The Journey of a Butterfly
Issue 17 February 2006
Muhammad Ali has been known as much for his religious choices as for his boxing prowess. Nadeem Bhatti and Remona Aly explore the spiritual journey of a man never afraid to make huge changes in search of peace of mind and peace of heart.
Image: Ali is kissing the Black Stone, which is said to have been given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel and is embedded on one corner of the Ka'ba, in Makkah. This photo shows Ali attired in his ihram; two pieces of white cloth which all male ilgrims wear. The garment denotes everyone’s equality regardless of wealth, status or skin-colour. Muhammad Ali’s piritual journey was similar to that of his mentor Malcolm X in that he converted from Christianity to the Nation of slam, and from the Nation to orthodox Islam. Photograph © Bettmann/CORBIS
During the first years of his professional career, Ali acknowledged “the poetry came to me from God, the poetry and the hands.” Prayer helped Ali prepare for his fights. “Lord, millions of people are waiting or me to fail, but as long as You are with me, I can’t fail.”
Ali was raised as a Christian, going to Sunday school and growing up in the segregated South. “They were church boys,” said his father of Cassius (as he was then known) and his brother Rudolph, “because my wife brought them to church every Sunday. Their mother taught them right; taught them to believe in God and be spiritual and be good to everybody.” Cassius was guided by values learned at home and in church. Mrs Martin, his coach’s wife, often drove the Columbia Gym boxers to Golden Gloves tournaments. She recalled that Cassius “carried his Bible everywhere he went and while the other boys were out looking around, he was sitting and reading his Bible.” Early on in life Cassius’ faith in God was firmly established, and it was a childhood that gave him the inner strength he would need throughout the course of his life. His wife Lonnie remarked, “Muhammad had always been spiritual and always had spirit about him. He always knew here was something greater and he was searching for something more meaningful.”
In his late teens, Cassius encountered a group that spoke to his heart and his mind; the Nation of Islam, a Black power movement loosely based on Islam. In 1962 he met the charismatic Malcolm X who became his close friend and spiritual advisor.
A flame was ignited in his heart that would make him more than a boxer. “The first time that I felt truly spiritual in my life was when I walked into the Muslim temple in Miami. A man named Brother John was speaking and the first words I heard were ‘Why are we called Negroes? It’s the white man’s way of taking away our identities’... I liked what I heard and wanted to learn more.”
The message of the Nation of Islam was electric: complete independence from white America. It mixed Christian and Islamic theology with common sense economics and solid clean living. It preached that blacks were the original fallen man duped by the whites who were devils created by a mad big-headed scientist called Yakub. Whatever one might think of that theology, it instilled in many American blacks a sense of deep racial pride and righteous indignation. It members now had a moral compass to support them in their demand for justice, equality and freedom. Lonnie comments, “the Nation of Islam was based more on an ideology of social change than anything else. Through it Muhammad realised the plight that black people faced and the Nation was emancipation from that. He didn’t care about what the US said, he didn’t care what anyone said – he was free in mind and free in spirit. Muhammad has always been a free man, he happens to be a black man living in America.” Indeed, Lonnie calls Muhammad the “first truly free black man” since “he was not chained down by other’s attitudes towards him, he simply did not care what anyone thought of him, and that, along with a keen sense of conviction, is what made him so strong.” The name of Muhammad Ali was bestowed on Cassius and chosen by lijah Muhammad, the elderly founder of he Nation.
The Nation of Islam shaped Ali’s worldview. It gave him the inner strength to match his physical power and challenged him to seek ways to help others he saw to be oppressed. The reaction to the change of religion and name was swift and furious and with a few exceptions he was vilified by the press and the white establishment.
