The Muhammad Ali Impact and Muslim Americans

By Bailey-Ndiaye, Stacy | Islamic Horizons, May 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Muhammad Ali Impact and Muslim Americans


Bailey-Ndiaye, Stacy, Islamic Horizons


ON JAN. 17, THE CHAMP looked over the balcony onto the adoring crowd assembled. When his health permits, its a tradition at the Muhammad Ali Center for Ali for the Champ to appear as part of his birthday celebration. His steps are a bit unsteady and his once animated face is now almost expressionless. Yet, behind the dark glasses, there's a twinkle in his eyes. Ali is fully present. And he loves every minute ofit.

Muhammad Ali turned 73 this year.

His story is legendary. When his bicycle was stolen, a furious 12-year-old Cassius Clay reported it to O fficer Joe Martin, threatening to beat up the thief. Martin, who also was a boxing coach, suggested that he learn how to fight first. Cassius followed that advice and the rest, as they say, is history.

That 12-year-old set his sights on being a champion. He trained six days a week, woke early, instead of riding the bus, he ran 20 blocks to his school through the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, and worked out in the gym after school. He developed his own eating regimen, and stayed away from alcohol, smoking and any unhealthy food that might slow him down or jeopardize his health. By 18, he had won six Kentucky Golden Gloves, two national Golden Gloves, and an Amateur Athletic Union National Title. In 1960, he won the crowning achievement of his young life - a gold medal at Rome Olympics in the light heavyweight division. He had entered the world stage.

Clay returned home to begin his professional career. The brash young fighter "shook up the world," when the 22-year old, against all odds, beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship title.

James "Jimmy" Jones, world religions professor at Manhattanville C ollege in New York, recalls that night.

"When Cassius Marcellus Clay fought Sonny Liston on Feb. 25,1964,1 was a high school senior at Lucy Addison High School in Roanoke, Virginia," Jones said. "Having been raised in the segregated south, I was fully aware of the 'black male code' that dictated that young African-American men in particular, should be humble and deferential to white people at all times.

"So when Clay, this audacious young man from Kentucky, burst onto the scene talking trash and calling Sonny Liston a bear, I was shocked. Further, I had grown up in a household where we regularly listened to the Friday Night Fights on the radio and I could not imagine how this boy who was barely older than I was could 'whup' someone as physically impressive as Sonny Liston. As with many others, that night, Cassius Marcellus Clay made a believer out of me. He talked trash and backed it up."

Fast. Excellent. Beautiful. Bold. Clay could not and would not be ignored. A few days after his stunning victory, Clay made more headlines when he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam (NOI) and his new name - Muhammad Ali. In 1964, in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement in which African Americans were striving to end racial segregation, NOI was controversial. Often referred to as the "black Muslims," it was seen as separatist and its teachings of black pride and self-reliance were viewed as militant. Besides that, in a Christian-dominated country, there was a general lack of understanding about and mistrust of Islam. The combination of a "strange" religion and an outspoken challenge to the race-based power structure added up to "scary" in mainstream society.

Yet Ali stood firm on his truth.

"I'm a Muslim. My religion is Islam. What's wrong with that? You have 600 million Muslims on earth and Muslim only means one who submits only to the will of God, Allah," he said.

In the NOI, Ali found a home, a sense of dignity as a black man in America, and embarked on a spiritual path that would forever shape his life. In his spiritual memoir, co-authored with his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, "The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey" (Simon 8c Schuster, 2004), he writes: "My faith has evolved over the years, and now I follow the teachings of mainstream Sunni Islam. …

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