LONDON — The terrible massacre at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in the dark early hours of Sunday morning was an act of lunacy—one might say yet another act of lunacy—carried out by a man of Muslim background. What his real motives were, we will be a long time learning. But one sad aspect of this tragedy is that, in a 24/7 news cycle, the horror of Orlando risks erasing in the public mind the positive legacy of Islam and tolerance that Muhammad Ali left with us.
Ali was not only the Greatest as a boxer, he was one of the first and greatest counter-extremists, a man whose wisdom embraced faith and humanity in a way that should be an example to all of us.
He had died on the Muslim holy day of Friday, and it was on a Friday in holy Ramadan that he was buried. Muhammad Ali left behind him an awe-inspiring life. But on the subject of his political and spiritual views many will now try to hijack what he stood for, while ignoring the wisdom he gained over the years, and the conclusions he came to as he neared the end of his journey in life.
Already, Turkey”s “mad Sultan,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to ride just this bandwagon, going to Ali’s funeral only to be snubbed by Ali's estate. Erdogan then left early in a sulk before funeral proceedings had even been completed.
Those who favor the divisive language of racial and religious identity politics, the populist-right, Islamists and the Regressive Left alike, have traditionally monopolized the narrative around Malcolm X in this same way.
By erroneously defining Malcolm by his earlier years, while ignoring his later repudiation of those very views, race-baiting activists do a gross injustice to the memory of this inspirational leader. Indeed, no mention of Malcolm X is complete without open acknowledgement that it was precisely those racial and religious tribalists Malcolm accused of trying to kill him after he had criticized them, a threat they eventually carried out.
Like his mentor Malcolm X before him, Ali too came to reject the divisive, racialized and religiously fuelled nature of his earlier views.
For much of the 1960s, Ali had been “outside the mainstream civil rights movement,” placing himself on the “radical fringe” of the struggle for equality. Alongside Malcolm X, Ali moved in militant and divisive circles that were borne of no-less militant and divisive times.
The boxing hero once proclaimed: “Put a hand on a Muslim sister, and you are to die… [likewise] a black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman.” And when asked, “What if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks—or white men, for that matter?" Ali defiantly replied, “Then she dies, kill her, too.”
But to remember Ali solely by the extreme views of his earlier years is like painting Nelson Mandela primarily as a militant engaged in armed struggle. Fortunately for Mandela, he lived long enough to achieve his reintroduction to the world as a peacemaker.
In their book Blood Brothers, Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith write about how Malcolm first recruited Ali to the Nation of Islam sect. But when Malcolm left that group and adopted a more inclusive world vision, Ali mocked him and broke their friendship irrevocably.
Years later, after Malcolm’s assassination and Ali’s own change of heart, he came to regret his brashness toward his late mentor. Alas Malcolm’s murder deprived him of the chance to popularize his change of views, and Ali’s infirmity in later years sometimes made it more difficult for him to get the message across.
But Ali did eventually follow the counter-extremist footsteps of Malcolm X. So far did Ali travel in fact, that his last and very recent public statement called on my fellow Muslims to reject extremism.
The boxing hero encouraged us by saying, “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.” Ali also asked our “leaders” to “bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.”
But even at this late stage in life, Ali’s evolution as a counter-extremist Muslim was clouded. The network he released his statement to originally gave it a title suggesting it hit out directly at Trump. And that’s the story that seems to have stuck.
Clearly there was an indirect message to Trump, too, and deservedly so. But Ali’s staff insist that to make it all about Trump was the wrong interpretation. He was, they said, primarily attacking those Muslims who distort Islam through extremist ideology.
This would be no surprise. For Ali went from being a militant Black Nationalist member of the heterodox Nation of Islam cult, to being a traditional Sunni Muslim like Malcolm X, to evolving further into something entirely more enlightened: a universal Sufi humanist.
In 2005, Ali embraced the spiritual teachings of Sufism under the influence of the late mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. As his daughter Hana Ali—the co-author of his biography—relates: “My father is very spiritual, more spiritual now than he is religious… My father has a collection of books by a man named Hazrat Inayat Khan. They're Sufi teachings. He read them front to cover… He always says they're the best books in the world.”
And to understand where Muhammad Ali’s views eventually settled, one must understand what this late Sufi saint Hazrat Inayat Khan believed in and preached.
Though Inayat Khan was born to a conventional Muslim family, he embraced the universalist Sufi notion that all religions have their value and place in human evolution, and developed the conviction.
Inayat Khan was sent to the West by his teacher to preach this universal message of love, and for a long time he refused to give it a name fearing it would create barriers between people. Apparently, he would say only that it was ancient wisdom from the one and only source. Finally, by popular demand he capitulated and referred to it as Sufism.
Inayat Khan taught that a person deeply involved in the spiritual life could go to church, mosque, or temple and act as one with their fellow religious devotees. All paths lead to the same “oneness.” Such an inclusive message was inspired by the much revered medieval Sufi master of universalism, Ibn Arabi.
For it was centuries before, during the height of Islam’s Golden Age that Ibn Arabi proclaimed, “Beware of confining yourself to a particular belief and denying all else, for much good would elude you—indeed, the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself for all forms of belief, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one belief rather than another.”
Is it any wonder then, to witness at Ali’s funeral last week the dazzling display of diversity, and plethora of faiths, races and views, all included in one ceremony.
Muhammad Ali was many things to many people, and justifiably so. But in the one question that is currently ripping at the seams of our world, and causing misery for millions globally, in that one issue of religion, identity, and its place in politics today, Muhammad Ali sought to reach the transcendent state of fanaa: the Sufi mystic “oneness” with all living things. He wanted nothing but to be member of the human family.
A pioneer for former extremists like me, Muhammad Ali was a Muslim counter-extremist, no matter how much the Islamists may detest it. The Greatest died a universal Sufi humanist, transcending current racial and religious divides. Let us not allow megalomaniac leaders like Erdogan who use Islam to capture power, or divisive identity tribalists who seek to define us primarily by our racial and religious identities, or madmen like the shooter in Orlando, to hijack the Champ’s great legacy.