Famous People Who Converted to Islam

Subject: Religion
Pages: 7
Words: 1930
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: College

Introduction

Religion is one of the ways through which individuals develop a sense of belonging and identity. There are many religions globally founded on different beliefs and principles. Although an individual may be brought up by parents subscribing to one religion, he or she may, at some point in life, convert to a different religion. Snook et al. (2019) define religious conversion as the transition from previously held beliefs to a new religion. In this process, a person denounces their former worship and pledges allegiance to an entirely new belief system, either publicly or secretly. Some of the factors that cause people to convert include personal convictions and societal influences, among others. As shown in this essay, various celebrities converted to Islam at different times of their lives and cited different reasons for conversion. Notably, all the converts experienced different levels of personality change, identity, and spiritual transformation following their conversion.

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Dave Chappelle

David Khari Webber Chappelle is a renowned US actor and comedian. Chappelle was born in 1973 and started performing stand-up comedy early in his life by age 14. His career has been successful and he was already been a top performer in comics for twenty years. Although many would attribute his successful career to talent, Chappelle had a different view of his life. In an interview held with Netflix’s David Letterman, Chappelle said his faith in Islam had been a major contributor to his successful career (Saeed, 2020). After learning about the Islamic religion in his teenage years, Chappelle later converted to Islam in 1991 (Saeed, 2020). According to him, he started developing an interest in religion as early as his seventeenth year through his interaction with the staff at a local pizza shop.

While many people may be motivated to change their religions based on contrasting beliefs, Chappelle was moved by the kindness and professionalism he saw at his local pizza shop. Knowledge gained about religion is instrumental in shaping an individual’s decision to convert and become a strong believer and advocate of their new doctrines. According to Chappelle, the staff at the pizza shop were always welcoming and willing to answer all his inquiries concerning the Islamic religion (Saeed, 2020). He usually visited the shop to crack jokes and refresh but, at the same time, found meaning in the associations he developed therein.

One of the impacts of religion on a person’s life is personality change. In research conducted by Stronge et al. (2021), religious conversion brings about distinct personality changes, the most noticeable of which are gains in modesty and aversion to greed. This change results from a firm belief that one’s commitment to religion brings satisfaction and improves their social interactions. In Chappelle’s case, he argues that he converted to Islam because through it, he felt he would derive meaning in life (Saeed, 2020). His faith in Islam shifted his focus from himself to God and society. Arguably, Chappelle’s conversion gave him a sense of identity and belonging, all of which are crucial for a person’s success in any field.

Muhammad Ali

In the history of sports in America, the name Muhammad Ali remains an icon of power, resilience, and patriotism. Ali was born in 1942 and given the name Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr y his Christian parents (Johnston, 2019). Like many children born in Christian families, Cassius blindly followed the faith alongside his parents. He was brought up in Louisville, a time characterized by rampant racial segregation. He was baptized at age 12 and got into boxing in the same year (Johnston, 2019). By 1960, he was well-trained and started his professional career in boxing. All this time, he subscribed to the Christian faith, although he had never thought about it or made a choice concerning his spiritual path.

Conversion to Islam started interestingly for Ali, a path he would later defend tirelessly. According to Eig (2017), a cartoon in a magazine given by an Islamic brother depicted Christianity as a white man’s enslavement of the blacks. This picture caught Ali’s attention and later prompted him to question his role in choosing his religious beliefs. Finally, he publicly declared his conversion to Islam after winning the heavyweight championships (Eig, 2017). He argued that although he was baptized early, he did not choose his life then but now he was informed enough to make a choice. Johnston (2019) records Ali’s words, “I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want” (p. 110). His conversion to Islam was highly influenced by his anti-racist ideals.

With Ali’s conversion came a strong belief in peace and justice. On April 28, 1967, citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army at the height of the war in Vietnam (Johnston, 2019). Many Americans vehemently condemned Ali’s stand. It came at a time when most people in the United States still supported the war in Southeast Asia. Moreover, although exemptions from military service on religious grounds were available to qualifying conscientious objectors who were opposed to the war in any form, Ali was not eligible. This is because he acknowledged that he would willingly participate in an Islamic holy war (Eig, 2017). In essence, Ali’s conversion gave him a sense of control and he was determined to fight for his beliefs even if it meant being imprisoned. Religion’s psychological and sociological impact has a positive effect on individuals’ pursuit of destiny.

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Shaquille O’Neal

In America’s basketball history, Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal is remembered as one of the icons who led the NBA to major victories. Muniowski (2019) records that O’Neal, the retired basketballer was unique in his physique and mastery of the game. He was born in 1972 to a Baptist mother and a Muslim father (Muniowski, 2019). After retiring from professional basketball, Shaq went on to work as a sports analyst. Shaq is known for guiding his teams to several NBA championship games in the early 2000s, as well as for his enormous physical dimensions; at 7’1″ and over 300 pounds, wearing a shoe size 23 (Muniowski, 2019). Shaq has a Doctorate in Education and aspires to pursue law school in addition to his sports achievements. Following multiple commercial appearances, he declared in 2010 his intentions to perform his Hajj to Mecca in accordance with his Islamic religion and has since ventured out into small acting jobs in film and television.

