A conversation with Ibrahim Jaaber, part 1
I spoke with former Penn basketball phenom Ibrahim Jaaber last week shortly after this Grantland piece from DP alum Jason Schwartz ran.chronicled the evolution of his Muslim beliefs and reasoning for returning a six-figure sum to his Euroleague team Zalgiris in midseason.
Part 1 of my conversation with Jaaber focuses on the evolution of his Muslim beliefs, his professional basketball future, and what he thinks about the Palestra being referred to as the Mecca of basketball. Also keep your eyes on The Buzz for part 2 of this conversation, which focuses on his memories of Penn basketball and his hopes of getting back into the Penn community in the near future.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What was it like to grow up in a family of 12 siblings?
Ibrahim Jaaber: It was normal for me because all I knew was having family around at all times. And it was exciting, it was fun. There were some difficulties but for the most part it was a very wholesome experience.
DP: How did having that large of a family influence your relationship with Islam growing up?
IJ: I think they go hand in hand. The foundation of the Islamic community is family. So the strong families and the tight-knit families are what make up a community. And so my entire experience as a young person, I basically associated Islam with family. The first thing on the list was Islam and the second thing on the list was family.
DP: Are your siblings all as devoutly Muslim as you are?
IJ: Devoutly? Well I wouldn’t call myself devout. I hope I’m devout. But we don’t call ourselves devout, we try to be devout. And for the most part my brothers and sisters are striving on the same path hopefully as myself. Many of them I work with now have been out of college on the Islamic side of things, working with the Muslim community and so forth.
DP: Were you aware of the beliefs of Muslim NBA players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when you were growing up?
IJ: It was apparent, we recognized them by name. And for guys like Hakeem specifically, he was broadcasted as somebody who was fasting while he was playing. So it was very apparent, and I often refer to Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when I’m talking to the young people and looking at their success. So it’s something I use to motivate the youth and the value of having discipline and faith, how it benefits you in life.
And as well, Abdul-Rauf, I’ve dealt with him a little bit recently, we’ve shared the microphone in some events and so forth. But I didn’t know a lot about his career until recently.
DP: What have you worked with Abdul-Rauf on?
IJ: Well I met him for the first time this summer at a Muslim basketball event and they brought myself and him to talk to the youth about our stories and also enlightening them just about how to carry themselves in that type of arena. We have another project coming up that hasn’t been finalized but we hope to work together with them again.
DP: Did you feel like returning the cash to Zalgiris was adequate atonement for you or do you still feel some sense of regret for having been associated with that organization?
IJ: Regret? No, no, no. Because to me it was an innocent mistake. It wasn’t like I went into the situation with the same mentality as I came out with. So it wasn’t a regrettable situation. It was a benefit, because were it not for that situation, maybe I would not have perspective about professional sports.
DP: But returning the cash was a necessary step of walking away, obviously.
IJ: For me it was. I could have kept the money but for me it was bigger than the money. It was really a landmark, or a milestone in my life’s journey to be able to walk away from it and wipe my hands clean, and move onto the next stage of my life.
DP: Did you ask anyone for advice when you were working your way towards that decision, or was that really your decision alone from start to finish?
IJ: My decision first was based on a growing understanding of my purpose as a Muslim and once I began to look at the situation as I see it now, then I consulted people. I consulted my wife, I consulted my family and religious leaders and so forth. And as well I consulted the narration of our prophet, the one we follow whose name is Muhammad.
DP: How long did it take ultimately for you to make that decision once you had recognized further your purpose as a Muslim?
IJ: I think it was between 24 and 48 hours, no more than 72. The announcement took place in a very short period of time, with me contemplating over the matter, waiting for responses from certain people who I confide in, took the course of a few days.
DP: Do you still have an interest in playing basketball professionally, or is that over now?
IJ: It’s something I’m still praying about. There is really no answer to that. I’m still getting offers from teams, major, major teams over in Europe and even coming from the Middle East. I’m running a few projects now that I’m back home, religious and social as well as cultural development. So I have to weigh what I’m doing now against the benefits of what I would be doing by going across the border to pursue basketball.
DP: So you’re still at a stage of considering those offers then?
IJ: They’re on the table.
DP: Are there still benefits left in taking up professional basketball? It’s always a for-profit deal and there are always certain sponsorships that have the potential to put you in another situation like that again.
