[Vision2020] Muhammad Ali: From Nation of Islam to Sunni to Sufi

Nicholas Gier ngier006 at gmail.com
Sat Jun 4 13:07:05 PDT 2016

Religious News Service

When boxing star Cassius Clay declared himself a member of the
controversial Nation of Islam back in 1964 and demanded to be called by his
new name, Muhammad Ali, he shocked the world of sports and rattled a nation
already struggling with social unrest over civil rights and the Vietnam war.

But Ali’s conversion also launched a pilgrimage of faith that would take
him from the fringes of Islam through its orthodox heart, and from a
virtual pariah to a global ambassador for faith — his own and others — as
the key to peace.

For this legendary African-American athlete from the South, it was a
journey spurred by the enduring racial injustice that America was only
beginning to address, and it was one that presaged important religious
changes and tensions that continue today.

Ali’s death late Friday (June 3) in a Phoenix hospital at 74 brought much
of that remarkable story to light once again for a public that knew the
acclaimed celebrity but may not have followed his winding spiritual path.

Ali was born in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942, as Cassius Marcellus
Clay Jr., a name shared with a 19th century abolitionist. His father, a
billboard painter, was a Methodist but allowed Clay’s mother, who worked as
a domestic, to raise their children as Baptists

Young Cassius Clay was introduced to boxing when he was 12, and was so
extraordinarily gifted that through his teenage years he amassed numerous
amateur titles, culminating with a gold medal in the light heavyweight
category in the Rome summer Olympics in 1960.
But Ali, always a headstrong and often brash personality, was fast becoming
aware of the racial inequities of his sport. “Boxing is a lot of white men
watching two black men beat each other up,” as he put it in one of his many
memorable lines.

He saw the same dynamic, and restiveness, in American society. While he
gained fame as a professional boxer in the early 1960s he also gravitated
toward the more fiery voices speaking out on behalf of African-Americans.

One of those was Malcolm X, who was key in introducing Cassius Clay to the
Nation of Islam, a group that was founded in Detroit in the 1930s as an
amalgam of Islamic teachings and messianic claims.
The central goal of the Nation of Islam — which traditional Islam does not
consider authentically Muslim — was to empower African-Americans. Its
members were often known simply as “Black Muslims,” and its message exerted
a powerful draw on many disaffected African-Americans even as the movement
underwent numerous leadership struggles and schisms.

(The main iteration of the Nation of Islam is currently headed by Louis
Farrakhan, whose racially-charged speeches and anti-Semitic remarks have
become hallmarks of the modern-day movement.)

Even back then, when Cassius Clay first became involved, the Nation of
Islam and its leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad, was known for demonizing
whites and preaching racial separation.

In February 1964 in Miami, at the age of 22, Clay fought what would be his
signature match, shocking the boxing world by taking the heavyweight title
from reigning champ Sonny Liston in seven rounds.

He was at the height of his fame, and his talent, and the very next day he
confirmed that he had joined the Nation of Islam. Within a few weeks he
said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali.

“Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said
“I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name —
it means ‘beloved of God’ — and I insist people use it when people speak to
me and of me.”

The move was controversial not only among whites but among many blacks.

“The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked,”
Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and politician, once said, according
to The New York Times.

“But the notion he’d do it — that he’d jump out there, join this group that
was so despised by mainstream America, and be proud of it —  sent a little
thrill through you.”

Yet it came at a cost to Ali. The WBA, one of two main boxing associations,
barred Ali after his conversion. Three years later, when Ali was drafted to
fight in the Vietnam War he cited his beliefs as the basis for his refusal
to serve, and that would lead to a total exile from the sport.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or
some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” as he put it.
“And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched
me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality,
rape or kill my mother and father … How can I shoot them poor people? Just
take me to jail.”

Ali was convicted of draft evasion in June 1967 and sentenced to five years
in prison. He remained out on bond while he appealed, but he was barred
from all boxing, from the age of 25 to almost 29 — his prime.

Yet those years also saw the beginning of a sea change in American
attitudes about the war, and the implementation of landmark civil rights
laws. Ali was no longer the outlier he had once been.

He was able to begin boxing again in 1970, and a year later, the U.S.
Supreme Court overturned his draft evasion conviction in a unanimous ruling.

As Ali started re-establishing his reputation as a brilliant and fearsome
fighter, he also continued to speak out against racism, war and religious
intolerance. All the while, he projected an unshakeable confidence and
humor that became a model for African-Americans.

“To the degree that the world ever agrees to stop screaming and find a
locus of consensus, a decent common ground, it did so on Muhammad Ali,”
Thomas Boswell wrote in The Washington Post

“He stood by his beliefs, which qualified as eccentric, almost alien to
many, and took every form of punishment that the laws of his country
demanded. He paid the price for his beliefs, right up to the Supreme Court,
while never ceasing to speak out, especially against racial injustice.”

He was swept back into the ring “with joy,” as Boswell wrote.

Those years also marked a notable evolution in his religious beliefs. In
1975, Ali formally joined mainstream Sunni Islam and abandoned the Nation
of Islam, denouncing its teachings.

“The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don’t believe
that now; in fact, I never really believed that,” Ali wrote in a 2004
biography. “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.”

Decades later, Ali went on to embrace Sufism, which is a mystical approach
to Islam <http://www.religionfacts.com/sufism> that has been an important
Muslim tradition since the faith was founded.

“Muhammad Ali, a man who stood by his principles despite criticism and
hardship, exemplified a true patriot and a true Muslim,” Roula Allouch,
national board chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in
a statement at Ali’s passing.

Ali was also deeply affected by his declining health; he was diagnosed with
Parkinson’s disease — a degenerative neurological condition — about three
years after he retired from boxing in 1981.

“Now the things that once were so effortless — my strong voice and the
quickness of my movements — are more difficult,” he once said. “But I get
up every day and try to live life to the fullest because each day is a gift
from God.”

As the Voice of America reported
Ali’s daughter, Hana Yasmeen Ali, said in 2005 that her father moved away
from the staunchly religious ways of his youth.

“His health and his spirituality have changed, and it’s not so much about
being religious, but about going out and making people happy, doing
charity, and supporting people and causes,” she said.

But Ali could still be outspoken when he wanted to.

Last December, when Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump was
threatening to bar Muslims from the U.S., Ali released a statement that
said the recent global terrorism crisis has “perverted people’s views on
what Islam really is.”

“We, as Muslims, have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their
own personal agenda,” he said, without mentioning Trump by name
“They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or
should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on

At the same time, Ali denounced Islamic extremists:

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people
in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” he said. “True
Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic jihadists goes
against the very tenets of our religion.”

*RELATED STORY:* Muhammad Ali to Trump: You don’t know Islam

During his championship reign, but especially in retirement, Ali met scores
of world leaders and for a time he was considered the most recognizable
person on earth, known even in remote villages far from the U.S.

Once asked about his preferred legacy, Ali said: “I would like to be
remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was
humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on
those who looked up to him … who stood up for his beliefs … who tried to
unite all humankind through faith and love.”

“And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered
only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And
I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they
shall never sit in.

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance
from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in
lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own
understanding!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant
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