“Verily from God we come and verily to God is our return”
This phrase is the usual response of a Muslim on receiving news of the death of someone. I am sure this phrase was repeated by thousands if not millions across the globe last Saturday when the tragic news broke of the passing of the iconic boxing figure, Muhammad Ali.
I had started planning my column and intended to write on three graduations I attended over the last two weeks. Three graduations, but all three uniquely different. However, I chose instead to use my column this week to join the millions around the world in paying respect to a man who was an embodiment of so much positive in such a fractured world.
They are few human beings in our modern history that command the respect, admiration and awe of millions of people from all walks of life, nationalities, religious persuasions and whatever other criteria one may choose to use. Muhammad Ali was such a human being. His death has certainly taught me that. Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, black American boxer, has seen a unified outpouring of grief at his passing from all corners of this world not usually found in our present times.
For me, as I was growing up, Muhammad Ali and boxing were synonymous. I knew boxing because of Muhammad Ali and I knew Muhammad Ali because of boxing. I dare say he made the sport global. But his feats in the ring were equal to his feats outside the ring and accomplishments in and out of that same ring speak testimony to the character of the individual. From his stance on participation in the Vietnam War to his fight for equality as a boxer and a black person in America to his unashamedly Islamic identity Muhammad Ali made it known he was a fighter for what was right, truth and just.
In 2002, Ali was honoured with a star on the world famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had originally declined an invitation from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to get that star. Why? Because he didn’t want his name and what it represented disrespected by having it walked on by “people who have no respect for me”. He said:“I bear the name of our beloved prophet Mohammad, and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name.”
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce respected Ali’s wishes and decided that the 2,189th star would be the first and (so far) only star mounted on a wall.
I have come to learn much more even now after his passing as many writers and commentators have highlighted various aspects of his life. Social media is replete with so many accolades to Ali. I don’t think I can do justice if I write about him myself so I will end my column with some excerpts from one of those persons who so eloquently wrote of Muhammad Ali and whose sentiments I truly share, Dr Sherman Jackson. The piece is titled as follows: Muhammad Ali: An My American Hero.
“Like many of my generation of Muslims, Muhammad Ali came into my life before Islam did. In the 1960s, even before Malcolm X’s estrangement from the Nation of Islam and his eventual death in 1965, it was Muhammad Ali who became the public face of the movement. Of course, the movement itself was too narrow in its vision and ethos to fully encompass an Ali overflowing with bravado, charisma and a new way of being black. Thus, even as he ‘represented’ the movement, he transcended it. And in so doing he reached 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.
None of my circle of friends at the time was Muslim. In fact, none of us was even associated with the Nation of Islam. And yet, while we could not quite put our fingers on it, we could all feel a certain something changing in our midst, something about who got to define the world we live in and to name the things in it, something about what it meant to be producers of ideas, practices and standards by which we could judge and measure others, instead of always having to live under their definitions and judgments of us. At the time, none of this translated into anything particularly religious. Even the Nation’s powerful religious rhetoric was no match for the entrenched Philadelphia gang-culture in whose embrace most of us remained firmly ensconced. But there was a certain light, albeit mixed with a lot of fog, that seemed to hover all about the horizon in every direction, quietly and barely perceptibly beckoning us to some new, unknown frontier.
For me, Ali helped give that light definition. For he made it clear that Islam, how ever complicated his relationship with it might have been, was foundational to who he was as a human being, even in his moral failings. I remember, for example, in the late 1960s hearing about his involvement in an alleged affair. In complete defiance of the custom of celebrities at the time, he refused to run for cover and instead stood firm and accepted his guilt. Already in 1967, he had made it clear what Islam meant to him. When warned that he would likely go to prison for refusing the draft, he responded to his interviewer: “Well, whatever the punishment, whatever the persecution is for standing up for my religious beliefs even if it means facing machine-gun fire that day, I will face it . . .. 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.
It is my hope that the passing of Muhammad Ali will not mark the end of an era in the United States, an era in which Islam in America is represented not by the deeds or misdeeds of actors in far off places but by the accomplishments and contributions, the resolve and courage of American Muslims themselves. Ali’s funeral and memorial will likely feature a veritable who’s who of America’s leading celebrities and political and cultural elites, from every race, every creed and every colour. All of them will be there to honour and celebrate the life of this great man. And not one of them will be able to separate Muhammad Ali’s greatness as an American from his commitment as a Muslim. Ali emphatically put the question of whether one can be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let that question now be interred permanently with his noble remains.”
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)