IJ: That’s the challenge. If it were possible, it would have to be the best-case scenario, and that’s why I mentioned the Middle East, where there should be little conflict with different things that the organization or the company is, number one, promoting, number two, distributing.
The other benefit and one of the reasons why I was thrilled to be a professional player was to be an example of what a Muslim is, especially in this climate, this day and age where there are a lot of misconceptions about what the Muslim is or who the Muslim is. It is important for the Muslim to be visible. However, not at the expense of your beliefs.
DP: When did you start Color Me Muslim?
IJ: Color Me Muslim was officially founded in 2011. However, it had been going at least a year before that.
DP: How important to you are the things that you’re doing for Color Me Muslim?
IJ: They’re paramount actually, as far as number one, social and cultural development in the Muslim community, and number two, outreach. In order to reinform people about the identity and personality of the Muslim. It’s one of the things that we’re lacking, the Muslim youth especially are losing out. We’re losing them to gangs, negative movement. Music, hip-hop. We’re losing them to other cultures and it’s really a negative reflection on the community and it’s tragic at the end of the day.
DP: How would you like to see Color Me Muslim grow in the future?
IJ: Well I think the potential is limitless for an organization with diversity and so forth, and dealing with professionals of all sorts. Athletes and authors, artists. Hosting different events for the youth could be anywhere in the nation. It’s not just limited to one place. But Muslim people really need something they can grab hold of, a type of movement, an organized entity to bring Muslims together and give them a new energy and new inspiration, to be proud about being Muslim. This is something that is very important to me for some of the struggles I faced myself growing up in America.
DP: What were some of those struggles you faced growing up?
IJ: Again, social and cultural voids, not really having a desire to be creative and express myself and to really see the beauty of this religion. However, that’s not Islam appeared to be when I was growing up. It’s still at a developing stage here in America. Now that I’ve come through all these experiences and I can see the swagger of Islam, this is something that I want to give back to the youth so they can be really proud of their religion and don’t have to succumb to the peer pressure and go through an identity crisis. They don’t have to go elsewhere for fulfillment, they can get fulfillment within the confines of this religion.
DP: What is the biggest thing that people often misunderstand about Islam from your perspective?
IJ: Well, for example we have events like 9/11. We have all of the distress going on in the Middle East, and it’s constantly replayed in the media. Negative images, negative images, right? So Islam is perceived as the villain. This is, whether people agree with it or not, this is what people see when they see somebody wearing a long garment or a woman who is cloaking her hair. This is what people associate that image with. And so it’s this false association that I think is one of the greatest obstacles for the Muslims. One of the greatest challenges now in being Muslim is not to redefine ourselves but to remove the stigma that people have placed upon us for whatever reason.
DP: How frustrating is it that so few other professional athletes, whether they’re Muslim or not, have made the same faith-based choice as you did to walk away from sports industries in the same state as the one you walked away from?
IJ: It’s not frustrating. There are very few professionals that believe as I believe, number one. Number two, everybody has their own degree. But for the most part, I think it is a reflection of the people at large. Our willingness to compromise. People don’t necessarily see alcohol as something that’s wrong. However, it results in the death of at least 75,000 or so just Americans every year. And most people would make the excuse of, ‘Okay, I’ll take the money that I made from doing so-and-so and give it to something good.’ However, if you were a drug dealer or something worse and you make this money and give it to something good, no, it doesn’t make sense. Because you’ve harmed more people in the process than you’ve helped at the end of the day.
DP: To what degree did you feel left out at Penn because other Penn people weren’t Muslim to the degree that you were or didn’t have the same perspective that you did?
IJ: No not at all. Like I said, it’s been a really growing perspective and understanding of my religion. The increase of knowledge and guidance that brought me this far – I can’t say that I was in the same place when I was at Penn. I can recall when reporters would come up to me and want to talk to me about such matters. And because I wasn’t equipped with knowledge, it was something that I shied away from.
DP: The Palestra is often referred to as—
IJ: The Mecca of basketball.
DP: Right. What do you think of that, as if it’s some sort of sacred dwelling that has spiritual and religious connotations for people?
IJ: Well it was something that I often thought about while I was there. The Mecca of basketball, as if it was a reminder for myself. However, it is not Mecca.
But it says something about the history of the Palestra, and also the knowledge of those who came through there that Mecca is recognized as a very, very sanctified religious place by non-Muslims. So it gave me a sense of pride to hear that people called this place the Mecca of basketball.