SHAFAQNA – Even in his final months, Muhammad Ali spoke on behalf of Islam, a religion he famously embraced in the 1960s by changing his name and refusing to join the Vietnam War.
In December, the boxing legend issued a statement criticizing presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Ali called on Muslims to “stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Ali, who died Friday at 74, endured public scorn when he joined the Nation of Islam as a young athlete. Decades later, after gaining worldwide renown, he kept advocating for Muslims in the U.S. who felt like political targets.
“American Muslims would be well-served to look at the challenges that Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had to deal with,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ali’s lesson “from that difficult period is that although he was criticized and marginalized for his beliefs, there were many people who were not Muslim that came to his defense,” said Walid, who is black and Muslim. “But we have to be the ones who have to be courageous and stand up for ourselves and be unapologetically Muslim and American.”
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Ky., he angered many Americans by refusing to fight in Vietnam. But in 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
Lyndon Bilal, commander of the Muslim American Veterans Association, said through his “love, character and courage,” Ali had “always been a friend of soldiers and America.”
Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah said Ali’s devotion “will always be an inspiration for me.”
“Ali was a true ambassador for the Islamic community for his courage and devotion to his faith through very trying times,” Abdullah according to The Associated Press.
Imam Abdullah El-Amin, founder of the Muslim Center in Detroit, said Ali lost millions in potential earnings when banned from boxing for 3 1/2 years for “refusing to give up his religion” and objecting to the Vietnam War.
Like many African-Americans, Ali’s first foray into the faith was through the Nation of Islam. He moved to a more traditional form of Islam in the 1970s.
Walid grew up with an Ali action figure and said he represented “what it meant to be a Muslim man — at a very young age.”
One of Ali’s final messages was defending his faith. Trump’s comments, Ali said, “alienated many from learning about Islam.”
“People just wanted to look at him as a great fighter, but he was a great fighter for justice as well,” El-Amin said. “The best thing we can do for him is talking about his humanitarian work in the world.”