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Muhammad Ali: Unapologetically Black, Unapologetically Muslim

I prayed shoulder to shoulder with Muhammad Ali.

Prayer is a time of meeting God, humbled and dignified, present in the heart, and focused on the awesome encounter with the Ultimate. On this particular day, April 20th, 2004, standing so close to Muhammad Ali that I felt the gentle tremor of his frail body, I admit that I was also in awe of a man I had loved so much from growing up halfway around the world in Iran.

Growing up in Iran, there was only one Muslim in the Western hemisphere that we all knew: Muhammad Ali Clay (as we knew him). He was a mythical figure to us: Muslim. Brash. Black. A Champion. Beautiful.

So imagine my joy when a few years later I got an invitation to go meet the one and only Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali. I remember my heart racing at the thought of meeting a person who had been one of my idols growing up. I quickly accepted and went to Louisville.

The meeting was in the newly formed Muhammad Ali Center. The meeting featured Ali and his wife Lonnie, and a number of Muslim scholars from around the world. By that point in his life, and due to Parkinson’s disease, Ali was unable to speak in recognizable ways to strangers, but he participated in the meetings attentively, carefully, and lovingly. Time after time, the great scholars came up to him, asking for one picture, one embrace, one al-salam alaykum after another. How gracious and generous he was to each and every person.

When he passed away on Saturday, thousands and thousands of people took to share their memories of Ali. Could anyone be surprised to see that for years Ali had been just as attentive, just as careful to acknowledge each and every person? Especially the children, whom he loved so. When he couldn’t speak, he would entertain them with magic tricks, as he also performed for our group back in 2004.

In that meeting, I presented Muhammad Ali with a copy of a book I had just edited, titled Progressive Muslims. The book was inspired by a similar vision of Islam that Ali had embodied his whole life: locating the real site for religions not in heaven but here in the midst of marginalized communities, working for a vision of Islam based on justice, and standing not merely against Muslim extremism but also against racism here at home in America as well as American colonialism and militarism abroad.

In light of the incredible wave of tributes pouring out to Ali, there are a few comments that I think would be helpful to keep in mind:

Ali was a constant critic of racism. He owed much of this to his own father, who was also named Cassius Clay. As David Zirin has documented, the father Cassius Clay was immersed in black nationalism of the Marcus Garvey variety. Muhammad Ali’s grandfather had named his own son (Ali’s father, Cassius M. Clay) after the great abolitionist figure.

Malcolm X had famously declared that they didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, but Plymouth Rock landed on them. Ali, too, was recorded as having said: “I’m not an American. I’m a black man.” In other words, Ali was proclaiming that so long as America’s black folks were treated as they were, they were not a part of the American dream. As Ali said, as long as black people were lynched and castrated, they couldn’t help but see whites as the devil. He changed his view of whites as the social conditions around him began to change. But he was quick to speak out against the atrocity of racism again and again, as he did in support of Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter.

Ali was a close friend of Malcolm X. I would argue that the three most influential American Muslims of the 20th century were Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and W.D. Muhammad. All three were products of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were closely connected. Ali was drawn to Islam by having seen Malcolm preach, and adored his brash confidence. The two of them grew up together in the Nation of Islam, and had a very similar disposition. A wonderful recent book traces this friendship. In his own book, Ali identified the closeness that he had with Malcolm X:

“Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all.”

Ali followed Malcolm X to Sunni Islam.
Until 1970, the majority of American Muslims were African Americans. The history of American Islam is absolutely grounded, rooted, and inseparable from the history of African Americans. It is all the more important to state this and reiterate this at a time that “Islam” has become a marker for all that is “other,” foreign, and the opposite of what “we” are supposed to represent.

The mass transition from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam is one of the largest gradual, incremental movements in history. Ali himself credited both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad’s son, W.D. Muhammad, with this transition.

“After Elijah Muhammad’s death, his son, Wallace D. Muhammad, took over the Nation and brought me, along with many of his father’s followers, to mainstream Sunni Islam. Malcolm was the first to discover the truth, that color doesn’t make a man a devil. It is the heart, soul, and mind that define a person. Malcolm X was a great thinker and an even greater friend. I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm.”

