Citation for United States, Muslim Athletes in the

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Diamant, Jeff . "United States, Muslim Athletes in the." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 17, 2022. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t343/e0100>.

Chicago

Diamant, Jeff . "United States, Muslim Athletes in the." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t343/e0100 (accessed May 17, 2022).

United States, Muslim Athletes in the

Muslim Americans have made significant contributions to American sports since the 1960s. The most famous Muslim American athletes—Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—rank high among the most accomplished performers in U.S. sports history. On a cultural level, media attention devoted to Muslim athletes, whether professional, collegiate, or high school, has helped educate non-Muslims about Islam while drawing attention to issues that have roiled American society in general and the American Muslim community specifically. Most professional athletes known to be Muslim have been African American, yet their openness about their faith has contributed to assimilationist tendencies among immigrant Muslims and their descendants, many of whom have been hesitant to play or watch team sports due to interpretations of religious teachings that say time devoted to sports is wasteful.

Amateur Sports.

Indeed, Muslim Americans—whether African American or immigrant—have participated in all levels of sports and physical activity in the United States, at all age ranges, starting with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, whose hiking, camping, and canoeing activities have helped attract thousands of American Muslims to the organizations. In 2013, a Muslim Girl Scout troop in southeastern Michigan had more than two hundred fifty members, ranking among the largest troops in the region. Muslim athletes have also participated in the Special Olympics and Paralympics.

A small number of Muslim girls’ basketball teams, affiliated with religious high schools, have been organized, its players donning loose-fitting clothing and cotton head scarves, which absorb sweat better than polyester ones. Standout teams include the Lady Caliphs girls’ team of the W. Deen Mohammed School in Atlanta, whose 21–1 record in 2006 led to a prized slot in the state tournament, and whose opponents learned not to take them lightly just because they wore hijab and full-length sweat pants on the court. “We believe in covering our bodies,” Aamira Terry, a Lady Caliph that year, told an ESPN interviewer. “Our bodies are only something that our husbands should see. So we feel that until we get to that point when we’re married, we should cover our bodies.” In Dearborn, Michigan, where Arab Americans comprise 95 percent of the 2,440 students at Fordson High School, they also make up the vast majority of the football team. The school and team were profiled in “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” a 2011 documentary produced ten years after 9/11. On the college level, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played basketball for the University of California at Los Angeles from 1965 to 1969, was ranked by ESPN as the number-one player in college basketball history.

Young Muslims are known to have a particular affinity for basketball, perhaps due to role models such as Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, the latter of whom played well enough for the Houston Rockets while fasting for Ramadan in February 1995 that he won the NBA Player of the Month Award. Many mosques have basketball courts, and in 2010 the National Muslim Basketball Tour was inaugurated. It now holds four well-attended regional tournaments each year around the United States and Canada and promotes itself as hoping to “strengthen the Muslim community through service, educating both Muslims and people of other faiths about the religion of Islam through sports, and facilitating a better environment for youth to be active.” It claims conformity with “Islamic principles based upon the Qurʾān and the Prophetic tradition.” (National Muslim Basketball Tour Mission Statement). Tournament events include daily prayers and lectures by Islamic scholars. Regional tournaments have been scheduled in conjunction with the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America.

Professional Sports.

Although most Muslim American athletes, like American athletes more generally, participate in sports at the amateur level—in schools, clubs, leagues, and individually—it is at the professional level that Muslims have had the most impact on U.S. society. Especially in professional boxing, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League—but also in wrestling and baseball—Muslim Americans have become symbols of the religious diversity of the United States while also using their status as public figures to advance their views on Islam’s place in American culture.

World Wrestling Federation.

Professional wrestling associations, which are really more entertainment than sport, use contrived, colorful characters to frame rivalries for their matches, and have invented multiple Muslim figures to play the villain. The most famous was the Iron Sheikh, portrayed by an Iranian native, Hossein Vaziri. In 1983 the Iron Sheikh was crowned World Wrestling Federation champion after defeating Bob Backlund. After 9/11, wrestlers such as Muhammad Hasan, portrayed by Mark Copani, an American of Italian descent, publicly denounced anti-Muslim discrimination yet also hewed closely to controversial Muslim stereotypes.

Major League Baseball.

