Muhammad Ali: My American Muslim Hero 1942-2016 By Dr. Sherman Jackson

muhammad-ali FOILike many of my generation of Muslims, Muhammad Ali came into my life before Islam did. In the 1960s, even before Malcolm X’s estrangement from the Nation of Islam and his eventual death in 1965, it was Muhammad Ali who became the public face of the movement. Of course, the movement itself was too narrow in its vision and ethos to fully encompass an Ali overflowing with bravado, charisma and a new way of being black. Thus, even as he ‘represented’ the movement, he transcended it. And in so doing
he reached a whole generation of young, poor, inner-city youth, like myself, who saw him raise their core values of loyalty, courage, ‘swag’ and a certain humility that could never be mistaken for timidity, to the level of a national emblem of black personhood. None of my circle of friends at the time was Muslim. In fact, none of us was even associated with the Nation of Islam. And yet, while we could not quite put our fingers on it, we could all feel a certain something changing in our midst, something about who got to define the world we live in and to name the things in it, something about what it meant to be producers of ideas, practices and standards by which we could judge and measure others, instead of always having to live under their definitions and judgments of us. At the time, none of this translated into anything particularly religious. Even the Nation’s powerful religious rhetoric was no match for the entrenched Philadelphia gang-culture in whose embrace most of us remained firmly ensconced. But there was a certain light, albeit mixed with a lot of fog, that seemed to hover all about the horizon in every direction, quietly and barely perceptibly beckoning us to some new, unknown frontier.
For me, Ali helped give that light definition. For he made it clear that Islam, however complicated his relationship with it might have been, was foundational to who he was as a human being, even in his moral failings. I remember, for example, in the late 1960s hearing about his involvement in an alleged affair. In complete defiance of the custom of celebrities at the time, he refused to run for cover and instead stood firm and accepted his guilt. Already in 1967, he had made it clear what Islam meant to him. When
warned that he would likely go to prison for refusing the draft, he responded to his interviewer: “Well, whatever the punishment, whatever the persecution is for standing up for my religious beliefs, even if it means facing machine-gun fire that day, I will face it before denouncing Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam. I’m ready to die.”
Little wonder it is that in 1974, we were all huddled in the basement of a friend, listening to the radio broadcast of Ali’s ‘doomsday’ fight with Big George Foreman. All of us to a man were rooting for Ali. We could barely hear the static-filled broadcast. But I remember, amidst all the smoke, noise and anxious anticipation, Ronny Keyes suddenly jumped out of his seat and announced, with a mixture of befuddlement and joy, “He knocked ‘em out! He knocked ‘em out!” It was euphoria. Our hero had prevailed. And for me, there was now less fog and more light on the horizon. It would take another four years or so before I formally embraced Islam. But Ali had already made his mark in the deepest recesses of my sense of self. I suspect that I speak for millions when I say that, Ali spoke to our pre-rational selves, where our identity, our pride, our hope, our courage, our fears, our basic sense of right and wrong and our sense of mission all reside. And it is perhaps because he spoke to us then as he continues to speak to us now as a cultural icon rather than as a religious scholar, a shaykh or an Imām, in an age when Islam itself has largely (and sadly) been reduced to ‘religion’ in the narrow Enlightenment sense, that his value, meaning and impact may be lost on many. In reality, however, most people do not live in the world of doctrine and ideology; most people spend most of their lives in the world of culture. And where culture fails to touch people, to fill them up, inspire and intimidate them, by directing, valorizing and penalizing their actions and inactions, doctrine and ideology will rarely be able to pick up the slack. Culture is the frequency on which doctrine and ideology travel. And they will rarely be able to go much farther than the reigning cultural frequency will take them.
It is in this light that, even as a scholar of Islam, I remain profoundly aware and appreciative of the meaning, value and impact of Muhammad Ali; and I remain deeply touched and moved by his legacy. Ali inspired us; and he filled us up. He challenged us and showed us what it meant to fight and hit hard! – inside and outside the ring – without bitterness, without malice and without apology. Win or lose, his was the way of mellow perseverance. Any doctrine and any ideology can travel on that wavelength. Indeed,
while Ali may be rarely quoted in the day-to-day religious affairs or ideological arguments of American Muslims, his very mention can straighten the back, still the hand and fire the resolve of any Muslim in any socio-political setting. In fact, I have noticed how, in dealing with his death, even the mainstream media has quietly (even if perhaps temporarily) sanitized the name “Muhammad.” News anchors and commentators from all walks and all persuasions comfortably articulate the name “Muhammad Ali” with a quiet care and reverence, at times even an indigenizing, disarming American twang. Clearly, his loss will be colossally felt. And clearly, of all the things the American Muslim has produced, Muhammad Ali is among its most precious.
It is my hope that the passing of Muhammad Ali will not mark the end of an era in the United States, an era in which Islam in America is represented not by the deeds or misdeeds of actors in far off places but by the accomplishments and contributions, the resolve and courage of American Muslims themselves. Ali’s funeral and memorial will likely feature a veritable who’s who of America’s leading celebrities and political and cultural elites, from every race, every creed and every color. All of them will be there to honor and celebrate the life of this great man. And not one of them will be able to separate Muhammad Ali’s greatness as an American from his commitment as a Muslim. Ali emphatically put the question of whether one can be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let that question now be interred permanently with his noble remains.
May Allāh shower His blessings, strength and soothing assurances upon the family of Muhammad Ali. May He buoy them, with some inscrutable solace, in this their time of sadness and grief. May He remindthem that the whole world now celebrates the beauty that was this man. And may He look upon our beloved brother, our American Muslim hero, our champion, Muhammad Ali, with utmost mercy, forgiveness and love and admit him into a comfort, a peace and a satisfaction that only He can grant. So long, Muhammad, my hero.
Rest in peace.
Indeed, salām ‘alaykum.
Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Jackson is a cofounder, Core Scholar, and member of the Board of Trustees of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM), an academic institution where scholars, professionals, activists, artists, writers, and community leaders come together to develop strategies for the future of Islam in the modern world. He will be teaching at the upcoming ALIM Summer Program.

