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The religious journey of Muhammad Ali, 'ambassador' of Islam

Breaking barriers

Muhammad Ali had an extraordinary life, but many American Muslims can relate to his evolution within Islam, and some are concerned about the impact of losing him in a time of heightened Islamophobia.

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Imam Nadim Ali delivers the closing remarks during an interfaith memorial service for Muhammad Ali at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam on Thursday.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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Muhammad Ali was set to be laid to rest on Friday, with thousands of people flocking to Louisville, Ky., to pay their respects to the man widely regarded as the best boxer of all time.

But a Muslim service Thursday displayed another aspect to the message that has resonated worldwide since Mr. Ali's death last Friday – that he was "The Greatest" as much for his exploits outside the ring as in it. For American Muslims, the nation has not only lost one of its greatest athletes, but arguably its most famous and influential Muslim, too. 

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Ali's complicated relationship with Islam (he was raised Baptist) was in some respects the most ordinary thing about an extraordinary man. 

His exploits in the ring, his battle to defend his religious rights before the United States Supreme Court, and his transcendent fame made him unique. But Muslims around the world can relate to Ali’s religious journey, marked by controversies and contradictions but culminating in Thursday's funeral, a celebration open to people of all faiths as "the Louisville Lip" requested personally.

His loss comes at a poignant time, when many Americans view Islam with fear and skepticism. His voice is needed now more than ever, many Muslims say.

"We're very proud of the fact that Muhammad Ali was a Muslim," says Hazem Bata, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "An ambassador like Muhammad Ali comes along once in a generation." 

A 'Muslim Billy Graham'

In 1964, Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam – seen as a radical black sect – and name change from Cassius Clay "shocked and outraged many Americans" and made him "the most polarizing villain in sports," write historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith in The Washington Post.

His initial interpretations of Islam were at odds even with the majority of Muslims. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he favored segregation and believed that "the white man is the Devil." Growing up in the Jim Crow South, he was drawn to the Nation’s teachings that Muslims should be "very proud of their faith, very proud of their skin color," Mr. Bata says.

He later renounced his racial views. "The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don't believe that now," he wrote in his 2004 biography. "I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen."

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In the 1970s, he began to adopt more mainstream Islamic views. This is an evolution that many Muslims are familiar with, says Salaam Bhatti, spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, America’s oldest Muslim organization.

"As he studied Islam more and more – and this is true across the board for all Muslims – he became more humble," says Mr. Bhatti.

As he grew older he became more comfortable with his ambassador role. He once wrote that he "would like to be a Muslim Billy Graham," referencing the popular evangelical minister known as "America's pastor." 

His Parkinson's disease diagnosis in 1984 interrupted those ambitions, but Ali continued to involve himself in humanitarian efforts. As he adopted a more mainstream interpretation of Islam, he maintained his overriding principle that it was a religion of peace.

"I believe in Allah and in peace," he said after announcing his conversion in 1964. Decades later, after the 9/11 attacks, he criticized the hijackers, saying: "Islam is peace, and against murder and killing, and the people doing that in the name of Islam are wrong."

In between, he was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998. He even made a journey to Iraq in 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War, to personally negotiate the release of 15 American hostages with Saddam Hussein.  

"He showed that you can be an American and be a Muslim at the same time," says Azam Akar, an Imam in Chicago. "For American Muslims, that was something that was very rare."

Sherman Jackson, a leading African-American Muslim scholar, wrote that, "of all the things the American Muslim has produced, Muhammad Ali is among its most precious."

"Ali emphatically put the question of whether one can be a Muslim and an American to rest," he added. "Let that question now be interred permanently with his noble remains." 

A voice for American Muslims

As American Muslims face heightened scrutiny and suspicion, many worry that they are losing one of their most crucial spokesmen.

A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that Americans viewed Muslims the most negatively of seven major religious groups, while only 38 percent of Americans said they knew a Muslim. Hate crimes against Muslims crept up that year, by 2 percent, even while hate crimes overall dropped by 8 percent. The extreme rhetoric of this year's election season has heightened concerns.

Ali criticized Donald Trump, who said in December he would consider banning noncitizen Muslims from entering the United States. Ali said Muslims "have to stand up against those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda."

It is this voice that American Muslims need to replace, says Bata.

"We're eternally indebted to him, but we need an ambassador like that more than ever," he adds. "We need another Muhammad Ali."

A person with the personal charisma and cultural caché of Ali may be impossible to replace, but Bhatti is optimistic that his message that good Muslims are also be good Americans will not be lost.

"You can still be true to your character, still be true to your nation, still be true to your faith, and still command respect," Bhatti says.

"This is the lesson Muhammad Ali taught us," he adds. "I hope and pray it does not leave the thought of our nation."