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Muhammed Ali – A Positive Muslim Role Model Par Excellence

Mohammed Ali

Featured image courtesy Huffington Post

‘People Will Forget What You Did , But People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel ‘  –Maya Angelou

King of the Ring, Muhammed Ali left us to join His Lord. The whole world irrespective of race, colour, geographical location and gender rose up to salute this great man on his finale journey to his resting place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Ali was famed for verbal dexterity as much for his prowess in the ring, a legacy summed up by his mantra “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” True, boxing was the vehicle that kept him relevant until his iconic legacy became an inspiration to all those who fought against oppression particularly against white domination in US. The world admired Ali’s poetry, prediction and footwork inside the ring , which flowed naturally from him with an authentic style, and even those who fought him looked back on sharing the ring with Ali as an honour, and for them -to fight Ali was to be a piece of history.

However, Ali’s true greatness did not come about through his boxing feats alone; ultimately it was his fearless and uncompromising ability to stand up to the courage of his convictions, which played a major role in pushing this fighter beyond the ring and into the consciousness of the masses. Randy Roberts in a recent book about Ali, summarized his role and stature when he wrote “Once, we viewed sports as a world apart, untouched by the political and economic and racial problems of the day. Well, since Muhammad Ali, we can never maintain that fiction.”. How true indeed!

He became one of the most important public figures during the 1960s and ’70s after speaking out about civil rights issues and the US war in Vietnam. Later in life, Ali battled with Parkinson’s Disease for many years — an affliction his family blamed on his years of fighting — but that did not take the spark off his eyes and did not deter him from making his mark in more recent debates particularly on Islamophobia . Ali was a true humanitarian who worked tirelessly for many worthy causes and stood up for the underdogs and the underprivileged, despite his own handicaps. He is renowned today as much for his principled stances on religious freedom and racial justice as his epochal victories over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Muhammad Ali shook up the world.  And the world is better for it.

Americans particularly Black Africans quite rightly eulogize him for his lasting contribution to uplift them from slavish mentality to claim their due place in their country. He linked with greats like Malcolm X (who introduced him to Islam) and Martin Luther King Jr. “I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.” Tennis Hall of Famer and social activist Arthur Ashe summed up Ali’s contribution to American race relations in an interview with Thomas Hauser.” Ali didn’t just change the image that African Americans have of themselves,” Ashe said. “He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African Americans, who we are and what we can be.” As Bill Crystal said at his funeral : ‘This brash young man who thrilled us, angered, us, confused and challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.”

Apart from the Media empire, there may be many fans, who may have looked past his faith as they remember his life and when showering Ali with praise . It may have been that they may have learned to love him despite his faith, or maybe they’ve simply thought it irrelevant. However, to ignore Muhammad Ali as a Muslim is to ignore Muhammad Ali as a man. The two are intertwined. Ali’s name meant more to him as he kept referring to the change from Cassius Clay as a liberation from slavery . Islam helped shaped his personality which inspired him to undertake higher causes in the name of humanity, symbolized his commitment to humanistic principles which governed his life, and helped to make him a household name across the world in places that had never had an American hero.

It was surprising that a hypocritical Media did not adequately refer as to how he drew inspiration from Islam , in order to undertake the many pursuits in the cause of humanity; the same faith which they choose to demonise day in and day out, in their frequent reports on terrorist activities of groups professing pseudo Muslim names. He refused to have his star on the ground for millions of tourists and bootleg-costumed superheroes to carelessly walk over, on the Walk of Fame, just inside the Dolby Theatre — the home of the Academy Awards, on the premise that it will disrespect the name of the Holy Prophet of Islam which he carried. His is the only star mounted on a wall.

His principled stand on the Vietnam War was legendary. Ali was drafted in 1966 and called up for induction in 1967, however he refused to answer to his name or take the oath. This led to Ali’s arrest and conviction, later overturned on appeal by the US Supreme Court and lost many years in his lucrative career in the process. Ali explained why he would not be enlisting to fight in Vietnam, major reason being against the tents of his religion: –

“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? …. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

Muhammed Ali have always been a positive ambassador for Islam in many causes he espoused and has been particularly a positive role model for Muslims to adopt in the current context , when Islamophobia has almost gone mainstream not just in US and even beyond. In the US context,  a Muslim scholar Sherman Jackson who spoke at the funeral ceremony said : “Beyond what Islam did for Ali, Ali did something for Islam, especially in America. Ali did more to normalize 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.”. His wife Lonnie Ali eulogised “Muhammad wants us to see the face of his religion, Islam, as the face of love. It was his religion that caused him to turn away from war and violence. For his religion, he was willing to sacrifice all that he had and all that he was to protect his soul and follow the teachings of prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.”. Lonnie Ali also added : The world still needs him.” And no one feels that more than Muslims in the United States who lost their biggest champion’.

It was never harder being a Muslim than after Sept. 11, 2001. Islam was no longer thought of as a religion, but perceived as a terrorist group of radical followers. It was likes of Ali who took it upon himself to stand up and speak out, during a time when Parkinson’s had made it hard for him to do either. “Islam is a religion of peace. It does not promote terrorism or killing people,” Ali said. “People say a Muslim caused this destruction. I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting this murder of thousands.”

It would have caused a pain in mind to Ali that he has to leave the world at a time in history when the Muslim world needed likes of him to champion their cause, when a demagogue and racist like Donald Trump who has been campaigning across America on a racist Islamophobic platform, ultimately being selected as the presumptive Republican candidate for the next Presidency. When Trump called for the total shutdown of all Muslims from US, in response to Paris attacks , Ali boldly defended his faith as a religion of peace which has inspired millions all over the world and also called upon Muslims too to stand up against vicious elements who tar their faith. He exhorted the world to look at Islam without coloured glasses and told Muslims to look inwards without being apologetic for the atrocities committed by some of their fellowmen. Ali said :

‘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. We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody. Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, 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’.

In a separate speech , he said : “I’m a Muslim. I’ve been a Muslim for 20 years. I’m against killing and violence, and all Muslims are against it. I’m against killing and the terrorists, and the people doing that in the name of Islam, are wrong, and if I had a chance I would do something about it.”. Ali undoubtedly would have taken a more pivotal role in projecting a more positive image of Islam, at this challenging point of time where Muslims have been unfairly demonised, stigmatized, marginalized and silenced, had his health permitted. He would have spoken more eloquently against Western aggression against Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the way he spoke against US aggression in Vietnam.

Rabbi Michael Lerner gave a fiery speech this funeral. in which he declared that American Jews stand in solidarity with Muslims, saying they will not tolerate politicians demonizing an entire religion by the actions of a few. “How do we honour Muhammad Ali?” Lerner asked. “And the answer [is], the way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today.” . No one will disagree with Rabbi. It will be a standing tribute to his blessed memory if we emulate his excellent example of promoting tolerance, brotherhood and humanity in a world ridden in hate and prejudice. May the Great Champ rest in peace.