Born in Louisville, Kentucky to a Baptist mother and a Methodist father, Ali was named Cassius Clay. His father was a sign painter and his mother, Odessa Clay, was a housemaid. The American South was racially segregated at that time and the young Ali grew up with all the humiliations and restrictions that the Jim Crow laws enforced on African Americans.
When Muhammed Ali was 12, his bicycle was stolen and he reported it to a local police officer. He boldly declared to Officer Joe Martin that he ‘would whip the thief’ who stole his bike when he caught him. Officer Martin, who was quite amused by this bold and resolute young man, advised young Muhammad that he had better learn to fight and invited him to come and train at the gym he owned. Muhammed Ali took him up on his offer and the legen began. He would become the greatest ever heavy weight champion, winning the title 3 times and defending it 16 times. Ali was opposed to war and refused to fight in the Vietnam War. This resulted in him been banned from boxing for nearly four years. Throughout his life his battles in and out of the ring were many as he strove for perfection in every sphere of his life.
From a very young age Ali would question many aspects of the Christian faith and he challenged the idea of having to see himself as inferior because of his race and color. His mother was often bombarded by him with questions such as “Why is Jesus white with blonde hair and blue eyes?”, and “Why are all the men at the last supper white?” The fact that white people were always portrayed in a positive way and that African Americans were given subordinate positions did not miss his keen observational qualities.
Muhammad Ali’s fierce fighting skills were not only put to use in his boxing matches, but also against white supremacy and social injustices. Ali could not accept that the Christian faith interpreted the bible in a way that allowed for the degradation and subordination of anyone that was not white. Having been bothered from a very young age that beauty, goodness, truth and many other virtues were seen from the perspective of the white supremacy. He asked his mother, “Why is everything white?”, “the Angels’ food cake was the white cake and the Devil’s food cake was the chocolate cake. The president lives in a White House and Santa Claus was white. Everything bad was black, the little ugly duckling was a black duck, the black cat was the bad luck and if I threaten you I’m going to blackmail you, I said ‘Mum, why don’t they call it white-mail, they lie too?”
He started questioning his beliefs and while touring around the world he realized that six hundred million people were Muslims. He noted that every third person was named Muhammad. He has said that even though he had found it extremely difficult to read at a younger age, and was probably dyslexic he started reading profusely after his conversion to Islam. He read the Quran, Islamic books and research books in order to find contradictions in the Bible. He kept notes on all that he discovered in his readings and spoke profusely at various events and lectures when invited. The link between Christianity and white supremacy is what caused Ali to drift away from the Christian faith and to oppose white supremacy with all his might. After all, African Americans had been robbed of their true religion, Islam, and that is one of the reasons why he rejected the name given to him at birth and opted to be named Muhammad Ali, after the prophet. The slaves had been named after the people who had bought them and had not kept their own names. In 1964, shortly after he won the coveted title, Ali joined the Nation of Islam. It was then that he said, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it,” “I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
Muhammad Ali is the most well known American to convert to Islam. Later on, he met Malcolm X who became his spiritual mentor at that time. During a mass conversion of the Nation into Sunni Islam in 1974, organized by the son of the founder of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali converted to Sunni Islam. Muhammad Ali ceaselessly exalted the virtues of Islam as a universal and anti-racist religion. The absoluteness of Islam is embodied in the Hajj (pilgrimage) and the spirit of brotherhood and Ali endlessly spoke about it.
Ali was touched when he saw how many different cultures and races converged in one place to honor Islam. He was always warmly accepted wherever he went and was very articulate about the way Islam connected humanity; no matter what race or ethnicity they were. He once said, “You can go to any country and say, Asalaamualaikum. Walaikum salaam and you’ve got a home, you’ve got a brother.” The reason Ali chose to follow the Islamic path was because he “never saw so much love, never saw so many people hugging each other, kissing each other and praying five times a day.” Muhammad Ali was a person that most people felt deeply connected to because he was very approachable and had a wonderful way of transcending any prejudices that he encountered on his travels. We all know that racism exists worldwide and in many variations, but Ali’s graceful manner reminded the Muslim world that the Ummah (community) is meant to embrace the differences in race, class and culture.
Muhammad Ali never considered himself as elite and saw himself as no different to anyone else. His activism was grounded in his Islamic beliefs and he believed that human beings are obliged to do good and charitable things during their short time on earth. As a child growing up in a racially segregated Louisville, it was almost impossible for him to find a place to work out and he would run to the gym or to school in order for him to stay in shape. He returned as an adult and, without ever been asked, helped many charitable causes, and built a Museum for children in order to encourage them to reach for their dreams.
His belief, that by giving he was pleasing Allah and that actions were based on intentions, made him known for his generosity.
