Sufi Boxer Muhammad Ali’s last fight was against Extremism & Politicians’ Islamophobia

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Boxer Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on 17 January 1942, is dead at 74.

Ali was on the US team for the Rome Olympics in 1960, and became the Olympic light-heavyweight champion. He and the team were lionized when he came back. But then in Kentucky he was refused a table at a restaurant.

In 1964 he defeated Sonny Liston. He became famous for his footwork in the ring, for his boasts and his taunting of his opponents, naming the round in which he would defeat them.

By 1964 he was already involved with the Nation of Islam, an African-American black nationalist sect, a folk religion which diverged in important ways from the Sunni Muslim tradition. (It did not believe in life after death, and tended to demonize whites).

He converted and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting Cassius Clay as his “slave name.” He instantly lost his popularity in white America.

Ali declined to take the oath of allegiance or fight the Viet Cong, with whom he said he had no quarrel, and was stripped of his title in 1967.


He was sentenced to five years in jail. That sentence was reversed on appeal.

By 1970 the rest of the country had caught up with his aversion to Vietnam, and he was allowed to return to the ring. He regained his title not once but twice. He won 56 fights, achieved a knockout in 37, and lost only 5 fights.

He suffered from Parkinson’s by the time of his retirement from the ring, aged 40.

He went on to found a non-profit center in Louisville, Ky., the Muhammad Ali Center, which in the words of the BBC “promotes peace, social responsibility and respect.”

In 1975, Mr. Ali became a mainstream Sunni Muslim. In 2005 he adopted the mystical, Sufi branch of Islam, under the influence of Hazrat Inayet Khan. Being a Sufi, Mr. Ali rejected hard line puritan Salafi interpretations of Islam, as well as violent extremism.

Last December he issued a statement that some interpreted as a direct response to Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims. His spokesman, however, denied that the statement was directed at Trump. It obviously was addressing Trump indirectly, though:

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda . . . I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world . . . True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” “I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”

Although a network originally gave it a title suggesting it hit out at Trump, Mr. Ali’s staff were firm that that was the wrong interpretation. He was, they said, attacking those Muslims who distort Islam with violent extremism.

Muhammad Ali, far from being pugilistic with the pugnacious Trump, gently called on all US politicians to distinguish between a fringe of misguided extremists and the actual teachings of Islam, which Mr. Ali saw as uniting humankind in love. In the end, the man who was known for boasting about how hard he could hit demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in childish polemics. He conceded the problem of extremism, but asked for understanding of the mainstream Muslim tradition of 1.5 billion human beings.

But while he was too much of a gentleman to say it, it is undeniable that Donald Trump has decided to stand for white privilege, and to try to take the country back to 1963 in that regard. In other words, he wants to erase all the things Mr. Ali achieved.

Here’s what Mr. Ali said about how he would like to be remembered:


So, as he requested, let’s not forget how pretty Muhammad Ali was, and how pretty his soul was.

BBC: “Muhammad Ali Boxing Legend Dies Aged 74”

23 Responses

  1. I think of a similar patriot by the name of Ed Snowden as I remember Ali risking his livelihood and freedom to make their voices heard against Big Brother and the war machine. Both of these men remind me of the line, which I paraphrase, from Julius Caesar….The coward dies many times the Valiant dies but once.”

  2. It must never be forgotten either that it was Howard Cosell among the very few who defended Ali when his title was stripped.

  3. rashida masood

    “:Sufi Boxer Muhammad A’s last fight was agnst Extremism& Politicians’ Islamophobia -RIP Champ.. loved him but whats a Sufi boxer?:)

  4. Ironically Ali is now being lauded 24/7 on MSM as a cultural icon. But in the late1960’s, he was quite controversial, stemming mainly from his refusedl to serve in the Vietnam War. He paid the price. We could have used somebody like him in 2002 in the leadup to the Iraq war. He wuld have been booed off the stage.

