The world is in mourning at the news of the passing of Muhammad Ali. You don’t need me to explain how he’ll be forever known for his boxing prowess, his jovial personality, his humanitarianism or how pretty he was. However, as the flood of well wishes, media reports, and social media discussions continue, what is particularly disturbing to me as a Black American Muslim is how Ali’s core, his Islamic faith and his Blackness seem to be sanitized from the narrative.
Ali was unapologetically Black and unapologetically Muslim, this cannot be denied even if one did very little research into the man. As his star was rising, he joined the Nation of Islam and was given the name Muhammad Ali from Elijah Muhammad himself. As a member of the NOI, many of his legendary statements, protests, and moral decisions came about during that time. Even after his time in the NOI, Ali stayed committed to Civil Rights and Humanitarianism all the while ensuring that his Muslim faith and his experiences in America as a Black man, guided and strengthened his resolve. You can barely find an interview recorded or otherwise, where these topics don’t come up.
Yet, if you read or listen to many of the pieces out about Ali, most seem to ignore these central tenets of his being. I’m not alone in noticing this trend. Many on social media are critiquing the use of the word transcendence for instance. The media is liberally using this term in a way that suggests that regardless of how Ali started, or what was near and dear to him, his message of love for so many transcends him being a Muslim or even Black.
On the surface that sounds good, i.e. Muhammad Ali was a citizen of the world and for all people. However, while this is true, ignoring his origin and that which motivated him, diminishes the totality of who he was as a human being while at the same time exposes the hypocrisy that is American politic, culture, and history.
If it is OK to publicly mourn and publish op-ed after op-ed about The Greatest of All Time, why is it hard to bring up his Black Nationalist roots or his Love for Islam?
The answer is that hypocrisy is as American as apple pie.
We are a nation who declared Independence from England saying that all men are created equal, while many who signed that declaration were slave owners. So the irony that the same media who makes huge profits on demonizing Islam, would now fill the airwaves honoring a Muslim man named Muhammad Ali, is not lost on those of us who are Black and Muslim. America routinely promotes and demonizes groups. We love celebrities like Ellen but hate and legislate against the LGBT community or we’ll adopt Hip Hop culture into every day life, but place little to no value on those lives that influence the latest dress, dances, or song. We’ve been a contradiction since day one. Slaves weren’t considered human but were OK to sleep with, right Thomas Jefferson?
Ali was a proud Muslim and showed it time and time again. For instance, Ali has the only star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that is on a wall because he did not want the name of Prophet Muhammad (saw) stepped on, after 9/11 he was one of the first to condemn the terrorists and explain what Islam actually means, and even as recently as December 2015, Ali took Donald Trump to task because of his rhetoric about Muslims.
The media and others speak about transcendence which is being used as a synonym for ignore, look the other way, spin, etc. because if they made Muhammad Ali’s Muslim faith part of the narrative, then people would have to face some hard truths about our perception and treatment of Muslims.
We might begin to realize that the majority of Muslims in America are Black Americans and many athletes, celebrities, etc. are Muslim and we might begin to understand that views that groups like ISIS hold are as foreign to the overwhelming majority of Muslims as they are to anyone else.
In other words the truth about Muslims and Islam is bad for ratings and demonizing Muslims and Islam is big business.
I encourage those of conscience to not let people and the media ignore the Islam of Ali. Muhammad Ali was a Black man, a devout Muslim man, a hero, a friend, a humanitarian, and The Greatest of All Time. Muhammad Ali was all those things and more and there is nothing wrong with any of it.