Top 10 Greatest Muslim Sport Stars of All Time
Throughout history, the stadium has been a microcosm of the world outside; no rugby field or athletics track is immune to the contentions and political innards outside its walls. This reality is all too familiar to Muslim athletes, who often bear the representative placard of Islam in their sporting ventures. Despite the barriers posed by a post-9/11 era, and the insidious Islamophobia seeping through the Western world, these ten athletes proudly practice Islam and embody its tenets. Setting an example to Muslims across the globe, they attribute their sporting prowess and extensive accolades to none other than Islam and the Almighty.
- Hands of Stone: Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali is an enduring emblem of the intersection between faith, sport, and human rights. Beyond being seared in history as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, Ali is remembered as a man of zeal and zest in his quest for truth and excellence. After announcing, “I believe in Allah and in peace” the day after winning the boxing World Heavyweight Championships in 1964, Ali’s career and personal life was thrust into the throngs of an explosive domestic and international sphere. He would soon become an icon for American Muslims, resisting conscription to serve America in the Vietnam War, and joining activists such as Malcom X in battling the ‘race war’ on the home front. Constantly in pursuit of haqq (truth), Ali left the Nation of Islam to embrace orthodox Islam, and dedicated his later life to philanthropic endeavours. In an interview at the peak of his career, Ali was asked whether he had hired bodyguards. His response; simple and gracious
2. NBA All-Time Leading Scorer: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
If you thought LeBron James or Michael Jordan held the title for most points scored in the NBA – think again. Muslim revert Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comfortably leads the point tally with an outstanding 38,387 points to speak for his 20 season reign in the NBA. Throughout his tenure, Abdul-Jabbar won six championships and was a record six-time recipient of the NBA Most Valuable Player award. Entering professional basketball at the close of the Civil Rights Movement, Abdul-Jabbar was inspired by the likes of Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. His family had been the victim of KKK attacks, sparking his disillusionment with Christianity and driving his reversion to Islam in 1971.
Off the court, Abdul-Jabbar’s spiritual journey is one of fierce conviction and defiance. Despite criticism from his fans, he openly declared that his transition from the Christian name Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meaning “the noble one, servant of the Almighty”, was far from a celebrity rebranding, but reflected a transformation of heart and soul. He did not shy away from addressing the challenges faced by Black American reverts, explaining that “we [reverts] need a powerful reason to abandon the traditions of our families and community to embrace beliefs foreign to both.” After encountering staunch sects on his Islamic journey, Abdul-Jabbar was determined to clarify and renew his faith, and in 1973 he traveled alone to Libya and Saudi Arabia to learn Arabic and study the Quran.
3. The Eagle: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib practices what he preaches, striving to manifest the Prophetic example ﷺ in his swift and enthralling journey to being the youngest undefeated UFC Lightweight Champion. In an industry riddled with arrogance and vulgarity, Khabib fearlessly represents Islam: refraining from foul language, respectfully refusing to shake hands with the opposite gender and openly praising Allah after his victories. After confronting a chorus of Islamophobic taunts before his face-off against Connor McGregor, Khabib urged his fans, “If Allah is with you, nobody can beat you, and you have to believe this.”
Retiring unexpectedly after notching his 29th straight victory, Khabib reminded Muslims worldwide that no amount of wealth or professional success supersedes one’s obligation to their parents, announcing that he would leave the UFC to fulfill his promise to his mother; “I want to spend more time with her because she’s the only parent I have left in this world.” Khabib retired as the longest reigning UFC Lightweight Champion (2018 – 2021), with a staggering 29 wins and 0 losses.
4. The First Female Muslim-American Medal Winner: Ibtihaj Muhammad
In the contemporary world, a hijab-wearing woman can be silent, yet speak volumes, simply by having the conviction to wear the fabric on her head. In the sporting arena, this bold statement invites criticism and a barrage of unwarranted commentary on the faux-sexism apparently plaguing the Muslim world. However, this unwritten reality did not deter Ibtihaj Muahmmad from pursuing her goals in sabre fencing. Despite confronting persistent microaggressions during her time in the US Fencing Team, Ibtihaj persevered, becoming the first hijab-wearing American to compete in the Olympics. She defied further expectations in the 2016 Olympics by charging her way to a bronze medal.
Ibtihaaj harnessed her unique identity to author the critically acclaimed autobiography, Proud: Living My American Dream, a poignant and empowering collection of her experiences as an ambitious Muslim woman navigating Western predicaments. Ibtihaj has also been named in Time’s 100 Most Influential People, attesting that the hijab is only a hindrance if one views it as such. Ibtihaj, meaning joy and happiness, is an apt name for the fencer, who is always found smiling, reflecting the Prophet’s ﷺ words that “smiling is an act of charity” [At-Tirmidhi].
5. An International Icon: Sonny Bill Williams
Sonny Bill Williams is a much decorated athlete sporting accolades in the unique trio of rugby league, rugby union and boxing. But it is William’s off-field humility that has accorded him global recognition as an upstanding man as well as a player. Beginning his career with a Grand Final win at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, and cementing his title as arguably the best offloader the NRL has ever seen, Williams made his high-profile move from league to union in 2008. Shortly after, he reverted to Islam. In response to media scrutiny, he simply shared that “I’ve become a true Muslim. It’s given me happiness. It’s made me become content as a man and helped me to grow.”
After slotting into the All-Black squad with ease, as their first-ever Muslim player, Williams propelled himself into the rare feat of winning two rugby World Cups, and somewhere in between, returned to the NRL to play a key role in the Sydney Roosters glorious 2013 Grand Final win. Williams’ boxing career also carries the titles of former WBA International Heavyweight Champion and NZPBA Heavyweight Champion.
