In 1996 I was moved to tears as I watched Muhammad Ali, body racked by Parkinson’s disease, struggle to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta.
I was moved not because the idol I knew to be a beautiful, charismatic, brash athlete was limited by a body in distress but because I was bearing witness to the courage of a creature of God’s creation whose indomitable spirit couldn’t be constrained by earthly infirmity.
I was moved because Ali, a man I idolized and had briefly met when I was assigned to photograph his Lebanese assistant trainer Hassan Salameh — Ali humorously held Salameh in a headlock as I photographed him — was, indeed, indomitable.
On Friday, June 3, I learned Ali, born Cassius Clay to descendants of slaves in Louisville, Ky., was dead at age 74.
My brother was dead.
Olympic Gold Medalist Muhammad Ali, who vanquished opponents on America’s behalf at the 1960 Rome Olympics but who was refused service at some lunch counters at home, was dead.
Ali, who became champ in 1964 when he beat Sonny Liston but who was scorned by much of white America because of his relationship with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, his friendship with Malcolm X, and his later embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam, was dead.
Ali, who, because he claimed conscientious objector status when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, was stripped of his title, fined and sentenced to five years in jail (a sentence unanimously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) is no longer with us.
“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. 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 and kill my mother and father … Just take me to jail.”
When Ali returned to the ring in 1970, Rev. Ralph Abernathy presented him with the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. award, calling him “the March on Washington all in two fists.”
America’s three-time world heavyweight champion became an international icon known for his boxing prowess, his humor, his advocacy for social justice for the poor and oppressed — advocacy defined by his experiences and faith — and his refusal to become a submissive black man in America.
So upon his death it wasn’t a surprise to witness outpourings of commentary about a man who for half-a-century defined what it meant to be black, beautiful, radical — and Other.
What did surprise me, particularly in mainstream media — including in a lengthy New York Times obit — was that there was little understanding that since his retirement Ali had lived an inspired Muslim life promoting peace and interfaith tolerance.
The Washington Post wrote, “The mystery of Muhammad Ali is this spiritual greatness, that seemed to have emerged out of a far more ordinary, even callow personality …”
Ali confronted privilege in the 1960s when he showed he was willing to forgo profit to stand on principle. He recently confronted privilege when he challenged Muslims and Americans to stand on principle and reject extremism wherever, whenever.
That’s no mystery.
Ali, in a recent statement that attacked all those who distort Islam through extremism, said “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda …”
Ali’s consciousness was defined by his faith, by memory of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, by the treatment by many Americans of people of color, by his association with Malcolm X — an intentional life that can’t be ignored.
Biographer Thomas Hauser wrote: “Sanitizing Muhammad Ali and rounding off the rough edges of his journey is a disservice both to history and to Ali himself. We should cherish the memory of Ali as a warrior and as a gleaming symbol of defiance against an unjust social order when he was young.”
Muhammad Ali was Muslim, radical and black, but don’t make the mistake of thinking his life was not one of peace. Every chance he got, he addressed black empowerment, racism, white power, privilege, anti-war politics — all through his understanding of the beauty of Islam. His love for humanity was defined by confronting the oppression of the colonized — the colonized who were mostly nonwhite people.
He believed that such “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Chaos theory posits that the beat of a random butterfly’s wings can, over time, result in perturbations that result in major weather disruptions. Muhammad Ali, the great disrupter who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, beats, endures and inspires still — and for that we should be forever grateful.
“Everything I do now, I do to please Allah,” Ali said at the dedication of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville in 2005. “I conquered the world and it didn’t bring me true happiness. The only true satisfaction comes from honoring and worshiping God. Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me…”
That’s the beat of the Muhammad Ali I love.