Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Islam

Former NBA champion, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, spoke about Muslim faith on Friday, November 6.

Rookie of the Year, six-time NBA MVP, 19-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, and one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. These were only some of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments when the legendary champion retired from the NBA in 1989, at the age of 42. No player had ever achieved this amount of success.

NBA fans will forever remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for being the greatest all-time scorer in the history of basketball. However, in addition to his athletic achievements, Abdul-Jabbar is known to the world today as an actor, a novelist, and an activist.

At an event hosted by Northwestern’s Muslim-cultural Student Association, Abdul-Jabbar visited Northwestern University to discuss his views on Muslim spirituality.

“It’s a unique experience. [The transition] was a transformation of body and mind, the manifestation of my African culture and beliefs,” said Abdul-Jabbar as he described his conversion experience. Abdul-Jabbar first encountered Islam during his freshman year at UCLA. At age 24, he converted from a Baptist into a Muslim.

Being a Muslim convert, however, was not a smooth course for the athlete. Although he had already garnered some national fame in the league, Abdul-Jabbar felt uncomfortable about revealing certain aspects of his private life.

“For most people, converting from one religion to another is a private matter, requiring intense scrutiny of one’s consciousness. But when you’re famous, it becomes a public spectacle for one to debate. And when you convert to an unpopular and unfamiliar religion, it invites criticism upon one’s intelligence, patriotism and sanity,” he said.

During his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar turned to Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis for guidance. While the athlete’s Muslim faith grew stronger, his relationship with Hamaas didn’t last long. Abdul-Jabbar soon realized he disagreed with many of Hamaas’ principles.

“Hamaas wanted to have his own group [which he could] direct and guide almost exclusively. He eventually began to interject himself as one for all kinds of guidance. No one’s opinions counted,” he said.

As his mentor became more demanding and irrational, the athlete decided that it was time to move away.

“When you choose the leadership, you have to make a good choice. I hadn’t made the good choice,” he said.

To understand his faith better, Abdul-Jabbar embarked on a pilgrimage overseas, where he studied the Quran on his own and renewed his spirituality.

“I still felt Islam was a great moral for me. It enabled me to understand the difference between right and wrong, be patriotic and still be a Muslim.”

On the state of Islam in the United States, Abdul-Jabbar noted the ongoing racial and religious struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims.

“Ever since 9/11, Muslims are portrayed as murderers and enemies of America. As a public Muslim, I was often asked questions about why Muslims are so violent. [The struggles] are still going on,” he said.

The activist pointed out that there is now a bigger stake in bringing tolerance as a norm in America.

“Because it should be the norm. I’m trying my best. I’m trying to set an example for other Muslims. At times I’ve had success, other times I don’t. It’s an ongoing challenge,” he said.

Abdul-Jabbar’s speech was followed by a Q&A session moderated by Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University at Chicago.

When asked for advice from students, Abdul-Jabbar highlighted the importance of mutual respect.

“Be the person you are according to your morality,” he said.

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