Inna Lillah wa ina Ilaiha Rajioon. To God we belong, and to Him we return.
In the hurried hustle and bustle of daily life, we sometimes forget that even our heroes die. It is with a heavy heart and in a state of deep reflection that we look back on the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived: The People’s Champ, the Humble Mountain, the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali.
And now we are tasked with paying tribute to his legacy. It is near impossible to truly articulate the momentous impact Muhammad Ali has had on the world, and on countless lives, mine included. And I can find no better time than in the midst of our grief, as we mourn the loss of our hero, to celebrate and honour his memory.
Muhammad Ali will forever be hailed as one of the greatest boxers of all time, a fighter of legendary feats. Who can forget watching the champ float effortlessly around the ring, his quick feet and quicker wit enchanting boxing aficionados and casual viewers alike?
But his fight didn’t end at the scope of the boxing ring; it intersected into the realms of race, religion, and politics, and hoisted his legend from that of world-class fighter and three time heavy-weight champion of the world to one of the greatest teachers and influencers that has ever lived, a potent symbol of the anti-war era, an unapologetically Black and Muslim leader, and a one-man movement.
I remember when I was a child, browsing through my dad’s bookshelf, I found a book that caught my eye. It was called Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs. I remember combing through the book, enamored by the man in the photos. Every picture represented a different Muhammad Ali that I would come to be inspired by.
In one photo, taken from above, Ali stood in one corner of the ring, his arms raised in victory and prayer. On the other end of the ring, and directly diagonal to Ali, Floyd Patterson lay on the ground, his arms and legs spread wide, the striking juxtaposition of the two men a memorable nod to Ali’s win.
At the time, I probably just thought it was a cool picture. But looking back at it today, it’s come to mean something else.
In the midst of his victory, Ali prayed. In the midst of his victory, Ali remembered God. It’s easy to worship and be in remembrance of God when we are in distress, or when we need His guidance. But Ali’s first instinct when he triumphed over his opponent, as evidenced in this photo and many others, was to thank God.
He stood at the peak of his fame, at the crown of his success, and attributed his victory to God. As I look at this photo, I’m inspired not only by his athletic prowess and unshakeable determination, but by his ability to retain his humility before God, and offer praise where praise is due.
In another photo, Ali is standing with his back facing the camera, speaking into a microphone with a massive crowd of people looking up to him. Some are holding signs that read “Bring our GI’s Home NOW”, and “Wipe out poverty, not people!”
In 1966, Ali became a conscientious objector, refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali’s own words do justice to his convictions more than I ever could.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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’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. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. 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. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. 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 taught us that it is imperative to stand up for what you believe, and he did so even at the risk of his own livelihood. He stood firm to his convictions, regardless of the consequences, which were huge.
Ali taught us the importance of always staying true to the directions of our moral compasses, and to be firm in our personal and religious convictions. He taught us that living with principle is more important than living with fame and success, or any other worldly rewards.
Ali showed us what it meant to be unapologetically yourself. He never shied away from his identity as a Black Muslim, but wore it proudly. He never diluted his identity in an attempt to be more palatable to the masses, or to make his image easier to swallow.
Muhammad Ali was a mountain among men.
His personality—colorful, magnetic, and charming—made him all the more memorable. His lessons, taught not by preaching or sermonizing but by serving as a living example, will continue to inspire. His athletic vigor and formidable spirit will continue to motivate. His unwavering desire to serve his people will continue to influence movements. His memory will continue to be remembered.
And as we mourn the life of such an outstanding human being, it’s important to remember that the one way that we can truly pay tribute to his legacy is to live the lessons that he taught us: to be you unapologetically, to stand up for what you believe, to be firm in your personal and religious convictions, to believe in yourself, and to remain always in remembrance of God.
Lastly, it’s important that we remember Muhammad Ali how he wanted to be remembered, in his own words.
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right.
As a man who never looked down on those who looked above him.
Who stood up for his beliefs…Who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.
And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.
And I wouldn’t mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
Rest in everlasting power, champ.