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The Importance Of Muhammad Ali As A Global Islamic Icon


By Razaink

My heart is heavy with Muhammad Ali’s passing. I had planned to write an article on Muhammad Ali for a long time but just could not find the time or a good way to articulate it. As Dave Chappelle said Ali was “beyond royalty.”[4] So I hope and pray I can do him justice.

I will start by describing Ali as many already have, Ali was unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically Black, he was proud of both of his identities[5,6]. Ali is an inspirational figure to Muslims of all race’s across the globe. Ali especially has iconic status amongst many African Americans and in particular African American Muslims. People should accept the whole Ali if they want to truly appreciate who he was. There are numerous articles on Ali as a poet, activist, boxer and the great influence he had on many world leaders like Nelson Mandela and his resistance/critique of American imperialism. Articles that focus on these issues are important however my focus on Ali will be partly personal: what he meant to me as a young Muslim growing up in the West, Ali’s achievements, the global impact of Ali, and his life after boxing.

Professor Sherman Jackson’s remarks on Ali elaborated on how he reached people in the inner cities and the disenfranchised, “a whole generation of young, poor, inner-city youth, like myself, who saw him raise their core-values of loyalty, courage, ‘swag’ and a certain humility that could never be mistaken for timidity, to the level of a national emblem of black personhood.”[7]

Professor Jackson continues:

“But Ali had already made his mark in the deepest recesses of my sense of self.  I suspect that I speak for millions when I say that, Ali spoke to our pre-rational selves, where our identity, our pride, our hope, our courage, our fears, our basic sense of right and wrong and our sense of mission all reside… It is in this light that, even as a scholar of Islam, I remain profoundly aware and appreciative of the meaning, value and impact of Muhammad Ali; and I remain deeply touched and moved by his legacy.  Ali inspired us; and he filled us up.  He challenged us and showed us what it meant to fight and hit hard!  – inside and outside the ring – without bitterness, without malice and without apology.  Win or lose, his was the way of mellow perseverance.  Any doctrine and any ideology can travel on that wavelength.  Indeed, while Ali may be rarely quoted in the day-to-day religious affairs or ideological arguments of American Muslims, his very mention can straighten the back, still the hand and fire the resolve of any Muslim in any socio-political setting.”

Ali was known for popularizing beauty with Black identity at a time when the hegemonic discourse, much as it is today, promotes Eurocentric beauty standards as the norm. He was loud and unapologetic about his Black and Muslim identities.  It is ironic and a testament to the greatness of his legacy that even racists must celebrate Ali. Hopefully they take that as starting point to reflect and listen Ali’s advice, “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.”[90]

Some attempt to minimize Ali’s Black identity and others his Muslim identity. Ali, in his own words stated that his greatness was because of his Islamic faith.

“On my journey I found Islam.
If I were not a Muslim, I might not have taken all of the stands that I did.
If I were not a Muslim, I would not have changed my name or sought to
spread peace, and I would not have meant as much to people all around the
If I were not a Muslim, I would not be the person that I am today, and the world would have never known Muhammad Ali.” [3,pg 57]

A prayer Ali would say after winning his court case against the draft, “Lord, millions of people are waiting for me to fail, but as long as You are with me, I can’t fail.” [8] In fact Ali was known for autographing pamphlets about Islam and handing them out[9], Ali in fact once remarked about wanting to proselytize for Islam.

Ali was undeniably and unapologetically proud of his Black identity.:

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get
used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours;
my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” [10]


Boxing is a tough sport, it is tough on the body as many boxers struggled with damage done to their bodies or brain after many years being punched repeatedly. Most boxers in Ali’s time were lucky to make ends-meet. On average, a boxer would earn about $200-$300 as a monthly salary, and a fight could net as little as $100. Once you were a professional it still did not mean you would earn much more. After winning a professional boxing match, paying your team, medical expenses could reach somewhere between $5,000 -$20,000.  Take the case of Archie Moore, Ali’s former teacher whom he had to fight in Nov. 1962, something neither of the men wanted to do but had to so Moore could make a living[2,pg26].

Also consider Joe Luis, a great boxer who beat Schmeling in a rematch dealing a blow to Nazi propaganda about white superiority. Luis served in the army in WWII. Despite all he had done for America he was forced to fight much past his retirement due to tax problems with the IRS. The interest on Luis’s taxes kept accumulating so much that even his large earnings were only paying off the interest. Because Ali was such an entertainer he drew new levels of interest into the sport, changing income levels for boxers.

Early Life:

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay. Ali grew up in the segregated south. For some perspective on the violent racism that was pervasive during that time, Emmett Till, a Black teen was lynched for looking/”whistling” at a white woman; his killers were let off by an all-white jury. Just a few minutes from Ali’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, a Black family, the Wades moved into an all-white neighborhood after a series of racist attacks on them in an attempt to convince them to move. When they didn’t move their house was blown up with dynamite forcing them to move.[91] Ali would often think about life, as he would describe it “I have always had a curious mind, I would think and wonder about things most kids my age would never pay attention to, I would look to the heaven and wonder about the creator of all things” and he would continue to wonder about man’s relationship with God.

