After the death of Muhammad Ali last Friday, the airwaves have been filled with encomia and panegyrics seeking to outdo each other in praise of this most well-known of all professional boxers. Some have even called him the most well-known person or even the greatest man of the 20th Century.
I must confess, I was never much of a fan of the young Ali. His brashness and self-adulation (“I am the greatest…; It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am…”), the demeaning of his boxing opponents, his conversion to the Black Muslim movement (the Nation of Islam) and subsequent racially divisive talk in the 1960s and 70s when race relations were already in turmoil, his philandering ways (four wives and numerous affairs), all left me cold. Yet I can understand and celebrate how he became known as “the people’s champion,” because his story of determination and success gave underprivileged and victimized people, especially blacks in America, the hope and incentive that they, too, could better their lives.
In his young, Nation of Islam days, Ali made numerous inflammatory statements, often at press conferences. In expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he declared, “My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong.” With regard to the goal of racial integration, he spouted the party line of Black Muslim supremacy and separation: “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.” It wasn’t till over a decade later, that Ali left the Nation of Islam to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim, at which time his views on race moderated, thankfully.
In his later years, however, after his retirement from boxing and the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, Muhammad Ali became a man worthy of great admiration. I personally believe that the effects of age and debilitation brought a humility which tempered his ego. His rich sense of humor still led him to speak of his greatness and handsomeness, but now with a twinkle in his eye and the wisdom of experience. This transformation, aided by his battle with Parkinson’s, proved the truth of his own profound words, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Concerning his health struggles, Ali said, “Maybe my Parkinson’s is God’s way of reminding me what is important. It slowed me down and caused me to listen rather than talk. Actually, people pay more attention to me now because I don’t talk as much.” Here’s a man I’m willing to listen to!
Wistfully perhaps, he commented upon the errors of his past ways and his hopes for the future, as impacted by his disease: “I always liked to chase the girls. Parkinson’s stops all that. Now I might have a chance to go to heaven.” Again, wisdom mixed with gentle humor. This is a man I’m inclined to like!
I’ve seen headlines touting Muhammad Ali as “the face of American Islam,” over against the brutal radicalism of Islam in other parts of the world. Perhaps this is true. It would be a welcome development.
A few days ago, a friend sent me a quotation attributed to Ali concerning God and human beings. Initially I doubted that Ali, as a Muslim, might have said it. But I have been able to locate it in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey, p.xviii. It’s quite an irenic vision of human unity, where racial animus has been obliterated!
We all have the same God, we just serve him differently. Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways forms and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.
Frankly, I’m amazed that any devout, Qur’an believing Muslim, including Muhammad Ali, could hold these sentiments from a theological point of view. First, the Islamic scriptures make it clear there is only one God, Allah, and only one right way (“the straight path”) to follow him. In the principal prayer of Islam, the Fatiha, which devout Muslims recite 17 times a day in their required prayers, the last two verses say, “Guide us on the straight path, the path of those whom You have favored, not (the path) of those who earn Your anger, nor of those who go astray.” The latter two groups (the unfavored) are commonly understood by Muslims to refer to Jews and Christians respectively (though nothing in the immediate text requires this interpretation). Muhammad showed by his practice that no other religions were acceptable as alternatives to Islam (see, for example 48:28, where Islam is called the true religion meant to prevail over everything else). The Islamic State today is attempting to recover and re-prosecute this view of Islam. The comparison of different bodies of water really being the same since they are all water with different religions all being the same since they all have the same god is alluring but deceptive. When we think about it we know that not all bodies of water are the same. You might enjoy drinking from a fresh mountain stream, but don’t slurp on the waves of the Dead Sea. When you change the water of your fresh water aquarium, don’t use Old Faithful as your new source — the chemicals will turn you fish belly up in a matter of seconds. What is true concerning types of water is even more true concerning types of religion.
Even more surprising to me is the statement that belief in God means we should treat all people as belonging to the same family of God, and should love them all. While Islam teaches that all human beings are descendants of Adam and his wife (she is never named in the Qur’an), it goes on to declare that Muslims are to love fellow Muslims but to treat non-Muslims with harshness: “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are severe against disbelievers, and merciful among themselves (48:29).
While Muslims are the”best of peoples,”(3:110) those who reject Islam (not just polytheists but Jews and Christians also) are the “worst of creatures” (98:6) or “vilest of animals in Allah’s sight” (8:55).
How does this square with the beautiful statement quoted above, “If you love God, you can’t love only some of His children”? Well, first of all, Islam would reject this statement out of hand for speaking of human beings as God’s children. God has no children, only slaves. There are obedient slaves, whom He favors, and disobedient slaves — those who reject His authority — whom He will send to eternal fire. Secondly, Allah in the Qur’an makes no pretentions to loving all human beings, only those who sufficiently please Him. So the Qur’anic version of Muhammad Ali’s statement would be, “If you love Allah, you can’t love any but his Muslim servants.”
Muhammad Ali may indeed be the face of American Islam, but I find it hard to believe he could also be the face of orthodox Islam. He certainly presents a kinder, gentler face to the religion of Muhammad. If he inspires more Muslims to follow his example, then I say, “May his tribe increase!”
I wish now I’d had the privilege of meeting him in his later years….