Muhammad Ali “made being Muslim cool, in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to America”. Ali represents the best of American ideals, the Orlando shooter represents the worse

This article was published in Oasis 24. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:28

Muhammad Ali “made being Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. And all of this he did in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to America”, it was said at the boxer’s funeral. Just as Ali represents the best of American ideals, the Orlando shooter represents the worse. American Muslims need to live the legacy of Ali. I went to bed the night of June 11, 2016 having watched a replay of the funeral of Muhammad Ali. I woke up the morning of June 12 to the news of the mass shooting in Orlando. These are the opposite poles of Muslim life in the United States.[1]

I was born in Pakistan, and came to Canada in 1970 when I was four. At that time, there were less than 34,000 Muslims in the country. I grew up in Toronto, educated there from kindergarten to PhD. My parents’ generation were not the pioneers of Islam in Canada. The first Canadian census in 1871 (the modern country came into existence in 1867) listed 13 Muslims. But when my parents came to Toronto, there was only one mosque in the city, and only one small store near that mosque that sold halāl meat. One of my mother’s oldest friends told me that she met my mother around 1972, when my mother crossed a major city street because she heard this woman and her husband speaking Urdu. My mother was so excited to hear her native tongue from someone that wasn’t in her family that she crossed a busy street to talk with strangers. Since then, the number of Muslims in Canada has grown tremendously: by 2001, it was 579,600, and the last Canadian Household Survey in 2011 counted over 1 million Muslims. Now, one hears Urdu everywhere and there is a Punjabi (the language spoken in the Punjab, a region straddling India and Pakistan) broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada, something I would have never imagined in 1970.


Childhood Heroes

In those days, I saw very few non-white people on television, and almost no Muslims. The only ones I remember were African American athletes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali. Those were my childhood Muslim heroes, and over 40 years later, they remain models of how to be a Muslim.

At the age of 32, I moved to Los Angeles where I’ve lived for the past twenty years. American Muslims, it should be pointed out, are very different from European or Canadian Muslim communities, other places where we are also minorities in a Western context. Canadian Muslims do not have the same history that American Muslims do. So while there was a small Muslim population in Canada at the end of the 19th century, it was nothing like the number of Muslim slaves that were present in America generations earlier. There is no comparable component in Canadian Muslim life that resembles African American Muslims, who represent at least one-quarter of American Muslims. African American Muslims have for centuries been part of the history of the United States.

In Europe, the situation is markedly different, both among the Muslim and non-Muslim populations, which each tend to be much more homogeneous than they are in the United States. So in Britain, the majority of Muslims have their origins in South Asia. In France, Muslims are mostly from North Africa. In Germany, Muslims are usually Turks or Kurds. Contrast that with the American situation, where Muslims are equally African American, South Asian, or Middle Eastern (to take only the three largest groups). Also there are narrower definitions of what it means to be French or English or German than what it means to be American, which incorporates all of those European identities and many others.

There is also a socio-economic difference. American Muslims are an American success story, solidly middle class and mostly professional. There are thousands of American Muslim physicians, for example, perhaps as many as 20,000 if one looks at information from the Islamic Medical Association of North America. European Muslims by contrast are more marginalized, often in a much lower socio-economic class with much higher rates of unemployment. Sometimes, as is often the case in Germany, they are in the status of migrants or guest workers, not citizens.

Finally, there is a difference between American-style secularism, which doesn’t seek to abolish religion but to give all religions an equal seat at the table, and various kinds of European disestablishment of religion, which seek to make the public space non-religious. In the United States, American Muslims are free to live out their Islam in the public space. And there are so many American Muslims who do this, none who did it better than my childhood hero, the greatest of all time.


“Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer. That same year, Clay turned professional, and became known as much for his verbal as well as his boxing skills. The poetry (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”) that he and his cornerman Drew Bundini Brown created has had lasting significance in American culture.

In 1964, the 22 year-old Clay, by his own admission, “shook up the world” in his six-round defeat of Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Elijah Muhammad, one of the leaders of the Nation of Islam, as Muhammad Ali. When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam because of his issues with Elijah Muhammad, Ali broke with his old friend.

