And that was the nicest thing said about Ali's new faith. Most people were simply appalled. For Americans in the 1960s, any kind of Islam was suspect to mainstream America. And Ali had converted to the Nation of Islam, the black nationalist movement founded by Elijah Muhammad and embraced by Malcolm X. So he was not only a convert to a foreign-seeming religion--he'd also chosen what was at the time the most politically charged and scariest branch of Islam in America. Meanwhile, he essentially betrayed his friend, Malcolm X, by siding with Elijah Muhammad instead of Malcolm, who had been silenced by the Nation of Islam leader.
Of course, all these years later the world is different. There are now between 2 million and 6 million American Muslims, and the vast majority of those who are American-born Muslims--between 500,000 and 1.5 million--are African-American converts, making blacks a critical component of Islam in America. Ali is today a traditional Sunni Muslim, having left the Nation of Islam in 1975. So while he initially made Americans aware of Islam, his greater contribution may be that he later gave mainstream Islam a big boost.
Today, trembling with Parkinson's disease but still feisty, he is a beloved American symbol. And perhaps, when Americans look back on the last decades of the 20th century, they will recognize that Ali had a significant impact on the development of Islam in America.
As the first bona fide American celebrity to embrace the faith, Ali was a hero to millions of Muslims, here and around the world. Many African-American Muslims were inspired to convert to Islam because of Ali.
Now, post-Sept. 11, he remains the most visible American Muslim celebrity. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, he went to Ground Zero to proclaim: "I've been a Muslim for 20 years. ... People recognize me for being a boxer and a man of truth. I wouldn't be here representing Islam if it were terrorist. ... Islam is peace." A new movie, Ali, is number three at the box office. And two weeks ago, a group of Hollywood companies announced that Ali will star in public service announcements seeking to reassure Muslims that the United States is not engaged in a war with Islam. The ads will be shown in America and translated for broadcast in the Middle East and other Muslim countries.
"He's the pivotal person in terms of mainstreaming Islam in a non-political way," says Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, who leads the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, one of the nation's most prominent primarily African-American mosques.
When Abdur-Rashid converted to Islam in 1971 at age 20, he revered Ali as a great athlete and as an African-American leader. Only later did he discover how much Ali was already revered in other countries for his Muslim faith. While it's well-known that Ali is popular in the developing world, Westerners often underestimate how important his religion is to his appeal.
"When Ali would have a fight, it was headline news throughout the Muslim world," he recalls. "I used to have a few copies of clippings from al-Ahram newspaper in Egypt. He was a tremendously popular person. Because we in the United States tend not to be connected to other parts of the world, I think that wasn't understood about Ali."
In the mid-1960s, in the early years of Ali's conversion, Abdur-Rashid was a teenage boy, still an acolyte and Sunday School teacher at a Lutheran Church in Harlem. He remembers reading newspaper stories about Ali--most of them negative, he says--and listening to grown-ups in the neighborhood talk about this young black boxer.
"Back in those days you could turn on the television and see Ali fight, and it wouldn't cost you anything. There was no pay-per-view. Ali's fights were always televised on Wide World of Sports on Saturdays with Howard Cosell," Abdur-Rashid remembers. "Early in 1967, I happened to be home one particular Saturday and I was looking through a newspaper. I noticed Muhammad Ali was having a fight. I turned it on out of curiosity and I was flabbergasted by what I saw. This is the guy the newspapers were saying really can't fight? And I realized: they're lying. My next thought was that people who write in the newspaper actually tell lies. If they're lying about that, what else are they lying about? It was like a window opening in my mind that never closed. From that moment on, I was a rabid Ali fan."
"He always kept that projection out there," Abdur-Rashid says, laughing.
The next year, Elijah Muhammad died. His son, W.D. Muhammad, led his followers into traditional Islam, with Ali among them.
"When Ali, particularly, became an authentic Muslim and began to travel all over the world, all that did was magnify greatly his popularity among Muslims," Abdur-Rashid says.
Today no one disputes that Ali is an American icon, an elder statesman, someone who is revered and beloved. But how important do Muslims believe he is to the development of their faith in this country?
"Extremely important," says Abdur-Rashid. "A lot of Americans turn on their TV sets these days and see this about 'Islam,' and that about 'Muslims'--and they don't have a human face to relate what they see and hear about Islam. But over the past 35 years, Muhammad Ali was that human face the average person in America came to know and associate with being a Muslim."