No ghosts in this SI look at Wooden, Alcindor/Abdul Jabbar

Week after week, month after month, year after year, I write GetReligion posts in which I fault mainstream sportswriters for looking the other way when they encounter religious facts and themes related to the lives of amateur and professional athletes.

Some reporters ignore or radically downplay the religious elements in the lives of important athletes and coaches (hello, Ravens-beat editors at The Baltimore Sun). Then there are journalists who allow athletes to flash the God-card in the language of a story, but then never follow up on those faith claims (hello Michael Vick) when it comes to digging out the facts (follow the money, follow the hours on the clock) about their lives in the real world. Where’s the basic journalism?

Often, after the publication of one of these God-and-sports posts, I hear from people who say that I am constantly pointing out the bad, without showing positive examples of coverage that gets the faith element of one of these stories right, combining religious symbolism, facts, etc., into one A-plus package.

Well, here’s one. The other day Sports Illustrated offered a long-read drawn from the biography of UCLA hoops legend John Wooden (“Wooden: A Coach’s Life“) written by veteran reporter Seth Davis. This particular chunk of the book was summed up in the headline, “The Wizard and the Giant.”

Which giant? In this case we are talking about the great 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, who was arguably the greatest college big man — ever.

Now, younger readers may say, “Lew Alcindor? Don’t you mean Kareem Abdul Jabbar?”

Precisely.

A that’s the subject that this story captures so well. It shows, in clear human terms, how one of the greatest coaches who ever lived, who was also a traditional Christian, learned to adapt to changes in the life of his greatest player, as he went through the process of converting to Islam.

Also, as you would expect, Wooden attracted excellent players to UCLA who shared his Christian faith, along with hoops stars from across the nation who had no active faith at all.

This created a unique atmosphere, and a unique challenge. This is precisely what reporter Davis captures in his story.

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Praying Jews flock to the Temple Mount; world notices

If there is a “Ground Zero” for the world’s three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it would be the Temple Mount, or “Haram Al-Sharif” (“Noble Sanctuary”) in the center of Jerusalem.

Jews revere it as the site of the First and Second Temples, wherein the “Holy of Holies” was contained. Christians revere the Temple as the place where Jesus walked and reasoned with the rabbis — as well as chastised the Pharisees and money changers. Muslims view the site as the the third holiest location in Islam, the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven.

Within the space of two days, two prestigious newspapers have covered the relatively recent phenomenon of more and more Jews, mostly Israelis, visiting the Temple Mount and praying, usually surreptitiously. Though captured by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” the Temple Mount was almost immediately returned to Muslim control, and Jews were advised not to visit.

No longer, says The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, both of whose Jerusalem correspondents have investigated. Both stories document the relatively quiet return of worshipping Jews to the site, the occasional protests of Muslims there, and the now-increasing warnings from local Islamic leaders that unless the Israeli government does something, matters could get out of hand.

From Jodi Rudoren at the Times:

For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.

Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.

“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”

Writing for the Monitor, Crista Case Bryant reports:

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Married 60 times before age 18 in Egypt

The Washington Post had a religion news blog item last week headlined, horrifyingly, “‘Some girls have been married 60 times by the time they turn 18′.”

The story somewhat conflates marriage of young women with the epidemic of children sold into marriage. I also worried about the veracity of the statistics and the context in which some claims were made about pregnancy health. But let’s go on into the religion angle:

But some girls who grow up in Egypt’s poor rural communities face an even scarier sort of child marriage: the temporary kind. Sex tourism to Egypt tends to spike in the summer, when wealthy men from Gulf countries flood into Egypt and thousands of underage girls are sold by their parents into temporary “marriages,” according to a story by Inter Press Service

Egypt’s illegal child sex tourism trade appears to have put a regional-friendly spin on the practice by portraying the buying and selling of children as a form of marriage, thus giving them a thin veneer of religious acceptability by circumventing Islamic rules against pre-marital sex. (Despite a 2008 law banning child marriages, enforcement is thought to be low and an Egyptian official told the Inter Press Service that’s it’s nearly ceased since the chaos of the 2011 revolution.) Child marriages are, after all, somewhat common in Arab countries, although not nearly as common as in neighboring regions. And such child marriages often involve “dowries” that human trafficking activists say are akin to a purchase price.

