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Feb. 7, 2024

Malcolm X community forum welcomes former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

The Muslim Studies Program’s annual Malcolm X Muslim Studies Community Forum is an opportunity for the Michigan State University and Lansing communities to commemorate the human rights activist Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X. Every year, the forum features a distinguished keynote speaker who uniquely addresses Malcolm X’s legacy and influence. 

Malcolm X’s speech at Michigan State University, 1963.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf smiling

On Jan. 23, the third annual Malcolm X Muslim Studies Community Forum — organized by the Muslim Studies Program, Broad Art Museum and MSU Libraries — featured former National Basketball Association player, author and activist Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as the event’s keynote speaker. The forum took place in the same room — the Erickson Kiva — and on the same day that Malcolm X delivered his speech about “the race problem in America,” 61 years earlier.

“Greetings, and peace be upon you all, ‘as-salamu alaykum,’” opened Mohammad Hassan Khalil, professor of religious studies and director of the Muslim Studies Program. This forum was an opportunity to “collectively reflect on Malcolm X’s legacy,” said Khalil. 

“It’s really important we acknowledge Malcolm X and the work that he did and also recognize the contributions Black Muslims have made to the history of the United States,” said Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Jabber R. Bennett, Ph.D.

Malcolm X Muslim Studies Community Forum event attendees

As introductions closed, Khalil warmly welcomed the forum’s keynote speaker. Abdul-Rauf began by expressing the honor of sharing a space and time with Malcolm X. He then took some time to talk about his upbringing and growing up with Tourette’s syndrome, “it’s like your mind and your body are on different wavelengths, always negotiating with each other and trying to find balance... if something didn’t feel right I had to repeat it over and over,” Abdul-Rauf explained that his Tourette syndrome made simple tasks complex. “To get out of the house it may take 45 minutes.” 

Abdul-Rauf talked about his second year at Louisiana State University when he was first introduced to the late activist Malcolm Little through a book his coach gave him, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

“Malcolm X’s life began to fascinate me and I went through some changes. That is what information does, it literally sends you through a lot of changes,” Abdul-Rauf explained. “I believe that God knew something that I didn’t know. He was preparing me for something somewhere down the road.”

During his first year as a point guard for the Denver Nuggets, Abdul-Rauf had been questioning his faith and ended up meeting someone who brought up Islam in their conversation. He started reading the Quran and felt an immediate connection. It was at that moment Abdul-Rauf decided to become a Muslim.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf speaking

Abdul-Rauf’s passion resonated through the Kiva as he spoke about March 12, 1996, while at the peak of his career, he was suspended and fined by the NBA for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf viewed the flag as a symbol of tyranny and oppression and could not comprehend why he was being punished for expressing his beliefs. This injustice fueled a fire that expanded his role models from professional basketball players like Julius Erving, also known as Doctor J, to thinkers, philosophers and “people that have pushed the envelope for social change.” 

He explained that as a professional basketball player, you're given a platform to help people. That is why he expressed his beliefs, to push the envelope for social change like his role models. Abdul-Rauf was overcome with emotion as he reminisced over his admiration for Malcolm X’s embodiment as a truth-seeker, “I am grateful that through him I developed this [truth-seeking] attitude.”

Abdul-Rauf concluded his talk with his dedication to taking a stand and the influences that drive his passion for change. He said, “Yes, there’s good, but I do not have the time to talk about the good . . . How can I be happy when the rest of us are sad? This is Malcolm’s contribution to me.”

A question-and-answer session with the keynote speaker followed, and the community forum formally ended with an opportunity to get a signed copy of Abdul-Rauf’s book, “In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography.”

Malcolm X Muslim Studies Community Forum event audience in the Erickson Kiva
This year’s Malcolm X Muslim Studies Community Forum was sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters; College of Education; Creative Writing Program; Department of African American and African Studies; Department of English; Department of History; Department of Religious Studies; Foglio Endowed Chair in Spirituality; Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities; Honors College; International Studies and Programs (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion); James Madison College; Library Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Organizational Development; Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion; Residential College in the Arts and Humanities; and the University of Michigan Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum.

Photography by Dane Robison

By: Emilio Silerio-Gonzalez

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