Ali was no saint. He could be cruel, with an arrogance to match his unmatchable skill. When Ernie Terrell would not call Ali by his new name, he kept punishing him for the full fifteen rounds of a fight he could have ended much sooner, repeatedly asking Terrell “what’s my name?” However, Ali also had a conscience. When he was reclassified as eligible for induction into the draft for the Vietnam War, Ali refused on the grounds of his new Muslim religious beliefs. Famously, he said that

war is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I am not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or the Messenger [Elijah Muhammad]. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.

Even more famously, reflecting on the racism he had experienced in America, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, no Viet Cong ever called me Ni**er.” This conscientious objector status was rooted in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, and Elijah Muhammad had been jailed for his refusal to enter the draft in the Second World War.

On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the draft. He was arrested, and his boxing titles were stripped from him. Ali never went to prison, but he couldn’t box for over three years. Think about that for a minute. There was Ali, at age 25 at the height of his athletic prowess, three years into his undefeated reign as world heavyweight champion. Ali also might not have faced danger in Vietnam, so it wasn’t about any kind of cowardice. Almost a decade earlier, Elvis Presley had been inducted into the United States Army. Elvis refused any kind of privileges with special services, but with no war being waged at that time, he also didn’t have to serve on the front line. Elvis was instead assigned to a US Army base in West Germany. The Champ most likely wouldn’t have been put on the front lines. He might have been a celebrity, giving exhibitions for the troops to boost morale. But for him, as a Muslim, as a Black Muslim, the Vietnam War was wrong. In 1967, that was not the popular stance that it is today, and Ali paid dearly, unable to make a living at the trade for which he was eminently qualified, at the peak of his talents.

Ali’s case went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously on June 28, 1971, to overturn his conviction. The Court did this on a technicality, since the appeal court had never given a reason for why Ali was denied conscientious objector status. But Ali was free, and able to resume his work.

His later boxing history is well-known to sports fans, becoming the first three-time world heavyweight champion. In 1975, he followed Warith Deen Mohammed (the son of Elijah Mohammad, Ed.), who took his father’s Nation of Islam into Sunni orthodoxy. He became a proselytizer for Islam, giving out pamphlets inviting others to Islam, autographed so that he knew they would be kept by those who received them. And as people began to see what Ali had done in the 1960s, he became a hero not just for his athletic prowess, but for his work on civil rights. Who can forget in 1996, when the opening ceremonies were held for the Olympics in Atlanta? There was Janet Evans, one of the most decorated American swimmers, the last athlete to hold the torch, who we all thought would light the Olympic cauldron. And there she was, passing the torch to Ali, who held the torch aloft in his right hand, but whose left hand was shaking with Parkinson’s Syndrome. In the hush of the crowd, it was Ali who would light the cauldron, something that he would repeat at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.


A Great Prayer Service

Ali’s funeral showed the outpouring of love and support for him. This was a beloved American hero returning home, a beloved American Muslim. The public funeral was held during the first week of Ramadan, on June 10, 2016, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral was by Ali’s own design an interfaith event, featuring remarks by religious leaders, family members, celebrities, and politicians, concluding with a eulogy from former president Bill Clinton. The service was arranged by my friend Timothy Gianotti, who was the religious advisor to Muhammad Ali and his family. I first met Timothy when we were both graduate students at the University of Toronto. The service began with a procession through the streets of his hometown that ended with his Muslim burial in the Cave Hill Cemetery. However, the day before, Ali had also had a traditional Muslim funeral service, or janāza. At his passing, his body was washed and shrouded and prayed over in accordance with Islamic customs. Muslims across America and around the world were encouraged to hold the funeral prayers for our deceased Muslim brother.

The great prayer service was held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, next to Freedom Hall, where Ali had fought Tunney Hunsaker in his first professional fight on October 29, 1960. I watched the funeral service online from Los Angeles, on a YouTube feed from Fox 10 News, the Fox owned and operated television station in Phoenix, Arizona. The irony was rich. Here was a television station, Fox, not noted for its sympathetic coverage of Muslims, covering live the full Islamic prayer service for Muhammad Ali. On the drive home, I heard part of the Qur’an recitation from the funeral on CBS radio, the first time I ever heard coverage of a Muslim funeral on the recap of the daily news.