Ali was a pious Muslim.
One of the most curious aspects of Muhammad Ali’s life is how quickly many Americans forget, perhaps willingly, that he was a Muslim, a pious and observant Muslim. His name, after all, was a combination of the two most popular Muslim male names: Muhammad and Ali.

Muhammad rarely missed a prayer (salat), and was frequently seen in and among the Muslim community. Frequent are the stories of him being invited to mosques and helping to raise funds for different Islamic centers.

In his own conversations, he was quick to give credit to God. One of his more amusing talks is one in which he lists God as his bodyguard.

He never missed a chance to use the public setting of boxing to call people to faith in God. A moving moment was when a young boy had asked me what he planned to do after he retired, and his answer was that he would prepare for the only thing worth doing, preparing to meet God.

One of the last public comments of Muhammad Ali was a staunch defense of Islam and Muslims, in an age where Muslims are the frequent targets of Islamophobia:

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda … I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world … True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

“I believe that our 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 was similar to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in connecting American racism to criticism of war. It’s well-known that Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam war in 1967 at Riverside Church. King paid a great price for this stance and was dismissed by the American government, much of the black establishment, and the press. Ali was similarly vilified. Here is how he articulated his refusal to go to war against the people of Vietnam when America was failing her own citizens here at home:

“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?”

“No I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.”

Ali paid an enormous price for this stance, and stood to go to jail for five years. As it was, he had to give up his championship belt for over three years. In a particularly petty gesture, the American government took away his passport so that he would be unable to fight overseas. Ali lost three prime years out of his championship years, and yet is still considered the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.

Ali became drawn to the mystical side of Islam, Sufism. An interview with Ali’s daughter, Hana Yasmeen Ali, revealed that Ali was drawn to the teachings of Islamic mysticism as taught by the famed South Asian mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. Inayat Khan was the first known Sufi to have traveled to the West, given the instruction to “Unite the East and West through music.”

The writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan were published in a series of distinctive orange volumes that became the basis of introducing Sufism to the English-speaking world in the 1960s and 70s. It was these volumes that Muhammad Ali began studying very carefully. Here’s how Muhammad Ali’s daughter described the champion’s attraction to Sufism:

“My father has a collection of books by a man named Hazrat Inayat Khan. They are Sufi teachings. He has read them front to cover. They’re old and yellow and the pages are torn. They’re amazing. He always says they’re the best books in the world.”

Over the years, Muhammad Ali met with some other Sufis as well, including those from the Naqshbandi order. Some of these mystics were eager to claim Ali as their own member as well, though it is patently unclear as to whether Ali understood himself to have been initiated into their order or not.

He was so pretty. Let me end the way Ali himself often asked to be remembered. Ali was a beautiful black Muslim man. He was so damn pretty. He had the body that a Greek god would have envied, and a face that was well…beautiful. He was a bold, beautiful, and brash black man who came into America’s living rooms with an awesome combination of talent, charisma, humor, skill, lyricism, power, and beauty.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Muhammad Ali was Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. For a few years he was the most famous human being in the world. And whatever it is that we think of as hip-hop, Ali might as well invented hip-hop. That uniquely urban and black-rooted, lyrical genius came into Americans’ homes, and it terrified and fascinated a white America. Ali knew this, played with it, and thrived on it.

Muhammad Ali was hip-hop — before the word was known.

And we loved him so. He was a champion not just in a boxing ring, but in the world community. He was beloved in the Global South, beloved in the black community, and beloved among Muslims. He was another reminder, like Malcolm, of how to be unapologetically black, unapologetically Muslim. American Islam has never had a more beloved icon.

Goodnight, sweet champion. The world over mourns you, and weeps for you. Today we put your body in the ground in the Islamic ritual of the funeral prayers, led by Imam Zaid Shakir. But do we see you for who you were, or are we guilty of selective amnesia yet again as we have been with Martin and with Malcolm?

May we not whitewash your legacy. May we not mourn you with one breath, and badmouth Muslims with another. May we not iconize you one minute, and remain indifferent to the racism here at home. May we not lionize you today in your funeral, while prosecuting those who follow in your footsteps and stand up bold and brash and principled and beautiful against war and war-mongering.

Sleep at ease, champion of this world, champion of that world. Thank you for teaching us how to be unapologetically black, unapologetically Muslim. You were, and are, so beautiful.

Inna lilah wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

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