Black American boxing legend Muhammad Ali died last week in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was being treated for respiratory complications. Ali’s condition was aggravated by Parkinson’s disease, which was first diagnosed in 1984, and he died on Friday 3rd June. He was 74-years-old.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on 17th January 1942. White supremacy was rife in Kentucky in those days. Like the rest of the South, Kentucky upheld segregation and “Jim Crow” laws designed to keep all Blacks in bondage. As a boy he tried to ignore Kentucky’s institutionalised racism. When he got older he became an outspoken champion of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Cassius Clay took up boxing at an early age, developing a skill, technique and nimbleness that won him a place in the US boxing team for the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics – winning a gold as a light-heavyweight and turning professional the same year. Clay’s poetry and talent for self-promotion went down well with the fans but few believed he had the power or the punch to survive in the big league. Four years later he would take the world heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston.
That same year he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He later refused to serve in the Vietnam War, saying that no Vietnamese had ever called him “nigger”.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?” he declared.
Charges of “draft dodging” soon followed. In 1967 Ali was stripped of his passport, championship titles and boxing licences, and sentenced to five years in jail. Although he did not go to prison he spent the next three and a half years fighting the decision that ended with the Supreme Court overturning the conviction and recognising his status as a conscientious objector.
Muhammad Ali returned to the ring in 1970 and continued to make boxing history until age and declining health forced him to hang up his gloves in 1981. During a 21-year career the three-times World Heavyweight Champion won 56 bouts, knocking down some of the giants of the sport such as Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. But his renown went far beyond the sporting arena.
Muhammad Ali became a civil rights champion and an icon for all the Muslims in the United States. He stood up for the Third World and the world-wide Muslim community. His fame spread throughout the world. Not surprisingly Ali won a huge following amongst the Arabs.
Soon after embracing Islam Muhammad Ali went to Cairo at the invitation of the Arab boxing federation. He prayed at the famous Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo and also received a gold-inscribed Koran from Egypt's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.
At that time Egypt was known as the United Arab Republic (UAR). The country was led by a charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had developed “Arab Socialism” and the call for Arab unity. Ali spent two weeks in the UAR in 1964 visiting major cities, ancient monuments and the Aswan High Dam, which was still under construction with Soviet assistance. Ali said: "Now, I saw the high dam that I heard about before. Now I can say that it is not an easy project and it's an obvious proof of the greatness of Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser."
Ali said Nasser was his "role model" and that he considered him the "best president in the world". He was overwhelmed when the Arab leader agreed to meet him, kissing Nasser's photo and statue before meeting him at the presidential office.
Ali visited the holy sites in Mecca in 1972 and toured the Middle East again in 1974.
In Beirut he told the media that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism”, and said during a visit to Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon that: “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”
Now long retired, Ali even went to Israel in 1985 to seek the release of some 700 Lebanese prisoners captured by the Zionists during their invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, but his appeal was politely turned down.
The following year he returned to Cairo, now capital of the “Arab Republic of Egypt”, as a goodwill ambassador, visiting the pyramids and praying at the great mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha.
He met Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990 and brokered the release of Americans who had been held hostage following the Iraqi intervention in Kuwait.
Though a passionate anti-Zionist, Ali was never an anti-Semite. He said: "There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they’re going to heaven. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, if you’re a good person you’ll receive God’s blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve him in different ways.
Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along."
Recently he condemned the terrorism of the “Islamic State (ISIS)” following the barbarous ISIS attacks in Paris last year, saying:” "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."
And although self-praise was part of his boxing stage-craft Muhammad Ali never lost his sense of humour. He said: “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 up to him… who stood up for his beliefs… who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.