The service was led by Imam Zaid Shakir, a noted American imam from California and the co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. The coffin was brought in by pall-bearers that included shaykh Hamza Yusuf (another co-founder of Zaytuna College), and international recording star Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens). Imam Zaid explained to the crowd what would happen, as the janāza prayer is unique in that there is no bowing or prostration, only four cycles of prayer where the congregation remains standing. The funeral prayer was performed, followed by a Qur’an recitation and a translation of the words recited by shaykh Hamza. Then three people were invited to give short sermons to the crowd. They were Sherman Jackson, a professor at University of Southern California and one of the most important Muslim scholars in the US; Dalia Mogahed, the former director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; and Khadija Sharif-Drinkard, a lawyer who oversees business and legal affairs for the New York offices of Black Entertainment Television (BET). That two of the three were Muslim women (who were also successful businesswomen) was important to show the leadership roles of many American Muslim women.

Sherman Jackson is one of the most important American Muslim scholars, a mentor and friend for years. Professor Jackson’s short sermon was brilliant, and a few lines from it captured the intertwining of American and Muslim identities in the body of Muhammad Ali:

As a cultural icon, Ali made being Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. And all of this he did in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to or in this country. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and an American to rest. Indeed, he KO’d that question. With his passing, let us hope that that question will now be interred with his precious remains. Ali helped this country move closer to its own ideals. He helped America do and see some things that America was not quite ready to do or see on its own. And because of Ali’s heroic efforts, America is a better place today for us all. And in this regard, Ali belongs not just to the Muslims of this country, Ali belongs to all Americans. If you are an American, Ali is part of your history, part of what makes you who you are, and as an American, Ali belongs to you, and you too should be proud of this precious piece of your American heritage.

At another funeral service over 50 years earlier, on February 27, 1965, Ossie Davis gave the eulogy for Malcolm X. There, he famously said, “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And in honoring him we honor the best in ourselves.” Ali, as Professor Jackson pointed out, wasn’t just for his people, but for all people. If Malcolm was our manhood, then Ali was our humanity, with a life lived for all the world to see. A life lived in complexity and contradiction, triumph and tragedy. A life of change and metamorphosis. An iconic American life, lived by an iconic American Muslim.


Islam in the West

One often hears talk of “Islam and the West” or “Islam and America.” This brings up an image of two mutually exclusive realities. If we change one simple word, we get instead “Islam in the West” or “Islam in America.” That simple change makes all the difference. Instead of posing two warring factions, “Islam” and “America,” we see the reality of their interconnectedness. Islam is, of course, a “Western” religion, sharing deep roots with Judaism and Christianity. Muslims are much closer religiously to Jews and to Christians than we are to “Eastern” religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Muslims are also a strong presence in “the West.” Islam is the second-largest religion in Canada, Britain, and France, and may well be the second-largest religion in the United States. The expression “Islam in the West” recognizes the entwined heritage of Islam and the West. The West as we know it would not be what it is without the contribution of Muslims. Think quickly of our number system, for example, and ask yourself if it is easier to do multiplication and division with Arabic numbers or with Roman numerals. To be sure, the number system came from India, but it was the Arabs who named it. Yet we often do not see our connections, and people here in America often have a fear or hatred of Muslims.

American Muslims have served in the United States military since the Revolutionary War. There were some 300 Muslim soldiers who served during the American Civil War. That’s not a large number, certainly, but it also gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that Muslims are newcomers to the United States. At the end of 2015, ABC News reported figures from the US Department of Defence that some 5,896 Muslims were serving in the military. That number may be higher, since some 400,000 service members did not self-identify their faith. So almost 6,000 American Muslims serve in the armed forces, helping to defend the country.

In America, we still think of violence as something unique to Muslims, and do not seem to realize the violence around us. Charles Kurzman is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who studies home grown Muslim terrorism. The numbers are, unfortunately, greater than zero, where they should be. But they are much lower than many people think. So for example in 2015, 19 Americans were killed in mass shootings by Muslims in America, 14 by the San Bernardino shooters (I will not glorify murderers by naming them), five by the shooter in Chattanooga. That’s less than the number of American Veterans who commit suicide each day (approximately 22), and about the equivalent of the number of Americans shot in any 8 hour period each day. Unfortunately, that changed in 2016.


