We walked off the basketball court together and stepped onto our prayer mats. We recited verses from the Qur’an, sent prayers upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and uttered supplications to our mutual Creator. Without saying much more, we contently exchanged smiles and headed back into the gym. I then continued to watch in awe as Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, 28, taught over 50 teenage Muslim girls how to handle a ball, dribble, shoot and guard. She was thorough, firm, inspiring and motivational. As they diligently followed Bilqis’ instructions, the girls all had the same look of aspiration in their eyes. Bilqis had managed to spark in them a desire to not only see themselves as a potential athlete but also as a Muslim one, just like her.
Faith has always been part of Bilqis’ upbringing. She grew up in a practicing Muslim home that prayed together, and her mother always wore hijab in public. Once Bilqis reached a mature age, she began practicing the hijab as well. She would do her prayers at school and at basketball practice. People knew she was Muslim but did not ask her too many questions. It was not until her freshman year of high school that she had to actually start speaking about her faith.
As the first female Muslim basketball player, Bilqis started making the news. She became a standout at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she excelled on the court as well as the classroom. Not only was Bilqis the school valedictorian, but she also set the Massachusetts state record for both boys and girls with 3,070 points scored – breaking Connecticut and WNBA star Rebecca Lobo’s previous state record of 2,740. She was also named the state’s 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American nominee.
Balancing faith and fame as a young teenager was not easy for Bilqis. Being outwardly Muslim had put her athleticism on the map.
“I knew my hijab was making me famous in my hometown,” recalls Bilqis. “I worried that if I stopped wearing it, I might lose that recognition. I had been playing basketball since age 4, but the hijab made me extra special. I didn’t want to lose it all. That’s what really kept me connected to Islam at such a young age. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I weren’t so visibly Muslim.”
That visibility sustained throughout Bilqis’ college basketball career as well. She received a full ride scholarship to the University of Memphis, where she played for four years (2009-13) and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in exercise science. During her freshman year at Memphis, she was invited to the White House for a Ramadan feast and was acknowledged by President Barack Obama for being the first Muslim woman to play covered in collegiate basketball.
Then Bilqis hit a major crossroad. She hoped to continue playing professionally in Europe until she was informed of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rule that prohibited headwear larger than five inches.
“I suddenly began to question my intentions for practicing the hijab,” shares Bilqis. “Was I wearing hijab for Allah or for me? Basketball was all I knew. By not getting to play, I felt like I was being punished. In actuality, though, my struggle with my faith finally became apparent. The truth was that I had been doing whatever I could in college to blend in somehow: turban style hijab, shorter tops, tighter sweats or jeans. I always stood out because of my name, my headscarf, my loose clothing. I was tired of answering questions or being the spokesperson for Islam. Now here I was having to choose between my faith and my future.”
Six months went by but FIBA’s rule did not change. Bilqis’ career was in limbo. She was in graduate school and working for the school’s women’s basketball team as a graduate assistant. This was not her plan. This is not what she wanted to be doing. This was not the life she had imagined for herself. She felt lost. She felt purposeless. She felt incomplete. Then Bilqis prayed. She prayed hard.
“Up until that point, everything had been given to me,” says Bilqis. “I didn’t have to work hard to learn how to play basketball. I was fortunate to play in front of college scouts and get scholarships. My image gave me celebrity status, but how had I thanked God along the way? I knew what plan I wanted for myself, but what was His plan for me? Was I ready to accept it?”