A young Ali would wake up in the middle of the night looking towards the stars and waiting to hear revelation from an angel. Despite not receiving direct revelation Ali never lost his faith because of how strongly he felt it in his heart. Years later Ali would go on his journey to discover his life’s purpose. [3, pg 16] Ali remarks “that I have always been a spiritual person; God doesn’t speak to me in a voice. It’s more like a feeling, a sense of what I have to do.” [3, pg 61]

Around the age of 12 Ali’s bike was stolen, Ali decided to report it to the police, so someone directed him to Joe Martin. Ali stated half crying he wanted to beat up whoever stole it, so Martin told him “Well you, better learn how to fight. ” [3, pg 18]

This would begin Ali’s journey into boxing, eventually leading him to the Olympics where he would win a gold medal. Ali loved his gold medal, he took it everywhere, he was even told it was his “key to the city” by the mayor of Louisville. Ali thought that this would finally allow him to go where he could not go before, in particular, all the segregated places in downtown Louisville where Blacks were either not served or had to eat separately from whites. Ali tried to dine at a whites-only restaurant after being told that they don’t serve Blacks in much racist language, Ali made a sharp-witted reply “Well we don’t eat ’em.” When Ali and his friend Ronnie protested that he was the gold medalist, they still refused.

This experience showed Ali that even though he won his medal for America he still couldn’t eat in his hometown, and even if he could it would “only get me into the ‘Whites only’ place then what good was it ? And what about other Black people? ” The medal lost its value to Ali and so he decided to “lose it” in the Ohio river  [3, pg 39-41].

Relationship with Malcolm X:

While Ali was in High School he came across the Nation Of Islam, and their statements of Black pride, self-confidence, and discipline caught his attention to the point of writing a paper on them. Ali went to an NOI meeting after being invited by a man named Abdul Rahman, Ali did not join then but it left an impact on him[3,pg 62,85]. In 1962, Ali at an NOI event would hear Malcolm X speak and he would be completely captivated by him. Ali would recall that Malcolm X was funny and intelligent, before long they would become best friends and Malcolm a spiritual adviser/mentor to Ali.

Malcolm would help Ali focus on his strengths and help Ali to believe in himself. Before long the fight with Sonny Liston, who Ali challenged for the heavyweight title was coming up. So close was their friendship that Ali flew Malcolm along with his family to help him train for the fight. Malcolm would frame his upcoming fight with Sonny Liston as David vs. Goliath. Ali was a massive underdog and Malcolm was one of the few people who believed in him. When word got out that Malcolm X was with Ali the group sponsoring Ali said they would cancel the fight if he did not send Malcolm home, fire his Muslim cook, and stop contact with the NOI. Ali refused, remarking “I wouldn’t be who they wanted me to be. I was free to be who I wanted to be.” Later they would call back to say the fight was still on. Malcolm would advise Ali that this fight was about willpower and faith, not simply strength.[3,pg 75-77]

As Malcolm put it in his autobiography, “I flew back to Miami feeling that it was Allah’s intent for me to help Cassius prove Islam’s superiority before the world through proving that mind can win over brawn. I don’t have to remind you of how people everywhere scoffed at Cassius Clay’s chances of beating Listen… I told Cassius, ‘Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?’ (You may remember that at the weighing-in, Cassius was yelling such things as ‘It is prophesied for me to be successful! I cannot be beaten!’) …What Sonny Listen was about to meet, in fact, was one of the most awesome frights that ever can confront any person-one who worships Allah, and who is completely without fear. ” [1,pg314]

Shortly after the fight, Ali, then Cassius Clay, would announce : “I believe in the religion of Islam, which means I believe there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Apostle. This is the same religion that is believed in by over seven hundred million dark skinned peoples throughout Africa and Asia.”  After Ali’s conversion to Islam with the NOI, he would later change his name to Muhammad Ali [2, pg 16 ]. Malcolm X would remark in his autobiography that Ali was the most famous American in the Muslim world. Malcolm X, also said of Ali, that he, “captured the imagination and support of the entire dark world” [13]. But Ali would side with the NOI against Malcolm after Malcolm broke from the NOI to become a Sunni Muslim. This would lead to a falling out between the two, something Ali would later come to regret, wishing he could take it back [3,pg 85].

Ali, also became Sunni with nearly a hundred thousand other NOI members under the leadership of W.D Mohammed, the largest mass conversions to Islam in the West. As Ambassador Attallah Shabazz put it, “Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of great men bequeathed to you by my dad.”[14]

Professional Boxing Career

“Float like a butterfly sting like bee,” was more than a slogan it was actually a fighting strategy. Whereas many fights before would just slug it out in the middle, Ali made use of the ring, and his world famous footwork. Ali would strike Liston then use his speed to move back and dodge major blows. As the fight went on Ali eventually had something in his eye making it very hard for him to see. Suspicion is someone in Liston’s camp put a substance on Liston’s gloves. Ali wanted to cut off the gloves since he could not see, however his trainer said no, so Ali kept going despite being unable to see properly; he kept coming at Liston.

