Islam sees nothing wrong in learning karate, as it is a method of self-defense. It is also permissible to hold karate contests, with or without prize money, on condition that the rules governing such games are observed, and that the usual protective devices are used.
Elaborating on this further, Dr. `Abdul-Fattah Idrees, a professor of comparative jurisprudence said the following:
Karate is a means of self-defense. Etymologically, the word consists of two parts: kara, which means “empty,” and te, which means “hand.” This indicates that it is an art that uses empty (weaponless) hands in defending oneself. This art dates back to the third century CE when the Hindu-Buddhists introduced it as a means of self-defense. Karate remained a secret weapon for some time. It was carried from India to China and then to Korea and Japan. When the American troops occupied Japan after World War II, they adopted and transmitted karate’s techniques among themselves. After that, it became widespread all over the world. The modern karate systems were established in the early 20th century after having been developed and exported to different countries.
There are other means of self-defense that use weaponless hands and legs such as shotokan, jujitsu, and kodokan judo.
The Legal Ruling on Competitions in Karate and Similar Sports
Karate and similar sports that apply techniques of attacking and avoiding the opponent’s attacks are dangerous sports. Players of these sports use their body limbs to strike the opponents’ bodies, which causes physical harm to the latter.
The Hanafi scholars hold that it is permissible for skilled practitioners of dangerous sports to compete in these fields without getting prize money in return, so long as their safety is guaranteed and the objective of the competition is to get further training and become more courageous.
The Maliki scholars believe that competition without stipulating prize money is permissible in sports other than riding horses and camels, and archery, when there is a valid objective for it.
It follows from this that it is also permissible to hold contests in karate without stipulating prize money for competent practitioners if precautions are taken for the safety of the competitors and the purpose of the competition is a valid one such as getting extra training and becoming stronger and more courageous.
The Hanbali and Zahiri scholars, likewise, see that it is lawful to hold competitions in which there is no prize money stipulated in sports other than camel racing, horse riding, and archery.
Some Shafi`i scholars are also of the opinion that it is permissible for competent players of dangerous sports to hold contests between one another in these fields so long as they will be safe and the competition is void of (personal) discord between them. According to them, for these competitions to be lawful there should be no prize money stipulated. Hence, holding contests in karate without specifying prize money in return is permissible, so long as the above conditions are observed.
However, some other Shafi`i scholars see that it is not permissible to hold contests in karate whether or not prize money is stipulated, as the opponents seek to harm each another.
As for my opinion in this regard, I believe that competition in karate and similar sports is permissible whether prizes are stipulated or not, if the participants in the game in question are skilled and competent, if their safety is assured, and if there are useful goals to be attained from holding the competition. This is because karate and similar sports are kinds of the force that Almighty Allah has ordered Muslims to be armed with in order to be ready to fight their the enemies. Martial arts are an effective means of striking the enemy soldiers on engagement in the battlefield.
But if there is discrepancy between the competitors in physical strength, weight, or height so that the less skilled opponent will certainly be harmed; or if the necessary precautions for lessening the harmful effects of strikes on the participants’ bodies have not been taken; or if the rules of striking in karate have not been observed, the competition is no longer valid. Competition in this case will most likely be much more harmful or destructive. Almighty Allah says [And be not cast by your own hands to ruin] (Al-Baqarah 2:195) and [And kill not one another. Lo! Allah is ever Merciful unto you] (An-Nisaa’ 4:29). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is also reported to have prohibited causing harm to others. Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri quoted the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as saying “There should be neither harm nor reciprocation of harm in Islam” (Al-Bukhari).