Commemorating Muhammad Ali — An African American Muslim Who Refused to Be Silenced
On January 17th, 2017 Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) introduced a Federal bill that, if it passes, will order coins to be minted in commemoration of an African American Muslim who played a significant role in our country’s cultural history — Muhammad Ali.
Ali – who was an American professional boxer and an activist known for being a prominent voice in the 1960’s civil rights movement – died this past June of septic shock after battling with Parkinson’s disease for more than thirty years. Hatch, a conservative Mormon, had been a close friend of Ali’s since 1988, and even gave Ali’s eulogy, where he said:
“The friendship we developed was, I think, puzzling to many people, especially those who saw only our differences, but where others saw difference, Ali and I saw kinship.”
This kind of kinship between people of contrasting faiths is important to remember, especially in today’s political climate; with recent Muslim bans effecting the lives of American’s of all faiths, Ali’s and Hatch’s friendship is all the more significant. According to the Pew Research Center, 30% of Americans still view Muslims in a negative light.
Ali steered towards Sunni Islam (later Sufism) and black separatism after developing a relationship with human rights activist Malcolm X. Ali, then going by the name Cassius Clay, began to attend Nation of Islam (NOI) meetings in 1961.
After joining the NOI in 1964, Ali officially changed his name. Later, he made this statement:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me”.
But Muhammad Ali’s faith was challenged by the US government during the Vietnam War. In 1967, Ali refused to serve in the US Military for religious reasons, and was subsequently arrested. He was stripped of his title while his boxing license was suspended. Upon refusing, he said:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America […] Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Although the courts eventually appealed his case, Ali was initially convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000. He didn’t return to the ring until 1970.
Ali was not simply a boxer, not simply a persecuted black man, not simply a pioneer of civil rights and the Muslim faith — he was, and continues to be, a symbol of what it means to be American. He is a diverse combination of elements that combine to create one astounding human being, and if there were any one person who deserved to have a coin minted in his memory, Muhammad Ali would be him.