Muhammad Ali’s death has, as deaths often do, made us think about his life, momentous and multifaceted, and wonder what it all finally meant. “Don’t count the days, make the days count,” Ali once said, and he made his days count in many different ways: as a boxing superstar, as a sporting icon, as a civil rights activist, and so on. Everyone agrees that he was, quite simply, The Greatest — but everyone has a different reason to think why.
For men and women in sports, his skill and self-belief are unsurprisingly his most inspiring qualities. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” another of his famous quotes, is being tweeted by players and athletes around the world along with the hashtag #TheChampion. For black sportspersons in the United States, his success in making the presence of black athletes acceptable, even expected — everywhere from medal podiums to television commercials — is his greatest legacy. He paved the way for them to dream, believe — and achieve. Basketball legend Michael Jordan once called Ali “the hand” and black sporting stars who followed him “the fingers”.
What does Ali’s life mean for Muslims? This is a difficult question to answer — not least because there are so many kinds of Muslims, in the U.S. and around the world, and they may all interpret his life differently. And yet, to the extent that they do identify with Ali as a Muslim, and a Muslim by choice rather than accident of birth, there may be things about his life that can be meaningful for them all, especially in this moment of renewed fear and stigma connected with Islam.
A difficult choice
To me as a Muslim, Ali’s life carries two lessons. The first is to stand up to power and injustice — no matter where you see it, and no matter what the personal costs of doing so might be. Ali was among the first public figures to refuse the Vietnam War draft. He knew he was putting his career, his freedom, even his life at risk, and he still did it without hesitation. Stripped of his heavyweight champion’s title and sentenced to serve time, he did very nearly lose it all. But he stood steadfast: taking the jabs and the blows outside the ring with as much poise and dignity as he did inside. In the end he was, as always, bruised, battered and victorious.
The deeper philosophy that informed his difficult choice is just as meaningful as his action. Ali said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I am not going ten thousand 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.”
In refusing the draft, Ali thus also refused to believe that national boundaries somehow categorically divided human beings into “us” and “them”. Instead, he found himself identifying with the poor and powerless Vietnamese “ten thousand miles” away. It indicated his faith in identifications based on experience rather than imaginary boundaries, and in a shared human destiny.
Rejection of war
The second lesson from Ali’s life is that you can stand up to power and injustice without resorting to violence — indeed, the best way of starting your resistance is to shun violence. Violence is the tool of the hegemon; by eschewing it you are already challenging the means through which hegemony is legitimised. Ali’s rejection of the Vietnam War was thus a rejection of war itself as a viable means of solving human problems, real or perceived. And he was deeply driven by Islam in doing so.
At a time when a leading presidential nominee has vowed to rid America of Muslims while, ten thousand miles away, so to speak, the Islamic State promises to scale up its violent crimes in the name of Islam, Ali’s life and its meanings carry more value than ever. Everyone loved him, loves him — and the world would be a better place if he, rather than, say, Osama bin Laden, is viewed the Muslim synecdoche. Not just by the non-Muslims of the world, but by Muslims as well.