His wife, Lonnie remarks, “People were outraged, how dare he give up his Christian name and take on this ‘barbaric’ Muslim name.” Ali’s reaction defined a new era in black identity “I’m free to be what I want to be, I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Lonnie asserts that, “joining the Nation was not something he regrets since it opened the doorway to the concept of Islam and provided the vehicle that got him to the Islam he has today. Muhammad always had a sense of self worth and this was imparted to him from his father who supported this in his children. So many children are told negative things and that makes them lose their self esteem. It never got inside his brain that he was worth less than others. His self esteem is always intact, but he never throws it in your face. Muhammad always believed in helping those who could not help themselves. That meant anyone who was trampled on, white, black, South American, Indian. While he was with the Nation of Islam, he heard of a Jewish old people’s home that needed funds, otherwise it was going to be shut down. He called them up and gave them money to keep it open.”
In reality, Ali was surrounded by different people: his trainer was Italian, his assistant trainer was Jewish, his camp manager was white, his doctor was Cuban, and his closest friend was a Christian. He loved them all and considered them his family. Going to Hajj in 1972 inspired Ali as it had done Malcolm X. Meeting people of different colours from all over the world gave him a different outlook and gave him a greater spiritual awareness.
One of the benefits of Ali’s international status was to bring him into contact with the world outside America, including Muslim Africa, and like him the rest of the Nation of Islam was to find itself changing its outlook. In 1975 after the death of Elijah Muhammad, his son Wallace D Mohammed was to assume the mantle of leadership. Like Malcolm X before him, Wallace came to an intellectual acceptance of orthodox Islam and decided to take most of the community with him. The Nation of Islam was soon to be known as the World Community of Al-Islam in the West. Later this became known more succinctly as the American Society of Muslims. The old theology was discarded and people of all races were welcomed into membership. Wallace D Muhammad was thereafter known as Warith Din Muhammad. Further study compelled Wallace to lead his community closer to mainstream Islamic practice. “Our purpose is the revival and restoration of the pure Islam,” said Wallace “The Prophet Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and the Koran is the Last Book.”
And again like Malcolm X before him, Muhammad Ali was to welcome the new direction and fully embrace the new move. “It’s not the colour of the physical body that makes a man a devil. God looks at our minds and our actions and our deeds.” He now was able to marry his non-racial actions with a non-racial philosophy that suited him much more comfortably. Lonnie remarks that “Muhammad has never been one to preach, he leads by example – and a colourful one at that. You can follow or you can stay where you are. That’s your choice.”
Where is Ali now in his spiritual development? We asked two of his Muslim friends. Imam David K Hassan says that, “Ali has played an important role in terms of the development of Islam in America. He has always been a champion of Muslims in America and he is not going to stop being that simply on account of his health. He is deeply committed to his faith and prays five times a day and fasts during Ramadan though sometimes because of his health he isn’t always able to fulfill that.” His adherence to Islam is certainly not blind and his spirituality extends beyond only Muslims in a concern for all people. Lonnie remarks, “It’s a precarious state we live in. Neighbourhoods are now under threat of suicide bombers and violence that has nothing to do with religion. Muhammad believes those who kill innocent lives are not truly Believers. They have hijacked a religion and are perpetrating crimes that Islam has nothing to do with. 9/11 has set us back so far and now we have so much more work to do. But it has created an opportunity, as now people are aware that Islam exists.” Imam Hassan further comments, “Muhammad believes in helping all humanity because that’s what the Prophet did and he sometimes feels disappointed in Muslims around the world because he feels they have gotten away from the message of the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, and until we get back to that we’re going to have some serious problems.” His friend and supporter Ben Abdul Haque adds, “Ali is very much aware of his role as a da’ee - someone who calls to the Message - you don’t have to tell him ... he already knows it. He will often sign Islamic pamphlets and give them away instead of autographs. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet that “when God loves someone, the people will love him,” and everyone loves this man!”
When Lonnie is asked to describe Ali, she replies, “there’s a little bit of everybody in him but above all he is a Muslim. He doesn’t want to be defined by anyone; he can’t be limited to labels. He encourages you to be yourself. You make yourself who you are. No one can take away your individuality.”
Ali’s take on his own spirituality is best summed up by himself. “Everything I do now, I do to please Allah. I conquered the world and it didn’t bring me true happiness. The only true satisfaction comes from honouring and worshipping God. Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me. It means more to me than being black or being American. I can’t save other people’s souls: only God can do that. But I can try to save my own.”