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Muhammad Ali: His Faith Was Part of His Revolutionary Spirit

When someone famous or very wealthy dies, individuals rush to the fore with anecdotes about when their personal encounters with him or her, all to demonstrate perhaps that they too may have had a role in his/her greatness. So my first reaction to some of the fatuous statements in today’s media, reported by (mainly) men who had met Muhammad Ali, was impatience. They’re opportunists, I thought. Theirs is another testimony to record the passing of a special person by someone whose role in that greatness is insignificant. Yet, I find myself now wanting to give testimony, even from my very distant perch.

Praise to this man who graced the earth and offered such beauty and truth to so many of us, in so many places in so many lives and across the planet.

He proffered so, so much–athletic excellence, grace and humor, pride and courage, political sophistication, teaching by example and by his prowess in boxing, his gentle, determined assertion of his beliefs and his principles.

I would like to think that Muhammad Ali’s embrace of Islam contributed to the excellence of all his accomplishments. Certainly he felt so. He said so. His Black Nationalist statements and beliefs were eventually underpinned by his identity as a Muslim and his assertion of his values as a Muslim, this against widespread opposition and resistance from others. (Although there may be many today who’d deny this.)

Muhammad Ali’s pride in his Muslim name, his rejection of his ‘slave name’, his public worship as a Muslim, his defense of his Muslim beliefs were all part of his growth and his truth. Certainly he learned from Black Muslims like Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X, but that was still a time in American history when religious enlightenment of this kind was hardly recognized. For such a public figure, a hero to so many, especially outside the US, and an undisputed champion in a highly competitive sport, to publically and with such exaltation, embrace Islam was part of Muhammad’s revolutionary power.

Then, in what might be called the second phase of his life, his illness with Parkinson’s disease, surely his faith fortified his willingness and ability to continue to work as a public figure, to harvest charity for others, and remain a living source of joy for those who might meet him and touch him. Few public figures who endure a handicap on that scale can continue to give so much to others.

No one would dispute that Ali is in a class unto himself. There is– there was– no other like Muhammad Ali. Today his passing into the realm of Allah has given us another chance to remember some of what he accomplished, to listen to his words, to watch him in action, to learn more about his achievements and to better comprehend what a gift he is.

I became aware of Muhammad Ali only with my emerging political consciousness late in my life. Not in the US during the 1960s, my gaze was never directed to this controversial, flashy youth when he first won accolades as a sports champion, not even during his Viet Nam anti-war declarations, nor following that when he was banished from the sport and publicly vilified. Finally tough, in 1997 I was directed to the newly released documentary film “When We Were Kings” created around the 1974 boxing match in Zaire, Africa. Apart from Ali’s boxing talent, there was plenty in that film that demonstrated to me the exceptional character, brilliance and pride of this young man. I was smitten. Thus began my drive to learn more about Muhammad Ali. Repeatedly I was rewarded with joyous, funny wisdom, winsome images and sounds and declarations that have firmly remained in my memory and heart. I nourished a quiet admiration and inspiration from all that I learned about Muhammad.

How could such an irrepressible brave and spirited ‘pretty’ soul emerge out of a country I had become ashamed of, a ruthless warring nation, a country that seems mired in self deceit, committed to its imperialism, a nation that harbors such divisiveness and inequality? Could this ugly ‘America’ take credit for the beautiful spirit in Muhammad Ali? Could this Muhammad have emerged in any other oppressive, apartheid nation? Could a rough and sometimes brutal sport have nourished such grace and joy? Could Muslim faith sustain such courage and poetry?

I guess that is why Muhammad Ali is so special. The world rejoices in this gift.

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Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

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