Ali was being hit. In the breaks between each of the rounds, Ali’s trainer and team were trying to clean out whatever was in Ali’s eye. Ali’s eye was starting to clear up more now so he was able to hit back and dodge. Liston had not gone this many rounds before and in a great upset Ali won by TKO. [2, pg xix]

Many would refuse to call Ali by his new found name and insisted on calling him Cassius Clay. Ali did what many boxers before him did not do: become an entertainer and promoter. This caused him to earn more money and also would have the effect of helping increase prize money for boxers. Later, when Ali would be drafted into the Vietnam war at the peak of his career, Ali did the unthinkable, he refused. But on principle Ali refused basically saying, “Why should I fight brown people all over the world when I can not get my freedom at home.” This would cause Ali to lose his title and millions in revenue. But it was also the defining moment in his career, he stated he would not disgrace his religion.

He would do many things to earn money and it would take close to 4 years before he would get his license back after winning a Supreme Court case, then he would have to win back his heavyweight title.

Ali reentered the ring, and fought Joe Fraizer in what came to be known as “The Fight of the Century” and lost, partly due to him not taking Joe seriously, thus not preparing for the fight like he should have. Fraizer became Ali’s biggest boxing rival. Ali then fought and lost to Ken Norton, eventually beating him in a rematch. George Foreman KO’d Frazier whom Ali had struggled with previously for 15 rounds. After learning from his mistakes and learning how Frazier had beaten him, Ali would use that to his advantage to beat Frazier in a rematch.

The “Rumble in the Jungle,” was Ali vs Foreman. Foreman had KO-ed both Ken Norton and Frazier both of whom Ali had struggled in defeating. Ali no longer had the speed that he once had. Ali was much older now than many boxers, Forman was younger and an immensely strong opponent.

It looked grim but Ali being the courageous fighter that he was decided to do what was unconventional in his fight against George Foreman. This is when Ali employed his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy. Defying conventional wisdom Ali allowed his body to be a punching bag for George Foreman. Foreman’s main weakness was he did not have much stamina because he won his fight with quick KO’s. Ali let himself get punched, taking all the pain for several rounds, also strategically not letting Foreman get too many strong punches in, until Foreman wore himself out. Ali emerged from his rope-a-dope with a fury of punches and Foreman would get KO’d.

Ali would beat Frazier in the third rematch called “The Thrilla in Manila.”  The match helped to popularize the Philippines, a mall was built and named in his honor there.

Japanese MMA pioneer, then known as Antonio Inoki, after converting to Islam took the name Muhammad Hussain Inoki, and would face off against Ali in an MMA match. The fight itself was interesting as Ali did not have professional fighting experience in MMA, while Inoki was an experienced MMA fighter. Ali, initially thought it would be an exhibition so they would not go full force. Ali found out last minute that was not the case so to make the match fair they imposed new restrictions.

Due to the restriction on some of what Inoki could do in the match, Inoki laid on his back most of the time and basically kicked Ali’s shins to make him lose his speed over time to make it harder for Ali to dodge. Inoki’s boots not being padded eventually damaged Ali’s legs too much. Ali did get a few hits in as well and the fight went 15 rounds; the match was declared a draw.

Inoki later remarked that every punch from Ali left a bruise and Inoki himself would injure his leg from the constant kicking. Ali, however suffered a far more serious injury as a result of the constant damage to his shin, he developed a blood clot and his leg almost had to be amputated but Ali held no grudges and invited Inoki to his wedding; they would become close friends. Inoki became elected to Japan’s House of Councillors, and interestingly was instrumental in successfully negotiating the release of Japanese hostages with Saddam Hussain.

Inoki converted to Islam while in Iraq, the fight also helped Inoki become more famous. The press conference was interesting with Ali doing his usual, taunting Inoki for not understanding English but Inoki with his own taunt presented Ali with a crutch.[15,16]

Ali had begun experiencing thyroid problems and this affected his ability to train and fight. Ali would lose his title to Leon Spinks then regain it in a rematch with Spinks. After the Spinks fight, Ali would briefly retire. Ali who was not in his prime by then also started suffering some the effects of Parkinson’s. Ali came out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes (his former sparring partner) and retired after losing to Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Larry Homes still calls Ali the greatest and the champ even after he beat him in the 1980’s. Holmes said Ali would not quit, no matter how hard he hit him; sadly Ali’s trainer had to stop the fight. Holmes said many men have fallen against him, except Ali who would keep coming because Ali had too much heart in him, Ali was not a quitter.[17,18,19]

Holmes, in fact, cried after beating Ali, because to him Ali was a friend who had given him a chance when he was down and out by making then eventually hiring him as his sparring partner. To the majority of the world Ali was not just fighting for himself, his was also fighting on their behalf. For Muslims, Ali’s fight was a fighter for Islam. For the dark skinned world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, he represented their hopes and dreams.

