On Tuesday September 11, 2001, I happened to have skipped school for a reason I cannot remember clearly. It was a rainy day in Accra but I doubt that had anything to do with me not going to school. While flipping through the very short list of channels we had back in those days, I came upon a channel showing one building on fire and another which seemed to be in the way of an airplane.
At the time, it looked like one of the Rambo movies I had grown up on. Sylvester Stallone had made a name for himself saving the world singlehandedly and the scene playing on the screens of my hunch backed TV set looked like something Rambo would love to jump into. What I did not know at the time was, there was a country which had claim to being called the “most powerful nation on earth” and its airspace had been defiled by some people called terrorists who were hell bent on killing all those who did not agree with them.
Barely eight years old at the time, the concept of being a Muslim was not clear to me. I was not yet at the age when prayers were compulsory on me. The Baptist school I was attending made me take part in “praises and worship”. I even played the role of Joseph in a carol’s night. The day after those horrific scenes which looked like another epic Hollywood depiction to me appeared on TV, my understanding of who a Muslim was changed.
My ignorance and innocence were shattered. At school, people queried me why Muslims were violent people. That notion had been widely held prior to September 11th. For some reasons, it is only the skirmishes in Ghanaian Muslim communities which get the attention of everyone in the country. Osama bin Laden worsened it for us all. Post 9/11 made every Muslim who could talk a PRO for the religion. We had to explain the actions of people we did not know and who if given the chance would aim for our head because we do not share the same convictions they do. We had to apologize when we did nothing and speak out against our “brothers” like that was going to change anything. Life became harder for any hijab cladded, beard having and kufi (the hat worn by Muslim men) wearing person.
Since former President George Bush gave his “if you are not with us you are against us” speech in congress, the world has seen no rest in so called religiously influenced violence. Suicide bombings, kidnapping, to name a few have been the order of the day. The demographics of those who perpetuate such actions of violence show a wide distribution of terror with no one group having a hegemony over it. However, people with Mustapha or Mohammed attached to their names seem to be easily associated with terrorism.
The media is quick to point out the religion of Muslim perpetrators of violence. You can easily see a headline from any big name international media house with the wording “Muslim man kills two in New York” when the person in the wrong has an “Abu” in his name. But when the perpetrator is not a Muslim, religion suddenly matters less. Proof? Check out the Norwegian murderer who killed hundreds of young people yet his religion was barely mentioned when his name came up. This is regardless of his own declaration that he was influenced by Christian thought to do what they were doing. Every entity identifying with Islam has been broadcast in a very negative light for the best part of my young life. Everything except the man named Mohammed Ali.
Arguably the biggest name in the sporting world, Ali’s greatness in the boxing ring and beyond its perimeter cannot be exaggerated. Loud mouthed with quick limbs back in his youthful days, Ali left the most indelible mark in pugilism. Mayweather’s undefeated run and millions of dollars makes him look like the all-time greatest in boxing but once you consider the type of opponents Ali faced and the era in which he ruled, you realize the erroneousness of crowning Floyd with such a title. But it was not throwing of punches that made Ali the household name he is, it was his influence on the world around him. Ali lasted beyond the 30 minutes of the ringside bell.
Born Cassius Clay, Ali dropped the “slave name” once he converted to the Nation of Islam and chose the name of the founder of Islam, Muhammad and that of its fourth caliph, Ali. Already a brash talking fellow, his conversion escalated his resolve to speak out. Ali became the voice that spoke out not only in favor of his career but against white supremacy and the existing Jim Crow laws. The Nation of Islam was noted for its strong stance against integration with whites. It favored a violent approach in dealing with racial discord. It was in the Nation of Islam that Muhammad Ali came to meet Malcolm X. When these two articulate black men teamed up, the PR job of the nation was set.
Ali later had a fallout with Malcolm X when the latter reverted to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali himself would later become a Sunni with the passing away of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Before that happened, Ali irked more and more white folks with his conversion to Islam. Already bothered by the outspokenness of a black man, the white establishment were further incensed by Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. In the words of Ali “No Vietcong ever called me N*gga”. To him, this was a fight which only supported white interest and not his. Shedding his blood for a nation which actively fought against his existence was not going to happen.
This action catapulted Ali to greater political heights. He was no longer just Ali the greatest boxer, he was Ali the politically conscious boxer. Taking this stance meant Ali stood the possibility of losing valuable years of his career which was in its prime at the time. Resisting the draft was a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The strong resolve he had in his faith and his God blinded him from these repercussions. This faith in Allah informed him of just wars and the need to not be a tool in another man’s oppression.
In a time when all the press Muslims get revolves around being war hawks and violent people, you would have thought Ali’s death would have reminded the world of how Islam eschews senseless violence. Just as we were reminded of the so called ideology which shaped the thoughts and actions of the San Bernardino killers and the Boston marathon bombers, it is only fair to be told of what made this man stand against the Vietnam War.
The essence of the Islamic faith in the life of Muhammad Ali is encapsulated in a long circuitous answer he gave to a question posed to him by a 9 year old who asked what he was going to do once he retired. After starting off in typical Ali fashion with a long worded statement, he circles back to the question and says “What am I going to do for the next 16 years — what’s the best thing I’m going to do? Get ready to meet God.”
Mohammed Ali has finally met God. But in the trail of getting ready to meet Allah, he left a legacy which made him one of the greatest persons to live in the 21st century. When you have Donald Trump, a man who has vowed to keep Muslims out of the USA once elected president praise you even though you are of the group who face Mecca and pray five times a day, then your greatness is set in stone. But history has a way of whitewashing such stories. On our collective blindside, the role of Islam in the story of Muhammad Ali can be obliterated.
The story of the man who refused to have his star printed on the ground because it bore the name of the prophet Muhammad as doing so would have been derogatory to the image of the latter must be told to reflect the essence Islam in his life.