“I just wanted to be free.”
‘Muhammad Ali’ is a name you can say in any country in the entire world, and people will recognize it, respect it, and acknowledge its greatness. While being at the intersection of arguably the two most oppressed groups in America–African-Americans and Muslims–he fought hate, discrimination, and oppression for liberation.
Muhammad Ali is without doubt a hero; a man whose name was chanted from the four corners of the earth as all colors of people–black, yellow, brown, red, white–watched and listened on bulky television sets and stuttery radios waiting to witness greatness.
Friday evening, all colors of people–black, yellow, brown, red, white–watched and listened on large television sets and car radios waiting to hear the fate of a champion.
On June 3, Mohammad Ali returned to his Lord, and the world grieved in unison for the loss of a hero.
Amidst the heartbreak, all of the people he had touched with his message of liberation, equality, and fearlessness celebrated his legacy, and the way he helped shape the role of athletes in politics, resistance, the way the Western world views Islam, and the world as we know it today.
Muhammad Ali taught me to be fearless, to be unapologetic, and to be proud of who I am and what I stand for.
Muhammad Ali was unapologetically Black.
Muhammad Ali was unapologetically Muslim.
Muhammad Ali was unapologetically free.
After becoming exasperated with being denied service time and time again for his race, Muhammad Ali joined the Nation of Islam, befriending social activist Malcolm X, which drew him into the group advocating for black power and rights.
With the empowerment of the Nation and his astounding boxing expertise, Muhammad Ali became a public figure, and an international symbol for Black pride and independence.
He refused to let his role as a Black athlete prevent him from speaking out against injustice and inequality. Instead, he used his position as a Black athlete, a man the world watched intently, as a platform to fight for liberation.
He showed the world that Black athletes are not just bodies, not just entertainment. He showed the world that Black athletes are powerful, and he used that power to demand justice and respect for African-Americans.
There have been many Muslim athletes in the course of American history, but none portrayed their pride in Islam in the same way as Muhammad Ali.
In perhaps one of his most iconic photos, he flaunts a newspaper on which he appears on the front with the headline, a quote from him, “Allah is the Greatest.”
He frequently used his limelight to talk about Islam: The way it liberated him, the way it dictated that race is of no importance to the Creator, the way it brought him peace.
When asked who his bodyguard was, Muhammad Ali said, “Allah. He is my bodyguard. He is your bodyguard. He is the Supreme.”
When asked what he planned to do after retiring from boxing, he said he would work on preparing his soul to return to his Lord for eternity. When asked if he ever thought about his own death, he responded by saying that he thinks about it five times a day, at each prayer.
Although Muhammad Ali initially joined the Nation of Islam for political reasons (reasons of Black empowerment and pride), it brought him closer to orthodox Islam, to which he converted to in 1975.
He was so genuinely proud of Islam, and the way it advocated for peace and equality, that he used every opportunity he had to share his source of pride, power, and humility in the eyes of Allah.
Ultimately, Mohammad Ali lived his life in pursuit of freedom. He was unafraid of the effects on his career of his outspoken advocacy as an icon and a champion for freedom from American racial inequality.
He was unafraid of the threats of the American government when he opposed the Vietnam War, and refused to be drafted because his religion, Islam, preached peace and renounced killing.
His reply to these threats startled the Nation: “You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. We’ve [African-Americans] been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people.”
He was unafraid when he faced Saddam Hussein, a tyrant, to successfully negotiate the release of 15 hostages. He was unafraid of speaking out about anything that he believed in. He was as fearless in his fight for respect inside the boxing ring as he was fearless in his fight for respect and liberation outside of the ring.
Muhammad Ali showed me that in order to receive respect, one must be fearlessly, unapologetically proud of who they are, and what they believe in.
Today the world is fearlessly, unapologetically proud of Muhammad Ali.