LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Muhammad Ali was many things during his life, but above all else he was a Muslim.
This isn’t my opinion. This was Ali’s belief.
“Everything I do now, I do to please Allah,” he once said. “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.”
There are some fans, particularly in the United States, who will look past his faith when showering Ali with praise and enumerating his accomplishments as they remember his life. Perhaps they’ve learned to love him despite his faith, or maybe they’ve simply chosen to ignore it. But 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 than it does for those who had no choice in the matter. It represented his faith, symbolized his commitment to Islam and made him a household name across the world in places that had never had an American hero.
“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?”
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. Growing up as a Muslim in the United States, Muhammad Ali was my sports hero despite the fact I never saw him fight. He was from Louisville, Kentucky, but his name and his faith made him one of us. My father’s name is Ali and my uncle’s name is Muhammad so he was basically like family in my mind. His picture hung on the walls of homes and shops across the Middle East as if he were from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. And the way the people in those countries, and so many others, talked about him, he might as well have been.
Ali began planning the events surrounding his funeral about a decade ago, and it was clear that spreading his faith and using his passing as a teaching moment for those unfamiliar with Islam was important to him. On Wednesday, children from Jefferson County Public Schools toured the Muhammad Ali Center, which includes a section on his faith and Islam. While most of their questions revolved around his fights and his quotes, during one tour a young boy asked about Ali’s name and was directed to push a button on the wall where Ali explained his name in his own words, saying Muhammad meant, “worthy of all praises” and Ali meant, “most high.”
On Thursday, 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 as if it were the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Hearing “Jenazah” and “Allahu Akbar” uttered on American television in a positive light was surreal. Type “Allahu Akbar,” which is Arabic for “God is greatest,” into YouTube and you’ll understand why this was a significant moment. As I walked around the floor of Freedom Hall, I met Muslims from Louisville and Lebanon, Tennessee and Tehran, Cleveland and Cairo. It was the most significant moment for Muslims in the United States and it was to honor the most significant Muslim in the United States.
“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.”
Friday’s memorial was an interfaith service organized by Ali before his passing. While it was headlined by Bill Clinton and Billy Crystal, and included messages from a pastor, rabbi and reverend, among others, it was opened and closed by Imam Zaid Shakir and included a beautiful Quran recitation from Imam Hamzah Abdul Malik.
“Muhammad’s desire was that the ceremonies of this past week reflect the traditions of his Islamic faith,” said Muhammad’s wife, Lonnie Ali, when she spoke at Friday’s memorial service. “Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisors, Muhammad indicated when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world.”
Ali’s dying wishes were nothing new. When Ali was in his suite at Caesars Palace the night before he fought Larry Holmes in 1980 in his penultimate fight, he was on ABC’s Nightline and said, “My main goal is to be an Islamic evangelist. That’s all I want to do — spread the Islamic faith throughout the world. I want to be an evangelist like Billy Graham, Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts.”
Parkinson’s made it impossible for him 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.
Everyone, including Ali himself, has been bracing for this day for years, but when it finally came, Lonnie Ali 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.
“Muhammad wants us to see the face of his religion, Islam, as the face of love,” Lonnie Ali said Friday. “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.”