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Saturday, December 9, 2023


Olajuwon: A dream of faith, knowledge and learning

Through his success in the NBA, Hakeem Olajuwon became an ambassador of Islam and helped the society grow in Houston | Courtesy of David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Hakeem Olajuwon earned his place in the Basketball Hall of Fame for his unique quickness and defensive skill. But what all Houstonians remember about Olajuwon is his charm, a charm that earned him the nickname ‘The Dream.”

What made Olajuwon stand out was how he balanced being a devout Muslim with the career of a top level NBA athlete. He became an ambassador of Islam to Houston, helping create a positive image of Muslim people throughout his career. To this day Olajuwon has remained a strong figure in the Islamic community and has been instrumental in its growth.

“I think that is my position,” Olajuwon said when asked how he remains a figure in the Houston Islamic community. “I’m a Muslim, I’m a public figure. Whatever role I have to play, I’m still a public figure as a Muslim. I think it’s been the role I’ve been playing naturally without planning to play that role.”

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Olajuwon grew up in a multicultural society. A place where Muslims, Christians and Idol worshipers, the indigenous faiths, interacted with one another; where their kids played in the soccer fields in between the homes.

In Lagos, being Muslim was part of culture and tradition. Olajuwon described how during Ramadan a change could be felt in the community and in the media. While not a devout Muslim at the time, he would fast with his neighbors as a form of competition, even when they were too young to fast. That competitive nature proved dividends for him in the future.

A journey of faith

Olajuwon faced his first test of faith when he came to Houston for university.

Even at home I was practicing maybe at Ramadan, maybe every once and a while I followed my dad to the mosque to pray,” Olajuwon said. “But those Islamic principles are part of my culture. The respect, the honesty, all those qualities. So that was with me, but I wasn’t going to the mosque (because I didn’t know) where the mosque to pray was.”

For the better part of Olajuwon’s time with the Cougars he tried to live a normal college life. It was not until his time with the Houston Rockets that Olajuwon began to make that transformation into a devout Muslim.

The story goes that one day at The Summit after practice with the Rockets, a man approached Olajuwon and inquired why he was not at the mosque if he was a Muslim. Upon saying that he didn’t know there was a mosque, the man took Olajuwon five minutes from The Summit to Eastside on Richmond. This was the first mosque ever built in Houston. Today it is the sight of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston – Masjid.

What Olajuwon found was a multicultural group of people all together in prayer. Black Americans, White Americans, Indian and Pakistani, all coming together when they hear Adhan, the call to prayer. For Olajuwon, this was the first time he had heard the call in years.

“When I went to the mosque and heard that call, the goosebumps,” Olajuwon said. “Emotionally I was crying, because it gave me so many goosebumps, it reminded me of my background, my inner soul. The joy and the comfort that I can come every Friday now for my Friday prayer and I can come any other day. It’s like you discover the jewel, a diamond, that you lost and find again.”

Olajuwon’s reentry into the Islamic community kick-started a personal journey that resulted in him becoming the devout Islamic athlete the media knows today. Every day after practice Olajuwon would head straight to the mosque for prayer. And afterwords he would read books on Islamic history and culture in order to better understand his faith. Olajuwon said he became aware of what was permissible and what was not.

Ramadan Dominance

The ultimate moment of this journey was Olajuwon’s fasting during the months of Ramadan, which always fell during the NBA season. Olajuwon was past the point of making excuses for not fasting. He saw that he had an obligation to fulfill during Ramadan so he fasted.

Despite worries from his coaches, Olajuwon played without consuming any food or liquids from sunrise to sunset. Yet his performance level never dropped and often he dominated his opponents.

Once word spread that he was playing while fasting, Olajuwon become a model to Muslim and Non-Muslims alike. He became an inspiration for others not to give excuses in their workplace. His story is one that is shared around Houston to inspire people to this day.

“It’s uplifting to realize people noticed Hakeem and his high competitive nature,” Executive Director of the Islamic Da’wah Center Ameer Abuhalimeh said. “He always strives to do his best and give his best in any situation. He never compromised, never used it as an excuse. Fasting is supposed to free your spirit and let you focus.”

Redshirt junior Valentine Sangoyomi is one athlete on the Cougar men’s basketball team who has felt the influence of Olajuwon. Growing up in Lagos, Sangoyomi said it was impossible not to hear people talk about Olajuwon, even before Sangoyomi started playing basketball.

And even though Sangoyomi is a Christian, the way Olajuwon played and lived his life has remained a model to the 6’8 center.

“He’s just been a great role model for me,” Sangoyomi said. “Everyone talks about him so much back home. When I came to visit (Houston) I knew I wanted to play here because I see all the legacy Hakeem laid down. I’m looking up to him every single time.”

An institution of learning

Having experienced the rejuvenation that his faith brought him, Olajuwon’s next step in life was to create a place for others to worship and learn about their faith. With that in mind he set his eyes on the Houston National Bank.

Having sat abandoned in downtown since 1974, Olajuwon purchased the building in 1994 and after eight years of renovations reopened it as the Islamic Da’wah Center. The goal of the center was to create a place to advance and educate people about Islam and its culture and people.

In addition, by having the center in downtown it leaves itself open to the multinational business’ that come into Houston. Olajuwon sees it as just one more thing to help illustrate the multicultural nature of Houston.

One year ago the Library of Islamic Knowledge was opened at the center. Mayor Sylvester Turner was at the ribbon cutting ceremony, physically showing his support for Houston’s cultural identity. The Library opening is one more tool to create awareness of Islam in Houston.

Abuhalimeh said the library is the first of it’s kind in North America. A place to provide resources to Muslims and non-Muslims alike so that people may learn the history and culture of Islam.

And even though the Da’wah Center has dealt with protests in the past year they have always remained peaceful. Abuhalimeh said that it is because of those protests that the center exists. To inform the other side about what Islam is. The center is every bit a fulfillment of Olajuwon’s dream.

“We are very lucky to have someone like him,” Abuhalimeh said. “(Hakeem) is not just talk. He is someone that shows you how to live your faith in practical manners. He is helping his community be better through training, through education. These are all practical examples that we need in this day and age. (Olajuwon) realized this is what made him who he is today.”

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