Before he died at age 74 last Friday, Ali composed a message to be conveyed this week in Louisville, Kentucky, said Shakir, who will lead Islamic funeral prayers there on Thursday. A memorial service will follow on Friday.
Ali’s death after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease did more than unite his large family. It also connected the diverse and often discordant American Muslim community.
Islam is the only religion in America without a majority ethnic group, which can be a source of friction and infighting. But in the days since Ali’s death, South Asians and Arabs, white converts and African-Americans, not to mention Sunnis and Shias, all hailed Ali as a hero.
Ali pioneered a new path in this country’s religious life, they said, marrying an all-American bravado with an unapologetic embrace of Islam.
“There is no denying that Muhammad Ali is the most famous and influential American Muslim, ever,” wrote Yasir Qadhi
, a Muslim-American scholar and cleric, on a Facebook post that garnered 58,000 “likes.”
“If the only good that he brought was to bring a positive image of Islam, and to spread the name of our beloved prophet in every household and on every tongue in the world, it is a life that is indeed enviable.”
In an unprecedented sign of respect, a coalition of national groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council and Islamic Society of North America, have urged Muslims to honor the late boxer this week with special prayers at local mosques.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, said Muslim Americans have launched national campaigns over civil rights cases and humanitarian crises, but never before over a death like Ali’s.
“It’s an indication of his impact and his legacy. He is a symbol of Islam in America — and in a positive sense,” Hooper said. At a time when Islam is the subject of so much bad press, Muslims said it was a rare pleasure to hear newscasters pronounce the name “Muhammad” with “care and reverence” in the days after Ali’s death.
Sherman Jackson, one of country’s pre-eminent African-American Muslim scholars, said Ali demonstrated “a new way of being black,” a courage backed by religious conviction, a swagger infused with faith.
“It is my hope that the passing of Muhammad Ali will not mark the end of an era in the United States,” wrote Jackson in a column this week
, “an era in which Islam in America is represented not by the deeds or misdeeds of actors in far off places but by the accomplishments and contributions, the resolve and courage of American Muslims themselves.”
‘Beloved of God’
The media struck quite a different tone when Ali revealed his conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964, soon after winning the heavyweight title. Rumors were spreading about the boxer’s close friendship with Malcolm X, a leader in the controversial sect. Was it true, a reporter asked the new champ, that he was a “card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?”