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Five most influential Muslim sports stars


Sport – what is it?

Today, that question has a very different answer to a hundred years ago.
Sport in the 19th century was simply another form of entertainment, another thing to do on the weekend. Whether it be rugby, football or golf, sport was a pastime for both the rich and the poor. In fact it was during the 19th century that many of the rules of various sports became codified. However, even with all these factors, sport remained a pastime reserved for the weekends.

Fast-forward a century and nowadays it is rare to find a person who has no interest in sport. From sports memorabilia on clothing, bedroom posters and cars to people playing, watching or talking about it, sport is probably the most interactive entertainment of this day and age, creating a culture of its own. The mention of a well-known sport star gets either nods of approval or the shaking of the heads, very rarely does it warrant a blank response.

Over time sport has outgrown its role as a form of entertainment, and one only has to look at the sheer size of the sports industry to be convinced. If sport were so casual, why would the recent corruption scandal regarding FIFA be so important; or why would the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight generate 300 million dollars for the fighters alone? The culture of sport is just as important as the sport itself.

Most industries and forms of culture bear a substantial influence by Muslims, and sport is no exception. There are countless Muslims football players, boxers, cricketers and even squash players who have excelled in their various fields of sports. However, it is not enough that these players simply carry a Muslim name – they must influence the sport, or the culture of sport, giving it a distinctly Muslim flavor.

Using this loose criteria, here is the Top Five Most Influential Muslim Sports Stars:
5) Sarah Attar

Sarah Attar
Sarah Attar

Few still recognize the name of Sarah Attar, but in 2012 she was the hot topic of the day for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. She competed in the London 2012 Olympic Games representing Saudi Arabia in the Females 800m track, where she came last in her 800m race, trailing the person in front of her by half a minute. Regardless of this, the crowd stood up and applauded her. Interviews, pictures, tweets and Facebook posts flooded in as she became the real star of the race.

Sarah was not a star because she could run fast, but rather because of her unique position and her bravery. Before 2012, Saudi Arabia had never let any women compete in the Olympic Games. It took some blackmailing by the Olympic Committee (they threatened to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics altogether if they did not let women compete) for Saudi Arabia to finally accept. Thus Sarah was one of the first two Saudi Arabian females to ever compete in the Olympics. Because she represented Saudi Arabia, Sarah had to abide by the hijab.

The image of Sarah running in her hijab was one of hope and inspiration for millions of Muslim women who try every day to reconcile their faith with their passion for sport. Even outside of sport, Sarah is an inspiration to Muslim women who feel that they have the right and duty to express themselves publicly without compromising their religion. She is a symbol of hope that even in a country as uncompromising as Saudi Arabia, it is possible to reach for one’s dreams. It is for this fact that the memory of Sarah Attar still lives on in the consciousness of Muslims.

For non – Muslims Sarah is a symbol of the reform slowly taking place within Saudi Arabia (and by extension the rest of the Muslim world, as this seems to be the next logical step). Thus she should be celebrated for her fight for equality. I will leave the reader to decide what is meant by equality.

Whatever the reasons, the emotions that came out of the race seem to have been joyous and genuine.

May she continue to inspire millions of Muslim women around the world.

4) Hashim Amla

Hashim Amla
Hashim Amla

Hashim Amla is known by cricket commentators as ‘The Silent Warrior’ for his humble personality coupled with his ability to score major runs with ease and grace. He holds world records for his batting performances in cricket and is currently captain for the Proteas test side.
Hashim, with his quiet and humble nature, is softly spoken but at the same time firm in his beliefs. For his test debut, he insisted that no alcoholic advertising or branding show on his kit. In a similar vein he is a family man, and he has even been absent from matches because of the birth of his children. Hashim espouses an aura of seriousness, but also of kindness, as can be seen in the many interviews he has faced.

For the cricketing Muslim youth of South Africa and the Muslim youth at large, Hashim is a man who has everybody’s admiration. Most people who watch him wish him to score his next century, or to break a record. This can only be a result of his complete lack of arrogance. People love someone who is humble and down-to-earth, much as how Amla is.

Apart from this emotional pull that Muslim youth feel towards him, Amla also shows how a sportsman can go about realizing his religious and personal identity without compromising his national identity. His large beard is in total accordance with his South African kit. He is a living, breathing symbol of the co-existence and tolerance that a Muslim can espouse, living in a non-Muslim country. With every century he scores, he is in fact breaking a barrier more important that any four or six can cross – he is breaking the barrier of intolerance towards Muslims, and the intolerance of Muslims towards others.
May his bat forever be his pen and his sword, fighting one misconception at a time.

3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

If one is a basketball fan, then this name is huge. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is, by sheer volume of his achievements, said to the best player in the history of the NBA. Standing at seven foot two at the age of sixty-eight, still looking as fit as ever, Kareem is more than an ex-basketball player – he is a writer, film star, public intellectual and last but not least a Muslim.

However, Kareem wasn’t always a Muslim and was known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. before he converted to Islam from Catholicism in 1971. This, it is said, further widened the gap between Kareem and the public, who were already hurt by his intensely personal life. But to Kareem, Islam seemed to provide the contentment that the very public life of a sport star lacked.

In fact Kareem wasn’t the first sports star to convert to Islam (think of Muhammad Ali who converted in 1964) and this is important to note. The flurry of sport stars accepting Islam as their religion meant that Islam became more acceptable to Americans in general. As most of the American converts at the time were black, it meant that Islam lost its ‘oriental’ touch (which in the European consciousness was) to the average American. No more was Islam a religion brought only by immigrants or a religion in a faraway land for faraway people, but Islam was a religion found at the doorstep of the suburban home in the daily newspaper, showing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with his signature ‘hook-shot’ on the sport page.

With Kareem’s sporting brilliance he didn’t only introduce Islam to Americans but created a Muslim sporting culture within America (especially in basketball) with a Muslim legacy that still continues today. Running in concurrence with this legacy was his more intellectual career of writing. He wrote books about being black and about being Muslim. He currently writes for Time, a newspaper that does much in defining the average American’s opinion.

He has done much for the Muslim American culture, and may he continue to do more.

2) Imran Khan

Imran Khan
Imran Khan

Imran Khan, a tall fair-skinned man with a hard face, is a public icon in his home country of Pakistan. Throughout the cricketing world he is known for his achievements as a captain (he won the 1992 Cricket World Cup with Pakistan, handpicking the team) and as a deadly all-rounder. But his influence for Pakistan did not end in the changing room. After twenty years of international cricket, Imran Khan started a political party in 1996 called Tehreek-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice).

His sporting career was brilliant for the Pakistan cricket team, but it was brilliant no further than that. As a cricketer, he was a playboy living the life of a bachelor in London, hardly inspiring for any serious person. But towards the middle of the 1990’s he claims to have gone back to Islam ‘to fill a void’ and from thence get into politics. It is his political life that has really made him an influential Muslim.

Tehreek-i-Insaf is at the core of this influence, and is currently one of the biggest political parties in Pakistan. It is a movement and political party that calls for the complete overhaul of the corrupt Pakistani government and army. It seeks to create an independent Pakistan that is not a ‘stooge to the West’ and is financially independent and relies upon the cultural and Islamic values of Pakistan. Thus, Khan’s vision of Pakistan is the ideal modern Islamic state.

The influence of such a stance is enormous. Pakistan has the third highest Muslim population in the world, meaning that depending on what stances and actions it takes, Pakistan the ability to change the fate of over 190 million Muslims. It is also one of the main players on the ‘War on Terror’ where American drones casually and regularly kill thousands of innocent Pakistanis. The official death toll currently stands at just under 4000. Thus, the fate of Pakistan is closely connected to the perception of the Muslim world. If Imran Khan stops the ‘War on Terror’ (as he has promised) and creates an independent, viable Pakistan, then there exists a Muslim state that refuses to be set into the dichotomy of George Bush: ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’.

May Imran Khan change Pakistan and the perceptions of Muslims world-wide.

1) Muhammad Ali

Imran Khan
Imran Khan

Definitely the most influential sports player to ever say the Shahadah, Muhammad Ali is a world icon by any man’s imagination. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in 1942 in the American South. Nicknamed ‘The Greatest’ for his boxing achievements, Ali has become a larger than life figure. His legacy has trumped the achievements of his life, as can be seen by the commercialization of the ‘Muhammad Ali’ brand. He was heavyweight champion numerous times, and has been ranked the second best heavyweight fighter of all time.

Ali revolutionized the game of boxing inside and outside the ring. Inside the ring he was quicker and lighter on his feet than any heavy-weight boxer before or since. His punches were incredibly fast, true to his famous saying of ‘Fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee’. He invented the famous ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic against George Foreman to win the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Outside the ring he revolutionized boxing by what was known as ‘trash talk’, where he would continuously self-promote himself and chide his opponents, getting into their minds before the boxing match began. He even proclaimed himself a ‘poet’.

However, Ali’s revolution did not end in the gym, but it continued to his political life. In 1966 Muhammad Ali was called up to fight for the American army in Vietnam. He refused, saying, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.’ He was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing for three and a half years. In spite of this blow, Muhammad Ali still continued to shine on the world stage, holding speeches across the US as he tried to change public opinion about both blacks and Muslims.

Most importantly, Muhammad Ali related Islam to the struggle he faced as a black man in America. He extended Islam beyond what was the acceptable ‘religious’ boundaries of the society at that time, and made his religion a reason for resistance and struggle against the racial injustices of his time. He struggled and fought for what he believed in, and from there the justice of Islam was shown to the world.

May this legacy continue forever.  VOC (Salmaan Moronell)

 


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