Jonathan Golden, PhD.
Drew University, Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict
He was not yet 20 years old when the star collegiate athlete took his first public stance rejecting hatred and prejudice. It was 1968, and the young center – still known as Lew Alcindor at the time – was being courted to play for the US Olympic team. But Abdul-Jabbar was different from many of his peers who would have jumped at the opportunity. Aware that ICO President, Avery Brundage, had flirted with Nazism prior to WWII, the young hoopster refused to compete as a statement of protest. Of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would later go on to play 20 years in the NBA, becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer, 6-time MVP, 6-time champion, and Hall-of-Famer. What many people do not know about the basketball champion is that Abdul-Jabbar, who visits Drew University as Commencement Speaker and to receive an honorary degree this weekend, is also a champion for compassion and co-existence, an exemplar of the public figure who has leveraged his celebrity to promote Interfaith engagement and understanding.
Abdul-Jabbar was born and raised as a Christian in a strict Catholic household with a father in law enforcement. Having been exposed to Islam in college, Alcindor converted at the age of 24, taking his Muslim name. While many other African Americans at the time gravitated toward the Nation of Islam’s version of the faith and its revolutionary political agenda, Abdul-Jabbar found a spiritual home with the traditional Sunni faith that he continues to practice to this day.
Abdul-Jabbar was well aware of the difficulties he would face on this path and spent the next decade explaining his decision, not only to his family, but to basketball fans around the world, many of whom turned on him for it. As time passed, he grew more confident in his choice and has emerged as one of America’s great spokespeople for the faith, working to enlighten Americans about Islam and that his faith truly represents.
But his steadfastness as a Muslim in the face of many challenges is not the end of the story. Alas, it is where this story, the story of Kareem’s interfaith journey, begins. Kareem’s impressive interreligious resume begins with his long record of outreach to the Jewish people. In one of his more recent books, Brothers in Arms, he writes about Leonard “Smitty” Smith, one of his father’s closest friends, who had fought in World War II, serving in the 761st Tank Batallion, which liberated Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp. Abdul-Jabbar was also inspired by the story of the U.S. Army’s 183rd Combat Engineers, an all-Black unit, which liberated the Buchenwald camp. Among those saved at Buchenwald was a young boy named Yisrael Mir Lau, now a rabbi, who would never forget his liberators and grew up to be an outspoken advocate for civil rights. In Brothers in Arms, Abdul-Jabbar points to parallels between Jim Crow segregation laws in the United States and the Nuremburg laws of the Nazis and applauds the 183rd as an act of one oppressed group liberating another. When Abdul-Jabbar first visited Israel in 1997, he went out of his way to meet Rabbi Lau and the two have remained in touch ever since.
The connections that Abdul-Jabbar draws between Jews and African-Americans extends to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and his recognition of the many Jews who stood up for their black brothers and sisters during that volatile era. In a 2013 interview in Algemeiner, Abdul-Jabbar spoke about the “bond of compassion” between Blacks and Jews that “encourages us to work toward our similar goal of eradicating ethnic bias.” Working together with his Jewish manager, Deborah Morales, the two continue to pursue a passion for Jewish-Black partnerships today.
But Abdul-Jabbar’s deep dedication to pluralism extends beyond cultural affinities and his identity as an African American; for him, it is a matter of faith and an expression of his Muslim values. In 2005, Abdul-Jabbar participated in the annual Chabad Telethon, which focused that year on raising funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The former NBA star, known for his grace on the court, danced with the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in a demonstration of brotherhood, announcing, “I hope my presence here is a unifying signal to the many communities, including Muslim’s and Jews everywhere, that we can make great progress if we join together for good.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s outreach also extends to people of Eastern faiths. His study of marital arts, most notably as Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do student and his appearance in the film Game of Death, is well known. Less known is his practice of meditation and yoga. He has also made deep connections with Native Americans. His book, A Season on the Reservation recounts his time living among the Apache, while serving as a volunteer basketball coach at Alchesay High School on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona.
Of course, Kareem has always given back to the African-American community, irrespective of religious identity. Through the multiple causes and foundations that he supports, and writing important books such as Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement, Abdul-Jabbar has displayed a dedication to highlighting positive role models for young African-Americans.
Today, advocating for his fellow Muslims remains an imperative for the former NBA star, and he, like many of us, see a particular urgency in promoting positive images of Muslims in today’s political environment. As Abdul-Jabbar recently put it in his Time Magazine column, people need to “stand up for what Islam is really about and not the fanatic’s interpretation.” In the column, he called out several candidates for making Islamophobic remarks, but did not stop there. He went out of his way to also rebuke a well-known conservative journalist for making anti-Semitic remarks when discussing certain GOP candidates’ support for Israel.
This is the Kareem that I write about today. The man who urges us to build relationships with people of different backgrounds in order to “overcome those differences in the service of something greater.” The Kareem who recently wrote
Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God, just in different ways. Those differences can make each group wary of the other, until they realize that a fundamental teaching in all three religions is to co-exist in peace with others. True, we can all dig into each other’s holy texts for isolated quotes that seem to contradict this, and we can all air each other’s historical dirty laundry when each acted contrary to this teaching. But Christmas reminds us all that what really matters is how we behave here and now toward each other.
Abdul-Jabbar also said in a recent interview, “It’s all about the Golden Rule. Right? Hillel. Treat others as you yourself want to be treated. That’s the essence of it. So if we can all agree on that, we can all get along…” I would add another line from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” The oft-quoted saying lays out the core principle that we must stand up for ourselves, but that our upstanding is incomplete if we stand only for our own and only when it’s convenient.
From his selflessness as a young man right up until the present moment, and his tireless work in the name of all peoples, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an interfaith hero in every sense of the term. The honorary degree that Drew University and President Baenninger will confer on him Saturday, is an honor that is well-deserved by this paragon of pluralism.