It was my parents who taught me that in Islam you are not supposed to have any idols. There is only one being to worship and that is Allah, or God, the single omnipresent deity in whatever language you may choose to refer to him. So what to make of boxer Muhammad Ali (Peace Be Upon Him), a man deserving of idolatry if ever there was one?
Even my father spoke of the three-time heavyweight champion in terms approaching hero-worship. My dad worked as a booking clerk on the London Underground, so his brushes with celebrity were minimal to none, but one of his fondest memories was an evening spent with Muhammad Ali. Ali was in the English capital in 1966 to fight Brian London at Earl's Court, and a group of Muslims, including my father, approached him at his hotel, inviting him to dinner. A couple of days later, Ali would go to one of the only halal butchers in central London that then existed, and my father would fondly recall that the champion ate 20-something chicken legs.
There have been many stories since his death of Ali fulfilling the dreams of the regular man and even helping negotiate the release of American hostages from Iraq. Yet, for my father and many others, it wasn't what Ali did in the ring that made him the Greatest of All Time—it was the decision to convert to Islam, two days after he shocked the world by wresting the title from Sonny Liston in February 1964.
It would be wrong to think of this conversion as spiritual. Not initially, in any case. A look at his rhetoric from the time shows that much of the decision to convert was political. In one of his first interviews after conversion, a month following the fight, he said he'd been interested in Islam "for the past six years, after a lot of teachings of Negro history and who we were before we got here."
Ali would later link his conversion to a 1960 trip to Miami, where he first visited a Temple Mosque run by the Nation of Islam: "I went to a Muslim meeting. And as soon as I heard it, I knew this is what I've been looking for all of my life."
What he was looking for was freedom. "I like what all Negroes like, and what they're fighting for is freedom," he said to reporters in a 1965 interview. His conversion to Islam has to be understood in the context of segregation in America and the civil rights movement. "Cassius Clay is my slave name," Ali explained in another interview. "I'm no longer a slave." As the pugilist would tell those that asked, "Muhammad means 'worthy of all praises' and Ali means 'most high.'" Never has a name been so apt.
Islam gave Ali a social platform and a hope of a better life for the future. Religion was his tool for emancipation.
Most controversially, Ali would also claim on the BBC that the white man is the devil—"their history is the history of the devil." This was in line with the preaching of Elijah Muhammad, the charismatic head of the Nation of Islam. Some commentators like Piers Morgan have argued that this statement makes Ali more racist than Trump, but that is a typical whitewashing of history. It's an attempt to tell Ali's story without speaking of the times in which he lived, when blacks were not allowed to go to the same toilets as whites, sit in the same section of the bus, and that's even before we get near voting rights or equal pay. The North Africans were fighting the French, just one of the many European nations that had profited from centuries of colonialism, and America sent young black men to their death in wars in Southeast Asia. This was the Establishment. And if you're constantly being beaten down and told you're worthless because of your race, it's not hard to see the white oppressor as the devil.
Ali was saying what many felt and that resonated. Islam gave Ali a social platform and a hope of a better life for the future. Religion was his tool for emancipation.
That said, Ali wasn't exactly spouting central Islamic tenets. Rather, his words were informed by the teaching of the Nation of Islam, a group formed in Detroit in the 1930s by Wallace Fard Muhammad. In the 1960s, their view that leader Elijah Muhammad, who had led the Nation since 1934, was a messenger of Allah, ensured that the group would remain ostracized from the mainstream Islamic community.
What Ali signified when he converted to Islam was that he was tired of being part of an oppressed people. He was black, and he was proud. The talk of being "pretty" may sound vain to today's ear, but at the time, he was telling the world that black was also beautiful.
The rhetoric was still the same when Ali fought the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974. He described the fight between himself and George Foreman in the following terms: "If he wins, we are slaves for three hundred more years. If I win, we are free." When the Congolese screamed, "Ali Bomaye!" (Ali kill him!), they weren't only asking for him to defeat Foreman, but to challenge imperialism itself.
During his time in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Ali was also placing a greater emphasis on the spiritual side of Islam. "For this fight," he claimed, "I've prayed every day, five times a day for five months, and everything is perfect." So perhaps it was no surprise that a year later, after Elijah Muhammad had died, Ali converted to Sunni Islam, Islam's most practiced form, and then decades later to Sufi Islam, the religion's more mystical branch. As with Malcolm X, who left the Nation of Islam in 1964 after having visited Mecca, the Nation of Islam had been a stepping stone to a more orthodox Islam, and this transformation also marked the end of the white-man-being-the-devil rhetoric.
With America pulling out of Vietnam and racist laws being repealed, it was harder to justify the comments, so Ali put them to bed, later admitting he didn't really believe his most extreme argument. In recent years, the Nation of Islam has also walked a more peaceful route, preaching unity with orthodox Muslims, though the group remains listed by the Southern Poverty Center as a hate group.
Peace and unity became key elements to Ali's later legacy. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at 42, the former champion remained astute and honed in on the times. He condemned murder being done in the name of Islam around the world and also rebuked Trump for his anti-Islam rhetoric. He spoke of Islam as the religion of peace.
Ali did not transcend race: He is race, a Muslim who used religion as a way to change the world in a wholly positive way.
There is a lesson to be learned in this amazing life for America, the West, and the world. Injustice drove him to use religion as a means to bring about change. Initially, it was a radical form of religion to suit his political message. He chose Islam as a way of separating himself from America's past and demanding a different, brighter future. It is an act of defiance—religion used as political weapon.
Yet even Ali has admitted that sometimes he pushed this rhetoric too far. His was a complicated multi-step conversion to embrace an inclusive version of Islam. Yet, young kids in the Middle East today, driven by their own sense of injustice, are being encouraged to make stands—and in certain cases sacrifice themselves—by zealots interested in attacking and sowing terror in the West, a process that also stops their followers from reaching the true inclusive and peaceful heart of the religion.
Remove the injustice and begin righting the wrongs, and Ali's view of Islam took on a peaceful hue. Ali, to the end, always hit the zeitgeist with the timing, beauty, and accuracy that made him a champion. It was his politics rather than his faith that would define him, but the two are so intertwined that to prioritize one over the other would be to downplay the importance of either. Ali did not transcend race: He is race, a Muslim who used religion as a way to change the world in a wholly positive way.
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