Like many around the globe the passing of the heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, also saddened me. It was so moving to see the degree to which everyone praised Muhammad Ali and his legacy. He was a champion, a humanitarian, a pacifist, and even a diplomat. Muhammad Ali did not refrain from venturing to where he was needed. Nonetheless, the more I read about him and his bravery, the more I came to realize that although he fell victim to prosecution, stereotyping, and name-calling, he never gave up fighting for what he believed in.
Born as Cassius Clay Jr., he converted to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali, after the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and his son in law, Ali, who served as the fourth Muslim caliph after the death of the Prophet. Muhammad Ali became a controversial figure after he refused to go to fight in Vietnam and instead chose to fight in his home country, the United States of America, against racism and injustice. His battle was multidimensional and unique.
During his professional career he fought against racism by not only changing his name, but also making a point to publicly speak about it. His refusal to go to Vietnam was his method of protesting against injustice, and he was made to pay a high price for that. He was forced into exile and banned from boxing; he was stripped of the titles he worked so hard to earn. Yet he refused to back down.
With all these in mind I could not help but think: what if Cassius Clay was born in the early 2000s and was about to start his career now. What if he were to change his name to Muhammad Ali and refuse to go fight Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere in this era. Would we still praise him as we did after his death? Or would he be called names, as he was when he refused to go to Vietnam? What would he be called in today’s America where a presidential hopeful questions a Muslim judge’s loyalty and objectivity? What does this say about our progress or lack thereof as a society? How many talents like Muhammad Ali are we murdering with our ignorance, prejudice, and stereotypes?
Muhammad Ali fought even when facing severe health conditions, which he called a blessing from God to show him who the real number one is. His humor is embedded in our memories. He fought for humanism; he was firstly a human and then a proud Black-Muslim-American.
A few months before his death he started a new fight, which he could not complete in five rounds: the fight against Islamophobia. Titled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States,” the champion made a statement that as Muslims we condemn the so-called jihadists who have perverted the religion of Islam. But he also called the American political leaders to act against Islamophobia.
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.”
His statement came after Donald Trump claimed he couldn’t recall any American Muslim athlete. By virtue of his claim, even though he had the pleasure of meeting the champion a few times, it might be safe to assume that Donald Trump is the only adult on the planet who is ignorant of the name and title of Muhammad Ali. But even Trump couldn’t refrain from tweeting about his greatness after his death.
If we want to show the world that we really mean what we share on social media, then let’s continue his legacy to fight all types of racism, starting from Islamophobia, and complete the battle he ventured a couple of months ago. Let us agree to fight against all injustice, poverty, phobias, stereotypes, and prejudices, in different manners. As the Hadith of the Prophet, whose name Muhammad Ali carried with pride, goes “Whoever of you sees something wrong should change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; if he cannot, then with his heart, and that is the weakest form of belief.”