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Muhammad Ali: His Funeral and the Greater Arab World

posted on: Jun 10, 2016

By: Eugene Smith/Contributing Writer

Muhammad Ali’s deeds reverberated in America’s conscious as emblematic of freedom, redemption, and an unwavering commitment to justice. He was prone to controversy, yet he never wavered from his principles. In his old age he rose to reverence, as a voice for peace and acceptance, garnering the utmost respect and admiration from the American public.

Over the past week America has been reintroduced to Ali’s legacy as a star athlete, political protester, movie star, statesman, and religious thinker. All of these titles fit a part of him, but fall short of capturing his full extent. In much the same manner as he eluded the fists of Liston and Frazier, he escapes description.

The best way that we at Arab America can pay tribute to the chorus of praise and remembrance of Muhammad Ali’s legacy is by focusing on his role as one of our nation’s most important liaison to the greater Arab and Muslim communities.

Ali came to age in an era of tumultuous social upheaval in the U.S. He was born in Louisville Kentucky by name of Cassius Clay, the grandson of a slave, and a black man in a country that defaced and systematically discriminated against African Americans. Opportunities were few in his youth, but he exhibited and a staunch almost devout confidence in his ability to succeed. When he was young, he would run from store to store during his morning training routine, letting all of those who would listen know that he would one day be the heavyweight champion of the world

On February 25 1964, Clay, a 7-1 underdog, beat the hulking Sonny Liston in a formidable show of skill and poise. Shortly after he announced his conversion to Islam, and took the name Cassius X- soon thereafter to become Muhammad Ali. While Ali’s public conversion met with controversy and racially charged fears, it was also met with acclaim, capturing the spirit of Muslims and non Muslims alike across the globe as a symbol of defiance and self-determination.

It was soon after Ali’s conversion that he made his first major maneuver into the social and political struggles of the time. The conflict in Vietnam had begun and across the country the selective service system churned up American youth, sending them careening into a war that would become known for its graft and folly. Muhammad Ali’s name was listed as A1 status, eligible to be drafted. It was here that he became a conscientious objector to the conflict, drawing on Islamic principles of nonviolence, and rallying against the unjust social and political machines he saw as the driving factors behind the war.

Speaking of his objections, Ali said:

“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… 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.… ”

Yet draft dodging was a federal offense. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison and was stripped of his titles and boxing license. Although Ali staved off jail and reclaimed his accolades after a long appeal process, he would ultimately lose four years of his boxing career.

Ali’s resistance was something that was especially relevant in the Arab world, where many had just shed colonial rule and many more dealt with oppressive regimes and foreign influence within their political systems. The influence which Ali would come to have on the region can not be overstated. When Malcolm X visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 1964, he noted in his personal diary that in the Muslim world Muhammad Ali was so well known that wherever he went  “even the children know of him.”

Ali went on Hajj in 1972, which was his first step into Sunni Islam ( he would eventually move to Sufism later in life.) The images of his pilgrimage, which would eventually make their way to the U.S. and throughout the world, portrayed the white clad American hero standing in reverence and awe, arm in arm with fellow pilgrims. They were provocative images at the time, providing mainstream America with an insight into Islam. 

Ali also played a notable role in several quasi-diplomatic missions to the Middle East. In the late seventies during an early visit to the region, Ali preached a message of peace and reconciliation in response to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. During the Gulf War, Ali spearheaded an effort to manage the safe release of American hostages captured during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. He journeyed to Baghdad and entered a tense dialogue with the late dictator. Hussein eventually ensured the release of 15 American hostages. When Ali walked the streets of Baghdad, Iraqis could not contain their enthusiasm for the legend while he was there. When Ali walked the streets of Baghdad, people asked for autographs and talked with him at length.

Ali meets with Iraqi Officials during the 1993 hostage situation.

Following the attacks of 9/11, Muhammad Ali served as a voice of reason, assuaging the anger which ran rampant over much of our nation, and expressing his deep remorse for the lives lost in the name of the religion he loved.

“What’s really 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 this problem.”

He spoke again after last year’s terrorist attacks, directly confronting Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, saying:

“True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion… They have alienated many from learning about Islam… I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”

Ali’s political message would evolve, but remained at all times related to his unprecedented blend of religious inspiration and uncanny wit. He was unapologetically Muslim.

To some, one of Ali’s most important titles is that of the most influential American Muslim in history, playing the role of liaison between the world of Islam and mainstream western culture. This influence remains to this day. 

Thousands of adoring fans, world leaders, and notable public figures joined Ali’s close family and friends to mourn his passing and celebrate his life in Louisville on Thursday. The revered Imam Zaid Shakir led Ali’s Jenazah (Muslim Prayer Service), which was attended by an estimated 14,000 mourners. Today, Ali’s funeral procession is traversing the streets of Louisville en route to the KFC Yum! Arena where thousands await Ali’s final service, scheduled for 7 pm. Millions more will live stream the funeral service across the globe.

Speckled among the thousands planned to attend the event are notable public figures, including: President Bill Clinton; Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama; Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan; King Abdullah II of Jordan; Rev. Jesse Jackson; Actor Will Smith; and a brigade of venerable boxing champions.