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Sheikh Kutty: Muhammad Ali’s Enduring Legacy

Editor Note: as part of our coverage of the Black History Month, we republish this obituary  by Sheikh Ahmad Kutty.

Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxing champion, has passed away leaving a legacy of fond memories in the hearts of the millions all over the world.  His words and actions denoting love, compassion, kindness and his firm stand for justice, peace and harmony touched the hearts of everyone who came in contact with him.

On reading the outpouring of tributes, eulogies, and expressions of grief over his passing away, I was compelled to compare and contrast the two distinct pictures of the souls mentioned in the Qur’an: The tyrants and monarchs who stomped the world stage making a wanton display of power and might leaving the world agonizing over their horrible legacies. They were reduced to the dustbin of history: They died and were denied a second life, {And neither heavens nor earth wept for them} (Ad-Dukhan 44: 29).

Compare and contrast this with the legacy of the blessed souls of prophets, saints and martyrs that heavens and earth and all of the creation weep. Though they are physically dead, they never die; rather, they live forever in the memories of people long after they are gone. Nay, their very mention, and remembrance may cause the descent of the divine tranquility (sakinah).

Hopefully, the fond memories of the countless people who were touched by the words and actions of Muhammad Ali make him worthy of joining the august company of blessed souls mentioned above. They are the ones who will be greeted by the angels as they depart the world, {O tranquil soul, return to your Lord, pleased and accepted: Enter the company of My servants; enter into My garden.} (Al-Fajr 89: 27-30).

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Muhammad Ali was not a scholar or theologian; however, from all that we learn of his great life and examples he was one of those noble souls who cherished deep faith in God and truth of Islam, and his heart was filled with infinite compassion for all people. He embodied many of the Prophetic traits of character: he was jovial, courageous, kind-hearted, affable, friendly, selfless and magnanimous.

Like his friend and mentor, Malcolm X, Ali grasped the liberating message of Islam and sought to internalize the life-giving power of Islam. And through his words, actions, and examples, he represented a genuine spirit of Jihad. Jihad for Ali meant to stand up for what he believed in, braving all odds in a world where racism, xenophobia, injustice, and Islamophobia run rampant. Even before his final days, he found the courage to lash out against the fire-breathing American presidential candidate Donald Trump: “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their personal agenda.”

He was equally forceful in his denunciation of those who use violence in the name of Islam,

“I cannot sit by and let the world think that Islam is a killing religion. It hurts me to see what radical people are doing in the name of Islam. These radicals are doing things that God is against. Muslims do not believe in violence.”

Trump, notwithstanding his avowed hatred of everything Islamic and Muslim, could not ignore this great son of America whose accomplishments for his country far outweigh those of his own.

Muhammad Ali was faithful to his words as he walked the talk in standing up to express his views freely and openly without fear or shame: He deliberately changed his name to Muhammad Ali; and he explained the reason why:

“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.”

And he attributed everything good he knew and practiced to Islam: “Everything you admire me for, everything I stand for I learned from Islam.”

Ali’s Islam went beyond the surface level: His words on many occasions bespoke of his grasp of the spiritual wisdom of Islam. He spoke in the manner of a true Muslim sage when he said,

“This life is not real. I conquered the world, and it did not bring me satisfaction. God gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not number one, He is.”

Ali’s love for the Prophet Muhammad drove him to take a stand to preserve the memory of his beloved Prophet: In 2002, he was honored with a star on the world-famous Hollywood Walk of Fame – but it wasn’t like all the other stars. In a break with tradition, by Ali’s insistence, the star was mounted on the wall instead of the pavement at the Kodak Theater entertainment complex.

The reason? Because the former boxer, 59 at the time, said he did not want his name to be walked on by “people who have no respect for me”.

“I bear the name of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name,” he said.

Ali faced his trials and tests with a perfect spirit of self-surrender. When asked what he would do after retiring:

“So what I’m gonna do when I get out of boxing, is to get ready to meet God. We have one life, it will soon past; what we do for God is all that will last.”

Towards the end of his life, Muhammad Ali would spend his days signing leaflets about Islam, which he would then give out to people wherever he went. Once someone asked him why he did that, he replied, “Because I know that no one will ever throw away a piece of paper with Muhammad Ali’s signature on it.”

The doctor who cared for Muhammad Ali in his final hours told of the boxing legend’s secret visits to the sick and dying in the hospital. Dr. Lieberman recalled:

“Muhammad went into hospitals and nursing homes just to cheer people up. Nobody asked him to do it; they did not give him any money to do it.”

He thus sealed his life in the manner of a true believer as mentioned by the Prophet (peace be upon him), “When Allah intends good for a person, He will engage him.” The companion asked, “How does He engage him, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet  explained, “He guides him to good works just before his death.”  (At-Tirmidhi; he ranked it as hasan, sahih (good, authentic) hadith)

I pray to Allah to grace him with His forgiveness and mercy and honor him to join the company of prophets, saints and virtuous ones.

About Sheikh Ahmad Kutty
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty is a Senior Lecturer and an Islamic Scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada