Muhammad Ali: the two sides of Islam

January 17, 1942 – Louisville, KY
June 3, 2016, Phoenix, AZ

Muhammad Ali was an American professional boxer, generally regarded as one of the most significant heavyweight champions in the history of the sport.

Malcolm X molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali, helping him become an international symbol of black pride and black independence.

Yet when Malcolm was barred from the Nation of Islam for criticizing the philandering of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, Ali turned his back on Malcolm—a choice that tragically contributed to the latter’s assassination in February 1965.

Ali converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and then to Sufism in 2005.

Ali claimed in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant and fought with a white gang.

Ali vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities:

“an ugly little man”
“a bum”
Madison Square Garden was “too small for me”
“the big ugly bear”
“even smells like a bear”
“After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo”
“someone is going to die at ringside tonight”
“I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived”
“Uncle Tom”
“The Rabbit”
“I want to torture him”
“A clean knockout is too good for him.”
“What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?”

Tex Maule later wrote: “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.”

“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. And 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 or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29

Can you believe that, they stole his greatest years for some fake war.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8–0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself, as he had been the U.S. Solicitor General at the time of Ali’s conviction).

They always screw you, before they admit your right.

The guy who wrote the Bible as we know it was burned at the stake.

Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment”. “Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” Ali also frequently called Frazier an Uncle Tom. Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp, recalled that, “Ali was saying ‘the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’ Joe was sitting there, smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?’

In the final round, Frazier knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook, which referee Arthur Mercante said was as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was back on his feet in three seconds. Nevertheless, Ali lost by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat.

Shortly after the bout, in the studios of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during a nationally televised interview with the two boxers, Frazier rose from his chair and wrestled Ali to the floor after Ali called him ignorant.

Frazier and his camp always considered Ali’s words cruel and unfair, far beyond what was necessary to sell tickets.

In the same year basketball star Wilt Chamberlain challenged Ali, and a fight was scheduled for July 26.

during a shared press conference with Chamberlain in which Ali repeatedly responded to reporters with the traditional lumberjack warning, “Timber,” and said, “The tree will fall!”

Ali was able to unsettle his taller opponent into calling off the bout

After the loss to Frazier, Ali fought Jerry Quarry, had a second bout with Floyd Patterson and faced Bob Foster in 1972, winning a total of six fights that year.

In 1973, Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw while giving him the second loss of his career. After initially seeking retirement, Ali won a controversial decision against Norton in their second bout, leading to a rematch at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974, with Joe Frazier—who had recently lost his title to George Foreman.

“I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

An ailing Ali said afterwards that the fight “was the closest thing to dying that I know”, and, when later asked if he had viewed the fight on videotape, reportedly said, “Why would I want to go back and see Hell?” After the fight he cited Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all times next to me”.

The fight took place on October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas, with Holmes easily dominating Ali, who was weakened from thyroid medication he had taken to lose weight. Giachetti called the fight “awful… the worst sports event I ever had to cover”. Actor Sylvester Stallone at ringside said it was like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive. Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee finally stopped the fight in the eleventh round, the only fight Ali lost by knockout. The Holmes fight is said to have contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome. Despite pleas to definitively retire, Ali fought one last time on December 11, 1981 in Nassau against Trevor Berbick, losing a ten-round decision.

in 1991. Ali traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War, and met with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages. In 1996, he had the honor of lighting the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

On November 17, 2002, Muhammad Ali went to Afghanistan as the “U.N. Messenger of Peace”. He was in Kabul for a three-day goodwill mission as a special guest of the UN. On July 27, 2012, Ali was a titular bearer of the Olympic Flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. In February 2013, Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali, said Muhammad could no longer speak and could be dead within days.

Ali was married four times and had seven daughters and two sons.

In 1975, Ali began an affair with Veronica Porsche, an actress and model.

Ali had two other daughters, Miya and Khaliah, from extramarital relationships.

Ali said that he first heard of the Nation of Islam (NOI) when he was fighting in the Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959, and attended his first NOI meeting in 1961. In 1962, Clay met Malcolm X, who soon became his spiritual and political mentor, and by the time of the first Liston fight NOI members, including Malcolm X, were visible in his entourage.

In fact, Clay was initially refused entry to the Nation of Islam (often called the Black Muslims at the time) due to his boxing career. However, after he won the championship from Liston in 1964, the Nation of Islam was more receptive and agreed to recruit him as a member.

Shortly afterwards, Elijah Muhammad recorded a statement that Clay would be renamed Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (Ali is the most important figure after Muhammad in Shia view & fourth rightly guided caliph in Sunni view).

Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Robert Poole; 1897-1975) led the Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 until his death in 1975. Elijah Muhammad changed Cassius Clay’s name to Muhammad Ali.

Muḥammad (570-632) is the central figure of Islam and widely regarded as its founder. He is known to Muslims as the “Holy Prophet”, almost all of whom consider him to be the last prophet sent by God to mankind to restore Islam, which they believe to be the unaltered original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-661) was the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, ruling over the Islamic caliphate from 656 to 661; which was one of the hardest periods in Muslim history that coincided with the first Muslim civil war. This civil war is often called the Fitna, and regretted as the end of the early unity of the Islamic ummah (nation). This civil war created permanent divisions within the Muslim community and Muslims were divided over who had the legitimate right to occupy the caliphate. Ali is the most important figure after Muhammad in Shia Islam and the fourth caliph in Sunni Islam. Muhammad Ali called Cassius Clay his “slave name”.

Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, the seventh of thirteen children to William Poole, Sr. (1868–1942), a Baptist lay preacher and sharecropper, and Mariah Hall (1873–1958), a homemaker and sharecropper. Elijah’s education ended at the third grade to work in sawmills and brickyards. To support the family, he worked with his parents as a sharecropper. When he was sixteen years old, he left home and began working in factories and at other businesses. Poole married Clara Evans (1899–1972) on March 7, 1917. The Poole family was among the hundreds of thousands of black families forming the First Great Migration leaving the oppressive and economically troubled South in search of safety and employment. Poole later recounted that before the age of 20, he had witnessed the lynchings of three black men by white people. He said, “I seen enough of the white man’s brutality to last me 26,000 years”. Moving his own family, parents and siblings, Elijah and the Pooles settled in Hamtramck, Michigan. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Poole struggled to find and keep work as the economy suffered during the Great Depression.

In August 1931, Elijah Poole attended a speech on Islam and black empowerment by Wallace D. Fard. Fard taught that Blacks, as original Asiatics, had a rich cultural history which was stolen from them in their enslavement. Fard stated that African Americans could regain their freedoms through self-independence and cultivation of their own culture and civilization. Poole was given a Muslim surname, first “Karriem”, and later, at Fard’s behest, “Muhammad”. He assumed leadership of the Nation’s Temple No. 2 in Chicago. Fard turned over leadership of the growing Detroit group to Elijah Muhammad, and the Allah Temple of Islam changed its name to the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad and Wallace Fard continued to communicate until 1934, when Wallace Fard disappeared. Soon after Elijah Muhammad was named “Minister of Islam”. After the disappearance, Elijah Muhammad told followers that Wallace Fard Muhammad had come as Allah, in the flesh, to share his teachings that are a salvation for his followers.

On May 8, 1942, Elijah Muhammad was arrested for failure to register for the draft during World War II. After he was released on bail, Muhammad fled Washington D.C. on the advice of his attorney, who feared a lynching, and returned to Chicago after a seven year long absence. Muhammad was arrested there, charged with eight counts of sedition for instructing his followers not to register for the draft or serve in the armed forces. Found guilty, Elijah Muhammad served four years, from 1942 to 1946, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan.

Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X ended as Malcolm split with the NOI a couple of weeks after Ali joined, and Ali remained with the Nation.

Ali later said that turning his back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes he regretted most in his life.

the Nation of Islam, labeled the white race as the perpetrator of genocide against African Americans

The NOI was widely viewed by whites and even some African Americans as a black separatist “hate religion” with a propensity toward violence; Ali had few qualms about using his influential voice to speak NOI doctrine.

Ali stated, “my enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong”

he said: “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.” And in relation to inter-racial marriage: “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters.” Indeed, Ali’s religious beliefs at the time included the notion that the white man was “the devil” and that white people were not “righteous”.

Writer Jerry Izenberg once noted that, “the Nation became Ali’s family and Elijah Muhammad became his father. But there is an irony to the fact that while the Nation branded white people as devils, Ali had more white colleagues than most African American people did at that time in America, and continued to have them throughout his career.”

Ali converted from the Nation of Islam sect to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. In a 2004 autobiography, written with daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, he attributes his conversion to the shift toward Islam made by Warith Deen Muhammad after he gained control of the Nation of Islam upon the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. Later in his life, he embraced the spiritual teachings of Universal Sufism founder Inayat Khan.

Ali stated: “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: “I remember the teachers at my high school didn’t like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a Black man and that he had so much talent … made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him.”

In a secret operation code-named “Minaret”, the National Security Agency (NSA) monitored the communications of leading Americans, including Ali, Senators Frank Church and Howard Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, prominent U.S. journalists, and others who criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam. A review by the NSA of the Minaret program concluded that it was “disreputable if not outright illegal.”

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