The history books will commemorate him as a civil rights activist and incredible boxer, but after he is laid to rest on Thursday, what I hope the books acknowledge is Muhammad Ali’s contributions to a community of more than one billion.
He is the first icon that many Muslims look up to, young and old alike— a hero, a living, breathing example that we as Muslims can succeed in this country, unapologetically and without limitations.
I grew up in a post-September 11th world. On that day a group of terrorists hijacked more than a plane, they hijacked an entire religion while taking 3,000 innocent lives. That day forever changed the way Muslims were viewed in the United States and in many places throughout the world. The only world I have ever known is where people tell me that my religion will be a barrier to success and I may need to downplay my Islamic identity in order to succeed. “They” tell me I cannot do what I want to do, and I have to limit my goals. Because of my faith, “they” tell me that I am less of a human. Muhammad Ali’s presence, and his exemplary life, show me that I can do whatever I want to do and that I can be the best at it. He reaffirms my confidence in my individuality and Islamic identity. He inspires my path towards social justice and activism. His experiences show me that I should stop focusing on the people that push me down and start helping those that I can help bring back up.
Ali once said, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
When I look at that quote, as an American, as a Muslim, as a human, it resonates with me. This perspective serves as an important reminder to the trailblazers who challenge the status quo, the ones who look at the injustices that surround our companions in humanity and refuse to sit idly by while others are knocked down. Knocked down because of their race, their religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.
People everywhere look up to Muhammad Ali. They see a boxer who has achieved the highest levels of greatness, in and out of the ring. He is admired for being an Olympic gold medalist and three-time heavyweight champion. He is recognized as being a staunch advocate of civil and religious liberties and standing strong in his beliefs. When his title was threatened, and millions of dollars were on the line, he did not waver in his conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali is an example for all of us – no matter our religion or race, and we must be firm in our convictions and steadfast in our duties to one another, standing up for our rights, but also being firm allies for those who lack basic opportunities in society. As citizens of this Earth, we must constantly speak for the silent and stand for the broken.
The Muslim community’s appreciation for Muhammad Ali is predicated on more than just admiration for his accomplishments, it is built on a foundation of sincere pride for a man who shares our religion. We are able to look at him and say he is our brother in faith. Muhammad Ali shares the name of our beloved prophet, Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him. Muslims all around the world hold a special connection with Muhammad Ali, because of his name, because of his faith. For many, his name alone serves as a reason to fall in love with his very being. Muhammad Ali is one of us. He stood by our side, fearlessly, and fought for us until his final bell was rung. Muhammad Ali exhibited Islamic values in his daily life. He prayed regularly, gave to the poor, and wept when his brother was in pain. In the same way that I believe, he proclaimed loudly and proudly, “There is no God, but God, and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is his final messenger”.
In Arabic, the name Muhammad translates to “highly praised.” The outpouring of support and praise from athletes, politicians and celebrities for Ali’s legacy is a beautiful sight. He was able to overcome limitations and push boundaries, and he is praised world over. While his life was a constant struggle, from the civil rights movement, to the time he spent barred from boxing while protesting the Vietnam war, seeing the rise of Islamophobia to unprecedented level, and finally fighting his battle with Parkinson’s, it is heartwarming to see our brother, our leader, OUR champion, rise above it all and truly go out a winner.
I am proud to share the beautiful religion of Islam with the beautiful soul of Muhammad Ali. While I may have never met him, he is, and will always be, my brother in faith and in humanity. May you rest in peace, Champ, and be granted the highest levels of Heavens. We cheered for you, and watched you become the Champion, and we thank you for always championing for us. Indeed we belong to God, and to Him we shall return.