Ali’s Impact On Me:

In Pakistan my mom and her siblings as kids used to eagerly await to hear Ali’s fights on the radio and cheer for him; they would pray for him to win his fights. So while I was aware of him growing up, this would be the first time I would ever take the time to learn about him.

By the time I was in high school a lot of the books I read were already required reading for class. In general though I must say I hated reading, part of it was because I had some trouble reading, another was because I saw no point in it. Most of the books in the library did not appeal to me, there were no characters I could relate to in the case of fiction and no people I could identify with in the case of history.

For the most part, the books I came across in my school library, even when we were required to sign them out to read for class, were dull. I just could not see myself reflected in them. Most of these books were about European characters (fiction) and or peoples (non-fiction). This is not something I would mind however when those books are the vast majority then I think there is a problem with not just representation and diversity but also variety. Books with the same cultural reference points will carry a lot of similar themes related to specific experiences. That was my first issue, the second issue was that I had lots of difficulty reading so that made it even harder for me to just randomly pick out a book to read. While part of me wanted to read, part of me did not think I could, and another part just saw no point or interest in it.

This all changed over the course of three days. If I remember correctly I was in trouble in class so my teacher had given me a timeout for a few days. When looking for something to read I randomly came across a biography of Muhammad Ali. It stood out to me because I was aware of the name. Although I wasn’t practicing Ali made me feel good to be and identify as Muslim; I felt like I belonged.

Ali’s biography was the first book I read in high school that was on my own and not required, after reading it and seeing for the first time a Muslim with a role in shaping American history for the better I saw myself as a part of history in the West, something I never really felt until then. Seeing his courage to stand up against militarism, against racism, for justice, for Islam, as a Muslim inspired me. For once I saw myself reflected in those books in history, it was not simply about random Europeans.

I loved reading his biography so much that I finished it in three days and for the first time I realized that I too was capable of reading quickly. It wasn’t so difficult to read books, it was not about comprehension but interest and that I too had the same potential as everyone else. That was a turning point for me, that’s when I started to learn to love to read. Later as I would rediscover my Islamic identity Muhammad Ali’s, Soul of A Butterfly along with Malcolm X’s Autobiography would prove to be key.

Ali’s Impact Globally And Commitment to Justice In His Later Life:

“He belonged to the world and I’m OK with that”[87,89]

Malcolm X while stuck at an airport was trying to communicate with a man who approached and said hello but did speak any English, Malcolm while trying to communicate with him said.

“I said “Muhammad Ali Clay” All of the Muslims listening lighted up like a Christmas tree. “You? You?” My friend was pointing at me. I shook my head, “No, no. Muhammad Ali Clay my friend – friend !” They half understood me. Some of them didn’t understand, and that’s how it began to get around that I was Cassius Clay, world heavyweight champion. I was later to learn that apparently every man, woman and child in the Muslim world had heard how Sonny Liston (who in the Muslim world had the image of a man-eating ogre) had been beaten in Goliath-David fashion by Cassius Clay, who then had told the world that his name was Muhammad Ali and his religion was Islam and Allah had given him his victory” [1, pg 334]

Malcolm continued later in his biography to talk about how huge Ali was in Africa and Asia.

“The Muslim from America” excited everywhere the most intense curiosity and interest. I was mistaken time and again for Cassius Clay. A local newspaper had printed a photograph of Cassius and me together at the United Nations. Through my chauffeur-guide-interpreter I was asked scores of questions about Cassius. Even children knew of him, and loved him there in the Muslim world. By popular demand, the cinemas throughout Africa and Asia had shown his fight. At that moment in young Cassius’ career, he had captured the imagination and the support of the entire dark world.” [1, pg 349]

Ali outside the ring was also an interesting figure, he was known to have been generous to a fault. He would also hardly ever turn down an autograph even after suffering from Parkinsons.

Ali was the type of person who would act in the moment, take for example when Ali saved a man from suicide,“I’m your brother,” Ali shouted. “I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you … I want to help you.” [20]

Ali’s acts of kindness were well known but even simplest acts of kindness can have a major impact on people. Take for example when Ali came to Halifax, Canada he started play fighting with a random teen he saw on the street. What Ali did not know was that teen was down and at low point in his life at that time. “It’s hard to say whether or not I’d still be here if I didn’t meet him. That’s just how much of an influence that had on me.”  [88]

Ali as global Muslim figure is something that is all too often ignored in trying to reduce him simply an American Muslim.

