Boxer. Champion. Leader. Diplomat.
Legend of Muhammed Ali.

Written by Jeannette Viens

Thousands from around the country and across the world gathered for this Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral prayer service. The service has readings from an Imam as well as a pastor, rabbi, and reverend. It is not only a mourning for the departed, but a celebration of interfaith relations.

It is the funeral of Muhammed Ali.

Known for his impeccable boxing career, Muhammed Ali is an American athlete turned hero, who came to be revered by the American public despite falling under categories of the two most oppressed peoples in the country: black men and Muslims. At a time when race relations are increasingly tense and violent, and Islamophobia is rampant and even tolerated by some political leaders, it is important to remember Muhammed Ali for more than his athletic achievements. He was more than a boxing legend. He was a true proponent of his beliefs and a diplomatic icon. There are some who will try to overlook Ali’s faith and his role in promoting peaceful perspectives of Islam and creating global connections. However, as Arash Markazi of ESPN stated, “to ignore Muhammed Ali as a Muslim is to ignore Muhammed Ali as a man.”  Despite being known for his boxing, Ali considered being a Muslim the most important part of his identity and used his sporting fame throughout his life to influence interfaith opinions and connections.

Muhammed Ali was not only “The Greatest” inside of the boxing ring, but also a legend in his faith, using his influence throughout his lifetime to inform America of the Islamic practice and pursue interfaith connections. As the man himself said, “I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace, and understanding. I am still learning.”

Muhammed Ali converted from Christianity to Islam shortly after the 1960 Rome Olympics and was first associated with the Nation of Islam, an African American Islamic religious affiliation whose stated goals are to improve the social spiritual mental and economic conditions of African American in the US. It was during this time that he dubbed Cassius Clay his “slave name”, changing it briefly to Cassius X Clay before being given the name Muhammed Ali by the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

However, his alignment to the group made Ali a target of public condemnation, given that the teachings of the Nation of Islam have an anti-integration stance which often spoke of the white race as the perpetrator of genocide against African Americans. It was through his affiliation with the Nation of Islam that Ali both made and lost his friendship with mentor Malcolm X, and following the publicisation of his membership, he was not afraid to use his influence to speak the group’s doctrine. Many in the white community and some within the African American community initially refused to use his new name and condemned him for his affiliation, citing it as black separatist hate propaganda with a propensity towards violence. But for others, he was becoming a spokesperson for oppressed populations, fighting for the rights and prosperity of the Muslim and African American communities, holding to his beliefs despite criticism, unafraid to face his challengers outside of the ring.

And Ali certainly garnered his fair share of challengers, especially following his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. He cited himself as a conscientious objector, not a draft dodger, saying he would “take part in no wars unless declared by Allah.” His anti-war stance was very much in accordance with his religious beliefs and social activist views. 

His position had him arrested and stripped of his titles including his boxing license suspended during a prime athletic period of the champion’s life. Though he lost millions, he showed how an athlete can be extraordinary outside of his sport, putting belief above prestige. It was during this time that Ali truly became a voice of the people as he toured colleges as a popular speaker. He was representative of grassroots movements against the war, a true leader of grassroots diplomacy. With his faith as his reasoning, he united people of all backgrounds and opinions for their ultimate anti-war goal. As New York Times columnist William Rhodes details:

“Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jumpshot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Muhammed Ali returned to his boxing greatness, and remained motivated by his faith: “It’s a lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.” Alongside continued boxing success, the champion converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 following his first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972, in which he met people of different colours who shared the same faith. His trip enlightened him to a greater understanding of faith as a unifier regardless of an individual’s background, nationality, or race. His spiritual awareness was his inspiration when he retired from boxing following his last match in December 1981:

“My main goal is to be an Islamic evangelist. That’s all I want to do- spread the Islamic faith throughout the world.”

And that is exactly what he did, using his name and faith to do good around the world and showcase the love of Islam. Though often limited by Parkinson’s disease, he famously travelled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of 15 American hostages before the Gulf War and has spoken out against jihadist terrorism following the September 11 attacks and more recent bombings.

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world… We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda… As someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”

Ali constantly pursued wider understanding and promoted positive perspectives of Islam throughout his boxing career and life. He was a leader of his people, calling on elected officials to be truly representative and compassionate of all populations. Ali was truly a Muslim icon. He was a diplomat in his faith though not in title, unifying different peoples, representing minorities, and speaking out against stereotypes and xenophobia. As Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar who spoke at Ali’s Jenazah, stated:

“Ali did more to normalise Islam in this country than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States. Ali made being a Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and an American to rest.”

When we remember the champion, the man nicknamed “the Greatest”, we must remember that as successful as he was in the boxing ring, some of his best and most personal achievements were in the name of interfaith diplomacy.

“I’d like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him...who stood up for his beliefs...who tried to unite all human kind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”

Born Cassius Clay Jr on the 17th January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammed Ali’s fighting career began with the theft of his bicycle. His amateur career was highly successful including the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome at the age of 18. His professional career debuted in 1960 and at the age of 22, in February 1964, he won the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council heavyweight titles in a major upset over Sonny Liston. This quickly made him a sports star, bringing him media spotlight and influence. The man was known to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” with his superior hand speed, reflexes, and constant movement that made his quick left jab powerful at any angle.

Ali was known not only for his skill in the ring but also his trash talking as he frequently used freestyle and rhyme to taunt his opponents and often predict a match’s outcome, another way in which he quickly garnered attention. Muhammed Ali took part in several historic boxing matches including the “Rumble in the Jungle” versus George Forman and the “Fight of the Century” “Super Fight II” and “Thrilla in Manilla” versus rival Joe Frazier, the latter of which was physically destructive to both boxers. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion as well as held an overall professional record of 56 wins to 5 losses, with only one technical knockout.

“The name Muhammad is the most common name in the world. In all the countries around the world - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon - there are more Muhammads than anything else. When I joined the Nation of Islam and became a Muslim, they gave me the most famous name because I was the champ.”

Champ. Diplomat. Man. Muslim. Muhammad Ali, may he rest in peace.

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