Sammy Khalifa, a shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1985 to 1987, is believed to be the only Muslim to have played major-league baseball. Khalifa, whose father Rashad Khalifa was an Egyptian American imam, had his best season in 1985 at age twenty-one, batting .238 with two home runs and seventy-six hits in ninety-five games. A promising prospect that was drafted by the Pirates as the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 1982 draft, he played his last major-league baseball game at age twenty-three and continued in the minor leagues until 1989.

Boxing.

No other Muslim American athlete—indeed, few athletes of any religion—has generated as much attention as did the boxer Muhammad Ali, whose colorful quotations at press conferences in the 1960s would have raised public intrigue regardless of his religion. He is often described as the most famous Muslim American in the world.

Born in 1942 into a Baptist family in Louisville, Kentucky, and given the birth name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he would bring both positive and negative attention to Islam and to Muslim Americans with his conversion and his stated adherence to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Clay had first emerged on the national sports scene during the Rome Olympics in 1960, winning a gold medal for light-heavyweight boxing. In 1964 he shocked the sports world twice, with his upset of Sonny Liston in a heavyweight title fight and by his announcement in the days afterward that he had converted to Islam. His conversion and his open defiance of liberal integrationist goals, voiced during the heart of the civil-rights movement, caused an uproar in the sports world, though he did have defenders in the sports establishment, notably Howard Cosell, the broadcaster. Minister Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam used him as a recruiting tool, giving him the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s boxing career suffered in 1967 when he refused to be inducted into the army and criticized U.S. war aims in Vietnam. Not only was he convicted of draft evasion, but he was stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from boxing for three years. In 1970, he returned to boxing, and in 1971 he won an appeal of his conviction for draft evasion.

In the 1970s, while regaining (and losing) the heavyweight title twice, Ali joined Wallace Muhammad, the new leader of the NOI after his father Elijah Muhammad died, as the son moved the Nation of Islam toward Sunnism, rejecting core Nation of Islam tenets in the process. After Ali’s retirement in 1982 his celebrity status grew, and he was chosen to light the torch for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. In his later years he embraced Sufism.

Another Muslim boxer, Bernard Hopkins, who was raised in Philadelphia, ranks among the best middleweight boxers of the twentieth century, holding a piece of the title from 1994 to 2005. Ring Magazine ranked him third among all middleweight fighters since 1950, praising him for successfully defending his championship belts a record twenty times. On March 9, 2013, at the age of forty-eight, he became the oldest boxer ever to win a title, by beating Tavoris Cloud for the IBN light-heavyweight championship title.

Born in 1965 and raised in Philadelphia, Hopkins became a Muslim in his early twenties during a five-year stint in prison, from 1983 to 1988, for nine felony convictions. After the 9/11 attacks, he tried to educate the general public about Islam, saying in a newspaper interview, “We are not all the same type of Muslims.” (Bunce, 2001)

The National Basketball Association.

The leading scorer in National Basketball Association history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was another athlete whose conversion to Islam drew national attention in the 1960s and 1970s. Born in 1947 to a Catholic family in Harlem, his birth name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. His interest in Islam stemmed from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X while an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles. He took his shahādah twice during the summer of 1968, once at a mosque on 125th Street in Manhattan and again under the religious guidance of Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, leader of the Ḥanafī movement in the United States.

Alcindor’s professional basketball career began during the 1969–1970 season with the Milwaukee Bucks, a season in which he won the Rookie of the Year award. In the following season, he and teammate Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to the NBA championship. During 1971 he legally changed his name and studied Arabic at Harvard University.

In 1975, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers, where he would team with Magic Johnson to win five more NBA championships through the end of his career in 1989. On April 5, 1984, in a game against the Utah Jazz, Abdul-Jabbar scored his 31,420th point, passing Wilt Chamberlain for first place in NBA history. He retired with 38,387 points.

Abdul-Jabbar was enough of a fixture in popular culture that during and after his basketball career he made cameo appearances in popular TV shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and in the movies Airplane and Fletch. Since retiring in 1989, he has become a prolific writer on African American history.

