“I Am America”: The Legacy of Muhammad Ali
Last Friday, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. Since then, everyone who knew him, admired him, and were inspired by him has attempted to highlight the immense impact his legacy has left on the world and on them individually.
Athletes recognize the influence of his boxing career in paving the way for African Americans to enter the sports world. News outlets showcase his devotion to philanthropy, especially in spreading awareness of Parkinson’s disease. Others simply speak on how his immeasurable confidence both in and outside the ring inspired many.
For Muslims, Muhammad Ali represents a figure with whom we can relate. Some may not necessarily know that he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics or that he successfully knocked out opponent Sonny Liston in the first round of a 1965 match, but they do know that a man with the first name of Muhammad is being revered by individuals around the world. People around the world and in the United States are paying their respects to a man who normalized Islam in America. Ali’s confidence and legacy both within and outside the boxing ring paved the way for American Muslims to feel proud about our faith and identity.
Dr Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar at the University of Southern California, summed it up well in his speech at Ali’s funeral, saying , “Ali gave us pride and identity. He gave us confidence. He inspired us, built us up, gave us courage, and taught us how to fight – not only inside the ring, but outside as well.”
That identity is crucial. For Muslims as well as many other underrepresented minorities in the United States, Ali was a spokesperson, an activist and a role model. Ali lived through times of racial segregation and the civil rights movement, worldwide tensions and violent wars, and staunch Islamophobia and xenophobia. He showed us we could be confident in our American Muslim identity.
Ali showed the world that he was not only an unstoppable force as an athlete, but that his adherence to his personal beliefs granted him a personal source of strength that could not be matched. During his battle at the United States Supreme Court over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali explained , “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America...Just take me to jail.” In the face of Islamophobia, he urged political leaders to “use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam.”
Muhammad Ali was unapologetic. He never compromised his morals and beliefs; people of all faiths and backgrounds recognize his willingness to remain principled. For American Muslims today, his legacy serves as an example of endurance for the sake of being true to who we are and that will ultimately be what will transcend all boundaries.
Muhammad Ali showed one could be Muslim, American, and Black. He did not live separate lives, he did not compromise needs stemming from any one of his identities for the sake of another. Muhammad Ali’s racial, religious, and national plurality allowed him to transcend identification labels and call himself “The Greatest.” His success belonged to him. When Ali said, “I am America,” he defined what it meant to be American. He showed us that our citizenship is what we make it; communal and individualistic, religion specific and interfaith based, full of racial pride and transcending racial boundaries.
His confidence in himself showed that he would not be limited, nor defined solely, by one of his many identities- and this made him appeal to all people. As Jackson put it, “Ali put the question as to whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest...Whether you are black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist – Ali belongs to you as well.”
[Contact: Rawda Fawaz, Muslim Public Affairs Council, (202) 547- 7701, firstname.lastname@example.org ]