Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on being Muslim from the Sixties to today
In the spring of 1966, while a freshman at UCLA, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and when I finished the last page I knew my life was changed forever.
One passage particularly impressed me: “One day, I remember, a dirty glass of water was on a counter and Mr. Muhammad put a clean glass of water beside it. ‘You want to know how to spread my teachings?’ he said, and he pointed to the glass of water. ‘Don’t condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water,’ he said, ‘just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better.’”
I was only 19 years old, but I knew I’d been drinking from that dirty glass most my life.
This was a time when most black Americans were holding their glass of water up to the light and saying they were tired of waiting for white America to share the clean water.
In the year before I arrived at UCLA, the United States was burning up with racial tension. I had been accidentally caught up in a Harlem riot, dodging bullets and billy clubs, that left one dead, 118 injured and a million dollars in damage. Later that year, Malcolm X was assassinated by the Nation of Islam, the very group he had written so passionately about in his book. Less than two weeks after that, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, which became famous as “Bloody Sunday” after they were attacked by the police with tear gas, whips and clubs. And a couple weeks before I arrived at UCLA, the Watts Riots in Los Angeles resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 arrests and $40 million in damage.
I had spent the last few years in high school trying to figure out where I, a teenage kid known for playing basketball, fit in to the civil rights movement.
I knew where I didn’t fit in, and that was with the Catholic Church. I abandoned my Catholic upbringing the moment I left New York for UCLA, because I’d felt as if it had long ago abandoned me and all black Americans. It abandoned us when it found biblical justification for slavery. It abandoned us when it promoted a curriculum in its schools, which I grew up attending, that refused to acknowledge any historical accomplishments of people of color.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” opened me up to another possibility: Islam. I knew that between 15 and 30 percent of African slaves had been Muslim, so exploring Islam was a way for me to connect with my African roots, which felt much more comfortable and authentic than Christianity, which had historically devalued my ancestors. After several years of studying Islam, I decided that continuing to use my given name, Alcindor, meant that every accomplishment I achieved somehow honored the slaveholder who had owned my ancestors. Consequently, I changed my name to Kareem Abdul- Jabbar (“noble servant of the mighty one”).
When I converted to Islam in 1968, there were only about a million Muslims in America.
There were so few in this country that most Americans — black and white — were either vaguely aware of its existence as some sort of exotic but primitive belief, or were openly hostile because of what they’d heard about the Nation of Islam. I, too, was approached by a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He didn’t pressure me to join, but he did explain why he felt that they were desirable: Not only did they profess Islam, but they were an aggressive political entity fighting racism in America.
But I had already come to the same conclusion that Malcolm X had when he quit the Nation of Islam, that they were evolving into a thuggish cult more interested in power than the spirit. His pilgrimage to Mecca had changed his mind about the inevitability of racism in America. As he wrote in a letter home to his friends in Harlem: “You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions … I could see … that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man — and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.” Like Malcolm, I chose to embrace the more traditional teachings of Islam meant to lead us to understanding our neighbors and living peaceful, moral lives.
Because I was such a famous sports celebrity, my conversion to Islam threw a bright spotlight on the religion. My teammates at UCLA and later the Milwaukee Bucks were mostly curious and supportive. The public was divided. Some were like my teammates. Islam, huh? What’s that all about? But others reacted as if I had just gut-punched America and everything it stood for. They wanted me to be the poster child for the Good Negro, a shining example of how America is living up to its promise of equal opportunity for all. The proof was how much glory and money America had heaped on me.
They were wrong. My conversion was about me finding my place in America by connecting with my cultural heritage. I was grateful that I lived in a county where I could do that. Yes, I rejected that America was a place of equal opportunity — as hundreds of studies have shown — but I believed it deeply wanted to be a place of equal opportunity and that we were striving to become that place.
Yet, despite the outrage of a vocal few, many Americans supported my decision, or at least didn’t care.
Things are radically different today. Back in the 1960s, those million Muslims came from both immigrants and black Americans like myself who wanted to belong to a religion that reflected their cultural roots. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, there are about 3.3 million Muslims and by 2050, there will be 8.1 million. The numbers are growing, in part because it is a religion that tends to encourage having more children and in part because we have more Muslim immigrants.
Unfortunately, the increase in the Muslim population has brought with it an increase in fear from white non-Muslims in America. When I was converting to Islam in the 1960s, news was spread through only a handful of television stations, radio and newspapers. Today, with 24-hour news outlets online and on cable, every act of terrorist violence anywhere in the world becomes hammered at the public all day on phones, computers, TVs and even watches.
This magnifies the anxiety of the public way beyond the actual threat level. The media becomes a mirror in which objects appear much closer than they are. Five people killed by radical terrorists in Libya can seem like 50 killed in your own suburban neighborhood.
In that irrational national atmosphere, Muslim-Americans face much more scrutiny than they did when I converted.
It’s much harder for us to just live our lives, do our jobs, raise our children and be good neighbors, because so many fearful Americans, their paranoia fueled by a xenophobic President Trump, are studying us for any sign that we are secret terrorists just waiting to spring into some violent action.
Fortunately, there are so many more Americans who treasure the words of the U.S. Constitution that prohibit discrimination based on religious belief or ethnic origin.
These are the kinds of open-minded, patriotic people our Founding Fathers, immigrants and sons of immigrants, looked to as the hope of the future.
And these are the people that Muslim- Americans also look to in order to join together as one group: Americans.
-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time NBA champion. He is also one of a handful of influential and respected black men in America who has a national platform as a regular contributing columnist for The Washington Post and Time Magazine, where he shares his thoughts on some of the most socially relevant and politically controversial topics facing our nation today. Visit his website, kareemabduljabbar.com.