The death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali is a major blessing for American Muslims. Not only does his momentous passing usher in Ramadan 2016 with joyful solemnity, but it comes at a time when Islamophobia is beginning to plateau. Needless to say, Ali’s death presents the perfect opportunity to reassess ideas about Islam, and more crucially, Donald Trump’s promise to ban all Muslims from entering this country. Ali’s passing thus comes timely for the election as well.
Perhaps the most emphatic symbol of Ali’s cultural stature is how quickly his death became globally known. For most people connected to mass media outlets, it was impossible not to learn about his death. For a moment, the country stood still to pay honest respect to Ali and the religion that influenced him in so many ways. For young black youth, Ali represented a living superman, who inspired them to be great too. In the time of segregation, when black youth had few role models or aspirations, Ali shook up the status quo and gave the downtrodden a true hero.
The boxing community was particularly attentive to Ali’s death, and boxing telecasts on HBO, ESPN, and Spanish language channels were quick to compile tributes to Ali’s life and dedication to promoting peace. For veteran boxing fans, Ali holds a position like the historical Ali in Islam. He is the purest the sport has to offer.
Ali’s conversion to Islam is a prominent theme in all the coverage. Indeed, the country is well aware that he is Muslim, but public admiration has transcended petty sectarian differences. It is unthinkable to hate Ali because of his religion, because to do so would be to hate America itself.
More critically, Ali’s death provides pause to think about a man who has dedicated himself to charity and spreading peace in the world. His passing offers a narrative that neutralizes the foreignness of the faith. Americans love Ali, and Ali loved Islam, simple as that.
Ali’s life also affords a look at a common phenomenon among African-Americans who embrace Islam. Although many are aware that Ali was inaugurated into Islam via the Nation of Islam, he later would convert to Sunni Islam, and would maintain an ongoing interest in the Sufi tradition. This pattern of conversion, described in Raza Islamica: Prisons, Hip Hop & Converting Converts, sees African-Americans often undergo two conversions in Islam. The journey is a familiar script that begins with the Nation of Islam, an organization that often provides a first encounter to American Islam. Adherence to this race-based nationalism is often followed by movement toward a more universal, colorblind faith.
This switch to a more traditional version of Islam is exemplified by other high-profile Muslims, most significantly, the post-Hajj Malcolm X. In this all-embracing vision of the world, Islam is the key ingredient of identity — nothing matters more than the shared belief in Allah and his prophet Muhammad — not even one’s race. It is a two-part process, whereby converts abandon the marginal for the mainstream, but never let go of Islam.
Muslim followers of all denominations have much to be proud of in Ali’s life, as for many years he was the most popular Muslim on the planet. It’s a legacy that casts a chill over the will to fear Muslims. As popular business owner “Mattress Mack” McIngvale proclaimed in a full-page ad paying homage to Ali in the Houston Chronicle, “#BeNotAfraid.”
Ali’s death consequently forces greater scrutiny of Trump’s portrayal of Muslims. Although part of Trump’s political platform has been a categorical ban on Muslims from entering the country, public mourning over Ali seems to render his policy misguided. Ali’s life is testimony to what Muslims have to offer this country, which challenges the core of Trump’s political worldview.
Ali has done so much for humanity, both inside and outside the ring, yet even in death he has managed to touch the country in a way that honors Islam’s place in American history. This is the very gift that his death brings. For Muslims, it bestows a moment of reprieve from the day-to-day aggressions that characterize life in America—a moment to stand proud in public as a Muslim. Perhaps more importantly, for the rest of the country it is a moment to ponder that one of the greatest American personalities of all time was Muslim.
This is likely not what Trump wanted Americans to be thinking about before the big election. Fate sometimes has a different plan. It will be interesting to see just what Ali’s death means to Trump’s presidential bid. One might speculate that at most, it could influence individuals to disavow Trump wholly and vote for his opponent in the general election; at the very least it may inspire some conservatives simply to boycott the election. To be sure, Ali’s death has given the Muslim cause in the country a great boost, which promises to help defeat Trump and temper American hostility toward Islam.
Ali is gone but his death may still be the greatest rope-a-dope of all time, almost as if it’s a ploy from above to push voters a certain direction—that final nudge he would muster to conquer his opponent towards the end of a fight. Imagine how the headlines would read: “Ali KOs Trump from beyond the grave!”