The Mass Shooting in the Nightclub

On June 12, 2106, less than 2 days after the funeral of Muhammad Ali, an American Muslim killed 49 people and injured over 50 more in the worst mass shooting in the United States. The shooter was known to law enforcement, and had been questioned multiple times about ties to terrorism. His ex-wife told the Washington Post that he “wasn’t a stable person” and that he had beaten her. A former co-worker described him to the Los Angeles Times as “angry at the world,” as well as being “unhinged and unstable.” However, he was still able to legally purchase guns in the week before the shooting.

In a horrific way, the shooter also represented America, taking on our worst characteristics as a society. He was homophobic, and chose to attack an LGBTQ nightclub during Pride Month. Sadly, LGBTQ Americans are the most likely to be violently attacked in a hate crime. There were reports that the shooter had frequented the nightclub, as well as having a presence on gay dating sites. His ex-wife as well as a classmate thought he might have been gay. So his homophobia may have emerged out of his own sexual identity, which he may have had to suppress.

He also attacked the nightclub on Latin night, and the majority of those killed or injured were LGBTQ Latinx. So there was a deeper tragedy, of those marginalized for both their ethnicity and their sexuality being the targets that the shooter chose.

He also, as noted above, used guns that he had purchased legally to commit his murders. America’s gun deaths are a national disgrace and a national shame. In the ensuing debate over the murders, very few people mentioned that he used the guns that he had purchased for their intended purposes. Assault weapons, by definition, are designed to kill large numbers of people. You can use a rifle to hunt with, or a shotgun or handgun to protect yourself. But the only reason to have an assault weapon is to kill large numbers of people. And yet assault weapons are easily obtainable in the United States, even by a person who had been under the scrutiny of the FBI since 2013.

On a 9-1-1 (the emergency number in America) call during the shooting, he pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. He also posted extremist Islamic statements on Facebook. Clearly, his interpretation of Islam is important here, and this part of his background needs to be investigated. But people belonging to other religious traditions have also committed mass shootings, and homophobia is sadly not unique to Islam. Matthew Shepard,[2] to take only one tragic example, was not tortured and killed by al-Qaeda.

American Muslim groups were quick to condemn the shootings (as they always do), and remind people that their sympathies were with the murdered, not with the shooter. The shootings also caused many Muslims to think about homophobia in their communities, and perhaps to rethink their views on homosexuality. There is so much work ahead that we need to do, both in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, to make the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and other hate crimes.

Although there are very different degrees and types of observance among American Muslims, I cannot wrap my head around a Muslim who during Ramadan would commit mass murder against innocent civilians. But I can see the angry young man who gets a gun and kills people who have done nothing to him except provide convenient targets for his rage. The shooter had anti-social tendencies, similar to others that carry out “lone wolf” attacks. Joining a “cause” like ISIS may have given him some sort of connection – as twisted as it is – to others, making him feel less of a loner.

Horrific as the shootings were, the worst in American history, they are not an isolated event. It was the 16th time that President Obama had to do a public briefing about a mass shooting during his presidency. And he did it from a briefing room named in honour of James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in 1981 in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Regan.

Just as Muhammad Ali represents our best ideals as a country, the Orlando shooter represents the worse. American Muslims need to live the legacy of Muhammad Ali. We need to continue to stand, as he did, for justice. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” Ali would often say, and we need to not only remember that saying, but to act on it. In this way, we can live out the best of our ideals, both as Americans and as Muslims.


 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Much of this essay is drawn from my latest book, Muslims and the Making of America (Baylor University Press, Waco (TX) 2016).

[2] He was a student who died in 2008 after being robbed and savagely beaten by two individuals. During the trial the culprits confessed having acted motivated by hatred for the boy’s homosexual tendencies.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Amir Hussain, “How Islam Became “American””, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 63-72.

Online version:
Amir Hussain, “How Islam Became “American””, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: