Today is the United Nations International Day for Sport and development of peace. We are profiling some of the most prominent Muslim athletes that brought about positive change through sport.
What better way to start this countdown than Muhammad Ali: easily the most prominent Muslim sports figure in recent history.
Ali needs no introduction, 1960 Light Heavyweight Olympic Gold Medalist and Three-time World Heavyweight Champion, his portfolio is next to none.
His infamousy is not solely an outcome of his career, but a hybrid of his ability, personality and his social, political and religious views.
Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War transcended not only the ring, which he had dominated as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but also the realms of faith and politics.
“His biggest win came not in the ring but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, said Saturday.
On March 9, 1966, at the height of the war, Ali’s draft status was revised to make him eligible to fight in Vietnam, leading him to say that as a black Muslim he was a conscientious objector, and would not enter the U.S. military.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ironically, some of the American public began to warm up to Ali during this time because they too opposed the war. After winning two fights when he returned to the ring, he got a title shot against Joe Frazier, but lost in a legendary match deemed “The Fight of the Century.”
He eventually became a champion again after being unjustly stripped of his belts back in ’67. Ali defeated every top heavyweight in the golden era of heavyweight boxing making him “The Greatest.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1971. As one of the most revered basketball players in NBA history, some of his accolades include:
On June 4, 1967, Abdul-Jabbar joined Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Willie Davis to support Ali’s refusal to enter the Army. Abdul-Jabbar participated in a protest at UCLA after Dr. King’s assassination. Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the 1968 Olympics because former IOC president Avery Brundage allowed German dictator Adolf Hitler not to field any Jewish athletes in the 1936 Games. He has since addressed misconceptions both about the Muslim faith and culture.
“I know that it has cost me,” he said. “But being able to assert an identity that is in harmony with who I am, what my ancestry is all about and what my moral and political feelings are all about, that was the most important thing.”
Abdul-Jabbar has also raised funds to benefit science and math education through his “Skyhook Foundation.” In 2012, he became a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State department.
Nawal El Moutawakel
Nawal El Moutawakel, aged 22 at the time, enchanted the world and offered Morocco its first Olympic gold medal, but also shattered many a hidebound belief.
She is highly revered as the first, female Muslim athlete to ever win an Olympic gold medal. She won the 400m hurdles in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, thus making her mark in history. She is also the first Muslim woman to be elected in the International Olympics Committee and holds the 2010 Laureus Achievement Award
Up to that time, a lot of people believed, erroneously, that the Arab and Muslim woman was incapable of accomplishing such a feat. In a society in which, at times, certain religious precepts are wrongly interpreted and in which blind conservatism smothers many talents, it is difficult for a woman to perform in public.
Her merit is to have played the role of the locomotive, and allowed female athletes from other Arabic and Muslim countries to go beyond traditions and prejudice, and show their talents.
Moutawakel was named Minister for Youth and Sports by King Mohammed VI in her native Morocco, where she has consistently widened the parameters for women through sport.
“Sport has given me so much that whatever I give back it will never be enough,” she explained to The Daily Telegraph. Powerful message. Powerful woman.
One of El Moutawakel’s greatest passions, the Courir pour La Vie project, which is being run as a pilot scheme at Imam Mouslim High School, in Ben Abid, a dusty roadside village 20 miles outside Casablanca. The innovative programme promotes sports among teenage girls living in rural locations. Its aim is to use sport as the vehicle to empower the confidence and independence of the girls so that they have the resources to continue their education rather than following the traditional pattern of leaving school in their mid-teens and later entering arranged marriages.
Zinadine Zidane, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and 1998 World Cup Champion. Arguably one of the best to ever lace up the cleats, Zidane is a Frenchman of Algerian descent who wowed the football world for years.
Zidane’s Algerian parents came to France in the 1950’s. Born and raised in La Castellane, a suburb of Marseille, Zidane embodies a hybrid identity shared by the marginalised, disenfranchised and economically deprived subsect of the French population.
Zidane’s two goals in the 1998 world cup led France to victory, a sense of victory that seceded into the socio-political realm and ultimately transformed French society, all be it for only a short time.
“In a way, in our victory the whole history of France was encapsulated. It was a very important moment for France, and one that remains a symbol.”
“The World Cup win represented a victory for an alternative vision of France: the idea that we all come together, we all get along, and everyone can be part of this society. People remember it as a very promising and beautiful time.
“But the hope that people had at the time – that this was a representation of a new moment, of something that could change French society – has not come to pass.”
In the following year’s European elections, the Front National, which had polled 15% in the 1997 parliamentary elections, saw its vote share shrink to 5.7%.
“Le Pen [leader of Front National] turned the team into a symbol of multicultural France in order to attack it, and then that team won, and therefore the symbol won,” says Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire, a book about the 1998 France team.
This list would be wholly incomplete without the honorable mention of our very own Sir Mo Farah. What last year’s British sports personality of the year exudes, is not only an innate sincerity and humility, but furthers a sense of inclusion, of meritocracy and of sheer dedication.
Mohamed “Mo” Farah was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. He was raised in Djibouti until age eight when he moved to London and spent the remainder of his childhood there.
Farah, a devout Muslim and one of the most beloved and successful British athletes, said his faith plays an essential role in his success as an athlete:
You’ve got to believe in God. Everything happens for a reason, so you shouldn’t get wound up. . . . It also says in the Qur’an that you must work hard in whatever you do, so I work hard in training and that’s got a lot to do with being successful.
Aside from his career as champion athlete, his focus is set on the country of his birth, Somalia. The gold medalist set up the Mo Farah Foundation to alleviate the devastation caused by the severe 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa. The organization focused on both short-term and long-term goals with emergency aid, access to clean water, medical help, agricultural development, and education.
