Hollywood was abuzz with the latest movie hit. It was not just another film, it was about the most famous
athlete in history, a sports icon, a world hero, an "African-American", a Muslim...
Clay killed and Ali born
It was early one February morning in 1964 when my late grandfather woke up the household in our family home in the little farm town of Vryburg in the north-western part of South Africa with excited an cry; "Clay has won, Clay has beaten Liston". We huddled around the radio to hear Casius Clay announce that Liston promised to kill Clay and that Muhammad Ali was born."I am now a Muslim", he said. As African we were proud of this "black" hero and as Muslims we were now honored that he was one of us.
Ali at Masjid-ul-Quds
Years later, I had the privilege of hosting him at Masjid-ul-Quds in Cape Town and honored to introduce
him to our congregation. Here was my sporting hero and a hero to so many people all over the world. He was by then (1994) an enlarged shadow of his former self yet was (and still is) considered the person that people worldwide would most
like to meet.
As an ardent sports fan and a South African growing up through the most brutal part of the apartheid era, "black" heroes were made to be rare. As a Muslim we witnessed the atrocities perpetrated against our global community of faith (ummah) in Kashmir, Palestine; both of which are still continuing. Added to that we subsequently have witnessed
horrors at the hands of imperialists in Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosova.
Conscientious South Africans then never supported the racist "all white" South African teams. Great "non-white" athletes such as Basil D'olivera, Kareem Jabaar, Lefty Adams, Bernard Hartze were never allowed the opportunity to represent our country. We proudly stuck to the principle of 'no
normal sport in an abnormal society'. We therefore tended to support West Indies in cricket and Brazil in soccer. What joy Gary Sobers and Pele gave to us.
When the sports heroes were Muslims, we felt even greater pride. I recall those historic moments when Abdul Kareem Jabbaar of the LA Lakers was Most Valuable Player for the NBA in 71,72,73 and 74; Imran Khan lifted the World Cup Cricket trophy for Pakistan in Australia in 1994; when Hakeem Olajuwan led the Houston Rockets to basketball glory in 94-95, when Abdul Aziz Benazi led France to the 5 Nations Cup victory in 97; when Moroccans Hicham El-Gharouj and Khalid Khanouli broke the mile and marathon records respectively; or when Zainedine Zaidan captained his team to World Cup victory in 1998 in France; all moments of glory embedded forever in our minds and fondly cherished in our hearts. So much so, that when families and friends gather to reminisce about the "good old days", these moments of sporting glory are often part of those memories.
Uniqueness of Ali
As great as all those athletes were and as great as others, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods may be, none have had the worldwide impact of Muhammad Ali. No athlete had a career
so varied, so trying, so complex, so significant yet so little tainted by hypocrisy. Ali had the guts to take on his government when they undertook an unwarranted war in Vietnam, the courage of his convictions to lay down his title and go to jail for his beliefs, bold enough to accept the Islamic faith when it was least fashionable to be Muslim and humble enough to accept his shortcomings. He backed up his lips with actions, lost his title because he refused induction into the US army, always spoke his mind with eloquence, and in the process became the most famous person in the world.
Yes, he said "I am the champ" and that is no lie. He said " I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" and that was no lie. He outfoxed the Hare (Patterson), thumped the Bear (Liston), taught Ernie Terrel his Muslim name, gave us the Thriller in Manila (with Frazier) and the Rumble in the Jungle (with Foreman) in Zaire. Ah! How emotions were moved when he spoke, when he fought, when he won. How hurt we were when he lost. And yes, how our heart danced with joy when we saw the 'Ali shuffle'.
Ali in the spotlight for 40 years
Ali humanized our perception of athletes, brought pride to the Muslims and dignity to the oppressed black
masses. He made people proud to be who they were; the more downtrodden, the more proud. Malcom X said; "Ali will mean more to people than any athlete before him". ( How right you were Brother Malcom and we are eternally indebted to you for your positive influence). Ali has remained in the spotlight for 40 years with dignity, panache and flair. In the four decades that he has commanded our attention he gave us athleticism, artistry, accomplishment, alpha-star appeal and an ambassadorship for sports and Islam. 20 years after his last fight, he is still the most recognizable and adored person alive today.
Ali has been an opening to something great, he spoke of Allah, he spoke of the rights of the oppressed, he gave charity to the hungry and the poor, he cared for the sick, the old and the downtrodden. He raised his game to a drama. Millions of fans cheered Ali ! Ali! Ali ! He stood for something great. As these admirers (many who were neither boxing enthusiasts nor sports fans) climbed on to their seats for him they felt it. They were witnessing greatness on display and sporting poetry in action.
Sportswriter Brian Murphy never considered himself an Ali fan. But when he, like many Americans, watched as a physically humbled Ali lit the flame to begin the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 he said; "I suddenly felt something I never felt
before. I loved him, not out of pity but out of respect. Ali was terribly controversial throughout his whole career, but he was authentic the whole way through. And controversial as he was, he never made you ashamed to be his fan."
Appearing at the 'Muhammad Ali World Healing Project' in 1997, Muhammad Ali said; "I wish people would love everybody else the way that they love me. I hope I can encourage people to
show the same love and respect for each other. If so, it would be a better world".
The Greatest Athlete
In honoring Muhammad Ali as The Greatest Athlete of the Century, USA Today's Jon Sareceno wrote; "For nearly five decades this man has, in one arena or another, commanded our attention... and we are still mesmerized. He is a come-to-life definition of his Muslim namesake, Muhammad "worthy of praise" and Ali "most high". When recently asked if he was "the greatest", Ali replied; "I ain't the greatest. Only Allah is the greatest. I gave myself a job. I work for Allah". Indeed you do Ali, indeed you do, much
more than all the sermons I could ever give in a mosque. You have been used and abused, but be rest assured that someday when I sit with my grandchildren, Insha-Allah, hearing them talk about there sporting heroes, I'll tell them of the Muhammad Ali , the greatest sportsperson of all time that lived in our days. I'll say it with pride and without fear of contradiction, and I will be right. Yes, My heart will always dance when I see the 'Ali shuffle' and I'll feel a knot in my throat and a tear in my eye whenever I hear your name ... Ali ! Ali ! Ali