Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A beautiful life

Boxer Mohamed Ali was loved and lionised across the Muslim world because he stood up against injustice in all its forms, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed

Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Ali’s boxing career was over by the time I grew up. We did not even have a television set then, so there was no question of watching his epic battles or even his show bouts around the world in the 1980s.

However, I grew up with his larger-than-life persona, thanks to my uncle who hopelessly adored and often discussed him with my father. He had a small gym at his house where he and his friends spent long hours working out. My uncle referred to the boxing legend as “Muhammad Ali Cillay” as it was spelt in Urdu. My father always corrected him, saying, “It’s not Cillay but Clay.”

Ali’s death has been a personal tragedy in many ways. It’s as if someone in the family has departed. But I’m not the only one to be weighed down by this sense of personal loss. Hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t follow sports felt an indefinable, personal connection with the champ. Many like me even hated the cruel, inhuman sport of heavyweight boxing, but nevertheless still connected with Ali.

What was it that made Ali “the Greatest,” as he modestly referred to himself, and the most loved sporting icon of all time?

His incredible boxing career of 61 fights with 56 wins, his gravitas, not to mention his extraordinary sense of humour, wit and way with words certainly contributed to his legend and immense popularity around the world. He was doubtless the first truly global superstar, far ahead of his time, long before the media created stars on a daily basis.

Muslims everywhere, from Morocco to Malaysia, were crazy about him, ostensibly because he was one of their own — new believers enjoy a special, exalted status in Muslim societies. But then there have been other famous converts to Islam, including Ali’s fellow heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. None of them have enjoyed the kind of frenzied love and affection showered on Ali.

Ali was adored, loved and lionised across the Muslim world as no other figure in recent memory has been because he was the first Muslim hero and global champion where none had existed for a long, long time.

For ordinary Muslims around the world stuck with tyranny, injustice, stagnation and corrupt regimes, he was brother Muhammad Ali — their own fighter and knight in shining armour who almost never lost any battles and who stood up to the powers that be. He offered Muslims hope and a rare sense of pride in their egalitarian faith and its ability to unite people in a single bond beyond the narrow distinctions of borders and birth.

What about the rest of the world, though? What was it about Ali that struck a chord with people around the world? Why was he so universally loved and idolised, from America to Australia?

Again, it had less to do with his amazing boxing career and more to do with the force of his extraordinary personality. It was his magnetic persona and exceptional self-belief, coupled with his humility, that allowed him to connect instantly with total strangers and above all his humanity and belief in his ideals that conquered hearts and minds everywhere.

He stood up for his rights and the rights of his people when doing so was almost unthinkable for African-Americans. And he did so with unapologetic courage. He repeatedly displayed the same courage of conviction and fearless moral uprightness in his illustrious career and eventful life. When he embraced Islam, he declared it from every platform available with fierce pride, refusing to be addressed by his former “slave name” at a time when America had few Muslims.

It was the same when he defiantly refused to join the US war on Vietnam. He was prepared to sacrifice his lucrative career and name and fame and even go to jail for his beliefs. His historic words would give a new lease of life to the anti-war movement across America and Europe and have been recounted time and again.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong! No Viet Cong ever called me nigger!”

His anti-war sentiment was tinged with concern for his people. “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years,” he said.

He made dissent cool, protesting against the disastrous war in distant Vietnam so much that the US government was forced to lift the curbs on him four years later. It was an endorsement of Ali’s stand that a warmonger president also conferred on him the nation’s highest civilian honour.

It was this defiance and his down-to-earth humanism that made Ali the beloved, ever-reigning champion of the world. The world indulged his swagger and bluster, his claims to be “the greatest,” knowing full well that underneath there was a heart of gold that felt everyone’s pain.

That is why the world laughed and cried with him. In 1996, when he lit the Olympic torch to open the Atlanta Games with great difficulty and dignified eloquence, thousands around the world wept. Long before US President Barack Obama talked about the “audacity of hope” and finally made it to the White House, it was Ali’s audacity that helped African-Americans and other groups living on the margins of American society find their voice and dignity.

Indeed, but for the legacy of Ali, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, the current incumbent’s White House dream may have remained a dream.

And it’s not just presidential careers that Ali influenced. He touched and transformed hundreds of millions of lives, even those who never had an opportunity to see him in the ring at the peak of his glory. It’s evident in the unprecedented, spontaneous global outpouring of love and grief over his death.

As the UK journalist Gary Younge wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “It’s clear that Ali understood he had a job to do while he was on the planet — inspire people.” And what an inspiring, truly uplifting example he has set for generations to follow. It was truly a beautiful and extraordinary life.

“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it,” said Obama. The US president apparently keeps a pair of Ali’s gloves on display in his study under a framed picture of the champ towering over Sonny Liston after knocking him out in the first round of the world title fight in 1965.

He leaves behind a better world, and a better America, than the one he inherited. But there will be no other Muhammad Ali.

The author is a Gulf-based writer.

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