dialogue with the broader community contribute to the positive development of the local society surrounding the club. This also strengthens the local fan base, and for the largest clubs it can be understood as a work that relates to a local as well as an international fan community. The bigger clubs also seek a global footprint in which they support local charities or projects.

In the nexus of football and politics, the sport can also contribute to build understanding between states. One famous comment regarding the clash between Iran and the USA in 1998 concluded that the football match achieved more understanding between the two countries than 20 years of diplomacy. Since the shift of the century, football has also been part of how states in the Gulf such as Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) for different reasons made football into a political tool. Using football and its global attraction as a form of soft power is for Saudi Arabia a way of improving its reputation, for Qatar to safeguard it standing as a state, and for UAE to promote its position as an attractive destination for business and leisure. If the three countries are going to succeed in their desires, it is perhaps too early to say, and a more thorough conclusion can perhaps be made of the World Cup in Qatar.

The Women’s Euro 2022 in England, mentioned earlier, can also be understood as a tool that can build understanding in the wider society. In this case, I am not referring to sport victories as a form of soft power promoting an English post-Brexit nationalism, but more on how the success of a women’s team can endorse gender questions in the English society, and thereby improve equality in the society in general. Perhaps the women’s victory in the Euros in a longer perspective can also change the demography of the fan base of English football.

Finally, on this point about building understandings in society, the opportunities that surround football to become part of initiatives to stimulate change is almost unlimited. This statement has founded the idea that across the world, football’s appeal is today massive and cross cultural. Football is a language that does not need a translator.

What opportunities does this growing interest in football bring to religion and religious organisations?

The transformations of societies across the world in the 19th and the 20th century posed serious challenges to the understandings and practices of religion, religious authority, and the conventional role of religions. Changes to everyday life and new cross-cultural and liberal ideas were part of these challenges, especially for people who understood religion as a social philosophy and a source to practices in daily life. In Europe, churches started football clubs to be part of a change that happened in growing urban communities. The idea of stopping men from drinking and brawling was the immediate reason for churches establishing clubs, but it was also part of a broader movement organising the modern society.

Today, most religious organisations realise that they need to be involved in society and engage in activities that interest the communities they serve. Football tournaments and sport events are part and parcel of the annual calendar of many religious organisations. This way, they keep connected to the youth and their families and in their self-image, they appear as part of their society, and they emerge as modern. The example of ethno-religious clubs in Lebanon mentioned earlier is illustrative as clubs that represent and are based in a community are part of strengthening the community and giving it an identity through the engagement of the youth in football.

Another example that illustrates how churches may connect to their constituencies are the first minutes of the first episode on season one of the Netflix produced TV series “Sunderland ‘til I die”. The start of the episode shows how the preacher connects the community and the city by praying for the success of the local football club Sunderland AFC implicating that the success of the football team goes hand in hand with the success of the city Sunderland.

Today, the best and most famous football players are known all over the world. They are admired and act as role models for many people, both young and old. Many of them are religious, they use a body language on the pitch that is rich in religious symbols, and they may speak about their religiosity in public. Religious organisations may benefit from football stars proclaiming their faith. Above, Mesut Özil was mentioned, his charity activities have a direct connection to Sunni Muslims and are carried out in the name of the religion. Another example is the many Brazilian football stars that during their careers have become Evangelical or Pentecostal Christians. In 1980, the Evangelical Christians in Brazil accounted for 6,6% of the population. In 2021, a polling institute in the country claimed that 31% of the Brazilian population was Evangelical. One conclusion is that the organisation called “Athletes for Christ” played a significant part in the rise of the Evangelical Christianity in Brazil. Even if the “Athletes for Christ” has lost most of its influence, Evangelicalism is important to many of the most famous Brazilian players also in the national team.

In the end, the opportunities are many. Football may help religious organisations to connect to their communities and constituencies, but footballers may also be important in the recruitment of believers of their respective religion. It will be interesting to follow the developments regarding footballers as role models and if an increased pronounced religious practice among the most famous football stars will affect fans and their religiosity.

Where do you hope to take this research in the future and how can people learn more?

The immediate result of this research is an academic publication founded on a workshop on religion and football recently held at the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London. I am also happy to announce that we will open an exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre in London entitled “Football and Religion: Tales of Hope, Passion, and Play”. The exhibition will be inaugurated on September 1, 2022 and opens to the public the following day. The exhibition is a mixed media display of individual stories relating to the title of the exhibition. Another personal ambition is that the research will result in a monograph on religion and football. The idea is to use football as a lens to study primarily religion and nationalism in a selected number of countries. I am currently collecting the empirical material for this book, and it will be founded on specific examples such as a club or a player rather than being an overview of the history of football in a state.

On this point, I also encourage any football fans to note the expressions of religion that appear among footballers and in football games. So, while watching a game at home or live, note, for example, the body language of players, the advertisement at the stadium, read the match programme, or google the players and you will probably find more on this topic than expected.

Sport and art are the two most universal languages we have, allowing us to connect and communicate with each other around the world, crossing borders, cultures & languages. What do you think the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture looks like?

Beyond the incredible Muslim heritage in art, architecture, and culture, the future of today’s cultural production among Muslims is very exciting. Many Muslim contemporary authors, painters, musicians, actors, and cultural personalities are, in my opinion, very important in crossing borders and investigating new territories in their different professions and on diverse cultural scenes. This stated without preferring any of the many interpretations of Islam.

I also find the cultural expressions including sport and football very important to study. The reason for this is a tiredness of studies that always focus on the political in a very immediate sense. My idea is to think about Islam and Muslims in more subtle ways, analysing what role religion, in this case Islam, plays in a society by using football and culture as a lens. By studying religion and its intersection with an ordinary and popular phenomenon such as football, one can also contribute to a better understanding of the role of religion in many societies. In the best of worlds, such studies can support the work against discrimination of refugees and migrants and against Islamophobia.

The start of this project on football and religion also makes me realise that the ideas of homogenous expressions like “the West”, “Islam”, “the East”, “the Muslim World”, or “the Orient” are impossible terms that we need to unpack. In my opinion, general conceptualisations of “the West” do not explain anything. It is, rather, a form of stereotype that is not indicating if “the West” is, for example, a political, geographical, or cognitive term. Instead of upholding stereotypes like “the West” or “Islam” and thereby creating boundaries, the case of a cultural expression such as football is explicitly transnational, and shows how cultural flows including religion moves across the world. Hence, the study of Muslim cultural expression can contribute to a more considerate perception of Islam and Muslims in general.

For further information check out Praying on the Pitch: Football, Religion and Social Identities an online short course with the Agha Khan University 14-15 September 2022.

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.

bottom of page