Farrukh Saleem acknowledges he has a problem.

“I’m beyond a sports fanatic. I need help,” said Saleem, who will hunker down in his Potomac, Md., home this Super Bowl Sunday with his six-year-old son and root for his beloved Chicago Bears.

Saleem, 36, attributes at least some of his sports fever to a youth spent watching Muslim superstars like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who became heroes to countless Muslim-American children.

“It can be a struggle growing up Muslim in America,” said Saleem, whose family emigrated from Pakistan shortly before he was born. “So when you see other Muslims doing and succeeding at the sports you love, that can’t help but give you a lift.”

In their primes, Ali and Abdul-Jabbar gave the small population of Muslim Americans, comprising mostly immigrants and their children, figures who validated their identities and proved Muslims could succeed in America.

Today, there are more Muslims in U.S. sports than ever. But despite calls for better understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds, few Muslim athletes have emerged as ambassadors of the faith like Ali and Abdul-Jabbar. That leaves Saleem wondering about his children: “Who are going to be the role models for them?”

Ali began an improbable comeback in 1970, five years after Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened the nation’s doors to an unprecedented number of Muslim immigrants.

Three years earlier, Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for declining to serve in Vietnam. The stand garnered Ali, who in 1975 left the Nation of Islam for mainstream Sunni Islam, admiration and criticism. To many Muslim Americans, Ali was a source of pride and hope.

Congress honored Ali with a resolution on Jan. 17, his 65th birthday, noting his athletic and humanitarian accomplishments as well as his faith. “Ali is a devout Sunni Muslim and travels the world over, working for hunger and poverty relief, supporting education efforts of all kinds, promoting adoption, and encouraging people to respect and better understand one another,” read one “Whereas.”

After Ali fought his last fight in 1981, basketball legends Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon succeeded him as Muslim-American sports heroes. Abdul-Jabbar, who converted to Islam in 1972, retired in 1989 as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to two championships and won admiration for fasting during Ramadan, when the NBA season and the Muslim holy month coincided. He retired in 2002.


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