Muhammad Ali: America’s PROUD Muslim Son,
By Dr. Abidullah A. Ghazi, firstname.lastname@example.org
The death of Muhammad Ali on June 3, 2016 was neither sudden nor unexpected, given his long struggle with Parkinson’s. Yet its news was still received by America and the world with great sadness and grief. In fact Muhammad Ali’s story is not only that of a Muslim African-American hero, but the story of America itself. In the days since the news of his death, eulogies and and lifelong achievements have filled TV channels, newspapers, social media and the internet across the world recapturing inspiring touching historical memories and fond eulogies.
The events that turned an insignificant lad Cassius Clay into a very significant Muhammad Ali and how a man rejected and despised as a traitor rose to become the undisputed hero to his country and globally is truly one of the genuine American stories that our generation has experienced and which future generations will always cherish. Coverage of his life overshadowed a bitter and divisive election campaign and seems to have united us as Americans, if only so fleetingly. Yet his death revealed a unique dimension of American history and society. Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, adhering to a separatist religious ideology, rejecting conscription, condemning subordination, subjecting himself to ridicule, boycott, financial loss and condemnation, and then eventually becoming a national and global hero – It could only happen in America!
Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942 to African-America Parents. He did not seem to be very strong when his bicycle was snatched by a local thug; yet he realizing his weakness sought to remedy it with gaining power. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic (white) police officer, who initiated him into boxing and turning him a formidable boxer. A spiritual search led him to the charismatic founder of Nation of Islam (NoI), Elijah Muhammad, a man who proclaiming himself the “Messenger of Allah” and re-defined Islam in his own terms as a means for blacks to overcome the centuries of oppression and discrimination. Muhammad Ali came to espouse black supremacy and the notion of the “blue-eyed devil”.
When my wife Tasneema and I met Muhammad Ali in London, just before his bout with Henry Cooper in 1963, he subscribed to that ideology. He warmly welcomed us, offered a £20 (a two-week salary of a teacher or medical doctor, then) to come oversee his practices, however, he rejected shaking hands with a very fair Lebanese man, saying: “I don’t shake hands with whites.” The Arab fellow embarrassingly withdrew his hand saying: “But I’m a Lebanese Arab Muslim.” Muhammad Ali grabbed his hand, hugged him and apologized profusely. Then he ordered tea for us and the other visitors and left for practice with his sparring partner.
Yet it seems that Muhammad Ali’s heart was too big to fit into the narrow confines of racial exclusivity and hatred; and he did not stay long on the NoI’s path. His attachment to Malcolm X is well-known and it was tragically cut short. But it was through Ali’s encounter with Warith Deen Mohammed (seventh of Elijah Muhammad’s children with his wife Sister Clara Muhammad) that the boxer would come to know the Universalist message of true Islam. Muhammad Ali was one of the several thousands of Warith’s followers and his receptive mind must have realized that, just as Warith was moving the NoI away from its racist theology, America too was also moving forward in freeing itself from archaic bigotry, discriminatory laws and racial injustice. Muhammad Ali was to regain much more than he had lost. The folly of Vietnam and his courage in rejecting the draft was now honored. The Olympic gold medal that he threw in the river in protest was replaced. He received from President Bush America’s highest civic award.
Perhaps one of Muhammad Ali’s and modern America’s greatest moments was the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics. He all of a sudden appeared on stage to kindle the Olympic Torch, holding it high, walking with pride, though with shaking hands and unsteady feet. America finally recognized its illustrious son and the son was ready to walk with torch in hand, taking steps that would take this country – and humanity – to new heights and glory.