In 1964 when Muhammad Ali would visit Africa touring in Ghana , Nigeria, and Egypt, where he would draw massive crowds. In Ghana he would proclaim “I am the King of the world”, to large crowds chanting “Ali! Ali!! Ali!!!”. [21][22]

Nelson Mandela said “When I met Ali for the first time in 1990 I was extremely apprehensive.

I wanted to say so many things to him. He was an inspiration to me, even in prison,
because I thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport.[23]

Malcolm X said in a letter “Because billions of our people in Africa, Asia and Arabia love you blindly, you must be forever aware of your responsibility to them.”

As Dave Zirin notes, “Already, Ali had become a punching bag for almost every reporter with a working pen. But with his conviction came a new global constituency. In Guyana, protests against his sentence took place in front of the US embassy. In Karachi, Pakistan, a hunger strike began in front of the US consulate. In Cairo, demonstrators took to the streets. In Ghana, editorials decried his conviction. In London, an Irish boxing fan named Paddy Monaghan began a long and lonely picket of the US Embassy. Over the next three years, he would collect more than twenty thousand signatures on a petition calling for the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title.

Ali at this point was beginning to see himself as someone who had a greater responsibility to an international groundswell that saw him as more than an athlete. “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.” [25]

Ali spoke on his commitment to the liberation of Palestine. Ali spoke out against Zionism, and for Palestinian liberation, after visiting a refugee camp[26]. Ali was also committed against anti-Semitism, as Billy Crystal recounts Ali refused to run in a country club because it banned Jews[27]. Ali also wrote a letter asking to free Daniel Pearl[28].

Ali would preach Islam at any chance he could take, take for example the story of 3 models when they asked Ali to come up their room. Later in the evening Ali would go there with a friend, ask for some orange and then spent the rest of the evening preaching Islam to them [29]. So for Ali Islam was something at his very center.

After losing the Spinks fight and his title, Ali was feeling down, it was at this time that he was asked to make trip a to Bangladesh. He was hesitant, fearing that because he had lost the title the people would no longer see him as ‘The Champ.’ Ali, however was very warmly welcomed, made a citizen of Bangladesh, given a passport and a stadium [now Muhammad Ali Boxing Stadium (Dhaka City)] was named after him [30]. An example of Bangladesh’s love for Ali can be seen in this story of a man from Bangladesh actually postponed his heart surgery to travel and say good bye to Ali. Ali’s influence extended so far as to inspire him to become a Human Rights advocate[31].

In 1978 Indigenous communities organized a spiritual walk called The Longest Walk. The walk was cross the country to raise aware about Tribal Sovereignty, anti-Indigenous legislation, and other issues affecting Indigenous communities. Muhammad Ali showed his support of this movement.[32]

Ali’s visit to China helped revive boxing there, while there he prayed in the Mosque of Xian, in Shaanxi province [92]. In the 1980’s Ali would also visit India.

Ali asked to fight in Iran to free American hostages, Jimmy Carter was willing to overturn the travel ban Iran for Ali[33]. Although this would align with American interests, Ali being Ali also asked that the Shah be returned to Iran to face justice. Then in offering to exchange himself for the American hostages he also said that Iranians shouldn’t be punished for not liking the Shah, which contradicted the collective punishment the Carter administration was engaging in at the time[34]. In 1978 Ali gave a speech against apartheid to the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid, he would continue to support the committee even into the 1990’s[35,36,37].

Malcolm X remarked about Ali, “One forgets that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate the clown.” Ali was open, genuine, sincere, also very wise, Ali spoke the truth even if it was bitter but he was not naive.

Take for example in 1980 when Jimmy Carter asked to him become a diplomat to get various African nations to boycott the Moscow Olympics. [38] For background in 1976 several African countries boycotted the Olympics because New Zealand’s National Rugby team had toured South Africa which was under boycott due to Apartheid. The boycott included Congo, Libya, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Gambia, Sudan, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Algeria, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Gabon, Chad, Togo, Niger, Mauritius, Upper Volta and Malawi, Morocco, Cameroon and Egypt would join in as well. It also included non-African countries Iraq and Guyana[39,40].

Nigeria and Tanzania refused. “In Senegal, Muhammad Ali was also warmly welcomed by Léopold Senghor. Senegal had a policy of keeping sports separate from politics, and they had participated in the 1976 Olympics that many other African countries had boycotted.” Kenya and Liberia did end up supporting the U.S. boycott.[41]

Ali was willing to listen to what the African nations had to say. Ali was not as politically naive as some want to portray after the 1970’s. Ali was sincere and willing to listen even to opposing views and trying to stay committed to justice as best as he could.

In one nation after another, Ali was presented with persuasive arguments for ignoring the U.S. boycott—and found himself sympathetic to them. In Tanzania, in response to reporters’ inquiries, he admitted, “Maybe I’m being used to do something that ain’t right. You’re making me look at things different. If I find out I’m wrong, I’m going back to America and cancel the whole trip.” A State Department official actually tried to shut down one news conference,Ali said: I’m not a traitor to black people. If you can show me something I don’t know, I want to be helped. You all have given me some questions which are good and are making me look at this thing different [38].

