Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight boxing champion and one of the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport, passed away at a hospital in Phoenix city in Arizona State, USA on 3 June, 2016. He was suffering from a respiratory illness, a condition that was complicated by Parkinson’s disease.
Muhammad Ali was one of the first public figures in America to be identified with Islam. He was also a civil rights activist and poet who transcended the bounds of sport, race and nationality. Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He started boxing when he was 12 and by the time he was in his twenties, many considered him the greatest fighter of all times. After winning the Rome Olympics in 1960, he became the darling of the American public-handsome, charming, and greatly successful.
In 1965, just a few days before becoming the world champion, Clay joined the “Black Muslims,” influenced by Malcolm X, and changed his name initially to Cassius X and eventually Muhammad Ali. Adopting the Muslim name Muhammad Ali, he has always insisted, was one of the most important occurrences in his life. The boxing commission was furious, and from a boxing hero Ali quickly became the object of suspicion.
In 1967, Ali took the momentous decision of opposing the US war in Vietnam. Although a move widely criticised by his fellow Americans, it was the moment which truly showcased who he was; a man standing up for his beliefs, even at the prospect of losing his entire career. He refused to be drafted into the US military and was subsequently stripped of his world title and boxing licence. In a flash, Ali, already controversial for his conversion to Islam and name change from Cassius Clay, became one of the most debated public figures in the country. Nobody close to Ali’s level of fame had resisted the draft, and his seemingly flippant opposition to the war made him a target of ridicule from the mainstream media, the government and his sport. The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and withdrew his recognition as champion. In response, Ali threw away his Olympic medal to Ohio river and decided to fight back legally. But in the end, his faith in Allah and strength of character prevailed. His conviction for refusing the draft was overturned in 1971 by the Supreme Court of the United States. Muhammad Ali became a symbol of resistance for the truth and justice and returned to the ring. He joined the sport and soon regained his championship title.
His decision and unwavering stance inspired countless people who took inspiration and followed his example in voicing their positions against wrongful acts by the US. Ali is reported to have inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been reluctant to address the Vietnam War for fear of alienating the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda. After Ali’s brave stance, King began to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.
Ali’s stance on the war in Vietnam was loud and clear. He said,
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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’m not going 10,000 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 cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is 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. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Retiring from a glittering career in boxing in 1981, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, a condition which contributed to his failing health over the years. This however, did not stop him from active participation in contributing to various humanitarian, social, political and philanthropic causes and spreading awareness on various socio-political issues in America. Even as his health gradually declined, Ali threw himself into humanitarian causes, traveling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, lifting the torch with shaking arms. He travelled incessantly for many years, crisscrossing the globe in appearances he promoted philanthropic causes, met with presidents, royalty, heads of state and the Pope, among many others. Regarding his impact, Muhammad Ali’s legacy is too vast to detail here, but an article on Wikipedia detailing his legacy in media and popular culture list more than thirty books written about the legend and numerous movies and film biographies where many individuals have portrayed him , including Ali himself in the 1977 film, the Greatest.
He had been a significant contributor to the financing of Islamic institutions such as Masjid al-Faatir, the first mosque built from the ground up in the city of Chicago. The truly great men of history, he has said, want not to be great themselves but to help others and be close to God. That Islam played an instrumental role in his belief in social justice and the dignity of all men, irrespective of their differences is discernible from his memoirs. After his conversion to Islam and going to Hajj, Ali stated,
“I have had many nice moments in my life. But the feelings I had while standing on Mount Arafat (just outside Makka, ) on the day of the Hajj , was the most unique. I felt exalted by the indescribable spiritual atmosphere there as over one and a half million pilgrims invoked God to forgive them for their sins and bestow on them His choicest blessings.
It was an exhilarating experience to see people belonging to different colours, races and nationalities, kings, heads of state and ordinary men from very poor countries all clad in two simple white sheets praying to God without any sense of either pride or inferiority. It was a practical manifestation of the concept of equality in Islam.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, he once said: “As a man who never sold out his people. But if that’s too much, then just a good boxer. I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was.”
Although Muhammad Ali has passed away in person, his spirit for social justice lives on, as does his glittering legacy. Mohammad Ali remains a true epitome of what one could achieve through relentless pursuit of one’s goals, shaped by strong faith and belief in social justice and the dignity of all men. He remains an embodiment of what faith and perseverance can achieve in the face of massive societal and political hurdles, and win over the hearts of millions at the end of the day. Muslim leaders all over the world have a lot to learn from him. We pray that the Almighty grants this champion of humanity the highest of levels in Paradise.