Muslim world mourns Muhammad Ali

Sunday 12/06/2016
A November 1988 file photo shows former world heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali praying with a class of Muslim boys at Dafaalah el Sa’em Mosque in Khartoum, Sudan.

Istanbul - As the world mourns Mu­hammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion and iconic figure of 20th-century sports, many Muslims revere him as the “Fist of Islam”. For them, Ali was a hero who proudly chose Islam as his religion and became a fighter against injustice and discrimina­tion.
Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam in the 1960s, was a role model for millions of people from Egypt to Pakistan to Malaysia. The former champion, who suffered from Par­kinson’s disease, died June 4th at the age of 74.
“Muhammad Ali was a legend of my childhood and my youth,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan, 62, said before travelling to Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States to attend Ali’s funeral ser­vice.
“There was a black-and-white television set in my cousin’s house and we would go there at 4 in the morning to watch Muhammad Ali fight. People gathered in every place where they could find a televi­sion set,” Erdogan added, recalling the poor Istanbul neighbourhood where he grew up.
“Do you know why those people came together even though they had no connection to boxing what­soever?” Erdogan asked his audi­ence, answering the question him­self: “Because Muhammad Ali was fighting for them.”
It was Mustafa Armagan, a writer for the pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, who first called Ali the “Fist of Islam”.
Erdogan, a religious conserva­tive who has overseen the rise of a new class of observant Muslims in Turkey, stressed the importance of Ali as a role model in the Islamic world. He said the boxer was “fear­lessly talking about himself being a Muslim in a difficult country like the USA”.
The Turkish president said Ali had been “a freedom fighter who swung his fists for all downtrodden and all oppressed people”.
Ali’s life and struggle strongly resonate with Erdogan and his sup­porters in Turkey, who spent years fighting secularist elites in Turkey’s judiciary, state institutions and the military. Aydin Unal, a former speechwriter for Erdogan, wrote in Yeni Safak that there were strong similarities between the boxing champion and Turkey’s combative president.
“What is turning Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a legend in the hearts of the oppressed, not only in Tur­key and the Islamic world but in the whole world, is that he stands up for justice,” Unal wrote. “Make a stand, Tayyip Erdogan, make a stand for the oppressed, for the poor, for the outcasts.”
Muslims in the United States have similar views of Ali. The boxer con­verted to Islam “because he was seeking freedom and equality for all people irrespective of their col­our, creed or status,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, wrote on Twitter.
“We thank God for him,” Talib Shareef, president and imam of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, told a gathering of Muslim leaders who honored Ali in Washington, according to the Reu­ters news agency.
“Muslims wanted a hero to rep­resent them and Clay was the only Muslim champion… No other Mus­lim athlete managed to achieve what Clay did… Thus, he was a symbol for Muslims,” Mohammed Omari, an Islamic law professor in northern Jordan’s Al al-Bayt Univer­sity, told the Associated Press.
Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan were the two highest-rank­ing guests from the Muslim world at the memorial service for Ali. For­mer US president Bill Clinton deliv­ered a eulogy.
“Muslims wanted a hero to rep­resent them and Clay was the only Muslim champion… No other Mus­lim athlete managed to achieve what Clay did… Thus, he was a symbol for Muslims,” Mohammed Omari, an Islamic law professor in northern Jordan’s Al al-Bayt Univer­sity, told the Associated Press.
In Jordan, King Abdullah called Ali “a great unifying champion whose punches transcended bor­ders and nations”, according to The Jordan Times. “[Muhammad] Ali Clay was the hero of a generation and a legend of our time. He fought hard, not only in the ring, but in life for his fellow citizens and for civil rights,” the King said.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Ali had been a “great asset to humanity”, while Omar Musa, a rapper, poet and novelist from Australia, wrote in The Guard­ian that the African-American box­ing champion was a role model for him. “Ali taught me to be brave, to stand up for myself, to fight for the underdog and that, even if society was against you, your conviction for what was right would be vindicated by history.” Malaysia’s Prime Min­ister Najib Razak called Ali simply “the greatest of all time”.
Erdogan said he hoped the trip to Louisville would provide him with a chance to sharpen his profile as an aspiring leader of Muslims around the world. Erdogan and King Abdul­lah II of Jordan were the two high­est-profile guests from the Muslim world at the memorial service for Ali.
Erdogan, however, cut short his visit amid reports that organisers in Louisville rejected the president’s wish to put a piece of cloth from the Kaaba in Mecca on Ali’s coffin and to recite verses from the Quran. Or­ganisers had earlier removed Erdog­an and King Abdullah from the list of speakers at the memorial service.

17