This is unprecedented for a diplomat to say, he was willing to not only acknowledge that the government he was representing showed double standards on this issue but will cancel his whole mission, but he did decide to continue to travel. While many want to portray Ali as simply doing the bidding of the US government his words and action show the opposite. I mean think about this we have so many Muslim politicians in the US, Canada, UK, we can even extend this to include Muslims in politics from around the globe. How many of those politicians, or even certain Muslim scholars would be able to call out their own countries problematic, racist, and or unjust policies and acknowledge a double standard. Ali showed how you can not compromise your principles even when in a government role, something many Muslims in government position can learn from. Ali was not who you wanted him to be, he was free to be who he wanted to be.

Ali fought for the liberation of Muslims regardless of our sect. Like when he asked for the release of 700 Shiite prisoners in Israel to be free[42].

Ali was also a hero in Turkey. The late Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, met Ali at the Ataturk airport. They attended Friday prayers at the historic Sultan Ahmet Mosque and toured Haghia Sophia with thousands of fans  marching along in the streets of Istanbul. It is said Erbakan actually named his son Muhammad Ali Fatih, in honor of Muhammad Ali.[43]

Ali continued to do what he could after the effects of Parkinsons.

In Canada, Ali was invited to raise money and give a talk about boxing but instead ended up speaking about Islam, and racism[44]. So again we see that Ali never stopped fighting against racism and injustice, we just stopped paying attention because he was not boxing.

Ali would also visit Senegal again in 1989 in Touba, a city where Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba in his early life once led a non-violent resistance against French Colonialism[45].

Every time Ali took a courageous stance against war he was hated for it, take for example the hostages he freed from Saddam. Before Ali went to Iraq the media and US government hated what Ali was doing.  This was organized by an anti-war coalition, it went against the government narrative of Saddam being an ultimate evil, the media like the good war machine propagandist followed suit and ridiculed Ali for defying the government and going to Iraq. They even criticized the fact that a man with disabilities was going, practically scoffing at what he could accomplish. The New York Times wrote “Surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days has been the ‘goodwill’ tour of Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion… he has attended meeting after meeting in Baghdad despite his frequent inability to speak clearly.” Even after Ali secured the release of the hostages, the State Department tried to pressure them to take a separate plane, only a few of the hostages would remain with Ali and the coalition. Ali with the anti-war coalition did a press conference when they got back to the US[46]. Ali was later also tasked with helping to negotiate a prisoner exchange between Iran-Iraq[47].

Ali went to the United Nations in 1992 as part of a Muslim delegation to the UN to help take action to stop the genocide in Bosnia.[48,49]

Ali boycotted South Africa for near 30 years due to the brutal treatment of Blacks by the white and racist government of South Africa. He would go in 1993 He was invited by Boxing Development Network, Muslim Comunity of SA, and the Sun Group. Ali would say that “Democracy is too important and your future too precious to allow the violent actions of one man to interfere with your destiny”.[50]

In 1998 Ali became a United Nations Messenger for Peace. Ali traveled Morocco to visit an orphanage in Casablanca as part of his charity’s mission of mercy, and King Hassan II gave Ali, The order of the Commander of the Arch, one of Morocco’s top honors.[82]

Ali wanted to raise the profile of a Muslim country[51]. In the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, Ali wanted to show support for his Muslim brothers and sisters. In Afghanistan he told the youth, ”My life and my success were built upon the preparation that I practiced when I was a young person growing up in a poor place in America. And just like myself, I know that you will succeed,”… ”You must keep that strength. You must continue to hope for a brighter tomorrow.” [52]Ali sent an open letter to the youth of Afghanistan telling them to “have faith and be a good Muslim, … prepare your mind for the challenges of life”[53]. Many Afghans loved him, saw him as a hero and mourn his loss[86].

When we reflect on his influence it was phenomenal. Without a doubt, Ali brought out the best in Muslims worldwide. He encouraged and indeed pushed us to be better. Ali also pushed Muslims leaders to be more merciful. How many Muslim can simply walk into Iraq with war about to break out, ask Saddam to have hostages freed and he obliges. One thing to note is that Ali was a lifelong advocate for peace and against war and militarism. Many have tried to say, Ali after Parkinson was more quiet, so America loved him after that, while there is some truth to this, however I respectfully disagree, Ali continued to speak out against wars of imperialism.

Not many Islamic scholars, heads of state can claim that sort of influence and try to use it for good at the same time. Or just write a letter to Iran and have them start treating their prisoner better[54]. Yet despite his activism and stance against what the govt of Iran was doing at the time the Iranian government as well as Iranian people still love him. He probably stands as one of the most important and famous all-time global Islamic figures not just in the 20th century, and I do not say that lightly. He gave and continues to give people hope, whether in the American inner cities or the slums of Pakistan he is an inspiration[55]. People in Karachi were praying for Ali.

