SHAFAQNA – A little Arab boy in Egypt, a little Gujarati boy in India, a little black boy in Baltimore.
Hany Abdelkader, Taj Saiyed and Naeem Muhammad are now grown Muslim men living in America. Before that, they were children on three continents who discovered that the humanitarian heavyweight champion was a Muslim, too.
It mattered. It still matters. If Muhammad Ali belonged to the world, as his daughter Hana said this week, that only made it more special to Muslims that he belonged to them.
“Even the name Muhammad,” said Naeem Muhammad, 40, who works for the Islamic Relief humanitarian group. “My last name is Muhammad. It’s from our prophet. But most people know Muhammad because of Muhammad Ali.”
Ali will be mourned by kings and presidents on Friday at a funeral service befitting a global icon. On Thursday, he was mourned by his fellow believers. Thousands of Muslims — Abdelkader, Saiyed and Muhammad among them — came from across the country for the customary Islamic funeral service, or janazah, in a cavernous grey exhibition hall in Ali’s hometown in Louisville, Ky.
Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, helped carry the casket. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was there, and the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, plus hundreds of non-Muslims, including Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But it was mostly average Muslims of all denominations and races. They remembered Ali like everyone else does: a winner, a wit, an example. They also described the champion as their champion — the country’s leading ambassador for a group frequently maligned or misunderstood.
“Beyond what Islam did for Ali, Ali did something for Islam, especially in America. Ali did more to normalize Islam in this country than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States,” Sherman Jackson, a leading scholar of America’s black Muslims, said in a eulogy.
The service was largely apolitical. Jackson, though, made reference to nameless Islamophobes who wonder if a Muslim can also be a real American. That suspicion, he said, was “KO’d,” or knocked out, by Ali — and should be “interred with his precious remains.”
Anthony Samadani, who knows Ali’s eldest daughter, Maryum, said before the service that a handshake with Ali at a mosque was enough to erase his fears about succeeding as a Muslim in California’s entertainment industry.
“He showed the true humanity, he showed the true peace, he showed the true way the prophet, peace be upon him, lived his life,” said Samadani, 40. “Muhammad Ali gave us all that example — and to others who aren’t Muslim, he showed that that is the true Islam.”
Fifty mourners from a Detroit mosque took an overnight bus that left at 1 a.m. Banen al-Sheemary, 25, said she found meaning in Ali’s unapologetic attitude toward both his religion and his blackness.
“To me, he was fearless,” she said. “And that’s something that I very much appreciate about him and I look up to him. He always spoke the truth despite how dangerous it was to do so.”
Ali’s understanding of Islam evolved over time. Raised in the Baptist church, he joined the controversial Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement, in 1964. He left for mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. Late in life, according to his family, he became interested in Sufi mysticism.
He was outspoken about his faith throughout. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, he declared, “War is against the teachings of the holy Qur’an.” Fifty years later, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump last year proposed a ban on all foreign Muslims entering the United States, Ali issued a statement calling on political leaders to “use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam.”
“Every time, if you watch his interviews, every time he stepped up for an interview or for a speech, he had to bring something remarkable from the Islamic teaching, he always had to point to something that he learned from Islam,” said Abdelkader, 37, an equipment engineer in Kentucky.
Friday’s funeral events will begin with a procession through the streets of Louisville — down Muhammad Ali Blvd., past his childhood home, and then to a cemetery for a private burial.
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, centre, talks with people taking part the jenazah service, an islamic prayer service for the late Muhammad Ali at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky Thursday.
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, centre, talks with people taking part the jenazah service, an islamic prayer service for the late Muhammad Ali at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky Thursday. (JOHN SOMMERS II)
The public service, scheduled for 2 p.m., is expected to draw more than 15,000 people to the KFC Yum! Center arena in Louisville. Former president Bill Clinton and actor Billy Crystal will be among the speakers. Actor Will Smith, who played Ali in a Hollywood film, and Canadian-British boxing champion Lennox Lewis will serve as pallbearers.
The Friday service, too, will be conducted by an imam. But it will be an interfaith affair, and the crowd is expected to be more diverse.
“Especially when we talk about the rampant Islamophobia that’s going on nowadays — even in his death he’s kind of uniting people,” said Muhammad, who drove nine hours from Virginia. “That speaks about his service in life. After death he’s still in service of humanity, trying to bring people together.”