Indeed this is a religion story, but one that might be made valuable by a little bit more exploration into that angle.

Temporary marriage, or Nikah mut‘ah, is a major issue of contention in Islam. Muslims tend to agree that temporary marriage was instituted by Mohammed and practiced in Islam’s initial period. Sunni Muslims, however, believe it was later abolished while Shiite Muslims do not. These temporary marriages aren’t supposed to last less than three days but they’re of a short-term variety.

Almost all Egyptian Muslims are Sunni, however. So this would not be the religious teaching in play. Are these regional-friendly spins playing into Sunni understanding of temporary marriage? What, exactly, are those views? We’re not told. But as an initial starting point, a few entries from Wikipedia:

Nikah al-Misyar (“traveller’s marriage”) is a Nikah (marriage) carried out via the normal contractual procedure, with the specificity that the husband and wife give up several rights by their own free will, such as living together, equal division of nights between wives in cases of polygyny, the wife’s rights to housing, and maintenance money (nafaqa), and the husband’s right of homekeeping, and access etc.[1]

Nikah ‘urfi is a kind of Muslim marriage. It is similar to the Nikah ceremony. An ‘urfi marriage is a marriage without an official contract. Couples repeat the words, “We got married” and pledge commitment before God. Usually a paper, stating that the two are married, is written and two witnesses sign it. Most Islamic countries do not recognize ‘Urfi marriages and no partner can get a ‘legal’ divorce since the government does not recognize the legality of the marriage in the first place.[citation needed]

Citation needed indeed!

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NPR’s curiously biased quest for the historical Jesus

Did you know that Jesus wasn’t really God? Despite what his disciples claim, he never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate. He was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later deified (quite literally) by people who really didn’t know him.

That’s not a new claim, of course, but it’s getting new attention because of a new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Many media outlets have covered the book or interviewed the author. But one of the most peculiar is an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan’s conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent’s attempt to fit into American life and culture. “My parents were certainly surprised,” Aslan tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he’d been introduced to at church. “I became very angry,” he says. “I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ.”

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.

From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of “Christian scholarship” the book is merely one Muslim’s opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.

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An Army (trend) of one (or maybe two)

There’s an old journalism joke that goes, “Q: How do journalists count? A: One, two, trend.”

You can tell the joke is old since it implies that it takes at least three examples for a journalist to declare a “trend” and to write an article about it.

In the Twitter age, journalists who wait ’til they find three examples will get scooped, whatever that word means these days, which is why we now have trend stories based on a single-data point or worse.

A prime example is the Associated Press “Big Story” feature that ran with the headline, “Soldier Says She Faced Harassment Over Muslim Name.”

Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is not a Muslim — she’s a Catholic. But her name sounded Islamic to fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and they would taunt her, calling her “Sgt. Hussein” and asking what God she prayed to.

So before deploying to Afghanistan last year for her second war tour, she legally changed her name — to Naida Christian Nova.

This did not solve her problems.

Before we can get to the trend in the story, let’s talk about that headline and second sentence.

What exactly is a Muslim name? And what types of names sound “Islamic?” Some names certainly have religious connotations. If someone is named Christian that would certainly sound like a Christian name. Similarly, if a man is named Mohammed their name might sound “Islamic.” But Hussein is a relatively common Arabic name meaning “good,” “handsome” or “beautiful.”

Thus, there are Christians throughout the world named Hussein, including Barack Hussein Obama. Does the AP think the president’s name is Muslim and “sounds Islamic?”

The “Muslim name” angle is the necessary for the article, though, since it serves to establish the implied trend that members of the military are being discriminated against for having names that sound Islamic (i.e., a name that would be common in Arab cultures). The AP has stumbled upon a potentially significant religious story.

But if such harassment is occuring, why didn’t the AP make the effort to find Muslim soldiers with Arabic names who can verify the discrimination? Instead, their sole confirmation of extreme anti-Muslim bias is the biased anti-Christian activist Mikey Weinstein:

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