Honoring our Past with a Vision for the Future the Inauguration of West Philly’s New Freedom District

On the weekend of May 16 and 17, 2015 the ICPIC New Africa Center / Muslim American Museum & Archive located at 4243 Lancaster Ave, Philadelphia Pa 19104 hosted a profound historical event with the theme ‘Honoring our Past with a Vision for the Future’.

On Saturday May 16 at 1pm ICPIC commemorated the late international leaders El-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X) 90th birthday and Imam W.D. Mohammed’s 40th year anniversary of leadership by placing a mock Pennsylvania Historical Marker at 4218 Lancaster Ave in their honor.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission have approved the New Africa Center’s request for a PA Historical Marker for Muhammad’s Mosque #12 at 4218 Lancaster Ave in West Philadelphia during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s granting historical status to one of the most important sites in Philadelphia’s black community history. Malcolm X and Imam W. D. Mohammed both were teachers and administrators at Mosque #12 during this period.

The charismatic figures of Malcolm X, Imam Wallace D. Muhammad, and Cecil B. Moore made

Mosque #12 one of the most historic spaces in Pennsylvania.

The occasion also included the Inauguration of West Philly’s New Freedom District. ICPIC have

designated the lower part of Lancaster Ave from 48th Streets to 32nd Street and it’s surrounding

area as the Historic New Freedom District because of the areas rich cultural history of institutions,

organizations, events, and individual struggling to preserver the unity, dignity and humanity of the

African American Community in it’s Quest for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

Mujahiddeen Mohammed Program Manager stated, “Our New Freedom District initiative will

have a significant impact on our communities, inspiring a new sense of citizenship, civic

responsibility, pride and ownership of the community. State Representative Vanessa Brown’s

office presented a citation from the PA Black Legislative Caucasus authorizing the New Freedom

District and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has given her endorsement. David Fattah father

of Congressman Chaka Fattah along with many other community leaders have shown their

support and have endorsed this initiative.

This area has been designated as one of the Promised Zones in the country by President Obama

because of the poverty and urban decay within these communities.

The ICPIC New Africa Center unveiled it’s plans for the New Africa Freedom Square and the

vision for the New Africa Center’s Expansion Plan. Abdul Rahim Muhammad, Executive

Director stated, the term New Africa was introduced to us by the late Muslim American leader,

Imam W. D. Mohammed, he stated, “New Africa: represents a new mind, a new thinking, a new

spirit and a new life for black people in America. We are not from the Motherland anymore; we are

Africans living in America –“New Africans”. Our programs are design to inform and educate all

people about our rich Islamic-West Africa heritage and the culture, history, struggle and spiritual

growth & development of the African American Muslim Community.