Ali had drive and will power that he drew from his Islamic faith to push past where others would give up due to exhaustion, frustration, and fear. How many of us would have that kind of courage to stand up for our principles when the most powerful nation in the world is against you?

If we want to see what he means to the Muslim world: Tehran city council in Iran wants to name a city street after him[56], so does Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov who wants to name a boxing gym and city streets after Ali in Grozny[57]. Gabonese president shared a picture[58], president of Senegal sent his condolences[59] , as did Iran[60] , and Pakistan’s prime minister [61] and many Pakistani government officials[62]. ANC tweeted their condolences[62], so did Bangladesh’s President Abdul Hamid [62].  People from across the world from Sudan to Pakistan mourn his death and pray for him[63,64]. He is mourned from Congo to Abu Dhabi[65,66].

Ali was all the top hashtag trends on Twitter, “#Jannah” (heaven) made the top twitter trends because of people’s prayers for him. It should give us hope look at how much strength and courage Ali was able to draw from Islam to fight for both justice and peace, we too could do a lot of good and change the world for the better if we followed in his example.[85]

Even Ali’s Janazah and the interfaith funeral service very much like in his life had a religious as well as  a political message that he organized. Ali’s Janazah and the interfaith funeral service also like his life both drew the powerful and the dispossessed in the same room.

As his wife Lonnie Ali remarked on what Ali wanted his funeral to convey, “some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisers, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world. In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in a segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence … Muhammad wants young people of every background to see his life as proof that adversity can make you stronger. It cannot rob you of the power to dream and to reach your dreams. This is why we built the Muhammad Ali Center, and that is the essence of the Ali Center message. Muhammad wants us to see the face of his religion, al-Islam, true Islam, as the face of love. It was his religion that caused him to turn away from war and violence. For his religion, he was prepared to sacrifice all that he had and all that he was to protect his soul and follow the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. So even in death, Muhammad has something to say. He is saying that his faith required that he take the more difficult road. It is far more difficult to sacrifice oneself in the name of peace than to take up arms in pursuit of violence. You know, all of his life Muhammad was fascinated by travel. He was childlike in his encounter with new surroundings and new people. He took his world championship fights to the ends of the earth”[67].

His funeral was his last brave act of resistance, even in his passing he did more for Islam than many people can do in their lifetime. Look at how many marginalized communities were represented. Just like Ali’s life, while there powerful people there, it was the marginalized communities that were given the center stage. African-American Muslims like Professor Sherman Jackson giving a eulogy, Imam Zaid Shakir presiding over the ceremonies as well as leading the Janazah. You had community activists like Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard.  You had Qur’an translation by Ayah Kutmah who is of Syrian descent. Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons representing Indigenous peoples. Venerable Utsumi and Sister Denise who are Buddhist and anti-nuclear weapons activists. How much truth to power was spoken to Bill Clinton, although I respect Ali’s decision but I did not want Clinton there though it was priceless to see him squirm at the mention of drones and Palestinian rights. Sen. Orrin Hatch spoke about how Ali would visit sick children and not care about republican vs. Democrat rather about the issues.[68,69]

Ali’s funeral was attended by Turkish president Erdogan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US attended, Gambia’s government sent a delegation. With so many different nationalities mourning his loss and celebrating his life this quote from him comes to mind.[70,71]

 “I hope that one day all nations of the world will be able to stand up and say we lived in the pursuit of peace for all, may there then come a day where instead of saying God bless America or God bless some other country everyone everywhere will say God bless the world” [3, pg xxi]

Ali was our hero and many of us took him for granted. Here is something to reflect on: Muhammad Ali was mentioned only as an influential sports figure and ranked far behind other political leaders. How many of these leaders’ deaths would dominate all the hashtags with “#Jannah” trending because people are sending them prayers. How many of them would cause people from all over the world to feel, want to pay tribute to them, name streets after them and shed tears for them, this is how much Ali was loved. [72]

Look at the way Ali spoke to white America, how many would speak like this when their patriotism is questioned: “You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home!”[73]

Ali exemplified being the people’s champion. Muslims and non-Muslims regardless of race, nation, age, or gender across the entire globe saw him as hero fighting for them.

Although I hate tying everything to counter terrorism but with all media coverage on Islam I have to acknowledge that if you want to see the kind of love heroism, courage that Muslims inspire to it is exemplified by Ali. The love Muslims have for Ali should show people that he represents Islam not just in America but around the globe better than any terrorist or dictator who harms innocents ever will. As Imam Yasin Dwyer and Amira Elghawaby note what separates dissidents from terrorists is not that they don’t have a sacred cause or legitimate grievances but rather the tactics they use to fight for justice, and the methods they use to bring attention to those grievances[74]. Ali led a peaceful, unapologetic, and dignified struggle for justice and peace his whole life. He taught people to never give up no matter what the odds are; win or lose it is about how hard you fight while adhering to your principles.

