On the 4th day of Ramadan 2016, thousands of Muslims descended on Louisville, Kentucky. Some got flights to nearby cities then drove hours in rented cars. Other communities rented charter buses shuttling fasting Muslims from nearby cities after the pre-dawn suhoor (pre-fasting meal). One man even flew more than 8000 miles from Bangladesh to commemorate his namesake. All to attend the janazah of the champ. It wasn’t just Muslims who came to pay their respects – Buddhist monks, preachers, rabbis, Mormons, retired boxing opponents, a senator, movie stars, heads of states, and even former US president Bill Clinton. Muhammad Ali’s janazah, procession, burial, and eulogy was a spectacle!
His memorial service was filled with tens of thousands of supporters and was aired live and uninterrupted on ESPN. After all, he was the champ. Their champ. The people’s champ. Our champ.
How did a man who was so physical, brash and counter-culture, yet so suddenly frail in his old age, become so loved? Why did so many people from so many walks of life come to honor his memory?
His funeral procession – planned before his death – commenced by his childhood home in the poor part of west Louisville. As if the champ wanted to tell its residents that, despite small homes and humble beginnings, they too can become ‘the champ’. The question is, how?
What can young men, young Muslims and activists learn from his life? In an age where Islam is portrayed on such a massively negative scale, the legacy of Muhammad Ali shines through. Here are some lessons learned in the thousands of stories shared from his living history.
1. Work Hard, BE GREAT
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was among the greatest of all time. He was a great minister of Islam, a great comedian, a great family man and the greatest Sportsman of the Century. But before he was all these, he was a great boxer.
Boxing is a sport often romanticized in Hollywood: 60 seconds of bag punching, 60 seconds of rope jumping and 60 seconds running down a street and the on-screen hero is ready for the ring. It’s not quite that easy. Competitive boxing requires lots of training and years of hard work to develop the skill. You start off learning to walk like a boxer, baby steps, short steps, don’t cross your feet, protect your chin. You learn to feign, to dodge, to block and to punch with speed, accuracy, and power. All of this while your opponent knocks the senses out of you and the sweat and blood clouds your hearing, vision and balance. By the time Muhammad Ali had gotten to the world stage he was a master. His prowess in the ring was world class. In the heavy-weight division, known for its sluggish movements and hard hits, his training especially payed off. He would dance around his opponents taunting them before their fight, “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”
It takes hard work and dedication to become an expert in your field. It requires extreme focus and an unwavering desire to get to the top. You don’t have to be the best to be considered one of the greatest. Muhammad Ali had his share of losses but he competed at the world stage. It’s a matter of developing your craft and honing it to get to that world stage.
2. Use your voice
“I told him you gotta talk. Stars have gotta talk. Because if you don’t talk, nobody gonna know who the heck you are.” – Angelo Dundee (cornerman and friend of Muhammad Ali)
Still a young Louisvillian boxer named Cassius Clay, he shouted “I am the greatest.” His loud mouth quickly earned him the title “Louisville lip.” Often misinterpreted as arrogance, his wit was more an expression of purposeful showmanship. Muhammad Ali bloomed at a time when colored skin meant lower class. Segregated bathrooms, drinking fountains, and public facilities implied white superiority and black impurity. So Muhammad Ali didn’t just talk loud, he talked a truth that shattered his racial circumstance.
“I am pretty!” he would say with a charming smile to national media. The idea that a black man would claim beauty in a white world at the advent of colored TV was culture-shattering. He gave voice to all colored people, especially young black men. A black man need not be quiet, subservient, and “ugly” when next to a white man.
The Creator said He created all people beautiful and in the perfect form:
” It is Allah who made for you the earth a place of settlement and the sky a ceiling and formed you and perfected your forms and provided you with good things. That is Allah, your Lord; then blessed is Allah, Lord of the worlds.” [Qur’an: Chapter 40: Verse 64]
Muhammad Ali showed the world that colored folks can be eloquent, colored folks can be great and that colored folks can be pretty. His loud mouth was meaningful. “He gave me my dignity” proclaimed a janitor to a young Barack Obama. His loud talk drowned out the centuries-old echoing voices of white supremacy and gave a dignified voice to the colored community.
In today’s age, the fringe elements of society, although few in number, are given the podium. Their message of violence and hatred floods the media. Muhammad Ali’s example shows that we must counteract this negativity. Be loud, not to add noise, but to give voice to a cause. Let your loudness give people dignity.
3. Know when to grow: “What’s my name!” – Muhammad Ali
By the age of 24, Ali (then Cassius Clay) had proven his skill to be unrivaled. But he soon realized his purpose and life legacy was larger than the boxing ring. He proclaimed the shahadah (the testimony of faith) and took on the name Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meaning the most praised after the Prophet Muhammed , and Ali, meaning “the high”.