Muhammad Ali is known by his trademark statement “I am the greatest!” This was not a sign of arrogance. He is still the greatest heavy weight champion of all times. He was asked by an interviewer how he balanced his humility as a Muslim with this statement and Ali replied “Allah is the Greatest; I am just the greatest boxer.” He was a pious person and showed utter humility and always gave credit to Allah for his victories.
Ali is the only celebrity to have turned down the offer to have his name placed on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. He so revered the Prophet Muhammad (S), that he did not want to have people stepping on his name and thus is the only celebrity to have his star placed on the wall.
Watch this video on the Walk of Fame.
Ali refused to play the role of the “submissive negro” and he attributed all his success and skill as a boxer to the Greatness of God. A Muslim fan once asked him if he was “As good a Muslim as he was a boxer, and he asserted that “No true Muslim will brag or even take a chance of saying he is good, because it is up to Allah to judge. God blesses me to be so great here, because all of the time I’ve been talking about God, pushing God, pushing religion. I’m not talking about me, how great and how much money I’ve got, I’m always giving the praise to God, so that’s why I’m as great as I am in this physical world, because I push Him first.”
Muhammad Ali never let an opportunity drop and he would take any question put to him and answer in a way so as to preach about Islam and the Oneness of God. He used his fame and stature to his advantage and would make people contemplate various issues pertaining to their faith, especially about man’s existence, life after death and how to prepare to receive Allah’s Jannah (eternal place of rest). He would take any opportunity to give Dawah( preach) and always encouraged the Muslims to get closer to Allah. He praised Allah and the religion of Islam and advised young Muslims to “Stay strong, read the Quran, pray and praise Allah,” in order to ward off the pressures of secular or anti-Islamic forces. Young people, he believed, should not compromise their beliefs. In many photos of Ali before a fight we see him standing with his hands raised in dua( prayer and supplication) to Allah. Prayer and dua were an essential part of his struggle and he attributed all obstacles, difficulties and all of his successes to Allah.
On his retirement, Muhammad Ali was asked how he was going to spend his time. He replied that he was going to prepare himself to meet his Maker, Allah. In interviews he often expressed that if we subtracted all the hours that we needed to sleep, watch television etc, and then he reckoned that he had about sixteen years to prepare for his death.
Watch his video interview:
He would remind people that the soul and spirit never die and that is why we must prepare them for heaven. His intention was to help people learn how to treat each other and he brought about peace and charitable work. He managed to do all this and more. “Islam is a religion of peace,” he would say.
Muhammad Ali’s adored his family and his 2 sons and 7 daughters. They speak of what a warm and gentle father he was to them and he always had his large family around him. In an interview two of his daughters revealed that he had over a hundred hours of recordings which he had made of them speaking to him and answering his questions and he played them back to them as they grew older.
”His daughter Hanna recalls how he taught her an important lesson about modesty. She had arrived at his home dressed in a revealing outfit. Instead of admonishing her he took her aside and lovingly said, “Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.” He told his young daughter, “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.”
When Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1979, he did not stop making himself available to charitable causes worldwide and he managed to negotiate the return of American hostages from Lebanon and Iraq. He even increased the active role in pursuing justice all over the world. With time the disease severely affected his mobility and his speech. “We as Muslims have to stand up against those who use Islam to advance their own personal gain,” – Ali has said. He remembered that though he was great, he was not The Greatest; that he was a servant of Allah (SWT).
On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali returned to his Lord. He is one of the most famous, most loved and most written about public figures in the last century. He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine 30 times. He lit the Olympic Torch in the 1996 Atlanta Games and was the first Muslim to do so. To his last breath he challenged America to live up to its promises and refused to accept the unjust imposition of class and race. The former Attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder said, “his biggest win came not in the ring, but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs.” He never ceased to be an example to all and constantly reminded the people of Allah and the Islamic faith. He spoke the truth, he was never ashamed to be pious and he felt as much at home in the palaces that he visited as he did in the humble homes of the people of his home town. He knew how to handle the pressures of fame and the obligations that fame bring. He managed to channel his fame to a good purpose and lived his life according to his faith and the principles of Islam. This ambassador to humanity always managed to practice what he preached in every sphere of his life.
Muhammad Ali was buried in his home town of Louisville Kentucky. An estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, “Ali!Ali!” lined up the streets as he was carried to his final resting place. His headstone was simple in keeping with Muslim tradition. Muhammed Ali was a Champion for all people and will be remembered fondly.
“Verily to Allah we belong and unto Him is our return.”(Quran 2:156)
We ask Allah to have Mercy on him, forgive his sins and grant him the highest level in paradise, Jannat Al Firdous. Ameen.