“Everything I do now, I do to please Allah. I conquered the world, and it didn’t bring me happiness. The only true satisfaction comes from honoring 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.” ― Muhammad ali
For many people of the world, Muhammad Ali was sports hero despite the fact they never saw him fight. Ali was the greatest boxer ever, but the moment he become a Muslim, he become a global icon unlike anything the world has seen before or since. As Ali said, “Now that I’m a Muslim and have the beautiful name of Muhammad Ali, I can go all over the world,” he said after becoming a Muslim. “Right now at my home, 8500 Jeffery, in the basement, I have 3,800 letters that I can’t answer from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria and every letter opens with ‘as-salamu alaykum’ [peace be upon you], how are you, we are very glad you are a Muslim, when can you come to our country?”
In and out of the Ring
Mohammad Ali is regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time. He remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964, and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year five times. He was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight; the “Fight of the Century”, “Super Fight II” and the “Thrilla in Manila” versus his rival Joe Frazier; and “The Rumble in the Jungle” versus George Foreman.
Ali was born January 17, 1942, in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. His interest in boxing began at age 12, after he reported a stolen bike to a local police officer, Joe Martin, who was also a boxing trainer. Martin told the young, infuriated Clay that if he wanted to pummel the person who stole his bike, he had better learn to box.
Over the next six years, Clay won six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships, two National Golden Gloves championships and two National Amateur Athletic Union titles. Just months after he turned 18, Clay won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, convincingly beating an experienced Polish fighter in the final.
The story goes that when he returned to a hometown parade, even with the medal around his neck, he was refused service in a segregated Louisville restaurant because of his race. According to several reports, he threw the medal into a river out of anger. The story is disputed by people who say Ali misplaced the medal.
Thirty-six years later, he was given a replacement medal and asked to light the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, something he said was one of the greatest honors in his athletic career. Clay turned professional after the 1960 Olympics and quickly won 19 straight fights. For many of them, Clay — then known as “The Louisville Lip” — would make a rhyme to predict in what round his opponent would fall.
In 1964, when Muhammad Ali announced that he believed in Islam, he shocked and enraged many Americans. His association with the Nation of Islam, a radical sect most people considered a violent cult, made him the most polarizing villain in sports. Preeminent sportswriter Jimmy Cannon accused Ali of turning boxing “into a mass instrument of hate.” The heavyweight champion, Cannon charged, was “using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit.”
Yet Ali refused to let Cannon or any other critic define his religion. “ ‘Black Muslims,’ ” he said, “is a press word. It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is ‘Islam.’ That means peace.” Ali insisted that Americans’ suspicions of Islam were unfounded. “Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons. They pray five times a day. . . . All they want to do is live in peace.”
Ali changed his legal name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, to Muhammad Ali, and gave a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement
Refusal to Vietnam War
Muhammad Ali was outspoken about many political issues, including his opposition to the Vietnam War. 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. In March 1967, one month before his scheduled military induction, Ali explained why he would not be enlisting to fight in Vietnam.
“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 ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. 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.”
Bangladesh ― The second home of Ali
Muhammad Ali had visited Bangladesh on February 18, 1978 soon after the first Spinks fight where he had lost. He came to Bangladesh along with his wife for a five-day visit. He was taken to all the important areas and sites of Bangladesh from the tea gardens of Sylhet to the tiger-infested Sundarbans and the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the fabulous sun-soaked beaches of Cox’s Bazar. During the visit, wherever Ali went, he was greeted wholeheartedly by tens of thousands of fans. Ali was also awarded honorary citizenship of Bangladesh while the boxing stadium in Paltan was named after him.
Ali had said he considered Bangladesh his second home. This meant Ali was a Bangladeshi like all of us. In a documentary, “Muhammad Ali Goes East: Bangladesh, I Love You,” Ali spoke of his wish to return to Bangladesh and build a home here. Ali said, “If I get kicked out of America, I have another home.” The people of Bangladesh could be a part of whatever Ali did and whatever Ali stood for.
Beyond the Boundary of sports
Parkinson’s made it impossible for Muhammad Ali to go that route physically after his boxing career was over, but he never let that stop him. He continued to use his name and his power for good in parts of the world that embraced Ali because of his faith. He defied the United States government and traveled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages before the Gulf War, and just last year, he sent a letter to the Iranian government, asking them to release my friend Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, who was jailed on vague espionage-related charges. Rezaian was later released and he said the letter allowed him to cry tears of joy for the first time while in captivity.
On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali died at 74. Freedom Hall, which was the location of Ali’s first professional fight in 1960, was where his Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral prayer service, was held. Muslims from all over the world descended upon Louisville for Ali’s Jenazah. Hearing “Jenazah” and “Allahu Akbar” (which is Arabic for “God is greatest”) uttered on American television in a positive light was surreal.
“Beyond what Islam did for Ali, Ali did something for Islam, especially in America,” said Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar who spoke at the Jenazah. “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.”
Lonnie Ali , the wife of Muhammad Ali, said, everyone, including Ali himself, has been bracing for this day for years, but when it finally came. She said, what we were all feeling: “The world still needs him.” And no one feels that more than Muslims in the United States who lost their biggest champion. According to Lonnie Ali, “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.”