Muhammad Ali: America’s First Muslim Hero
“A symbol of what it means to be unapologetically Black and Muslim in America.”
No community will miss Muhammad Ali more than Muslim Americans. Why do I say that? Simple: Ali was more than a sports figure or a celebrity to our community. He was a source of pride to so many Muslim Americans for so many different reasons.
On a personal note, I had an opportunity to meet Ali when I performed stand-up comedy at the Arab American Institute’s annual gala in 2004 where Ali was receiving a lifetime achievement award. Ali gave a speech that night was touching, inspiring and funny. While he spoke at a slower pace than the Ali who boasted he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the three-time champion was still riveting. He shared some jokes and noted that when he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, he felt as if Muslims worldwide had become his brothers.
Ali’s spiritual journey to Islam began in 1964 when, with the mentorship of his then close friend Malcolm X, he joined the Nation of Islam. At the time NOI was more focused on being a black nationalistic movement and less about following the tenets of mainstream Islam.
But by 1975, Ali left NOI and became a part of Sunni Islam, the most popular sect of the religion. In 1989, Ali went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam. And in 2005, as his daughter explained, Ali embraced Sufi Islam, which is a more spiritual sect of the faith.
But Ali was right in that he had become a brother to Muslims worldwide after he converted. I saw that firsthand when I reached out to a diverse group of Muslim Americans from a member of Congress to a TV host to community activists to get their reaction to Ali’s death.
Indonesian-born and now New York City-based Imam Shamsi Ali shared a sentiment felt by many: that Ali was “our hero and our pride.… not only a boxing champion, but also a hero of social justice and human equality.”
Congressman Andre Carson (D-Ind.), who like Ali converted to Islam as an adult, commented that “Muhammad Ali served as an example of service and self-sacrifice for generations of Muslim Americans.”
Others like comedian and activist Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, admired Ali, who suffered from Parkinson’s, for another reason: “Muhammad Ali was my first disabled role model.” She added, “the fact he was a champ and Muslim just made me love him more.”
To many African-American Muslims I spoke with, Ali offered a connection in terms of both faith and race. Kameelah Rashad, the Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania remarked, “as descendants of enslaved Africans, great individuals like Muhammad Ali remind us of the enduring resilience, faith and joy of our ancestors.” Rashad noted poignantly, “Ali remains for me a symbol of what it means to be unapologetically Black and Muslim in America.”
Comedian Preacher Moss declared that “Muhammad Ali was is in the lineage of Malcolm X and MLK. He was truly a shining and enduring example of Black Manhood.”
And Margari Aziza, co-founder of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, learned about Ali’s Muslim faith while learning more about her own black identity. Aziza noted, “To have such a central figure in American sports history be unabashedly Black and Muslim meant so much for so many of us.” She also credited Ali for helping Americans become more accustomed to the name Mohammad. Aziza noted the fact his name was Muhammad “made the lives of kids in America whose parents named them Muhammad a little easier.”
Other Muslim Americans praised Ali for his daring stand in 1967 of refusing to fight in Vietnam War citing his “consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions.” Consequently, Ali’s heavyweight title was stripped and he was criminally prosecuted.
Ali, said Dawud Walid, a U.S. Navy veteran and currently the head of CAIR’s Detroit office, “stood for his religious principles when it was extremely unpopular during the Vietnam War era, literally sacrificing his boxing title and wealth to oppose unjust bloodshed.”
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council echoed that sentiment noting that Ali’s “heroism was not just demonstrated in the boxing ring, but it was also seen in his stand against the Vietnam War.” Adding, “That is the hero I will always remember. That is the American Muslim who is an example for all Americans.”
Even Muslims who didn’t grow up in the United States felt a connection to Ali. For example, MSNBC anchor and NBC News Foreign Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who was born and raised in Egypt explained that, “Even before I moved to the US, I was always inspired by Muhammad Ali the boxer.” Mohyeldin added, “But the more time I spent in America growing up, the more I was inspired by Muhammad Ali, the person. He has reminded us all the power of standing up for our beliefs and fighting for our convictions despite the hate and in the face of so much misunderstandings and challenges.”
Many, including myself, had wished so many times that Ali would have been physically strong enough in the post 9/11 world to have served as a more visible leader in the fight against anti-Muslim bigotry. True in December Ali released a statement slamming Donald Trump’s proposed ban of over one billion from Muslims from entering the United States.
But if Ali had been able to deliver that statement and others like it with his unique flair and charisma, it could’ve had a great impact in countering misconceptions about Muslims. In fact, in his 2005 book, “The Soul of a Butterfly,” Ali revealed that he had wanted to become the “Muslim Billy Graham” but his Parkinson made that impossible. Who knows what Ali could’ve accomplished in terms of building bridges between American Muslims and the rest of our nation if he had been healthy after hanging up his gloves.
Ali was truly the greatest in the ring. But to Muslims, he was more than that. He was our brother.