Inoki said about Ali in his tribute to him.:

“I would like to express my deepest regret to the one who was my partner in the ring,
a man who battled until the end. Thanks to Ali and the reputation of our fight, I can do what I’m doing today and bring a different perspective to politics and in particular foreign policy.”[75,76]

As we see Ali did not stop being a messenger of peace and justice some people just stopped listening.

Ali with his visible struggle with Parkinsons became a hero to many people with disabilities, lighting the Olympic torch was a huge moment for people with disabilities. Ali was also involved in raising awareness about Parkinson’s, and fundraising for Parkinson’s research.[77]

Ali and Islam:

Here I wanted to highlight some of the key ways Ali exemplified Islamic ethics.

Despite how self-confident Ali could be he was still a humble person at heart, “God gave me Parkinson’s syndrome to show me I’m not ‘The Greatest’ – He is. God gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not Number One; He is.”

Ali took the difficult path described in Surah Al-Balad of the Qur’an, the path of struggle: i.e feeding the poor, the orphans, giving to the needy and freeing the prisoners. Ali’s life was a life of hardships as “We have certainly created man into hardship.” [78, Aya 90]

The Qur’an says in Surah An-Nisa,

“O’ you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both.” [78, Aya 4:135]

This is something we see in Ali’s life again and again whether as a boxer, a diplomat or as just an ordinary celebrity.

Abu Dharr narrated that the Prophet(pbuh) told him to speak the truth even if it is bitter. [79, HN 5259]

The Prophet(SAW) also said: “God, show mercy to Umar, (for) he speaks the truth even if it is bitter.”[79,HN 6125 ]

This was something Ali did his best to do throughout his life.

The Prophet(pbuh) also said, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” [80]

This was something we see in Ali: he visited sick children, Ali’s charity tried to feed people all over the world (sometimes food and supplies would be hand delivered by Ali himself), and Ali tried to free prisoners throughout his life. [81, 82,83]

Concluding Thoughts:

Some are born to be legends, while others are molded, some like Ali become legends by the choices they make in the circumstances that were destined for them, and follow the divine path, that difficult path described in Surah Al Balad, that was shown to them.

As legendary as he was he was still a mortal as it says in the Qur’an “Every soul will taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as trial; and to Us you will be returned.” [78, Aya21:35] A man who had a miraculous aura in life and in death, even bees were at his memorial[84]. So in light of this let’s remember Ali’s words, “Don’t count the days, make the days count.” and see what we can do with our life to uplift humanity like Ali tried to do.


1 The Autobiography of Malcolm X , By Malcolm X and Alex Haley

2 The Greatest Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers

3 The Soul Of a Butterfly Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen Ali







12 The Greatest by Muhammad Ali








35 http://UN Special Committee against Apartheid




78 Qur’an Sahih International(Translation)

79 Al-Tirmidhi HadithHadith 5259

80  Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552













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  • Stoic ‘n’ Sturdy

    Awesome Article

  • Mehdi

    We’ll agree to disagree there I’m afraid 🙂
    I think these were fights that had little resonance, little impact, and even the most friendly biographies towards Ali tend to stop at the Kinshasa fight.
    But again, it’s a matter of opinions, it’s like the great Michael Jordan, some people think his come back at Washington Wizards showed another facet of his greatness, some think he should have left his 1998 finals win as the last image (my opinion)…

  • Razaink_aka_BigBoss

    Thanks for kind words point 1 I will address later
    As for point 2 I think that while it did some damage to his health those fight were also in many ways some of his best he lost his championship then won it back, he went against opponents who younger faster and in better shape , he prevailed through faith and sheer will power, I mean those fights were miraculous. So it is bitter sweet because Ali would not have been Ali if turned down those fights. He went all out against much thorougher opponents and out strategized them

  • Khizer

    A real role model for Muslim youth of today.

  • Mehdi

    Excellent article my friend, and good choice of showing him wearing an elegant djellabah 🙂

    I echo everything you say and I felt the same when he passed away, his legacy is universal and eternal. I would just put two caveats:

    1) Regarding his relationship with Malcolm X: at the end of Malcolm’s life when he started calling out and criticizing the Black Muslim organization, the grip that Elijah Muhammad had on it, the way violence was used to silence opposition, and some other factors, Ali was one voice that could have put even more pressure on the organization’s leadership, and instead chose to keep silent even as Malcolm X’ life was under threat (and as he was murdered later on)

    2) This is not as important, on the boxing side, after his win over Foreman, he probably should have retired at the height of his glory, he chose to have some other fights that were failed marketing events and didn’t really come up that well. He didn’t have good advise there, but noone’s perfect 🙂

    God bless him in any case, humans are prone to error, he still was a great person and a role model.

  • Razaink_aka_BigBoss


  • Sam Seed

    Great article!

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