There is no secret that famous athletes have the ability to crossover into the geopolitical landscape, where they can resonate with the general public on important matters. Such a paradigm shift — be it from the pitch, field, ring or cage — entails a certain level of responsibility and in this case, religion.
Asking a Muslim who their sporting icon of all time is and the majority of them will reply unequivocally with the same answer. The archetypal sporting individual from the Muslim community is one of the greatest boxers to have ever lived — Muhammad Ali. Two years have sped by since his passing, but have we stopped to reflect on how the teachings of Islam fuelled his passions for justice on a global scale, transcending the boundaries of a Sports Personality to an emboldened Political Activist?
The Champ is Here — Don’t Call Me By My Slave Name!
“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.” [The Qur’an, Chapter 49, Verse 13]
Being an African America in ’60’s America was no easy task – even if you were an Olympic Gold Medalist. After returning from Rome with a Gold Medal around his neck, an 18-year old Ali was denied simple meal at a local diner in his hometown of Louisville. According to urban legend, Ali, out of disgust — reportedly threw his Light Heavyweight Winner’s medal into the Ohio River!
Fast forward four years and Ali had built up a reputation as a ‘smack talker’. The media disparaged him as a brash, cocky, youngster and he received one of the first of many monickers, the ‘Louisville Lip’. Ali challenged Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship title — the 31-year old audacious knockout artist who won the title with a first-round KO. Liston at the time was being likened to other Heavyweight Champions of that era such as Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. However, such accolades bestowed upon Liston did not deter the 22-year old, and he issued the challenge. Ali was on the cusp of making history by becoming the youngest Heavyweight Champion if got past his formidable opponent.
In Ali’s first title challenge, he accomplished what he set out to do in the seventh round. With Liston unable to get up from the stool — Ali became the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the world. Soon after, he denounced his birth name of Cassius Marcellus Clay and declared his Islam to the world, but journalists were reluctant to call by his new name:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
Muhammad Ali declared his Islam to the world, even though at the time it was fairly misconstrued version of it — the Nation of Islam — Ali converted to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975 after the Hajj pilgrimage.
“My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco. These are countries that don’t follow the Kentucky Derby.” – Ali in a New York Times interview, April 1977.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the authentic saying below discussed civil and equality for people of all races centuries before it was ever addressed in the modern era:
Verily there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a white man over a black man, or of a black man over a white man, except in terms of God-consciousness.” [Ahmad]
Ali vs US Government — War, What Is It Good For?
“He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just.”
In 1966, after his meteoric rise to the top of heavyweight boxing — as well as the Civil Rights movement — the powers that be at the time decided to make an example of Ali. The Champ was drafted to serve in the US military. Ali took on the US government, technically his most significant opponent, who was embroiled in a tumultuous war in Vietnam. Each draftee had to undertake an examination to be able to serve in the US army which Ali initially failed but ironically he was expected to serve after the entry requirements were lowered. A sceptic would think that it was too much of a coincidence and it was evidently apparent that there was a vendetta against the young champion.
Ali’s popularity took a significant hit for not serving; the media stigmatised him, and the general public branded him a coward for ‘dodging the draft’. But other proponents who were also against the Vietnam War heralded him a champion of the people. Along with sacrificing the prime years of his fighting career, as well as, his Heavyweight Championship title on the grounds of being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, following his faith was the decisive factor and his moral compass. He said at the time:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big powerful America… And shoot them for what? They never called me a n*****, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Bridging the Gap Between the Muslim World and the West
“…help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility” [Qur’an Chapter 5, Verse 2]
After Ali’s illustrious boxing had ended and when a few years past by, it was evident that after all those battles within the ring, they had taken its toll on the ‘People’s Champion’. To most people, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease may have seemed like a curse — a degenerative slow burner death sentence of sorts — but to Muhammad Ali, he viewed it as a new lease in life. He dedicated his life to humanitarian aims, focusing specifically on bringing the West and the Muslim world together.
Coinciding with Muhammad Ali’s many God-given talents, another can be added to his résumé — a chief hostage negotiator. During November 1990, in the lead up to the first Gulf War, tensions were brewing between the mismatched foes; Iraq and Ali’s homeland the US of A. Iraqi forces invaded its neighbouring nation of Kuwait and captured American hostages. Ignoring the criticisms of the Government powers at the time, the former President George Bush Senior and the Press described Ali as an egomaniac set out on a glory-seeking mission. Ali ventured out to the desert, with one goal set on his mind to negotiate the freedom of his fellow countrymen — fifteen of them to be precise.
In his late 40’s, several years into his Parkinson’s condition and journeying to an unknown land, whose leader ruled with an iron fist and was ruthless to his enemies — Ali was taking a considerable risk. 113 days into the hostage crisis, Ali landed on Iraqi soil, but Saddam Hussein stalled the meeting between Ali and the hostages. Muhammad Ali saw this as an opportunity, “We hope and pray there is not a war… I’ll show the real side of Iraq.” To help deter the escalating situation between the nations, the People’s Champ visited schools and masjids, to show the media and the wider Western public that we are cut from the same cloth.
Ali had been in the country for a week and was jumping from press conference to press conference to keep the momentum going. However, the situation took a turn for the worst, Ali ran out of his Parkinson’s medication and was bedridden, unable to speak, but he soldiered on and attended the next conference, but it was an announced he would not talk for obvious reasons. Ali’s Business Manager Gene Kilroy, fortunately, tracked down some extra supplies at the local hospital in the capital. The next day Saddam Hussein invited Ali to a meeting open to all of the media — the White House was sceptical and theorised that the former boxer was in it for a Nobel Peace Prize. No matter how covetous and petty the US Government were, Ali achieved what they couldn’t without a single drop of blood being shed – all fifteen hostages were released at the end of 1990.
“…If any saves a life, it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind” [Qur’an Chapter 5, Verse 32]
In the weeks that followed the successful negotiations, Iraq was bombarded with the full array of America’s arsenal. The media continued with their of abuse on ‘Ali The Humanitarian’ — claiming it was all a publicity stunt — Ali replied to the delusions of grandeur claims: “I do need publicity, but not for what I do for good! I need publicity for my book, I need publicity for my fights, I need publicity for my movie — but not for helping people… Then it’s no longer sincere.”
“I ask no reward from you, my people; my reward comes only from Him who created me. Why do you not use your reason?” [Qur’an Chapter 11, Verse 52]
Ali’s Life Lesson — Rolling With The Punches
After Muhammad Ali had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he lost the strength in his voice and reflected in a conversation with — his associate for over 50 years in an ESPN 30 for 30 interview — Gene Kilroy: “Well, maybe God is punishing me for some of the things I didn’t do right,’ I believe that when you die and go to heaven, God won’t ask you what you’ve done but what you could have done.”
Just by reading these two lines we gain an insight into Ali’s mindset and draw inspiration from it on a spiritual level. When push comes to shove, we need to maintain composure, no matter how we are tested, we need to keep God-consciousness and have faith that Allah (swt) is the best of all planners.
“…[Prophet], give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’”
In this video clip below, Ali goes into detail about why he entered the fold of Islam and why we humans have no right to judge anyone, Only Allah is the Judge.
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- Can you think of any other examples from Muhammad Ali’s life which you admire?
- So who are our contemporary examples and how can we use them as for inspiration for dawah and represent our faith in a favourable light?