In his recently released autobiography, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining, Williams speaks of his love for family and devotion to faith. He paints a candid picture of the poisonous temptations of rugby culture that challenged him as a young man and led him to Islam. Wherever possible, Williams harnesses his platform as a UNICEF ambassador and elite sports star to defend the most vulnerable. In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, he was vocal about the Islamophobia plaguing New Zealand, and continues to advocate for the building of mosques in Muslim-dense suburbs despite staunch opposition.
6. What’s his name? Kanté! N’Golo Kanté!
The Premier League, Champions League, and World Cup – French professional footballer, N’Golo Kanté, is one of just six players to have won all three. He is one of the best defensive midfielders of this generation, earning a place on the UEFA Europa League Squad of the Season, ESM Team of the Year (2015-17), and being awarded the Premier League Player of the Season (2016 – 17), Chelsea Player of the Year (2017–18) and French Player of the Year (2017).
But it’s Kanté’s humble beginnings that furnish these achievements all the more exceptional. Born into a Muslim family in the suburbs of Eastern Paris, Kanté would walk for kilometres as a young boy collecting trash to trade in for coins at small recycling firms. After the 1998 World Cup, Kanté saw a France whose football glory largely came from migrants, and after turning eight, aspired to be one of these footballers. And Kanté has done far more for France than bringing home a World Cup.
Despite the many opportunities for lavishness, Kanté is known by teammates and fans to be a modest man and practising Muslim. After winning the 2018 World Cup in France, Kanté was too shy to hold the trophy, and his teammate Steven N’Zonzi had to step in to allow him a moment of trophy celebrations. Even moreso a testament to his character, after winning the Premier League title with Chelsea, Kante celebrated by performing Hajj and spending Ramadan in Mecca.
7. Making history: Mohammed Farah
In the 2016 Rio Olympics, more poignant and dramatic than the scene of Mo Farah racing past Kenya’s Paul Kipnigetich to win his third gold medal was his immediate fall to prostration after crossing the finish line. Farah, a Somali-born British long-distance runner, is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history. In both 2021 and 2016, he was the gold medalist for the 5000 m and 10 000 m track events, making him only the second athlete to win those titles at successive Olympic Games. He claimed the first-ever ‘quadruple-double’ by winning long-distance doubles at successive Olympics and World Championships.
For Farah, faith is central to his excellence in sport, telling reporters that his pre-race routine consists of ‘praying, reading dua and thinking about how hard I have worked.’ In a post-Brexit Britain mired by veiled xenophobia, Farah refuses to downplay the integrality of heritage and faith to his success, and though often receiving torrents of racial abuse, treats other Brits with respect and compassion as per the Prophetic ﷺ example.
8. A Woman of Many Firsts: Feryal Abdelaziz
A woman of all trades, Feryal Abdelaziz is a trained pharmacist as well as an Olympic gold medallist for karate. Representing Egypt in the 2019 African Games, she won the silver medal in the women’s kumite 68 kg event. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were the first Olympics Abdelaziz successfully qualified for, but this did not hinder her from clinching the gold medal after defeating world number 1 Irina Zaretska from Azerbaijan in the final. This crowned Abdelaziz as the first Egyptian woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic games and the 8th athlete in Egypt’s history to achieve a gold medal. Of the chaotic whirlwind that was the 2020 Olympics, it was a serene and inspiring moment to witness a gold medal placed over the hijab and around the neck of a Muslim woman.
9. Remembering Your Roots: Bachar Houli
On our own home soil, Bachar Houli, an Australian Rules Footballer for the Richmond Club, has given the Australian-Muslim community more than one reason to be proud. Houli forged a remarkable sporting career at Richmond: playing over 200 A-grade games, winning an astonishing three Premierships, and being named in the 2019 All Australian team. Houli was outstanding in the 2019 Grand Final win, finishing with 26 touches and being voted runner-up for the Norm Smith Medal.
But in this impressive ascension, Houli has made it a priority to pause and give back to his community. In 2013, he founded the Bachar Houli Foundation with the vision of providing opportunities to Muslim youth through elite programs in football development, education, leadership and employment. The Foundation has soared in its goals, reaching over 35,000 participants in its programs, and graduating over 150 students from its Academy and Employment programs. Houli himself has visited over 50 schools, discussing the centrality of Islam to his sporting success, and inspiring young Muslims to be goal-oriented and prioritise community service. In recognition of his efforts to foster harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims, Houli has been awarded the Jim Stynes Community Leadership Award, High Excellence Award for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding and the International Beyond Sport Award.
10. The Beard that’s Feared: Moeen Ali
This list wouldn’t be complete without English cricketer Moeen Ali, an all-rounder in the sport, with a lethal, well-concealed arm ball and one of the best hitters of spin in the game. His flexibility and skill in various positions on-pitch led him to be named as one of the five Cricketers of the Year in 2015 and selected as part of the English Squad that would later win the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
Ali’s courage on-field extends beyond the blazing ferocity of the sport, and into the world of humanitarianism and politics. In 2014, despite the ICC’s ban on political messaging on-field, Ali wore a ‘Save Gaza’ and ‘Free Palestine’ wristband to protest the carpet bombing of Gaza by Israeli military. In the charity space, Ali is an ambassador of StreetChance, a program that provides free cricket coaching sessions in low socio-economic areas in Britain. About this he said, “It’s so important that schemes like StreetChance give young people the opportunity to play cricket and to learn key life skills, wherever they’re from, whatever their background.”
Disclaimer: The views, opinions and conclusions presented in these pieces are strictly those of the authors. MYA does not necessarily endorse the personal views of the authors.
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