“Our long-term goal is to develop an Avenue on the Arts West, Lancaster Ave Historic New

Freedom District. We will utilize the vacant lot and buildings at 4237, 4239, & 4241 Lancaster

Ave. and construct a completely new 5 story multi-purpose facility. The 1st floor will be an

expansion of our 4243 Lancaster Ave New Africa Center/Muslim American Museum & Archive

along with a Cafe, the 2nd floor will be our New Africa- Business, Arts & Technology Centers.

For the 3rd, 4th & 5th floors, we will develop new apartment units for low income or senior

citizens. This multipurpose facility will serve as an anchor for the development of a new mixture

of businesses and apartment units along Lancaster Ave from 4245 to 4255 along with utilizing

the urban green space at 4234 to 4240 as a New Africa Freedom Square”.

The program was followed by a Community Family Day at our New Africa Freedom Square in

partnership with Feed Philly and the Philadelphia Masjid on the urban green space across from

the New Africa Center for a fun filled day with games for children, entertainment, local history

tours, health fair, resource information tables and free food for everyone.

A special exhibit on Malcolm X and Imam W.D. Mohammed designed by ICPIC’s curator

Micheal Muhammad was also on display at the ICPIC New Africa Center’s Museum.

On Sun May 17 from 2p to 5pm ICPIC hosted a Symposium, “Focusing on the Life & Times of

Malcolm X and Imam W. D. Mohammed” at the Sister Clara Muhammad School 4700

Wyalusing Ave Philadelphia Pa.

The guest speakers included Imam Muhammad Abdul-Aleem, Imam Mustapha El-Amin NJ,

Imam Ishmael Qadir, Imam Kenneth Nuriddin, Imam Alford Muhammad and Imam

Mujahiddeen Mohammed.

The ICPIC New Freedom District are looking for business investors, sponsors, proposal writers,

business managers and developers, real estate developers and skilled individual looking for a

opportunity to expand their business and support this New Freedom District initiative please call

Mujahiddeen Mohammed.

New Freedom District Seven Weeks Tours Guide Training

Calling All Young Adults Ages 14 to 21

The Lancaster Ave Historic New Freedom District goes from 32nd to 48th Streets west on Lancaster Avenue and the surrounding area in West Philadelphia. The goals are to highlight and preserve the rich cultural history  of African American institutions, organizations, events and individual achievements in their quest for self-determination and freedom, justice & equality.

Some of the Historical Sites will include:

  • New Africa Center/ Museum & Archive
  • Local Hero’s Mural
  • Dupree Art Studio/Museum
  • Belmont Mansion Underground Railroad Museum
  • Paul Robeson House
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Mural & Marker
  • Nation of Islam Temple #12 & Marker
  • Stephen Smith Home & Marker
  • Surah Allen Nursing Home
  • Clara Muhammad School & Muhammad Park
  • Quba Masjid and Quba Institute School
  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • First African Presbyterian Church
  • Lincoln Highway (Lancaster Pike)
  • Lincoln’s Funeral Train,
  • And Many Murals and PA Historical Marker

Neighborhood young adults will be trained as tour guides, leading group discussions and conducting on-site presentations. Tour guide trainings will be conducted over a 7 week period and will be held Saturday from 10am to 1pm for a group of 10 to 12 young adults between the ages of 14 to 21. Trainings will start in October 22 and will be completed by the December 10, totaling 21 hours of engaging interactive hands on learning.

The trainings will take place at the New Africa Center, 4243 Lancaster Avenue and will be conducted by instructor and artist Taji Ra’oof Nahl and historian Mr. Joseph Becton. In addition, Abdul Rahim Muhammad along with staff and volunteers of the New Africa Center will assist in the trainings by offering educational support via trips, guest speakers, documentaries, assigned reading and classroom discussions. All volunteers working with the youth programs have complete state and federal clearances.

Orientation & Registration for Parents & Students will be held:
Monday October 17, 2016 at 6pm
At the New Africa Center 4243 Lancaster Ave Or Register by E-mail or Call:
Abdul Rahim Muhammad at 610-352-0424 or email ICPIC@ RCN.COM