“Sharia law is for Muslims. So if there is a Muslim majority state then it has to be run by Sharia,” stated basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with surprisingly little public controversy in a September 23 interview. This statement and other elements from Abdul-Jabbar’s biography only accentuated reservations concerning a Muslim president recently raised by Ben Carson, even as Jabbar in another interview dismissed Carson as “bigoted and irrational.”
Although Abdul-Jabbar qualified that in America “I live in a very diverse country and I have to respect everyone else’s beliefs—the Koran says that,” his views on sharia remain troubling in light of Muslim-majority societies worldwide. Surveying such societies, many Americans would agree with the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who replaced sharia with European laws in his country in the 1920s. “Islam—this theology of an immoral Arab—is a dead thing,” he stated, that “might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for a modern, progressive state.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who stated that “Islam is my moral foundation,” dismissed people like Carson as being “not substantiated by anything in Islamic teachings.” Writing about his conversion to Islam from a Catholic background, Abdul-Jabbar criticized that many around the world do not recognize the supposedly “peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.” “Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion,” he wrote in response to the January 7 Paris massacres of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others. Such terrorists simply want “more recruits and more donations to keep their organization alive…It’s just business.” A January 14 CNN interviewer accordingly noted Abdul-Jabbar’s objection to the phrase “Islamic terrorism” and his concern with “being careful with our language” and “our respect for other religions.”
Many examining Abdul-Jabbar’s biography might wonder how he could say in 2011 to Katie Couric that Islam “made perfect sense to me” as the “most correct” and “last revelation that the Supreme Being sent to mankind.” His conversion narrative reads that “I used to be Lew Alcindor, the pale reflection of what white America expected of me. Now I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” This Arabic name means “the noble one, servant of the Almighty.”
As a UCLA freshman, Abdul-Jabbar read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and resonated with this African-American’s rejection of his Baptist upbringing and embrace of Islam. The “more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people,” Abdul-Jabbar reflected. While “Alcindor was a French planter in the West Indies who owned my ancestors,” Abdul-Jabbar’s “forebears were Yoruba people, from present day Nigeria,” currently ravaged by Boko Haram’s jihad against Nigeria’s Christians. Nonetheless, he considered conversion to Islam as the “manifestation of my African history, culture and beliefs” and “rejecting the religion that was foreign to my American culture.”
Under his “teacher” Hammas Abdul-Khaalis, “Islam was a joyous revelation” and Abdul-Jabbar converted in 1971 at age 24. His “devotion to Islam was absolute” and he “even agreed to marry a woman whom Hammas suggested for me, despite my strong feelings for another woman.” Abdul-Jabbar also followed Abdul-Khaalis’ “advice not to invite my parents to the wedding—a mistake that took me more than a decade to rectify.” Initial doubts led to disagreement with Abdul-Khaalis, but Abdul-Jabbar “traveled to Libya and Saudi Arabia to learn enough Arabic to study the Quran” and “emerged…with my beliefs clarified and my faith renewed.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s college girlfriend, actress Pam Grier, recounted a different impression of Islam in her autobiography. Seriously involved with him during his conversion, she had heated disputes with Abdul-Jabbar over women’s “submission and slavery” in Islam as he made demands such as that she veil and accept a chaperone. He reflected upon women under Islam in his 1983 autobiography Giant Steps after his troubled marriage arranged by Hammas ended in divorce in 1977 and an another unwed Buddhist woman bore Abdul-Jabbar a child. “It’s not easy being a Muslim woman,” he wrote, “her hair and arms and legs must be covered in public; she can’t be too aggressive; she must take care of the children.”
By contrast, Abdul-Khaalis remained violently committed to Islam. He led gunmen in a March 9, 1977, seizure in Washington, DC, of the B’nai B’rith headquarters, the Islamic Center, and a court building, taking 150 hostages and inflicting several casualties, including one death. Among other motives such as Abdul-Khaalis’ anger resulting from the 1973 Nation of Islam massacre of family members in a dwelling rented by Abdul-Jabbar, the terrorists opposed the upcoming release of Mohammed, Messenger of God. Abdul-Khaalis stated that “we will not stand for the mockery of our prophet and our Lord Allah” in a film infringing Islamic prohibitions against depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad, sentiments foreshadowing the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Responding on April 3, 2015, to reporting over Islam’s influence upon his relationship with Grier, Abdul-Jabbar described his Muslim views moderating over time. “Given my youth and newness to the religion,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “I embraced the most orthodox teachings.” After initial conversion, “like most people, my beliefs and practices evolved over time.”
Notwithstanding such evolution, Abdul-Jabbar is indicative of precisely the concerns someone like Carson would have in mind when considering Muslims in public office. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion involves the same skewed understanding of Islam being more authentically African than Christianity that has encouraged many African-Americans to become Muslim, although not his nemesis Carson. Yet as elsewhere in the world, Islam often spread across Africa through the holy war of jihad, and Islam’s record concerning slavery is far worse than Christianity’s.
Abdul-Jabbar’s his own life exhibits Islam’s all too common aggressive and authoritarian elements while his qualified rejection of sharia is disturbing. Should democracies fear increasing sharia influence as Muslim populations grow? Would a President Abdul-Jabbar object to sharia human rights abuses in Muslim-majority countries? Incessant rejections of official religious tests in free societies by Abdul-Jabbar and others cannot preclude serious scrutiny of such Muslim matters.