George Foreman said on learning of Muhammad Ali’s death, “a part of me is gone.” Today, as the world wakes up to the sad news of this boxing titan’s passing, many thousands, maybe millions of men and women around the world, including those like me who had little love for the sport that shot him to international fame, will share the same sentiment.
As the tributes pour in from leaders and commentators over airwaves and print media, we are reminded how Ali’s global iconicity for generations of human beings rested on far more than his superlative prowess inside the boxing ring. It was his moral conscience that appealed to the best in our shared humanity: his principled stand against “killing my brothers” in Vietnam, which cost him his heavyweight boxing championship and several years’ worth of fights while imprisoned for his conscientious objection to the war, which would have otherwise made him millions of dollars; his fight against racism in America and the world, a fight that made him a representative of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, keeping company with other greats of the era and movement like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Huey Newton, Sam Cooke; and ofcourse it helped that he was incredibly handsome and charismatic—a rapster before the term was coined–who made us laugh and cheer at his shocking self-confidence as a Black Man rhyming and strutting his stuff (remember, this was the 60s!)—we loved his braggadocio which in a lesser human being would have been intolerable! Who can ever forget his famous refrain, prancing around the ring, “I dance like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”?
But as we remember and honor this great sportsman who really ended up serving as a unifier of humanity, across race, class, gender and ethnicity because of the ideals he stood for and lived—I would like to state that for Pakistanis of my generation who came of age in the 1970s, Muhammad Ali was someone we loved also and importantly because he represented Islam beyond our own parochial borders. And he was dark-skinned , like us. He made me see how Black is Beautiful applied also to postcolonials like me—that the designation “Third World” united Pakistanis and “Blacks” beyond our varying degrees of “blackness” and “brownness” to something deeply politically radical. And that was the idea that we are all equal with a right to demand equal treatment from our national governments, from white western imperialism, and freedom from all manner of injustices, social, economic, racial—and religious. He was a postcolonialist avant la lettre! When he went to meet with Martin Luther King Jr. at the University of Louisville on March 29, he said these words which carry deep resonance even, and sadly, today:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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’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.
For Muhammad Ali, conversion to Islam was most certainly an act of defiance against white supremacy, for as he repeatedly maintained, “Cassius Clay” was his slave name. Both he and Malcolm X also grew in their understanding of Islam, moving beyond the “Black Muslim” version preached by Elijah Muhammad to a more global understanding of the faith that appealed to them because in it they saw reflected the ideals of unity, equality, fraternity which formed the core of their struggle against racism at home in the USA. It is crucial for us at this moment in time to comprehend the full scope of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X’s Muslim-defined struggle which combined their anti-racist stance, with their anti-war stance, with a pro-love stance for all human beings across the many divides that separate and threaten to annihilate us all.
So when President Obama pays tribute to Ali calling him “simply, the Greatest”—he should also acknowledge that what made him thus was a firmly anti-war stance that refused to fight “the yellow man who ain’t done nothing to me.” So why has Obama’s administration continued the many wars started by his predecessor in the White House, against brown Muslim people all across the globe? How does Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump get to tweet admiring condolences about Ali while simultaneously calling for a “ban” on the entry of Muslims into the USA?
And equally, perhaps even more urgently—Muslims need to understand the wide embrace of humanity that Ali’s version of Islam represented. He was a fighter in the ring, but according to all those who knew him and in his own actions, we see a man who was full of love, who said to David Frost in an interview that he hoped people would say about him after he was gone, that
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met
For this titan who is no more amongst us, Faith meant Love—not hate and war, beheadings and bombings, terrorism and extremism. As he wrote to then-President Ferdinand Marcos of the Phillippines following his win in 1975 against Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila”:
“Death is so near, and time for friendly action is so limited. Love and peace always.”
Interesting words from a fighter after an especially gruesome boxing match, one which ended with “Frazier being pulled out on his stool by trainer Eddie Futch after 14 rounds. Ali, beyond exhaustion himself, said it was the closest he had ever felt to death.”
The world has reached a stage where we can either fight to the death, or act on the deeper wisdom of the humanist Ali, who recognized that “the time for friendly action is so limited.”
The choice is ours. And if Pakistani-Americans like me have any say in the matter, I say, nay, insist, that we need to build on the legacy of love, courage, integrity of conscience, of doing the right thing by ALL people that Muhammad Ali and his Muslim faith represented to us. Which includes doing the right thing by Muslim women in countries like Pakistan, women like the schoolteacher Maria who are killed by Muslim men simply for refusing to marry them. Not by using these women as alibis for perpetual war waged by the West purportedly to “rescue” them from their “brown men”—but to figure out how to help the spread of “friendly action” that could displace relations of domination, between and among brown and white, black and yellow–men and women joining together in a rainbow coalition of those willing to live, not die, for peace.