“I’m shy, but sometimes my voice is so clear and strong,” he said. “Your tongue moves, and the Arabic language is so beautiful.” The Qur’an talks to him, says the Houston Rockets center. From it, he learns to be pious and to stay close to God.
Olajuwon, 37, could not be a more devout Muslim. He carries a compass so he can pray toward Mecca from any basketball arena. He reads the Qur’an on airplanes and visits mosques in cities where he plays. He gives 2½% of his annual income to the poor and arranges his daily errands around prayer times.
“God comes first,” says Olajuwon. “Paradise is not cheap.”
And, as he has every year for the last decade, Olajuwon is spending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan fasting from dawn to dusk, even as he plays professional basketball.
He awakens before dawn to eat precisely seven dates—the traditional Muslim fast-breaking food--and to drink a gallon of water. Then he prays for strength. He touches no food or liquid until sunset. Then he allows himself a well-balanced dinner--chicken, vegetables, and rice, perhaps.
When he plays an afternoon game, he pants for water—and drinks not a drop. Still, he says, “I find myself full of energy, explosive. And when I break the fast at sunset, the taste of water is so precious.”
As difficult as the month seems to most people, Olajuwon says it is a gift. “You feel so privileged, because this is a month of mercy, forgiveness, getting closer to God,” he says softly, in a voice accented with West African cadences. “You do more good deeds in this month. You read more of the Qur’an. You study more.
The seven-foot-tall Olajuwon—one of Islam’s most famous pop icons—has a well-known life story. The son of middle-class Nigerians, he grew up in Lagos and moved to the United States in 1980 to play basketball at the University of Houston. After helping the team reach the Final Four in 1982, ’83, and ’84, he signed with the Houston Rockets, which he helped lead to national championships in 1994 and 1995.
Olajuwon was immediately successful—but he wasn’t entirely happy.
“I’m the kind of person who always wants more,” he says. “I was successful materially, but I know life is much more than worldly success. I saw all these blessings God had given me. The way to give thanks is obedience to God.”
Recalling his Muslim upbringing in Nigeria, he sought out a Houston mosque. Everything began to fall into place, he says, when he heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time in the United States. “The sound of the call, when you hear the call to prayer, you get goose bumps all over,” he says.
He began attending Qur’an study seminars and says he knew he needed to rededicate himself to his childhood faith.
In the midst of this rededication, he divorced his first wife—college sweetheart Lita Spencer, with whom he has a daughter, Abisola, 12. But in 1995, he married again, this time to Dalia Asafi. He has two daughters with Asafi—Rahma, 3, and Aisha, 15 months. He is rearing all three of his girls as Muslims.
Despite the culture shock of being a double minority in the United States—a black African and a Muslim—Olajuwon says he has found peace in his Islamic practice.
While traveling during basketball season, he often taxis to local mosques for Friday prayer. Often, he says, worshipers there want to drive him back to his hotel. “It doesn’t have to be because I’m a celebrity,” he says. “People know that whoever gives me a ride gets a big reward from Allah. It’s always for the sake of Allah.”
In fact, he says, “If you do it for the reward, you get punished. If you get the opportunity to take a brother back to his hotel, that’s a huge reward, because you’ve done a good deed.”
Olajuwon says he likes to talk about faith with his teammates, particularly devout Christians. Some of them, he says, “respond very well” to his polite--but persistent--efforts to convert them.
He says, for example, that when Christians talk about being “saved,” they are describing a reliance on Jesus as “truth.” But according to the Qur’an, he says, only Allah represents truth. And people who don’t trust in Allah, he says, are living in what the Qur’an describes as “the house of a spider.”
His conversations have led to some interesting exchanges. Once, a Christian teammate teased him for not eating pork. Olajuwon shot back: “If you followed your book, you would know you can’t eat it either.” (The Book of Leviticus proscribes eating pork, but that religious law is widely ignored by Christians.)
Another time, he got into an impassioned discussion of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity with a teammate. First, Olajuwon says, his colleague said that Muslims “just don’t understand the Trinity.” But eventually, Olajuwon wore the man down to the point that he gave in, saying, “Nobody cares about it anyway.” Olajuwon lets out a deep chuckle at the memory.
“If Christians follow the true teachings of Jesus, they come to Islam,” he says. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet--just like other prophets, such as Moses, Abraham, and Muhammad—who taught that people should submit solely to God, seek justice, and show compassion for each other.
Ever the evangelist, he is meanwhile anxious to spread Islam’s truths to other Muslims.
"Here, the information is more accessible" than in most Muslim countries, he says, because American Muslims tend to place a premium on understanding their faith rather than merely practicing a brand of cultural Islam from the Old Country.
Olajuwon even corrects his parents at times. An example: In Nigeria, older people are expected to perform a special monthlong fast before Ramadan. "Not Islamic," he says. Another example: Forty days after someone's death, Nigerian Muslims slaughter a cow to celebrate and pray for the person. Again, he says, "not Islamic."
For Olajuwon, Islam is a constant presence, not a straitjacket, but clearly a garment that binds him.
He says there is "no negotiation" about praying five times a day. He washes his hands and mouth, turns toward Mecca, prostrates himself, and begins: "In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful... You alone we worship... Guide us along the straight path, the path of those you bestow your favor."
All day, every day, he says he has "God-consciousness," an internal voice that regulates his every action. "You don't forget for a second," he says. "There's a constant communication. You don't lose this consciousness. When I'm doing errands, doing whatever, I'm conscious of prayer times."
This God-consciousness follows him onto the basketball court. His religion teaches him to be merciful and kind. That means, he says, "You play competitively, but you don't do things that are cheating or unfair or foul play. You report to a higher authority."
Might he someday, after basketball, train to become an imam-and teach other Muslims? No, he says, quietly. "That's a big responsibility."
But Olajuwon says he might like to be a da'ee, a kind of information broker who explains Islam to people.
"I'm doing it now," he says, laughing. "And what can be better than this?"