Tag Archives: slavery

From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.


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The “Sin” of Sodomy and Demographic Imperatives

When attempting to determine whether something is “natural ” (vis-a-vis yesterday’s post on Catholicism and homosexuality) one good way of investigating the issue is to use the genealogical method.  So far as I can tell, there are no hunter-gatherer or pre-Neolithic societies that had taboos against homosexuality.  We can therefore trace the history of the “sin of sodomy” (or religious injunction against homosexuality) back to the Hebrews.

The first recorded reference to sodomy, however, comes from the Assyrian Empire (circa 1500 BCE), where we find a fragmentary cuneiform inscription prohibiting sodomy among or between Assyrian soldiers.  This prohibition applied only to the military and was not stated in moral or religious terms.  Although the reasons for this regulation are unknown, we know that in Assyrian society at large there was no prohibition against homosexuality and it was widely accepted — as it was in all other Mesopotamian city-states.

Given the widespread acceptance and practice of homosexuality in the ancient Levant and elsewhere in Mesopotamia, what might account for the Hebrew treatment of homosexuality as a “sin against God”?  Why did they make this a moral and religious issue?

The answer probably stems from the fact that the Hebrews always were a smaller group buffeted by the large-scale societies and empires that were continually warring with one another throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt.  It is of course well-known that the Hebrews suffered several catastrophic military defeats, some of which ended in enslavement (the Egyptian and Babylonian captivities) and some of which resulted in loss of lands and emigration (the famous “Lost Tribes of Judah” and Jewish diaspora).

In this setting, the Jewish-Hebrew tribes would have been demographically challenged — they needed more tribe members to defend themselves and war for territory.  This challenge would have led to an emphasis on fertility and procreation — two things not often associated with homosexuality.  Making sodomy a sin and prohibiting homosexuality would have served these procreative goals and the interests of the group.

Early Christianity suffered under similar circumstances: Christians were small in number and heavily persecuted.  Adopting the Jewish prohibition against homosexuality, treating sodomy as a sin, and encouraging marriage-based reproduction served the interests of small Christian communities.  Increasing group size through reproduction is often an effective method of defense, and creating laws and rituals encouraging reproduction is one way of accomplishing this goal.

In more recent times, we see a similar example among the Mormons — who are famous for encouraging marriage (often plural) and having large families.  The Mormons also suffered from heavy persecution during their early history, and one way of increasing their group size was to do so through reproduction.  It was, over time, a highly effective strategy.

Religious laws and ritual regulations often have a basis in social ecology, a fact well demonstrated by Marvin Harris in his studies of the sacred cow of India and the Jewish-Muslim proscription on pork eating.  Michael Harner made a similar showing regarding Aztec ritual sacrifice.  Vernon Reynolds and Ralph Tanner treated this issue at length in their book, The Social Ecology of Religion.

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