My favorite recent memory of Muhammad Ali comes not from the 1996 Olympic Games, but rather our 2003 annual Islamic Convention in Chicago led by Imam W. Deen Mohammed.
I’ll never forget how Ali labored through his Parkinson’s up the steps to the platform stage, sat with other dignitaries in support of his friend the imam, then after perhaps 45 minutes worked his way back down, where he was love-mobbed. It was a distraction from the ongoing program, but Ali had accomplished his mission. He obviously had wanted to send an unmistakable message in that post-9/11 America: This is my community, and this is my imam.
That community began as the original Nation of Islam (NOI), led from the 1930s until his death in 1975 by the man Ali revered as the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. Guided next by Imam Mohammed, Elijah’s son, the community evolved through various titles to The Mosque Cares by the time he was eulogized as “America’s imam” on his passing in 2008.
Along the way, Imam Mohammed, an unprecedented scholar inspired by the Quranic Arabic that his father had ensured he learned, helped purify religion for many of us who practice in sincerity. (Not the religion; more properly, Al-Islam – best translated literally as “The Peace” that can come only from our Creator – is by definition universal, tuned to our very human nature, not limited to one label.)
Also along the way, the overwhelming majority of thefollowers, guided by the imam, moved not only into the mainstream but the leadership of the world’s most progressive expression of our faith. In his own transition no one was more visible than Ali in establishing that we stand for the best spirit and logic of the Quran, as reflected in the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
An American Muslim symbol
Observers have credited Imam Mohammed with the greatest mass conversion of Muslims in America. Many of us simply consider ourselves reverts to the faith denied to countless of our forebears snatched from Africa into slavery. If our community’s experience serves as Exhibit A in an ongoing miracle, however, Ali was Exhibit A1, the outstanding symbol of our times recognized by the entire planet.
These and other reflections surfaced as I and others enjoyed the Pre-Ramadan Workshops last on June 4 at Masjid-Al Ansar in Miami’s Liberty City, a Muslim community that dates to the 1950s. Its pioneers note that the building, purchased by Elijah Muhammad in 1966 to become then Temple #29, was Florida’s first Muslim house of worship. Other masajid (mosques) were established in the state by individuals who initially offered their prayers at Al-Ansar. Ali, “The People’s Champion,” was a constant visitor and supporter of the mosque’s Sister Clara Mohammed school when in town training and on other occasions.
Where El Hajji Malik Shabazz – more popularly known as Malcolm X – was heading at the time of his assassination, however, is where we went. His friend Imam Mohammed, who encouraged us to claim our citizenship, helped point the way as countless NOI temples became masajid, and Al-Islam became fully established in America. Their friend Ali – that “baaaad man!” – helped us walk the walk. We have since become that core – the largest single indigenous group of Muslims – who will never allow terrorism to take root in America.
During speaking engagements I’m often asked – particularly by folks who know my work as a professional writer and editor, and a longtime member of the Muslim Community of Palm Beach County, who also serves as assistant imam for New Africa of the Palm Beaches, local students of Imam Mohammed – why more people don’t know this history.
‘Militancy to mystic’?
But as a product of the same American popular culture, I understand many people’s skewed understanding or lack of knowledge of such simple facts as that Min. Louis Farrakhan later re-incorporated the NOI. I thank The New York Times’ religion writer, for example, for the recognition, during the 2010 “ground zero mosque” flap, that “Muslims and Islam Were Part of Twin Towers’ Life,” a reminder of the diverse Muslims who worked and prayed, and innocent Muslims who also lost their lives, there.
Yet among the myriad Ali tributes in recent days, a key problem, media misinformation, continued in such reports as the one suggesting Ali, in the words of CNN’s religion editor, “completed the full transition from militancy to mysticism through Sufism, a strand of Islam that emphasizes a direct, personal connection to God.”
While we in the media love to label, “militant to mystic” are lazy oversimplifications for Ali, particularly in a story that never mentions Imam Mohammed or even Elijah Muhammad. What more personal connection with God than this month of Ramadan, when countless Muslims are fasting for the sake of God. Does that make us all Sufi, however CNN defines them?
Faith was a priority
It seems so hard for media reps to recognize that Ali never left his roots. Looking around the world, it’s obvious that many who consider themselves Muslims are confused too. But Ali got it. I sometimes wish I were as good a Muslim as my dear deceased mother, my dear friends of the Focolare lay Catholic movement, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches, or others of various faiths, or who claim no particular faith. Like Ali, in the true cosmopolitan nature of Islam, I learn from them all, with little dissonance.
Of all his myriad identities – greatest boxing champion all time, of African descent, husband, father, businessman, humanitarian – Muhammad Ali ultimately was a sincere Muslim.
As I write this in advance of Ali’s janaza, or funeral prayer, Thursday in Louisville, Ky., followed by his memorial service on Friday, I come not so much to claim him as to fame him: as a brother in faith whose priority was to be the best Muslim he could, as judged by the Maker of us all – the true jihad we shared.
While we in the media love to label, “militant to mystic” are lazy oversimplifications for Ali.