How Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest’ Boxing Champion, Got His Name
By Dr Amineh Hoti
These are hard times to be a Muslim in America. There are non-inclusive comments such as “Islam hates us,” even though ‘a religion’ does not hate. As a consequence of right wing attitudes ordinary people suffer: A young 14-year-old African American school boy named Ahmed Mohamed was suspect when his teacher thought his homemade clock to be a bomb and he was consequently arrested and thrown out of school; a 17-year-old girl called Nabra Hassanen was recently raped and murdered by Martinez Torres in Virginia; a female university professor who teaches “Women and Islam” and has taught at Harvard Divinity School was aggressively manhandled and thrown out of a plane recently, as she happened to be Muslim.
All such happenings impact the health and wellbeing of ordinary Muslims and many others around the world who are constantly hearing about these and other unfair injustices via social media. A recent study shows that in America today, Muslims in particular face many psychological pressures and problems due to their constantly being unjustly labeled as terrorists. This is even as white Americans, like Stephen Paddock, who terrorized and massacred and injured hundreds of Americans in Las Vegas, are not labeled as “terrorists.”
Yet, through the smoke of sensationalist media headlines that give the human world nervous dispositions and anxiety bouts, we still have those positive moments of bridge building that give us hope and uplift our collective human spirit. On the evening of October 15th, 2017, I had the privilege of basking in to meet Khalilah Komancho Ali (also known as Belinda), the wife of the legendary Muhammad Ali.
Khalilah is a radiant lady – funny, warm and huggable. She is African American with an accent almost identical to that of Muhammad Ali, but her roots go back to South Asia, as her great great grandfather was an imam from Karachi. In the Pakistani home of Sohail Kiani, the former Vice President of Merrill Lynch in Singapore, and his lovely American wife Doreen, a philanthropist and leading National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Pakistan, Khalilah began her introduction to a select audience who were mesmerized by her intimate stories and memories of “The Greatest.”
There were some very distinguished people present that evening, including D. Ayesha Leghari, who teaches peace courses at NDU (National Defence University), Pakistan; her husband, the author Mohammad Ali, the Inspector General of Police; Mr Ahmad Raza Kasuri; Farhung, grandson of the Chief Justice of Pakistan; Ambassador Nasir Ali Khan and his Austrian-Pakistani wife, Mahreen; Nauman Shah and a number of politicians, educationists, businessman, and others, including Pakistanis, French, and Americans. Everyone, regardless of status or life experience, had their cameras out for this star and all carried an excited twinkle in their eyes.
Khalilah told us that when she met Muhammad Ali, he had just won his gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, at the young age of 18. She was only 10 years old. In his famous cocky Muhammad Ali style, he said, “I’m going to be the heavyweight champion of the world before I hit 21 so get your autograph! So he gave me his name.” Khalilah said, “When he signed, his name, ‘Cassius Marcellus Clay.’ I tore up the paper and threw it on the floor. This is a Roman name! And do you know what the Romans did to us? They enslaved us. You need to change your name! Until you have a name of honour.’ In fact, I was really into Islam and admired the Prophet Muhammad as my main role model – he had the most gentle, simple and compassionate character - so I said to Cassius, ‘Go and get a Muslim name.’” She recounted, “He was upset. But he couldn’t wait. ‘I want to be a Muslim like her.’ So he went to Elijah Muhammad.”
Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam Movement, conceived of a new name for Ali. As Khalilah recalled, “He gave him ‘Cassius X,’ so he said, ‘No, No, I don’t want to be Cassius. I want a Muslimname.’ So he named him Ali (after Khalilah’s father) and added Muhammad in front, after the name of the Prophet of Islam. Muhammad Ali came back to me and by this time I was no longer 10. I was 13,” to which she smiled naughtily. The audience hooted. “He came back and said to me, ‘I changed my name to Muhammad Ali.’ I told him, ‘Now go and live that great name.’”
She told us how Muhammad Ali would spend days outside her house. He even stayed overnight out front once. “I was 16 and I said, ‘What do you want man!’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going to be my wife.’ I said, ‘But you didn’t ask me?’ He said, “‘I found out that if I ask you, you’ll say no, so I don’t want to ask you!’” When he proposed to her and asked her parents for her hand in marriage, her dad asked, “Do you have a job?” Muhammad Ali had just been banned from boxing and his titles had been taken away. “He said he had no job but he had a car!” Everyone laughed. Khalilah, talking about a legend in the making, whispered to her father, “Dad, he’s got potential. I think we’re going to be alright!” The gathering laughed again. “My Dad said to me, ‘You’re not supposed to marry someone who hasn’t got a job. But I change my mind.’ I said, ‘Dad why did you change your mind?’ He said, ‘Because when you make up your mind you don’t change yours, so I changed mine!’ So we got married.” Everyone clapped.
