Muhammad Ali as a Muslim revolutionary, a fierce supporter of the Palestinian cause, brilliantly funny and a vocal opponent and critic of US imperialism, US exceptionalism and the notion of empire was symbolised by the presence of individuals present at the tribute ceremony which followed his death on 3 June 2016.
The poignancy of the speech delivered by Attallah Shabazz, daughter of the late American Muslim revolutionary, Malcolm X, captured, through her own militant lineage, the revolutionary and radical Ali who turned to Islam at the hands of her father. As the young Cassius Clay was secretly meeting with members of the Nation of Islam, he was moved by the way that Malcolm X spoke.
In an interview he gave in 1989, Ali said: “My first impression was how could a Black man talk about the Government, White people, and be so bold and not be shot at? Talking about, just a whole movement, totally different from others and so bold. How could he say these things? And only God must be protecting him. […] he walked with nobody, he was fearless. That, that really attracted me.”
Cassius joined the Nation of Islam, and became close to Malcolm. Writer Justin Tinsley says: “X and Ali were one in the same. Both were young, handsome, intelligent, outspoken African American men who scared the shit out the White America during a time period when racial tension was the norm.”
On February 26, 1964, the day after Cassius Clay defeated heavyweight-boxing champion Sonny Liston, he proclaimed that he rejected the name Clay, because black American’s last names were often inherited from their slave masters. He pronounced his name as Cassius X, which later became Muhammad Ali.
It was Malcolm’s revolutionary ideas on race and religion that radicalised the young Ali. Malcolm believed that the civil rights movement had become too placatory and has diluted the real struggle of Black men and women in America. In the last year of his life, he famously said, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this Earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” With these words Malcolm X had become the most dangerous voice in America.
When he was assassinated in 1965, it was Ali who became the champion of the voiceless and downtrodden. Already speaking out against the Vietnam War, Ali earned the wrath and revulsion of white America and the boxing establishment who stripped him of his world title and withdrew his license to box. In all that time Ali remained true to the teachings of his mentor, even after Malcolm denounced the Nation of Islam, a week after Ali defeated Liston. His fierce independence of mind and resolute Islamic identity made him the most recognizable Muslim on the planet.
Of Malcolm Ali would later say: “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all…I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”
When Ali refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, Julian Bond, who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, said, “You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think about it because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.”
Those ripples were felt far beyond the US. When he insisted on being called Muhammad Ali, it was not just an act of defiance but it was a conscious challenge to white Christian America that was suspicious of his faith.
Professor Sherman Jackson, King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, says: “As a cultural icon, Ali made being Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. And all of this he did in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to or in this country. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and American to rest. Indeed, he KO’d that question.”
Speaking about Ali’s faith, Dalia Mogahed, former advisor to President Barack Obama on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said: “His faith was central to his worldview. It was where he drew his strength from. And I think that that legacy of indigenizing Islam, of making Islam a part of mainstream America, is so important today. Ali is a reminder that Islam enriches America, that America would be a weaker, less prosperous, less safe country if Islam was not part of its story.”
White American tried its best to silence him, but all it did was give Ali greater impetus to speak out and stand up against injustice and oppression.
He was fearless and brash declaring: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
At the tender age of 18, Cassius Clay, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, and there was no turning back. Thirty-six years later, Ali, visibly showing the effects of Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games. It was an image that captured the spirit of a man, who resisted the white political establishment of America, to become one of the most recognizable faces and voices in the world.
The Greatest is gone, but Muhammad Ali has engraved his life and legacy on the world.