The media criticized him and ridiculed his new faith. But Ali knew that what he represented and what he stood for was greater than his current popularity. It took principle and conviction to abandon his prior name and to show the world the new Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Ali fought Ernie Terrell, shouting at him during the match “What’s my name!”. He needed everyone to know he had shed his “slave” name and now took up the more dignified name “Muhammad Ali.” Allah tested Muhammad Ali’s convictions again through the Vietnam draft. His refusal to be drafted caused him to be stripped of his boxing title but immortalized him in history as a champion of peace. “I ain’t got no quarrel with no vietcong!”, said Ali in defiance. These defining moments transformed the persona of Muhammad Ali. He became more than an entertainer, more than a man that spoke for the black community; he grew to become a voice of compassion to humanity.
4. Keep the eye on the ultimate prize
“God gave me Parkinson’s syndrome to show me I’m not ‘The Greatest’, He is. God gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not Number One, He is” -Muhammad Ali
Soon after retiring from boxing, Ali started showing symptoms of Parkinsons disease. The disease affects the brain’s ability to regulate movements. Fine motor skills become laborious. The gait becomes slow and shuffled. Facial expressions become masked and the voice becomes muffled. Seemingly everything that made Muhammad Ali who he was started to degenerate. He could no longer float like a butterfly nor sting like a bee. The fast-talking Louisville lip became snuffed. This was the start of the second half of his life.
Looking back, friends and family remarked that Ali had developed a habit of asking himself how to get to Paradise. It was almost a ritualized affirmation of his Islamic identity and desire to please God. This insight became the defining characteristic of his post-boxing legacy. Every act was about how to please God and getting to Paradise. He would donate $100 each to lines of needy folks in South America. He helped talk a man out of committing suicide. Thousands of small deeds all in the name of the ultimate prize: Paradise.
5. Lift up, even those you knock down
One of the most miraculous aspects of Muhammad Ali’s legacy is that his defeated opponents had fond memories of him. George Foreman, Richard Dunn and even his long-time critic, Howard Cosell became friends with him. After his renowned ugly fight with Japanese pro-wrestler Antonio Inoki, Ali nearly lost mobility and function of his left leg due to the force of repetitive side kicks. Much later, when Inoki announced his retirement match, Ali attended to show support for Inoki’s long fighting career. And so started their friendship. Amazingly, as an older man, Inoki embraced Islam.
It wasn’t just towards celebrities. Perhaps Muhammad Ali’s ability to win over his enemies can be attributed to his ability to make heroes out of ordinary folks. He would give time to famous people but also homeless people. He would talk about the dedication of firemen when they came to get his autograph. There are countless stories of how Muhammad Ali would meet people who were steeped in sadness, feeling defeated and he would lift their spirits. All the public trash-talking really just amounted to showmanship. His real legacy was in the day-to-day interaction, spreading joy and lifting people up.
6. Never be bitter
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.” – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali got a lot of hate in his life. He got hate for being a loud, young black man. He got hate for being a champion. He got hate for becoming a Muslim. He got hate for changing his name. He was called a coward and traitor for refusing to go to war. His haters stripped him of his titles and tried to imprison him. Muhammad Ali fought back against all this hate. He fought against the perpetrators of massive injustice. But his life showed that he never became bitter. He always kept his charming smile. Despite their prior policies, he advocated on behalf of the US government to release hostages in Iraq. He continued to do good and uplift people, despite their extensive history of hate. And that’s how he won them over. Once your enemies stop their hate, hold no grudges. Believe in their goodness and keep striving for Paradise.
7. Be a minister of God
“Allah’s the Arabic term for God. Stand up for God, fight for God, work for God and do the right thing, and go the right way, things will end up in your corner.” -Muhammad Ali
All of Muhammad Ali’s closest friends knew him to be a man of God. A man devoted to telling others about God and about Islam. When asked if he was the greatest Muslim, he quickly said only God can judge him and that he doesn’t claim to be the greatest Muslim. His Mormon friend, Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah, invited Ali to an important church ceremony. The large choir formed a line to get his autograph, so Muhammad Ali signed pamphlets on Islam to give them. He considered himself a minister of Islam. He was well read and able to give touching answers to questions about faith.
Many have aptly described Muhammed Ali as fitting the description in this hadith as one who earned the pleasure of God and the people:
“Whoever sought the pleasure of Allah , though it was displeasing to the people, then Allah becomes pleased with him and will make the people pleased with him. And whoever sought the pleasure of the people, though it was displeasing to Allah , then Allah becomes displeased with him and will make the people displeased with him.” [Tirmidhi]
Muhammad Ali was not sinless. He was not perfect. He had his faults, yet there is a great lesson to be heeded from the legacy of one of the most widely loved men in recent history. In the midst of all this media negativity, one can still be a beacon of compassion, goodness and sincerity.
May God have mercy on Muhammad Ali!
Tell us what productivity lessons have you learned from the life of the Champion?