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.

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