Khalilah remembers her husband as warm and funny. “He had the ability to make everyone feel happy and he was kind to everyone.” She said she was married to Muhammad Ali for 10 years and has 6 children, her eldest daughter being a writer and a poet. In the gathering there were at least three people called Ali. Khalilah grabbed them affectionately, even jokingly flirted with them. She signed an old picture of her and Muhammad Ali as newly weds.
Khalilah said, “I asked Muhammad Ali once, ‘Everyone admires you and wants to be like you, but who do you admire?’ He said, ‘I wish I could be half as strong as you.’” She added, “He always supported women’s rights. He was not a misogynist.” Our host, Doreen, said Khalilah too was a role model for Muslim women and for women’s rights.
Khalilah had been invited to Pakistan by Mahomed Akbar Khan, originally a Yusufzai Pathan, whose grandfather migrated to South Africa in the 1900s. Now settled in the US, Mahomed runs the goodwill initiative, “Star Power Offering Peace and Prosperity.” His noble aim is to allure stars to draw people’s attention to human suffering and needs. In this trip, he told me, he took Khalilah to see and help orphan girls in various charities who look after 4,000 Pakistani orphans, including Sabawoon and Sweet Homes.
He said, “When the world finds out that Muhammad Ali’s wife visited Pakistan, they will know the reality that it is safe here. We don’t like the misperception of Pakistan as an incubation of terrorism. Part of the trip is to bridge the gap between this terribly mean misperception. 99.9 percent of Pakistanis are peaceful people. Every nation has its fringe group. Parts of Chicago are so dangerous.” Khalilah added, “It’s so dangerous there, people eat on the floor because you can get shot.” Mahomed added, “But of course, this is not the image of America.” After a pause he added, “USAID, USIP etc. fund good projects in Pakistan like orphanages and peace projects, which shows they care. This is the real spirit of America. I think that America and its people are very diverse and beautiful people, just as Pakistan and Pakistanis are both diverse and beautiful. No one side should stereotype the other. The funeral of Muhammad Ali crystalized the identity of American Muslims through his life and what he stood for as both American and Muslim.”
Thoughtfully he added, “Pakistanis are very resilient and there are gems amongst them who really care about helping society and solving human problems. Pakistanis genuinely care about the wellbeing of others. When the wife of the world’s number one heavyweight champion comes to Pakistan where she also has roots, this is peace, as it changes misperceptions.” He said Khalilah “was extremely pleased by people’s warmth, genuine love and admiration for Ali. She was embraced warmly and even flew a plane under the aegis of the Pakistan Air Force. From America, she flew thousands of miles all the way to help orphans, so the message is for those who live closer to reach out and help human suffering.” Mahomed added that an added bonus is to meet the daughter of Professor Akbar Ahmed, who he said is also working for peace. Mr. Sohail Kiani added, “Dr Ahmed is a prolific writer on peacebuilding and is much admired for his erudite stance in the Islamic and Western Worlds”. And Mahomed said, “Professor Ahmed is bridging the gap between civilizations – Pakistan has its own proud civilization and America has its own.”
He implied that in the current climate we need more young people to come forward in this leading bridge-building manner, and not build walls. The terrible racism and hate crimes which people, especially Muslims in America, are facing today can be overcome when people in the media, policy makers and policy scholars begin to show empathy and acceptance of others within.
In a time when US-Pakistan relations seem to be utterly fragile, corrosive and even coercive, Khalilah’s visit highlighted the connectedness and warmth that can be possible between people of different nations. What touched me also was that Khalilah was so inclusive she cut through asymmetry and reached out to everyone, regardless of who they were – for her they were all humans with a heart that felt pain. When young waiters of Khiva Restaurant, who were catering that evening, came up to her for a photograph she put her arm around them and gave them a Muhammad Ali punch. That evening there were no divisions between the rich and the poor, between Pakistanis and Americans – there was affection, there was trust, there was friendship.
Blessed are the peacebuilders, such as Muhammad Ali and Khalilah, as they are the bridges that help heal our shared, but troubled, world. Muhammed Ali and Khalilah also represent the finest in Islam – they are people who embrace others with genuine warmth and affection; Muhammad Ali is revered not only across America, but every one in the world knows his name. Perhaps he is loved not so much for his championship trophies as much as for his outstanding character as he understood the human need to accept others as they are and to reach out to them across gender, class, nation and faith with profound humour and love.