Hakeem Olajuwon, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, where he was born in 1963 and grew up in a middle-class family, is unlike most other prominent Muslim American athletes in that he has been a Muslim his entire life. A graduate of the University of Houston, he spent his extraordinary NBA career from 1984 to 2002 with the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors, helping the Rockets win consecutive national championships in the 1993–1994 and 1994–1995 seasons. His six-foot-ten-inch frame helped him score 26,946 points, ranking him among the top career NBA scorers. He was elected in 2008 to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Olajuwon increased his degree of religious commitment during his playing days, changing his name from Akeem to Hakeem in 1991 to reflect the Arabic spelling more closely. He played well during Ramadan despite the daily fasting, eating seven dates before dawn each morning and drinking a full gallon of water to make it through the day. He averaged twenty-nine points per game in February 1995, during Ramadan, winning the NBA’s Player of the Month honors.

Year round, he carried a compass to help him pray toward Mecca. He read the Qurʾān on planes and would visit mosques in the cities where his team played. He was known as a polite proselytizer of teammates, who would engage him in religious debate about Christian beliefs, including the Trinity.

The most controversial Muslim basketball player was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1969, and given the name Chris Wayne Jackson. Abdul-Rauf played nine seasons, from 1991 to 2001, with the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Vancouver Grizzlies as a point guard. He converted to Islam in 1991 after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He is best known for his refusal to stand during the national anthem before games, though his prodigious on-court talent was unmistakable. He was the third pick overall in the 1990 draft, and during the 1993–1994 season he came within one shot of breaking the seasonal record for free-throw percentage, sinking an outstanding 95.6 percent of his free-throw attempts that year.

During the 1995–1996 season, Rauf drew negative attention for sitting during the pre-game singing of the national anthem, for which players typically stand. “I didn’t intend to make it a public issue,” he said at the time, “but it’s at that level now. But I won’t waver in my decision. The Supreme Court even issued that it’s constitutional to burn the flag, so why give me a problem for not standing? I come to play basketball, so watch me play basketball.” (Hunter-Gault, 1996)

The NBA suspended him for violating a league rule that required players to stand for the anthem, then lifted the suspension when he said he would stand for it but pray to himself while it was played. Although he received support for his beliefs, many fans viewed his stance as unpatriotic, and Abdul-Rauf was subjected to years of hate mail and intense booing by fans. Since last playing in the NBA in the 2000–2001 season, he has played overseas, in Russia, Italy, Greece, and Saudi Arabia.

Shaquille O’Neal, another retired basketball superstar, has indicated he is a Muslim who intends to make the ḥajj, but also has identified himself as a follower of every religion: “Fact is,” O’Neal said in 2010, “I’m Muslim, I’m Jewish, I’m Buddhist, I’m everybody ’cause I’m a people person.” (Kugel, 2011).

The National Football League.

Ahmad Rashad, a convert to Islam in 1972 at age twenty-two, was a wide receiver and television broadcaster who was the first Muslim to star in the National Football League. Rashad, born Robert Earl Moore in 1949, played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, and Minnesota Vikings from 1972 to 1982, appearing in four Pro Bowls. His decision to change his name met with disapproval from fans, who booed the announcement by a public-address announcer alerting them to a name change in their programs that day. “The Cardinals were very much against my name change,” he recalled. “I could see the point. They had drafted me as a commodity, Bobby Moore, All-American from Oregon. And that’s who (owner) Bill Bidwell wanted on his football team. So there had to be a compromise. The compromise was me going to Buffalo.” (Olderman, 1981). Rashad was not a member of the Nation of Islam, and compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.

A sportscaster for NBC after his playing career ended, Rashad famously proposed to actress Phylicia Ayers-Allen in 1985 on the air during the pregame show for the annual Thanksgiving football broadcast. Ayers-Allen said yes, and the couple were married for sixteen years until divorcing in 2001. It was the third marriage for both. Rashad married a fourth time in 2007, to Sale Johnson. The couple divorced in 2013.

The brothers Hamza and Husain Abdullah, both of them NFL safeties, stunned the football world in 2012 by giving up their lucrative salaries for one year apiece to make the ḥajj to Saudi Arabia with their family, rather than play the 2012–2013 NFL season. In May 2012, Hamza and Husain informed their teams, the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings respectively, that they would not be playing the following season. Though the trip itself would last just three and a half weeks, they said they needed time to prepare for it properly. “I couldn’t just ask to leave during the season,” Abdullah explained later. “I know I had to take the whole time off leading up to the experience. It was not really a tough decision, because it was something I always wanted to do. I felt the need to go.” (Williamson, 2013). Upon their return, Husain Abdullah was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs for the 2013–2014 season.

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