A MERE DAY or two before the beginning of Ramadan this year, the ummah underwent the loss of an individual who was universally lauded for his sense of justice, charisma and character. This individual was of course none other than Muhammad Ali. It is ironic that Ali, who identifies himself with the combined names of Islam’s central prophet œ and the fourth caliph of Islam, was originally named “Cassius,” a name which (being derived from Latin) means narcissistic or vain.
True, Ali, as far as his early career is concerned, could have easily embodied what his birth name implied. He did after all famously say “I am the greatest. I said that before I knew I was.” and more humorously, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” He was similarly well-known for ‘trash talking’ his opponents for many years until he would informally apologize, explaining that he only did so for the purposes of his career.
Such a disposition, one that was willing to turn over a new leaf, hinted towards a spiritual side which began with the Nation of Islam (whose motives and theology were somewhat mysterious when Ali initially identified himself with the group) and culminated with him crossing over into Sunni Islam just as Malcolm X did. Much like Malcolm X, a spiritual and political mentor to him, Ali would also have a profound experience when performing his pilgrimage to Mecca. He would later describe this experience as one which had a lasting impression on him:
I have had many nice moments in my life. But the feelings I had while standing on Mount Arafat 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 colors, 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.
At this stage in his life, rather than regularly talking about himself –or his fighting prowess and past victories– as he was once prone to do, he would regularly open up with regards to his spirituality, abstain from alcohol, junk food and cigarettes –in many ways embodying what a good role-model should be to others, often even speaking of Islam as a solution to America’s race problem:
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.
This was however long after the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and withdrew his recognition as champion due to his refusal to be inducted into the Vietnam War, a war which history would later confirm to be one of the US’s greatest military blunders.
As a consequence of this stance Ali was arrested, and although his conviction was later overturned he nonetheless suffered an onslaught of negative press that even unsurprisingly made mention of his religion in a negative light. Thankfully however, Ali stood his ground: in March 1967, one month before his scheduled military induction, Ali explained his rationale in his refusal to fight:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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 am not going ten thousand 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 put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right 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. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.
Ali consequently ended up inspiring Martin Luther King Jr., who had previously been reluctant to speak about the Vietnam war. For such reasons, The New York Times columnist William Rhoden would write:
Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?
Ali was famous for bringing forth deep truths, sometimes with humorous effect, even it meant in some cases, foregoing his own stature to make a child laugh. Those close to him, speak of how he genuinely ‘fought’ to make people smile and laugh, even adults. The very fact that Facebook has been ‘awash’ with several kinds of Ali’s musings and observations through the years, highlights the kind of wisdom and playfulness he was known to possess even with his thirty-year long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson that can be gleamed from his life –in addition to understanding that we all have an end regardless of how ‘larger than life’ we may seem– is that of Ali’s humility. A man who would openly and unabashedly refer to himself as the “the greatest,” eventually traded in his position for a more ‘spiritually-sound’ one. He would later go on to say “God gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not Number One – He is.”