He also threw his support behind the 2013 Somalia Conference in London which hopes to build international support and awareness for the fledgling Somali government. In a video for the Conference, Farah said,
I had the opportunity to come to Britain to start a new life, and I was one of the lucky ones. . . . But there are people out there that need our help. . . . The kids don’t know anything other than fighting. . . . I want to see Somalia back again to what it was.
It’s hard not to be moved by man as humble and sincere as Mo Farah.
As a black Muslim American woman, Muhammad cuts a distinctive figure in the predominantly white sport of fencing. At Rio Olympics, she became the first American to not only compete in a hijab, but win.
“Fencing has taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. I want to be an example for minority and Muslim youth that anything is possible with perseverance. I want them to know that nothing should ever hinder them from achieving their goals—not race, religion, or gender.” – Ibtihaj Muhammad, Duke Magazine, 2011
Too often, the burden is placed on minorities to explain and legitimize themselves and their experience. And why should that be? Muhammad argues that we should all do a better job of learning about and trying to understand other people—approaching those who are different from us first and foremost as fellow humans, with less emphasis on the ways we are different.
In 2012, Muhammad was named Muslim Sportswoman of the year.
“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sport,” Muhammad said in an interview with USA Today. “And it’s not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but within the Muslim community. I want to break cultural norms.”
In the spirit of representation, Mattel announced that it was honoring Muhammad with the unveiling of a new Barbie doll in her likeness. Part of the brand’s annual Shero program, which celebrates notable women and their achievements, the doll is the first in Barbie’s lengthy history to come with a hijab.
According to the Guardian, Mohammed is “one of the best symbols against intolerance America can ever have”.
Muhammad also serves on the council for the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative, which encourages girls across the globe to reach their potential.
Imran Khan, winner of the 1992 World Cup, ICC Hall of Fame, 3x Player of the Year.
Regarded as one of the greatest all-around cricketers of all-time, Khan’s best qualities were his bowling and leadership. One of cricket’s fastest bowlers, he led the Pakistani National Team to their first and only World Cup in 1992. Imran hand-picked that team, including future stars Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Inzamam-ul-haq, and Mushtaq Ahmed.
After his retirement, Khan started his own political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which focuses on weeding out corruption in the Pakistani government. Khan continues to head the party and is one of the country’s most popular leaders due to his strong Islamic values.
Ruqsana Begum, a British Bengali who grew up in east London and studied architecture at Westminster University, became the Muay Thai world champion after beating Susanna Salmijärvi from Sweden.
When she’s not boxing, Begum is sweet, obliging, with an open, smiley face that makes her look much younger than 33, but in the ring she hardens into elemental aggression. ‘She has that kill or be killed instinct,’ World renowned trainer O’Shaughnessy states. ‘A lot of boxers have got the talent, but they haven’t got the instinct. When she’s outside the ring you’d never know, it’s only when she’s inside that you realise.’
For women, gaining the right to box has been a battle – they weren’t allowed to compete in conventional boxing in the Olympics until 2012. And for Muslim women, in particular, the problem is compounded. In 2012, she launched a line of sports hijabs that are made of Lycra and don’t require a safety pin to hold together. ‘I want to help more Muslim women participate in sport.’
Her fighting career was also derailed by an arranged marriage in her early 20s, which proved disastrous. And the final complication is that she suffers from ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a long-term illness.
In the face of such hardship, Begum embodies perseverance, receiving an Inspire Award at the GG2 Leadership Awards in 2016.
Football has long acted as a platform for societal change, cultural influence and tolerance. Salah has not simply been a goal scoring wizard, a master playmaker and tireless hard worker for Liverpool, he has been an unexpected sociological meteorite in English football. Exhibiting a persona which warrants as much respect as his footballing talent does; humble, incredibly charitable and a calming presence – Mohamed Salah is a fine ambassador for not just football, but Islam too. His arrival in the Premier League could not have come sooner.
Salah has acted as an unexpected uniting force, an unlikely champion of Islam in these challenging times, revolutionising our perceptions of Islam with his graceful presence. The Liverpool chant “if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim to’, though jovial in intention, lays evidence to desires of improved integration in our society.
Salah’s charitable efforts in his homeland cannot go unnoticed. He invests much of his £90,000-a-week wages into schools and hospitals in his home village of Nagrig, and at his wedding in 2013, he issued an open invitation to the whole of his village – and 1,000 came along.
Salah’s humility, sincerity and skill hails him as one of the best in the premier league, both on and off the pitch.
“Salah has a strong will and his mind is faster than his feet.”
Al-Gassra shattered the glass ceiling as the first Muslim athlete to win an Olympic Medal covered in Hijab at the 2004 Olympics. She won a gold medal in the 200m sprint and a bronze in the 100m at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. She has also won medals at the Asian Indoor and Arabian championships, and was the flag bearer for Bahrain at the 2008 Olympics.
Al-Gassra has already made a huge difference in her country and the region. Since her success the
Bahrain has seen scores of girls taking up athletics. Relatively speaking, it’s a small amount but a giant leap forward from where sport was in the country a few years ago.
Parents, particularly those with daughters, regularly seek her advice. They want to to know if it’s safe for girls in sport whilst keeping close to Islamic traditions.
She always re-assures them in her cheerful manner, quickly coming across a great role model to aspire to. Bahrain even hosted their first ever Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) Youth Championships for Girls. Hundreds of youngsters from Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait lined up dreaming that they too might be the next Roqaya Al-Gassra.