SMITH | How Muhammad Ali made his Muslim pilgrimage
At least 14,000 people are expected to converge on an arena in Louisville on Thursday for what will likely be the biggest Muslim funeral in American history.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Muhammad Babar recalls huddling in his apartment in Buffalo, N.Y., after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Knowing the attackers were claiming the mandate of Islam, and bracing for a backlash against Muslims such as himself, the Pakistani immigrant physician wondered “what the future holds for me or people of my faith in America.”
Then he saw a statement issued by Muhammad Ali, the best-known Muslim in America and perhaps the world, condemning the attackers as “doing things God is against.”
“It gave me strength,” said Dr. Babar. “I stood up and I went out to donate blood.”
On Thursday, Dr. Babar will join at least 14,000 people who are expected to converge on an arena in Mr. Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., for what will likely be the biggest Muslim funeral in American history.
Mr. Ali, who died last week at 74, “meant the world to me and to Muslim-Americans, Muslims across the globe and also every human soul,” said Dr. Babar, himself now of Louisville and president of the group Muslim Americans for Compassion, which engages regularly in interfaith and public service projects. “He’s not just of Muslims. This is the beauty of his life, that he did not limit himself to one tradition.”
That’s hardly an epitaph that would have been expected in 1964, when the newly minted heavyweight champion made the stunning announcement of his conversion to a black-separatist sect, the Nation of Islam.
But over time, Mr. Ali adopted a racially inclusive, mainstream Sunni Islam. He embraced a pluralistic vision in which the followers of Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Krishna were on equally valid paths.
“All of them were right,” he once said, citing the Islamic teaching that God has sent many prophets. And Mr. Ali grew fond of the mystical, peaceful sayings of Sufis, or Islamic mystics.
“Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams — they all are unique, but they all contain water,” just as religions “all contain truth,” Mr. Ali said in a statement written on his behalf before a group of Asian Muslim visitors to America.
Mr. Ali’s funeral is scheduled for noon Thursday. Dr. Babar, who is helping arrange tickets and housing for Muslim guests, said the attendees include out-of-town imams, foreign ambassadors and even a man who flew in from Bangladesh.
Mr. Ali grew up as Cassius Clay Jr. and worshiped at his mother’s Centennial Olivet Baptist Church, a historically black church in Louisville.
He later said he was alienated from Christianity because of the racial segregation in churches and the invariable depictions of Jesus as a white man — even in church murals created by his artist father, Cassius Clay Sr.
“If Europeans and Americans worshiped a White Christ, why was it that Black Americans didn’t worship a Black God?” Mr. Ali said he wondered, according to a 2004 memoir, “The Soul of a Butterfly,” co-written with daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali.
As a rising boxer visiting Chicago and New York, Clay encountered preachers from the Nation of Islam who boldly called for black self-empowerment. The group blended elements of Islam with racial theories and other doctrines rejected by traditional Muslims.
“The Nation of Islam taught that White people were devils,” Mr. Ali wrote in the 2004 memoir. “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.”
Mr. Ali’s path toward a racially inclusive Islam might seem to parallel that of Malcolm X, who had befriended young Cassius Clay Jr. and was by his side when the boxer announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
But in fact, Mr. Ali publicly spurned Malcolm X after the latter broke with the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. Soon after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and three men affiliated with the Nation of Islam were convicted, although investigators’ account of events has been challenged.
Mr. Ali later acknowledged that breaking with Malcolm X was “one of the mistakes I regret most.”
Critics bitterly attacked Mr. Ali for joining what some considered a hate group, and he was further vilified for refusing to be inducted into the Army to fight in the Vietnam War.
To get legal status as a conscientious objector, a person needed to show a sincere religious objection to warfare of all kinds. Mr. Ali lost early legal rounds because he couldn’t show that — he professed willingness to fight in an “Islamic World War.” Such a stance, which would send chills through the American public today, drew less notice than his refusal to fight communism.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually cleared Mr. Ali because of a technical misstep by prosecutors.
In the 1970s, Mr. Ali supported Elijah Muhammad’s son and successor, Wallace Muhammad, in his move toward mainstream Sunni Islam.
Many in the Nation of Islam also followed that path, though others remained in it. Mr. Ali’s many encounters with Muslims in his foreign travels helped prepare him for the transition.
Ahmad Ali, chairman of the board of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and an African-American convert to Islam, caught an unexpected glimpse of that world exposure decades ago in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Mr. Ali (no relation to the boxer) and his wife were returning to their hotel room when he encountered Muhammad Ali and his entourage.
They shook hands and exchanged the standard Islamic greeting.
“A lot of celebrities have to be standoffish,” said Ahmad Ali. But “he was nice and polite.”
Ahmad Ali said the boxer, along with others such as Malcolm X and basketball’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, influenced his own conversion to Islam.
The boxer also influenced Safdar Kwaja, who saw Mr. Ali as a Muslim role model as he was growing up in Pakistan and England.
“His spirit of respect for all observant people was very striking,” said Mr. Kwaja, now president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mr. Ali, once known as the Louisville Lip for his outspokenness, had in his latter stages of Parkinson’s disease to be content with others speaking or writing on his behalf.
But the illness “caused me to listen,” his 2004 memoir said. “Actually people pay more attention to me now because I don’t talk so much.”
Even Mr. Ali’s “silent presence meant so much to us” as an example to Muslim youths who might be tempted by terrorist propaganda and as a counterweight to anti-Muslim bigotry, Dr. Babar said.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has drawn strong support for calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States in the wake of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif.; Brussels and Paris.
“The timing could not be worse” for Mr. Ali’s death, Dr. Babar said. “I hope and pray that fellow citizens will continue his legacy and journey of compassion and they will stand with us in these trying times.”
Peter Smith is the religion editor at The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416; you can also follow him on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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