America does not have a healthy relationship with Islam – the religion is popularly regarded with suspicion and mistrust. It’s seen as something exotic, fundamentalist and far, far away. And yet in the middle of America’s sporting pantheon floated… a Muslim. Muhammad Ali was a role model for a faith that flourishes in the USA yet is strangely invisible.
He converted to the Nation of Islam in the 1960s but gravitated to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. His faith was shaped by his experience of racial prejudice; Islam offered an alternative source of spiritual authority to an American Christianity that could be suffused with white bigotry. Taking a new name severed the bonds to his slave past. But whereas we tend to see Western conversion to Islam as wholly politically motivated, as an intellectual reaction to events, what’s striking about Ali’s faith is how personal, quiet and deeply felt it obviously was.
Consider his reaction to 9-11. I take the following from an interview in Reader’s Digest with Howard Bingham, a photographer and confidant:
Bingham: Tell us your reaction to the attacks this morning.
Ali: Killing like that can never be justified. It’s unbelievable. I could never support hurting innocent men, women and children. Islam is a religion of peace. It does not promote terrorism or killing people.
Bingham: Muslims are supposed to be responsible for this. How does that make you feel?
Ali: People say a Muslim caused this destruction. I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting this murder of thousands.
Later, Bingham asked: “How do you feel about different religions?” Ali replied: “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names but all contain truth.”
The trajectory of Ali’s faith and politics is very similar to that of Malcolm X – another Nation of Islam covert who later moved towards Sunni Islam. Both men might have embraced Islam out of anger at white society but, over time, were actually tempered by the Koran and came to realise that its message is egalitarian. If anything, Islam had the capacity to make young radicals more tolerant, not less. There is racism in Islamic societies, yes. But in Islam itself, there is no black or white but simply the children of Allah. Consider Malcolm’s description of a pilgrimage to Mecca:
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
“America needs to understand Islam…” That’ll take quite a while to happen. Today there are around 2.75 million Muslims in America. And yet all you’ll ever hear of Muslims in the media is when something’s been blown up or Trump has called for refugees to be banned from the USA. Trump’s record on this is execrable. He has claimed to be a friend of Ali and yet also claimed to be unable to identify an Islamic sportsman. The dishonouring of his fellow citizens is un-American. His lack of charity towards Muslims is unchristian. Last year, Ali waded into the presidential race with this statement:
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
Amen to that.
By Tim Stanley