Remembering Muhammad Ali’s Legacy
The world once again remembers “The Greatest” on the second anniversary of his death. The legendary Muhammad Ali was not only a heavyweight champion boxer, he was perhaps the world’s most inspiring and dedicated ambassador of piece, political activist, and global humanitarian. He fought against the rampant racial injustice and an unjust war by speaking out in an era when it would have been easier to remain silent. Above all, he was a Muslim, which had remained the most salient feature of his identity until the end. Ali was unapologetically Black and unapologetically Muslim.
As news broke of Muhammad Ali’s passing, Yankees’ great Reggie Jackson tweeted that Ali was a “gift from God to all.” “Do you have any idea what Ali meant to black people?” Jackson once said in an interview. “Do you know what it did for Black Americans to know that the most physically gifted, possibly the most handsome, and one of the most charismatic men in the world was black? Ali helped raise black people in this country out of mental slavery. The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali.”
Muslims in America and all around the world felt the same way. One of the most charismatic men in the world was Muslim. Muhammad Ali’s public conversion to Islam in 1964, and transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, defined his career and his stand.
On April 28, 1967, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War. However, he was not a draft-dodger. His stand against the war was an act of civil disobedience.
Muhammad Ali famously said: “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 nigger, 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.”a gift from God for alla gift from God for all
Both the war and opposition to it was escalating. Just a few weeks before Ali refused being drafted, Martin Luther King Jr. had denounced the war. He later quoted Ali in support of his position: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”
The world heavyweight champion paid a heavy price; he was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, though he remained out on bail while he appealed. Boxing authorities in America stripped Muhammad Ali of his world heavyweight title and suspended his boxing license. He was stripped also of his passport and his heavyweight title, and banned from fighting in the US. Additionally, he missed the prime years of his career.
Ali said: “As a Muslim minister, my own outlook on war and violence is well known by now. I would like to say that the number one greeting in my faith is peace and that is «As-salāmu ʽalaykum», which means «May peace be unto you». There have been many questions put to me why I refuse to be inducted in to the United States Army, especially as some have pointed out, many have pointed out, not taking the step I will lose so much, and I would like to say to those of the press and those of the people who think I lost so much by not taking the step, I would like to say I did not lose a thing up until this very moment. I haven’t lost one thing.”
It was also a courageous stance to adopt in a clearly hostile milieu. Malcolm X was assassinated, and James Meredith, another important figure of the Civil Rights Movement was shot, just before Ali publicly declared his refusal to serve in the Army. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by Ali’s example and voiced his own opposition to the war, was also assassinated in 1968.
But Ali never regretted his decision. Instead, he said, he gained a lot: “Number one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart. I now know that I am content with the all mighty God himself whose proper name is Allah. I have also gained the respect of everyone here today. I have not only gained the respect of everyone here but worldwide. I have gained respect from people all over the world, and by taking the step I may have satisfied a few people who are pushing the war.”
Muhammad Ali took an unapologetic stand for what he believed. “It is true, I am broke, really broke… I don’t need anybody’s money. Allah takes care of me,” the 25-year-old Ali said during an interview at his Chicago home in 1968. “I went down fighting for black people’s freedom. Automatically I have more black friends than ever. I never go to the Chicago Loop. I do all my business in black shops. I eat in Muslim restaurants. I am in a different world.”
Knowing that he had millions of Muslim admirers, who would not let him down, he said: “I am the hero of 600 million Muslim brothers on earth, 800,000 in America. They’ll never let me want for anything…. Friends send me money in the mail. I got rice named after me in Egypt and a chocolate drink called Muhammad Ali punch in Turkey. I get royalties on them.”
It was true and Turkish people were extremely upset by the decision. Nazif Kurucu, a Konya deputy for the Justice Party, headed by then-Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, cabled President Lyndon B. Johnson in June 1967. Kurucu asked Johnson to pardon Muhammad Ali “who is much loved by the Turkish people.” He also requested, “as a lawyer and a Turkish citizen,” that Ali would get his heavyweight boxing title back. “Your efforts in the direction will gain you sympathy” he noted in the cable to the President. At the same time, Kurucu remarked that he had written to the Turkish President Cevdet Sunay asking him to intervene with Johnson on behalf of Ali, who, he said, was “a good Muslim and a religious leader.”
In 1964 Ali had visited Egypt. Then in 1976 travelled to Turkey for the first time. He was greeted at the airport in Istanbul by then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It is said that it was the largest crowd ever at the Sultanahmet Square.
When Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he was in his early 40s. The second part of his life’s battle would be against racism and islamophobia, along with his deteriorating health.
Perhaps his most significant public appearance after the disease silenced his bold voice, which was in fact the voice of the oppressed in America and throughout the world, was when he visited the Ground Zero just a few days after 9/11. He was wearing an FDNY cap and stood in solidarity with service members and civilians searching for people through the debris and rubble.
He bravely made the following remarks: “What’s hurting me – the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. Islam is not a killer religion. Islam means peace. I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for the problem.”
When the U.S. held a tribute program to those who lost their lives in the devastation, Ali stood on stage next to Will Smith and made a powerful speech. He noted: “I’m a Muslim. I’ve been a Muslim for 20 years. And I’m against killing, violence and all Muslims are against it. I think people should know the real truth about Islam. People recognize me for being a boxer and a man of truth and I wouldn’t be here to represent Islam if it was really like the terrorists make us look.”
In his 1968 interview, Muhammad Ali said: “I am not just a boxer. I stand with senators and ministers and college professors. I teach at colleges. I was at Princeton, Rutgers and Iona. I’ll be teaching at Harvard, I’ll be teaching at Yale.” He was in fact just 25 years old when he defined his legacy. Eventually, perhaps Ali’s most remarkable legacy as a peace ambassador, civil rights icon, and a global humanitarian is teaching us to take a stance on the basis of principle no matter what the cost is. The Greatest persevered until the end and became a transcendent figure who is loved, respected, and admired by people all over the world.