By Danish Mehboob – Journalism Student at the University of Washington
More than a decade ago Shaykh Hatem moved from one field to another.
For the former University of Washington linebacker, football had always been a part and parcel of his young life, but then so had Islam.
He is part Lebanese and Saudi Arabian, but was brought up in a liberal Muslim household in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His forefathers were among those to build the first mosque in America, The Mother Mosque of America, which opened in 1934.
“It was just a game, not worth dying for. My purpose changed to serving Allah. I still like football, I still watch football, but it is no longer my main ambition,” says Hatem.
His family was passionate about football too and encouraged him to play and be part of it from a young age. After showing promising skill at the university level, being scouted by NFL teams, and getting published in magazines including Sports Illustrated it seemed that Hatem was living the “All-American Dream.”
However, this fame and success came at a controversial time at UW. His teammates in 2001 included football stars Jerramy Stevens and Jerramiah Pharms, who each had warrants out for their arrest. It was a troubling time, and much of it has been recorded in the book ‘Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complexity’ by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry.
“Jerramy was my teammate, we came in the same year together,” said Hatem “we used to be close.”
Hatem’s football career ended with him lying on a hospital bed shortly after the win at the Rose Bowl. He had suffered from a pulmonary embolism, which nearly ended his life.
He recalls this moment well, since it really gave him time to put things into perspective and changed his path from football towards a greater calling: his faith. He says this was one if not the key event that changed his life for the better.
After graduating from UW with a degree in psychology, he traveled to Yemen for further studies in Islamic disciplines and Arabic, leaving behind all that was important to him before. He spent the next seven years learning from some of the most prominent Islamic scholars of the century and brought back their teachings to Seattle.
My family was uncertain in the beginning, but became supportive in time. Many of them thought he had given up on the opportunity of a lifetime, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“When they saw how persistent I was, they came around,” said Hatem.
Today, Hatem is the executive director and resident scholar at the Mihraab Foundation, a 501-C organization that aims to promote a traditional understanding of Islam in a western context. He started the organization to spread awareness and educate those on Islam, to improve spiritual cultivation, and engage in constructive dialogue with members of other faiths and beliefs.
“It was a way of giving back to the community,” says Hatem. “My mentor told me to go back knowing that I could do more good here than by staying in Yemen, even though I wanted to stay.”
He particularly shows an affinity for changing the image of Muslims in society today.
“I counter the negative stereotypes about Muslims by being a good person,” says Hatem
Hatem takes great pride in the number of people he connects with, and talks about how the Muslim community is growing, slowly but surely. There are many who come to hear him speak, some who follow up, and those that feel comfortable enough start to slowly follow Islamic culture and disciplines.
“Usually, they meet a Muslim who they were impressed by because of their faith and wanted a part of that faith,” says Hatem.
Showing interest in educating the youth of society who are interested in learning more about Islam. Hatem conducts regular classes on the interpretation and explanation of the Quran called Tafsir-Al-Jalalayn at the UW.
A student at the UW, Natasha Humayun, familiar with an Islamic upbringing and the identity crises Muslims face in America comments.
“In this day and age where Islamophobia runs rampant, it is as important as ever for people to understand and relate to Muslims on a personal level,” Humayun said.
A junior at the UW, Turan Ketene, who has attended Hatem’s classes and taken his advice since high school speaks highly about Hatem’s contribution and advice.
“He’s approachable. Everything we’re going through, he already went through. His specialty is lecturing to the youth because he’s experienced the college environment and understands it,” says Ketene.
Ketene also mentioned that he’s an inspiration in the Seattle Muslim community and has managed to touch many lives including some of his own friends.
“Whatever the naysayers said,” chuckled Hatem, “everything they said I gave up on came out to be true anyway.”
Contact Danish Mehboob at email@example.com, twitter: @dannylookman