“The day I met Islam, I found a power within myself that no man could destroy or take away.”—Ali
It was the power that Ali garnered though Islam that not only allowed him to excel in the boxing ring but to challenge U.S imperialism, racism, and militarism without any fear of reprisal. Ali was proud of his Blackness and deeply convicted in his Islamic beliefs, which he utilized as the theological basis for his protest of the anti-black oppression that inflicted his people. Ali carried this protest in the ring and outside of it.
Prior to becoming Muhammad Ali, he was known as Cassius Clay—an upcoming fighter with a bout against Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Liston was physically stronger, more experienced and by all objective calculations, Liston was the better boxer. Sports analysts everywhere predicted that Ali would be easily defeated, but Ali had something in his corner which no experts factored in: Islam.
In the Islamic narrative of David and Goalith, we see the difference between those who have faith and those who are devoid of it. Those with faith looked rationally at the size and force of Goliath army and were convinced that they would be defeated easily. However, those who contained faith trusted that God was more than capable of aiding a small force becoming victorious over a large army.
Belief in Allah defied the rational calculus and David became victorious over Goliath. It was with this mentality that Ali confronted Sonny Liston, Malcolm X would comment, “What Sonny Liston was about to meet, in fact, was one of the most awesome frights that ever can confront any person-one who worships Allah, and who is completely without fear.” It was Ali’s faith that victory was possible with Allah(SWT)’s help that aided Ali in his bout against Sonny Liston.
Though all odds were against Ali, he was not alone. As Muslims, we are constantly reminded that we cannot practice Islam as individuals but must be constantly exhorting each other as brothers and sisters to have perseverance in our faith.
Malcolm X did just this, going out of his way to ensure that his Muslim brother was victorious, he writes “I flew back to Miami feeling that it was Allah’s intent for me to help Cassius prove Islam’s superiority….” Though everyone counted Ali out, Malcolm X was on his side seeking to help him overcome the odds.
Malcolm X prayed together with Ali and the rest was history. Ali defeated Sonny Liston, pulling one of the greatest upsets in boxing history and securing himself as the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali later expressed that he treated his boxing matches as more than just fights but spiritual warfare in which he wanted to inspire oppressed black people and give them an image to challenge their inferiority complex. In his interview with Michael Parkinson, Ali reported:
I prayed to Allah to give me power to beat this man, not for myself, not because I want the money, not because I want to show off…if I’m the heavyweight champion. I can stand up and say ‘You can be free, you can be black…’ Allah made me successful.
Ali became heavyweight championship of the world but was not able to glory in his success for too long. Indeed, the Qu’ran informs us that as human beings we will not be merely left alone saying that we believe but that our faith will be tested in order to make known those who are sincere in their beliefs and those who feign. At the height of his career, Ali’s convictions would be tested as he was drafted for the Vietnam War.
Ali merely pointed out the absurdity of him partaking in the Vietnam War with the widespread racial injustices being perpetrated against black Americans. As a result, Ali would be vilified throughout American society. Yet, the Qu’ran in 5:54 informs us that those with truth faith,”…will strive in Allah’s Path and will not fear the criticism of any critic.” Ali sought to uphold this constant striving in the face of widespread vilification. In the fact of critics, Ali boldly declared:
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
Ali’s refusal to partake in the Vietnam War was rooted in his refusal to partake in working to maintain a global system of white supremacy. Refusing to fight in the Vietnam War would have serious financial consequences on Ali’s career, as he would be stripped of his heavyweight title and denied a license to fight in America or abroad, yet still he did not waver.
After all, the Qur’an repeatedly warns us against allowing monetary gain to subsume ethical principles. Unflinching in his stance, Ali professed “I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.” Muhammad Ali was concerned with the enemy of white supremacy that denied his people justice and subjected him to oppression and he was willing to face the consequences of his stance.
The possibility of jail time did not even frighten Ali. He merely affirmed, “I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” Ali echoed Malcolm X’s earlier Ballot or the Bullet Speech, in which he states that in fighting for racial justice, blacks should have no fear of imprisonment because America itself is a jail system for black people. Ali demonstrated what the power of Iman or faith can do. It gives us the courage to fight for justice with no fear of anyone but Allah. One of the major impediments that prohibit one from struggle for justice is that they become content with a life of ease and pleasure instead of hardship and struggle. Islam makes it incumbent for us to challenge oppression and endure whatever hardships and struggles that come with it. Ali willingness to embrace this struggle it was made him great.
Years later, Ali was offered to have his name placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but he refused on the basis of the following, ”I bare the name of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It’s impossible that I allow people to trample over his name. The only way I will accept this honor is if you place my star on the side wall so that people can look up to it instead of walk over it.” As a result, the name Muhammad was placed on the side-wall—the only one not on the floor, which one has to look up to see. Oh Allah:
We ask you to forgive Muhammad Ali’s sins and grant him Jinnah Firdoos. We thank you for bring Ali into creation and showing us an example of what faith can accomplish. We ask you oh Allah to raise up courageous leaders, a new generation of freedom fighters who will continue bring honor to this Ummah of Muhammad, salallahu alayhi wa sallam, we ask you to raise individuals from our Ummah with self-confidence and conviction, high levels of iman, courage and tenacity to stand firmly for justice, fearing you Allah alone and not any worldly temporal power. There is no power or strength but through you Allah, and we ask you to to help us develop a power within ourselves that no man can ever destroy or take away.