“The Greatest” went home yesterday.
Muhammad Ali went to a spiritual space not dominated and controlled by one particular religion, sex, ethnicity, or cult, but to a space open to all people, a space which is not only a community but, as Dr. King said we must work to create globally, a neighborhood.
Ali, truly “The Greatest,” understood what so few people understand, and sadly, so few religious people understand, and that is, that all people count.
He made himself count to a world and to an American society which thought nothing of stashing people like him to the back rooms of second class-ness, to be pulled out when needed or wanted. He rejected and spit out what he called his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, and took a name he wanted. He rejected Christianity, which has done way too little to thwart the evil called white supremacy, and became a member of the Nation of Islam.
He let the world, and the powers that run this world, that at the end of the day, it wasn’t their world to decide who was worthy of respect and who was not. He shouted out loud that he was “The Greatest,” and he made the world deal with it.
He refused to go to the Vietnam War, pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation that thought nothing of sending hundreds of thousands of men (only men at that time) to the front lines of a foreign country to kill innocent people. There was no need to be there on any level, and Ali knew that, but even if the United States decided that there was a reason, he was free to reject that reason and the nation’s desire to use him to further what he considered be immoral gain.
So, the black man who changed his name and rejected America’s dominant religion, planted his feet and said, in essence, “I ain’t going.” He said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong!” The power structure was aghast; how dare this black man defy them? They had a political and social temper tantrum; they convicted him of draft evasion, fined him $10,000, stripped him of his heavyweight title and banned him from boxing for three years.
He did not care. He was willing to go to prison for his principles, which were both moral and religious. His Muslim religion prohibited him from engaging in that war, he said, and was going to choose the will of God over the will of man. Period.
He was “the greatest.”
It is ironic that Ali died the week the remake of ROOTS was shown, the story of how one particular African American family came to be in this country…but the center of the story was one Kunta Kinte …who, like Ali, refused to be subsumed by a culture which wanted only to control him. Kunta Kinte was told by his father and the elders of his village that his name was his spirit and his shield. Kinte Kinte held onto his name in spite of being beaten nearly to death by an overseer who demanded that Kinte say the name, own the name, that white people had given him. He did not …and he never did. Even when those around him called him “Toby,” in his spirit, he was clear…and that clarity gave him strength. His name was Kunta Kinte, and nobody was ever going to take that away from him. Though he was brutally oppressed by the system of chattel slavery, he never descended to a pit of despair. Holding onto his name gave him the strength to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” as Muhammad Ali said, staying ahead and on top of white supremacy. He had chains around his wrists and feet at different times, but this mind and spirit here were never chained.
Muhammad Ali, the African American Muslim, rejected his slave name, took on a name that he wanted, and never looked back. He taught Muslim principles – the same principles by which he lived – to his children and to people who looked up to him. He continued to look for deeper meaning in his spiritual life. He never let go of his strong tie and relationship with Allah and he just kept boxing the racism that he hated so much.
Ali was deeply rooted in his faith, and it kept him grounded in spite of the storms of his life, including his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. When GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Ali, flying like a butterfly, said, ““Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
He said, in that same statement, ““I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world… True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/dec/09/muhammad-ali-responds-to-trumps-muslim-ban-plan)
Now the world, so much of which has denigrated and castigated Muslims, wants to give homage to this man, which he richly deserves, but the homage is tainted by a veil of religious bigotry which has caused so many to suffer unnecessarily.
Would that Ali’s life and death, and his words and actions, would be used to wipe out the racism and bigotry that is swallowing this nation and this world.
Only those who have the courage to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” will be able transcend the spiritual illnesses of this world, which Ali refused to let knock him out.
A candid observation.