On June 3, 2016, America and the world lost one of the most beloved and transcendent figures of our time, Muhammad Ali. The Islamic Circle of North America joins the global community in praying for forgiveness of his sins and the highest reward in the Hereafter. Ameen.
Coming of Age in an Era of Bigotry and Discrimination
While dominating and redefining the style of heavyweight boxing during the 1960s, Muhammad Ali’s impact would ultimately transcend sports. As a teenager with the uncommon name of Cassius Clay, he came to the world’s attention as a brash, overly confident, and good-looking boxer from Louisville, Kentucky. Sponsored by a group of wealthy White businessmen, young Cassius demonstrated his potential greatness in the ring by winning an Olympic gold medal in 1960 at the age of 19. This was the era of overt racism in America and the Civil Rights Movement engaged in nonviolent protests and demonstrations to push lawmakers to rescind the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial separation and institutionalized inequality. For African Americans at the time, success in the athletic world was a more viable option than a career in the academic, business, or professional fields. Muhammad Ali’s keen intellect was masked by his less than stellar accomplishments in the classroom, but boxing allowed him a pathway to excellence and recognition. All the while, he was developing a greater awareness of the plight of African Americans and how their lives were dominated and limited by bigotry and discrimination.
In June 1962, Clay and his brother were invited to attend a Nation of Islam rally in Detroit to hear Elijah Muhammad preach. He had attended Nation of Islam rallies before outside of Miami where he was training to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, but he had never heard Elijah Muhammad speak in person. On the way to Detroit, Clay and his brother stopped at a luncheonette owned by the NOI, and this is where he met Malcolm X. They were introduced, but Malcom had no idea who Cassius Clay was at the time because he had not watched sports since he had been released from prison, and, Malcolm noted, they “were in two different worlds.” Muhammad Ali describes the encounter in the luncheonette and the speech of Elijah Muhammad as changing his life forever. Shortly after this experience in Detroit, Clay joined the NOI. Malcolm and Clay developed a short but intense friendship that ended when Malcolm split with the NOI. Muhammad Ali would later say that one of his deepest regrets in life was that he never had the opportunity to reconnect with Malcolm.
A Champion of the Oppressed
One of Muhammad Ali’s most iconic moments was when he refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1968, because, as he said then, “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger.” He further explained, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” As a result of his refusal, he was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title, and thus deprived of his means of livelihood. He was also threatened with a five-year federal prison sentence and a fine of $100,000. His conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Muhammad Ali was a champion of the rights of African Americans, Palestinians, and all oppressed people in the world. Even though he was vilified as being un-American for opposition to certain government policies, Ali was not only vindicated years later for his honorable positions, but passionately embraced by the American people and worldwide community. Muhammad Ali was not only a global cultural icon, but more importantly, he was a firm believer and practitioner of Islam. During his young boxing days, Ali had repeatedly said, “I am the greatest.” As an older, more mature, Muslim man, Ali said, “God gave me this illness [Parkinson’s] to remind me that I’m not Number One; He is.” He also is quoted as saying, “This life is not real. I conquered the world and it did not bring me satisfaction.” What did bring him satisfaction was helping others, advocating for the poor, needy, and oppressed, and supporting social justice issues.
ICNA Loses a Strong Supporter and Dedicated Volunteer
Muhammad Ali always kept a pack of ICNA pamphlets on Islam with him. He used them to give his autograph whenever requested. He also used to autograph them before handing them out at the ICNA dawah booths where he regularly volunteered. In the mid-nineties when ICNA Chicago used to organize information booths on Islam outside the Dan Ryan train station, Muhammad Ali was a regular volunteer. “He would always ask for a pack of 250 of his favorite ICNA pamphlets: Islam Explained and You should know this man,” said Ikram Hussain, then President of ICNA Chicago Chapter. “He would distribute them in about 40 minutes while it took the rest of us 2-3 hours.”
Ali was also an active volunteer with the ICNA meat distribution at Masjid Al-Faatir in South Side Chicago. “We remember his selfless devotion and passion to helping others as a volunteer with ICNA meat distribution during Eid-ul Adha,” said ICNA President Naeem Baig who used to volunteer with Ali. He was also part of ICNA’s Bosnia Task Force formed to stop the Bosnian genocide, a member of the national Muslim leadership delegation which met in 1993 with the United Nations Security Council members. When he addressed a packed press conference on the issue at UN Headquarters in New York, both journalists and diplomats crowded the room, interested in what Muhammad Ali had to say.
There are few individual Muslims who have more positively influenced the image of Islam in America than our beloved and respected brother, Muhammad Ali. May Allah forgive his sins and grant him Jannatul Firdous (the highest level of Paradise). Ameen.