America’s First Communal Muslim Funeral: Muhammad Ali

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The funeral of Muhammad Ali, attended by a throng of 20,000, was the first national funeral for a national hero of the United States that was also a Muslim ceremony or janazah. Muhammad Ali crafted it as a interfaith event, but obviously Islam was central.

The transitions in life from one stage to another are marked in most societies by religious rituals, which are necessarily distinctive. Marriage has commonalities across the religions but the ceremony isn’t exactly the same (except where globalization has smoothed out differences). Muslim funerals have their own special attributes. Likely most Americans mainly paid attention to the speeches of celebrities and perhaps remained little aware of the funeral prayer that was said. Still, the Muslim funeral was in our living rooms, held for a person who helped define contemporary American society.

Muslims do not embalm, and usually the body is buried much more quickly than in this instance. In the US, family or close friends wash the body at the funeral home and wrap a shroud around it three times.

The funeral prayer (salat al-janazah) is performed in a side room at the mosque.

Then the body is interred. The body should be placed on its right side, facing toward Mecca, the qibla or point of adoration.

The family may then receive visitors.

The morning period ranges, according to the specific Muslim community concerned, from 3 to forty days, though the bereaved spouse mourns longer.

It is worth thinking about this great three-time heavyweight champion, this conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, this American hero, lying in his grave facing Mecca. The cube-shaped shrine, the Kaaba, is the direction toward which Muslims all over the world set their faces when they pray. An important American is now facing the Muslim holy city, just as for centuries American Catholics have looked to Rome for their spirituality and American Jews to Jerusalem. More recently, American Buddhists have perhaps looked toward Varanasi (Benares) in India.

Muslims pray to Mecca and also are commanded to go on pilgrimage there at least once in a lifetime if they can afford it and are not in debt or in poor health. The Muslim world’s trekking to Mecca has been an important phenomenon in trade and cultural exchange for 1400 years (you meet all kinds of people in Mecca from all around the world).

It was in Mecca that Malcolm X first encountered blonde, blue-eyed Muslims and radically rethought his Nation of Islam beliefs about race. Muhammad Ali made the same journey, from Islam as black nationalism to Islam as universal faith, and in 2005 he took a further spiritual journey into Islam as universal mysticism or Sufism.

Sufism influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalist tradition.

Muhammad Ali learned from the works of Hazrat Enayat Khan, who wrote, “The Sufi thinks that we all follow one religion, only in different names and different forms; but behind names and forms there is one and the same spirit and there is one and the same truth.” Although Mecca is in Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabi-ruled country with a strict puritanism and creedal religion, the city and its surrounding province are full of universalistic Sufis.

This is what Malcolm X wrote back from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1965:

” “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”

“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

Muhammad Ali’s funeral was another letter, this time from Louisville facing Mecca, reminding us of our society’s problems with racial and religious prejudice, and of the contribution that Islam can make to opening our eyes to racial and religious universalism.

In these times, when there is so much hatred and fearmongering directed against Islam and American Muslims by prominent politicians, it took Muhammad Ali’s funeral to bring us all together, and to remind us of our higher American ideals, ideals that have some essential overlap with Muslim universalism.


Related video:

ABC News: “Muhammad Ali Funeral [FULL MEMORIAL SERVICE]”

9 Responses

  1. Thanks for the well-deserved acknowledgement of Muhammad Ali’s beneficence and accomplishment, as well as his funeral and its significance.

    BTW, I’m American and Jewish, and it would never occur to me to think about or consider Jerusalem when I choose to pray, and Israel is not on my list of good company. Also, I don’t need any religion whatsoever nor religious background in order to pray, if I choose to do so.

    • “Also, I don’t need any religion whatsoever nor religious background in order to pray, if I choose to do so.”

      Same here, but it seems many faith seekers yearn for the communal aspects and want guidance. These people are sometimes in a vulnerable state of mind, and if they get indoctrinated towards intolerance the damage is hard to undo.

      Which is why I am always gratefull for enlightened, tolerant, inspirational and charismatic people of faith.

  2. My dad and I had already listened on the radio, to Floyd Patterson’s title victory over Johansen and his two title losses to Liston, so we eagerly anticipated Liston vs. Clay, also on the radio (in Los Angeles). Liston, according to popular information, had killed a guy and served multiple prison terms, plus he had a knockout punch; this little mouth-off squirt Clay didn’t stand a chance.

    And then the fight went on and on, and he was standing a chance. And there was no knockout punch. And then Liston didn’t come out for the seventh round, and Clay had won !!

    With that, for me. the cultural revolution was ON, big time. It turned out later that both he and I were found guilty of refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War Machine, but that was more coincidental. It was that victory over the bully Liston, totally unreasonable and unexpected, that cemented my allegiance to the successful walk on the wrong side of “mainstream” American culture that Muhammad Ali represented so well.

  3. ‘Higher Ideals’ are not peculiarly American, they have existed since mankind emerged from barbarism, they were embodied in the Gods, and contravening them was an offence against the Gods inviting retributive judgement and the penance of sacrifice. Americans scarcely need to be reminded of them, they preach them to the world, like quatrocento cardinals preaching chastity. Read Friday’s DOS briefing link to and see how the US has more concern for gays in Moldavia than Palestinians under Avigdor Lieberman’s latest excesses.

  4. Religions are like the radii on the same circle. They are different on its circumference, in their outer forms, but they all converge at the center, which represents their inner essence and truth.

    It was indeed remarkable to see and experience Ali’s interfaith funeral service; it was a celebration of his universal essence.

  5. Candor Schatz

    Ali shows the impact person w/ integrity has 2 inspire the best in others & how someone like Trump inspires their basest instincts.

  6. My take away is that the world needs more Sufis and fewer Salafists.

    American evangelicals have been actively spreading their narrow minded take on Christianity in Africa and South-America. It would be wonderfull, and somewhat ironic, if American Sufi inspired Islam could become a global force for tolerance and inter-faith undestanding.

  7. Was an incredible occasion for a compassionate, powerful Muslim man. I like so many of us who opposed the Vietnam war was moved by Muhammad Ali’s stand against the war back in the mid 60’s. He put his career, his economics on the line because of his convictions. Like so many of us still moved by his actions.

    Was so great to hear so many of his remarkably insightful, loving and funny quotes about what we are all or could be doing on the planet.

    He set the bar high for compassion in action. One of his good friends from KY, Rabbi Lerner and so many others hit the ball out of the park in regard to what he stood for and the example he left with us.

    Clinton did not like what Rabbi Lerner had to say was written all over his face during Lerner’s speech

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