In Life and in Death, Muhammad Ali Proved to the World You can be Unapologetically Black, Muslim and American

Photo meme from Twitter
Photo meme from Twitter

Today the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is holding a political rally in my city of Richmond, VA. Hundreds of miles away in Louisville, KY, thousands upon thousands have gathered to see an Imam facilitate an interfaith memorial service for one of the most beloved Americans of our time – who happens to be a Muslim.

The juxtaposition of those events today leaves no doubt in my mind that there is something extraordinary happening through the grace of God in the holy month of Ramadan. We have lost a beloved champion – Muhammad Ali. And, in his passing he has gifted us with the most powerful fist in the air we could show to all the haters of Blacks, of Muslims, of Black Muslims, of humanity.

Millions tuned into the memorial service, held at the KFC Yum! Center, to watch Imam Zaid Shakir, one of the most beloved and foremost American Muslim imams of recent history, lead the service and introduce a litany of speakers from all faiths and cross sections of life – from President Bill Clinton to Rabbi Michael Lerner to members of Ali’s family.

Some may have wondered why the funeral of a Muslim man, albeit one of the most beloved and famous Muslim men of modern times, was turned into such a huge affair. Is this what Ali really wanted, after years of standing up for what he believed and being rejected by the political and social establishment. Writer David Zirin called Ali’s funeral his last act of resistance:

It was difficult not to feel conflicted about all of this: security perimeters, the Secret Service, the KFC Yum! Center. It’s a painful way to say goodbye to a man who walked the streets in his prime without bodyguards and said, “I’m an easy target. I’m everywhere; everybody knows me. I walk the streets daily, and nobody’s guarding me. I have no guns, no police. So if someone’s gonna get me, tell them to come on and get it over with—if they can get past God, because God is controlling the bullet.”

… It’s never pretty to see icons of resistance stripped of their radical content and transformed into something they weren’t. But in a perfectly poetical way, the need to appropriate Ali has given us his last great political statement. In a year when one presidential candidate is a raving bigot who wants Muslims banned from entering this country and the other is a war hawk who has supported every military intervention in the Middle East, one of the reddest states in the union paid homage to the most famous Muslim on earth.

Powerful world leaders tipped their hats and bowed their heads. … And somewhere, someone is going to watch this funeral and feel as proud in their own skin as the black and brown people 52 years ago who felt a new flush of pride the first time they heard the heavyweight champ tell the world that he was “the Greatest.”

Ramadan is a time when in our fasting and in our worship of Allah, we turn inward to search for a stronger connection with God, to appreciate the blessings he has given us and to understand a bit of what it means to hunger and thirst like millions do around the world. Many of us were looking to Ramadan to help us dig deep and pray hard to find a way forward through the months of growing hate and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The loss of Muhammad Ali is a deep and powerful blow to our ummah. Though his health had been in decline from Parkinson’s disease for years, and though he had retreated from the public limelight, he was still the G.O.A.T – greatest of all time. And, in his death he has given so much to Muslims and the world over, forcing us to confront our own prejudices within our communities.

As Zakat Foundation’s Ihssan Tahir aptly said in a Facebook update: “When Muslims from immigrant backgrounds want to control the narrative, deny us our rights as Muslims, negate the fact that Black Muslims been here remember that a Black man paved the way for you.”

He has brought the world’s attention in this holy month to his life as an unapologetic Black Muslim American – proudly Black, proudly Muslim and proudly American. A man whose faith influenced him to make tough, principled decisions, as his wife Lonnie Ali said.

As Dr. Sherman Jackson so truthfully said at yesterday’s Janaza prayer for Ali:

Ali did more to normalize Islam than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States. Ali made being a 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 an American to rest. Indeed, he KO’ed that question.

It’s never been a question in my mind if I can be Muslim and American. It’s who I am. It’s what I was born into. But, Ali proved that long before I was even born. I hope Donald Trump and millions of others who doubt that are listening.

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