London: Born Cassius Marcellus Clay and grown up a Christian, and proudly called by his father a "church boy", Muhammad Ali's journey from a Boxing Legend to becoming Champion of American Muslims and later a Human Rights Hero is full of inspiration and a rare example of conviction.
The former world heavyweight boxing champion, one of the world's best-known sportsmen and a hero praised and adorned by millions around the world, who died at a hospital in the US city of Phoenix in Arizona state on Friday, had also played a key role for the development of Islam and Muslims in America.
“Ali has played an important role in terms of the development of Islam in America. He has always been a champion of Muslims in America and he is not going to stop being that simply on account of his health", Imam David K Hassan, Muhammad Ali's freind, is quoted in an interview published by Emel Magazine, months before the legend died.
“Muhammad has never been one to preach, he leads by example – and a colourful one at that. You can follow or you can stay where you are. That’s your choice", Lonnie, Muhammad Ali's wife is quoted as saying in the same interview.
How Ali was attracted towards Islam is a very interesting account. It is said during the first years of his professional career, Ali would acknowledge, “The poetry came to me from God, the poetry and the hands.” Prayer helped him prepare for his fights. “Lord, millions of people are waiting for me to fail, but as long as You are with me, I can’t fail", he would say.
Ali was raised as a Christian, going to Sunday school and growing up in the segregated South. “They were church boys,” said his father of Cassius (as he was then known) and his brother Rudolph, “because my wife brought them to church every Sunday. Their mother taught them right; taught them to believe in God and be spiritual and be good to everybody.”
In his late teens, Ali encountered a group that spoke to his heart and his mind; the Nation of Islam, a Black power movement loosely based on Islam. In 1962 he met the charismatic Malcolm X who became his close friend and spiritual advisor. A flame was ignited in his heart that would make him more than a boxer.
“The first time that I felt truly spiritual in my life was when I walked into the Muslim temple in Miami. A man named Brother John was speaking and the first words I heard were ‘Why are we called Negroes? It’s the white man’s way of taking away our identities’... I liked what I heard and wanted to learn more.”
Two days after the fight between Clay and Sonny Liston in 1964, Clay and Malcolm X talked to reporters while they ate breakfast at a Miami motel. “Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known, the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him,” Malcolm X said. “He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man’s hero.”
Clay confirmed, for the first time in no uncertain words, that he was a member of the Nation of Islam.
“Black Muslims is a press word,” Clay said. “It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Islam is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them. I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be, when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up.”
In 1967, Ali took the momentous decision of opposing the US war in Vietnam, a move that was widely criticised by his fellow Americans. He refused to be drafted into the US military and was subsequently stripped of his world title and boxing licence. He would not fight again for nearly four years.
By refusing to join the military, Ali was costing himself millions in endorsement money. Still, he didn’t flinch. “The white man want me hugging on a white women, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I’m promoting black as best,” Ali told Sports Illustrated in 1966.
“They want me advertising all this stuff that’d make me rich but hurt so many others. But by me sacrificing a little wealth I’m helping so many others. Little children can come by and meet the champ. Little kids in the alleys and slums of Florida and New York, they can come and see me where they never could walk up on Patterson and Liston. Can’t see them n—–s when they come to town! So the white man see the power in this. He see that I’m getting away with the Army backing offa me . . .They see who’s not flying the flag, not going in the Army; we get more respect.”
Ali told The Mirror newspaper of Great Britain, during a 2001 interview: “My refusal to go to Vietnam did not just help the black people, it helped more white people. More whites rebelled against Nam. It made me a hero to many white people as well as black people because I had the nerve to challenge the system, and all the people who hate injustice backed me for that.”
"Muhammad Ali always believed in helping those who could not help themselves. That meant anyone who was trampled on, white, black, South American, Indian. While he was with the Nation of Islam, he heard of a Jewish old people’s home that needed funds, otherwise it was going to be shut down. He called them up and gave them money to keep it open", those around him recalled.
"In reality, Ali was surrounded by different people: his trainer was Italian, his assistant trainer was Jewish, his camp manager was white, his doctor was Cuban, and his closest friend was a Christian. He loved them all and considered them his family", they said.
Going to Hajj in 1972 inspired Ali as it had done Malcolm X. Meeting people of different colours from all over the world gave him a different outlook and gave him a greater spiritual awareness. One of the benefits of Ali’s international status was to bring him into contact with the world outside America, including Muslim Africa, and like him the rest of the Nation of Islam was to find itself changing its outlook.
Like Muslims around the world, Ali too was worried about the post 9/11 era and the consequences Muslims were facing around the world, especially in the United States..
"Muhammad Ali believes those who kill innocent lives are not truly Believers. They have hijacked a religion and are perpetrating crimes that Islam has nothing to do with. 9/11 has set us back so far and now we have so much more work to do. But it has created an opportunity, as now people are aware that Islam exists", Lonnie said.
“Muhammad believes in helping all humanity because that’s what the Prophet did and he sometimes feels disappointed in Muslims around the world because he feels they have gotten away from the message of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, and until we get back to that we’re going to have some serious problems", Imam Hassan added.
At the same time Ali also lived a life of a devote Muslim.
"He is deeply committed to his faith and prays five times a day and fasts during Ramadan though sometimes because of his health he isn’t always able to fulfill that. His adherence to Islam is certainly not blind and his spirituality extends beyond only Muslims in a concern for all people", Lonnie said.
Muhmmad Ali’s take on his own spirituality is best summed up by himself. “Everything I do now, I do to please Allah. I conquered the world and it didn’t bring me true happiness. The only true satisfaction comes from honouring and worshipping God. Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me. It means more to me than being black or being American. I can’t save other people’s souls: only God can do that. But I can try to save my own.”