For a heavyweight he trod lightly.
Behind Muhammed Ali’s boxing persona there was a man who cared. He cared about people, about causes, and about spirituality. Behind the brashness, there was a lightness of soul and a personality which did not punch, but touched. Here was a man who was born into a divided world but left it with an understanding of the oneness of humanity.
On Thursday the Islamic funeral prayer service, or Jenazah, will be held in Ali’s home town – Louisville, Kentucky. His funeral is the following day. Both ceremonies will be akin to those held when great statesmen and women pass on.World figures will come to pay homage. Both events will be televised around the world.
We are not just witnessing the passing of possibly the greatest sporting hero of the last century, we are saying goodbye to a man who helped fashion an era, who transcended sport, eventually rose above the politics of religion, and whose humanity allowed him to defeat his own prejudices, and to fight those of the world.
Muhammed Ali was born into prejudice. He grew up in a world where a black person had to sit at the back of a bus, and was refused entry to equality via 1001 Jim Crow laws.
And yet – through it all, he fought to become, by a country mile, the best at what he did, and he did it with style, grace, and bravery. Bravado also yes, but he was young, and as we look back at a life, amazingly lived, the transgressions of youth need to be viewed through the prism of of the time and his experience.
Yes, he was brash, he was the Louisville Lip, yes he challenged the stereotypes of the day, but he was never ‘uppity’ – that was a term for someone who in the racist mindset did not ‘know their place’. Ali, then Cassius Clay (named after an abolitionist), really did know his place and knew that his place was alongside anyone and everyone else – on merit.
First he was the world’s best boxer. Then, as a wonderfully intelligent mind developed, also the world’s best self-promoter, and then, as this confident, intelligent, and yes, angry young man was introduced to politics and a different religion, he challenged an entire mindset – that of mainstream America. By so doing, he became a world figure, in some ways a world leader.
Sure he was angry – after converting from being a Baptist to the Nation of Islam’s peripheral form of Islam in 1964, and rejecting being drafted to fight in Vietnam, he said –
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n***er, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me…just send me to jail.”
He debated college educated students and told them, ‘You won’t even fight for my rights here – why will I fight over there?”.
Sure he said some troublesome, stupid stuff. There’s nothing like a convert for religious zeal and he was first converted it was to a form of Islam which preached that white people were devils invented by a mad scientist, hence initial support for segregation and remarks such as ‘white people are my enemy’. He also made several anti-Semitic remarks, among them –
“You know the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world.”
He was in the grip of extremists, but his humanity shone through. He moved from the extremism of the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. Then, in 2005, he moved again, this time to the gentler, mystical side of his faith -Sufi Islam.
As he grew he refused to be bound by experiencing the prejudices of a lifetime of discrimination. In 2004 he wrote
“The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don’t believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen.”
Even at the height of his ignorant comments on Jews he remained friends with sportscaster Howard Cosell and other Jews. In the 1960s, when most media people insisted on referring to Ali by his former name (Clay) Cosell broke ranks and called him Muhammed. In 1995 Ali attended Coswell’s funeral and cried openly.
After one of Ali’s daughters, Khaliah, married Spencer Wertheimer he subsequently attended the Bar Mitzvah of his grandson Jacob and according to Khaliah “My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there,”
Ali was always political, but his religion, and increasingly his spirituality dominated the second half of his life. His charitable works reached across divides as did his warmth and respect for others.
There will inevitably be a political aspect to his passing. Turkey’s President Erdogan is among the world leaders attending the funeral and reportedly had wanted to make a speech. There is a connection – Ali visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in the 90s and met the then junior official, but it is a tenuous link and more connected to geopolitics than anything else.
It is better to let Ali himself have the last word. In his autobiography ‘The Soul Of a Butterfly’ it was clear, Ali had made an amazing journey in his life, and had arrived at a place perhaps he had always been – a very human place;
“Over the the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. We all have the same God, we just serve him differently…It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”