Although Shaq had not pronounced his belief in Christianity before, it can be assumed that he subscribed to his mother’s religion before adopting his stepfather’s Islam doctrines. From the information given to him by his mother, it appears Shaq’s destiny regarding religious inclination was set at birth. For instance, his mother mentioned that naming him Shaquille Rashaun, both of which are Islamic names, denoted her struggles and victories in raising him (Muniowski, 2019). The combination of his two names means “little warrior”, which according to the mother, showed how she had battled for him and fought for his good (Muniowski, 2019). When in 2010, Shaq finally decided to declare his allegiance to Islam, his mother’s naming and spiritual upbringing, alongside his father’s Islamic faith, were the major contributors to his conversion. Since Shaq believed in producing meaningful results for society, religion has helped him pursue his passion even after retiring from professional basketball.

Mike Tyson

A person’s life can take different turns, especially after changing their affiliations. Such is the case of Mike Tyson, the renowned world boxing champion. Michael Gerard Tyson grew up in New York City since his birth in 1966 (Fuhs, 2017). Tyson’s upbringing significantly shaped his career and, later, his faith. Fuhs (2017) records that since Tyson grew up in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, he was often caught in petty crimes and was arrested more than 30 times by age thirteen. In his early years, Tyson followed the Catholic doctrine, which his parents believed in. Although his parents were religious, Tyson’s involvement in crime can be highly associated with personality influences caused by his surroundings. Strong et al. (2021) argue that a person’s immediate environment and close associates influence behavior by a large percentage. Tyson’s boxing abilities were discovered in a juvenile detention center, where his journey to professional boxing began.

Tyson’s career as a professional boxer was largely successful, owing to the strict training he received. By the age of 20, he received his first belt and soon after became the unbeatable champion in world boxing (Fuhs, 2017). His imprisonment in 1992 following a rape case became a defining moment in his life as he declared his support for Islam immediately after being released from prison (Fuhs, 2017). Although people felt that Tyson converted to Islam in prison, he held a different perspective. According to Tyson, his chauffeur before imprisonment was a devout Muslim who inspired him to convert (Fuhs, 2017). He regarded Islam as a religion of peace and therefore decided to not only join it but also learn more by making several trips to Mecca. Tyson’s conversion enabled him to focus on peace and dignity, which effectively kept him out of crime. Clearly, whether Tyson converted after a conviction while in prison or before, religion has been crucial in his life.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a famous NBA basketball player known for his scoring skills. Goudsouzian (2017) records that Abdul-Jabbar was born in 1947 as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. Throughout his career, Abdul-Jabbar was so dedicated that he was named by ESPN as the greatest center in 2007 (Goudsouzian, 2017). Growing up, Abdul-Jabbar observed how blacks were segregated and, as a child born by Yoruba parents, felt that justice was largely denied. While living in America, Abdul-Jabbar’s parents had to give him names that accorded him an identity among the whites, hence the name Lewis Alcindor (Goudsouzian, 2017). He points out that he was brought up in the Catholic faith and was taught to strictly follow the doctrines without question. However, he felt discontented by the affiliation and, at age 24, sought an identity through his conversion to Islam (Goudsouzian, 2017). He wanted to enjoy spiritual fulfillment, although he had not studied a religion different from Roman Catholicism.

Since knowledge acquisition is the first step in transformation, Abdul-Jabbar looked for a devout Muslim to teach him the requirements of the Islam faith. While playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, the revelation of Islam brought him the joy and relief he needed after many years of being subjected to strict obedience to set laws. By the time he was 24, he had changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “the noble one, servant of the Almighty” (Goudsouzian, 2017). His main reasons for conversion were a deep desire for spiritual transformation and fulfillment. He felt that Islam offered people of all races, and especially blacks, the identity they so much needed in a society that was largely segregated. Since Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion enabled him to study more about his newly-found faith and develop his personality, the path he took was right, although he lost his fame among the whites in his locality.

Conclusion

An individual’s social life is significantly influenced by their religious beliefs. No matter how well a person thrives, they are constantly in pursuit of spiritual satisfaction and personal fulfillment. Dave Chappelle, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are some of the famous individuals who converted to Islam at various points in their lives. Although they were motivated by different factors, each person experienced a personality change following their conversion to Islam.

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References

Eig, J. (2017). The real reason Muhammad Ali converted to Islam. The Washington Post. Web.

Fuhs, K. (2017). How documentary remade Mike Tyson. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(6), 478–492.

Goudsouzian, A. (2017). From Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Race, religion, and representation in basketball, 1968–1975. Journal of American Studies, 51(2), 437-470.

Johnston, A. W. M. (2019). “What you want me to be”: Documenting Muhammad Ali, 1970 to the present. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 43(2), 106–121.

Muniowski, Ł. (2019). Beyond (auto) biography: Narrating the lives and achievements of selected leading NBA players after the Michael Jordan era. Web.

Saeed, S. (2020). ‘It’s a beautiful religion’: Dave Chappelle discusses his Muslim faith in a Netflix interview with David Letterman. Arts & Culture. Web.

Snook, D. W., Williams, M. J., & Horgan, J. G. (2019). Issues in the sociology and psychology of religious conversion. Pastoral Psychology, 68(2), 223-240

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Stronge, S., Bulbulia, J., Davis, D. E., & Sibley, C. G. (2021). Religion and the development of character: personality changes before and after religious conversion and deconversion. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(5), 801–811.