New Found Glory

With her NCAA career over, her professional hoop dreams on hold and her future foggy, the leading scorer in Massachusetts high school basketball history questioned a part of her identity that ’til college had made her stand out.

“It was such a contradiction. I made it this far being this Muslim basketball player, a hijabi,” says Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. “When I finally get to where I really want to be, I can’t do it because of hijab.”

People always celebrated the Springfield native as a breathtaking Muslim ballplayer with a headscarf. From being featured in our PUNKS section in 2009 to becoming the first hijabi on an NCAA court, Abdul-Qaadir was the Muslim hooper.

But FIBA says her headscarf, the most visibly Muslim thing about her, doesn’t fly, and to this day the organization’s out-of-date rules prevent her from going pro in the overseas leagues she’d otherwise be playing in right now.

Two years ago she read the disheartening words of the now-infamous Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Rules in an email from her agent: “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.” It later specifically forbids headgear—i.e., Abdul-Qaadir’s hijab.

“I wasn’t a Muslim hooper anymore,” she says. “I was just Muslim.”

Abdul-Qaadir could pass, shoot and score, posting team-leading averages of 14.2 points, 4.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game in her final year of college ball at Indiana State. But when she realized basketball may not be in her future, she took a good look at the other part of her identity—the Muslim part—which had tagged along for her hoops career in the form of fabric on her head.

“I don’t think I was doing it the right way, being a good Muslim woman. It wasn’t in my heart,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “At that point, I had to check myself. Am I going to succumb to this society and conform to fit in? Or will I have faith in who I should’ve had faith in from the start—Allah, the best of planners?”

Abdul-Qaadir went soul-searching for nearly a year. Thoughts crept into her mind about removing the scarf during games, the way so many critics challenged her to do if she “truly loved ball.”

“It’s a sucky thought to have,” she says. “But Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], I got through it. Clearly, I didn’t make that decision [to remove hijab].”

Instead, she kept it on. And, having rediscovered her Muslim identity, she balled out in an entirely new way. Her struggles turned into a documentary in the making, Life Without Basketball, which is slated for a 2017 relase. She hooped with and was honored by President Barack Obama. She graduated with her Master’s Degree. She accepted her first job as the Athletic Director at Pleasant View School in Memphis. She began motivational speaking.

But how exactly did Abdul-Qaadir get through that basketball loss and her spiritual slump? First, prayer. And second, accepting an invitation to Los Angeles from former NFL players Husain and Hamza Abdullah, brothers who have formed a group for Muslims living in the spotlight, now referred to as AsHab Network (pronounced “us-haab,” an Arabic word for companions).

“I can’t even begin to explain how my heart felt,” Abdul-Qaadir says of her time in L.A. “Everyone was pouring their heart out. I started crying. At that moment, I think I truly felt Islam. I truly felt it in my heart.”

That’s exactly what Husain Abdullah says the Network sets out to accomplish—bring Muslim influencers together to help one another so they can benefit the greater community.

“Her going through her struggles is going to inspire a whole generation of young female Muslim basketball players,” says the recently retired Kansas City Chiefs free safety. “She may not have the long storied career, but through her story and her inspiration, others may.”

Abdul-Qaadir’s roommate from Indiana State, track and field athlete Shalesa Smith, recalls receiving a phone call from Bilqis while she was in L.A. “[Bilqis] was like, ‘Shay, I feel so much better.’ Every answer she was praying for, she got it. When she came back from the trip, she had this glow. It was what she needed to move on.”

“Maybe this is my calling, maybe I was supposed to do these speaking engagements and have this voice and be a change,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “It feels good. And honestly, it feels a little better than scoring a basket or playing a game. To be a positive influence in somebody’s life, I think that’s unmatched.”

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is still the hijabi Muslim hooper. A basketball career remains a possibility if FIBA changes its rule, and Abdul-Qaadir says the decision is to be announced before the end of the year. Although she isn’t living life according to her original plan, she humbly accepted a new one. And you know what? She’s happy.

A happy hijabi Muslim hooper who’s a speaker, a teacher, an inspiring American athlete and much more.

“I pray whatever is for me, I’m grateful for and whatever is not for me, I can let go of. Alhamdulillah, I’m happy.”

Photo courtesy of Indiana State University