  5. It’s difficult to appraise Muhammad Ali’s contributions to society, when we have changed so dramatically. What Muhammad Ali accomplished is no less than extraordinary. African Americans and People of Color are demonized, but back then it was far worse. Then, the mere idea that someone non-White could be beautiful or handsome would be derided outright. Muhammad Ali proved that assumption false. He was the most photogenic person on television, and in real life he was unquestionably handsome. In this regard, his mere existence as a sportsman was enough to give support to stigmatized individuals.

    This is not where it ended though. His insistence on not going to fight the Vietcong galvanized the civil rights movement. It demonstrated that one should not forfeit one’s moral code for political expediency. He could have easily cut a deal with a US government, and entertained troops outside the battlefield. However, this went against Muhammad Ali’s moral code, and had positive effects on the civil rights movement. The idea that the political climate or political expediency should negate the civil rights of African Americans and non-Whites was clearly not supported through Muhammad Ali’s actions and speeches. Since he was willing to take such personal losses for his moral beliefs, then others were able to follow in his example and realize that some sacrifice would be necessary to uphold one’s moral code and fight injustice perpetuated by the elite and government.

  6. Met him in Benghazi Libya, where I was the chief U.S. diplomat, in 1971 or 1972. In public remarks, he urged young Libyans to get educated rather than become fighters. Always a champion.

  7. We met in Benghazi, where I was the senior U.S. diplomat, in 1971 or 1972 and again at the State Department when he was going to Syria to help free a U.S. prisoner. Always the champion.

  8. As a sufi Muslim myself, I am grateful to Dr. Cole for writing this piece. In all the discussions and debates about Islam in the mainstream media, the various forms of Sufi Islam are never represented.

    Here’s the essence of Sufism in the words of ibn Arabi:

    My heart has become capable of every form:

    It is a pasture for gazelles,
    And a monastery for Christian monks,
    And a temple for idols,
    And the pilgrim to Ka`bah,
    And the tablets of the Torah,
    And the Book of the Qur’an.

    I follow the religion of Love:

    Whatever way Love’s camel takes,
    That is my religion and my faith.

  9. I submitted a similar post a few minutes ago, but all my browsers are showing two text boxes to enter comments and I am not sure if my previous post went through. So I am entering this in the second text box.

    As a Sufi Muslim, I am grateful to Dr. Cole for this piece. In all the discussions and debates on Islam in the mainstream media, the various forms of Sufi Islam are never represented. The Muslim world is currently in a dire need for these gentle forms of Islam that have existed for over 1300 years.

    Here’s the essence of Sufi Islam in the words of ibn Arabi:

    My heart has become capable of every form:

    It is a pasture for gazelles,
    And a monastery for Christian monks,
    And a temple for idols,
    And the pilgrim to Ka`bah,
    And the tablets of the Torah,
    And the Book of the Qur’an.

    I follow the religion of Love:

    Whatever way Love’s camel takes,
    That is my religion and my faith.

  10. Americans don’t understand how much people in the rest of the world revered Ali for his stand against Vietnam. I was an 11 year old in the Philippines when he fought Frazier in Manila. He was the most popular American in the world then. He was a hero because he paid a price for his position. At a time when the Marcos dictatorship was using anti-Communism to extract benefits from Washington, I think cheering for Ali was a way for Filipinos to express their opposition to America’s actions in Vietnam.

  11. I’ve forgotten the make and the color of the limosine at the intersection of South Rossmore Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard one evening so many years ago in L.A. The west entrance to Fremont Place intersects with the south side of Wilshire about thirty feet east of the Rossmore intersection. The license plate on the limo stated CHAMP. I was driving two cars behind and the light turned green. The lone occupant behind the wheel two cars ahead of me angled across the intersection, out and across both east bound lanes of Wilshire so as to enter Fremont Place. The driver of the car immediately in front of me was in a hurry, attempted to make a wide turn and put pedal to the metal and play Road Runner, race around and pass by in the slow lane. She got herself blocked by the fancy car . Then she made the mistake of honking her horn at its driver who immediately hit the brakes, stopped all traffic, put his hand on the back of the front seat, slowly turned his head back to look out through his rear window and glared. He sat and stared at her for about ten seconds, long enough for her to realize that she had annoyed Muhammad Ali.

  12. Well, it’s always seemed to be ironic to me that Ali considered “Cassius Clay” to be a “slave name,” given that he was named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, a noted abolitionist during the 19th century.

  13. It is fascinating that Juan presumes to speak for Ali regarding the blowhard, opportunist – Trump! It could be that his comment was aimed at hyperbolic Trump rather than the guy who every Tuesday doesn’t just talk shit rather he very coldly,premeditatedly decides on his KILL LIST who it is that might someday possibly pose some threat (of course we have no idea other than a lying bastards’ word for it that they are an actual threat – ie NO DUE PROCESS, and even if they were a threat does Obama have the right to slaughter that person along with everyone else present – see wedding parties and Abdul Rahman al Lawki ). Or maybe Ali was referring to the woman who, upon seeing a human being gang raped and murdered said “we came, we saw, he died”. Juan , you do not have the chops to speak for Ali who no doubt meant what he said . If we’re going to take the liberty to play the “lesser of two evils ” game then we might ask whether Trumps obnoxiously racist words are really more evil than the real life actions of premeditated cold blooded murderers? #useless insipid liberal drivel sucks

  14. Okay, I’m trying the lower text box this time.
    Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War was a huge reason he was so beloved by ordinary people outside the US. I was a little boy living on Clark Air Base when Ali fought Frazier in Manila. Looking back, I think his incredible popularity there was that it was a safe way for people under the Marcos dictatorship to express their opinion of the war.

  15. Right on Karen and Jeff Hay. You are so right. This was the reason, the killing list that I didn’t vote for Obama in 2012 and for the Green Party instead.

  16. I continue to be absolutely slack-jawed in astonishment at how much misinformation continues to pour out of every mouthpiece that presumes to speak for Islam. The simplest way to determine what Islam is really about is to look back at the factual history of political Islam and to look at the life of Mohammed himself. Why doesn’t anyone actually do that? And now, with the passing of Ali, so much of what’s coming out about the man has to do with his faith and how he was a spokesperson for his faith. Well, what was Ali’s faith, exactly? Not to take from Ali himself or his achievements as an athlete or diminish the devastating debilitation of his Parkinsons’ affliction- but the fact is, The Nation of Islam has very little to do with actual, historical, political Islam.

    Islam is a global, multi-racial, theocratic political culture that seeks to usurp and displace all other political ideologies and cultures. The “Nation of Islam” is wholly an American invention from the 1930s, and is basically Black Nationalism exercised under the slogan of religious belief. In the Nation of Islam, black Americans who rise to prominence in American culture by way of achievements such as excellence in politics or athletics tend to assume Arabic names and then claim allegiance to the faith of Islam. Unfortunately, there is no tangible effort exercised on the part of Nation of Islam adherents to usurp or displace American culture- a culture which true Islam views as The Great Satan. No rather, adherents to the Nation of Islam employ the advantages of their cultural prominence to combat and discredit the white influence that they believe dominates American culture, and because they use their societal influence and position to combat a specific race of people in American culture instead of seeking to dismantle the American culture itself, they do not, in actuality, follow the express teachings of Mohammed in regards to usurping and displacing all ideologies both social and political with Sharia Law and the True Faith. Adherents to the Nation Of Islam are, in essence, apostates to true Islam by holding to the teachings of Mohammed in principle but largely denying those teachings in practice.

    Mohammad Ali was a complex man with many facets. He was easily one of the most globally known and admired personalities of the 20th century. He was hated by many, and loved by many more. Like all people, some of his facets reflected brilliance, whereas other facets- not so much. But to refer to Mohammad Ali as the true face of Islam is to use falsehood to further an agenda. The unadulterated truth is- the true Faith of Islam is not synonymous with the Nation of Islam- never has been, and never will be.

    Muhammed Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam. There is a difference.

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