2016-06-30
Hana Yasmeen AliHana Yasmeen Ali, 28, is the third-youngest of Muhammad Ali's nine children. Hana Ali's mother, Veronica Porche, and her father divorced when she was nine years old, yet by all accounts she is the closest of her siblings to Ali.
She lives about 15 minutes from his ranch in Berrien Springs, Mich., and spends much of her time there. Over the course of two years, she and her dad wrote The Soul of a Butterfly, an unconventional autobiography of the great boxer that strings together stories, poems, and spiritual lessons. Beliefnet Senior Editor Deborah Caldwell recently talked with Hana Ali about her relationship with her father, his spiritual life, and what it was like to write a book with him.


What is your father's most important spiritual goal?

All he's ever done and even more so now than before, is try to do good, be kind to people, to lead a clean moral life, and most of all help people in need. His spiritual journey comes back to loving people. He loves his fans and people in general, so it comes more naturally to him than most people. He really does believe he's working for God-being kind to people, having time for people. He gets up every day and does his fan mail. He goes around the office and looks for stuff to do. People leave messages for him with their phone number included, and he'll have his office call them back. He gets hung up on a lot.

Really?

Oh yeah. When I was 13 or 14 and we'd come to be with him for the summer and we'd go through the phone books, my dad would call people and say, "This is Muhammad Ali." And just go down the list. He's really happy when he gets a number, because he loves surprising people. Because no one expects him to actually call.

So he just dials them up?

Sometimes people talk to him, but nine times out of 10 he gets hung up on. Other times he gets voice mail messages, so he leaves a message saying "Hi, I'm Muhammad Ali, and I got your message." Even when we're in a car driving, my dad will stick his face in the window and look at people in other cars. It's kind of dangerous on the freeway because they get excited. It's like having a kid in the car.the speed up-slow down game. It gives him a sense of contentment and enjoyment.

All of that contributes to his spiritual growth. He's so grounded, even though he's had so much fame and love and admiration. He says it's constant work, especially when you've got the world at your feet.

How does your dad practice Islam-does he pray five times a day?

My dad feels guilty when he doesn't get to pray five times a day. Sometimes it's more difficult for him to actually get down and pray. When the Parkinson's accelerated, he stopped getting up at 5 a.m. to pray.

But he used to?

Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? He never missed prayer. And if he did, he felt guilty about it. He probably hasn't actually done the formal prayer for a few years regularly-five times a day. He just takes moments out when he sits in his chair and prays. And he reads constantly. His life is like a prayer. God is constantly on his mind. It's not in a preachy way. It's subtle, but you feel like you're in the presence of angels around him--especially now because he's so patient.

Is he able to attend a mosque?

Yes, he does go to the mosque, but not regularly. He goes to the one in Chicago when he can. And there's a small mosque about 20 minutes away. The only problem is it's so crowded, and that's hard for him. And he won't turn anyone away.

How did your dad come to embrace Sufi Islam, and what attracts him to it?

My father has a collection of books by a man named Hazrat Inayat Khan. They're Sufi teachings. He read them front to cover. They're old and yellow and the pages are torn. They're amazing. He always says they're the best books in the world.

My father is very spiritual-more spiritual now than he is religious. It was important for him to be very religious and take the stands he did in earlier years. It was a different time. He still tries to convert people to Islam, but it's not the same. His health and his spirituality have changed, and it's not so much about being religious, but about going out and making people happy, doing charity, and supporting people and causes.

Are you a Muslim?

It's not that I'm not Muslim, but that I can't call myself a practicing Muslim. I wasn't raised going to the mosque after my parents got divorced. I read the Qur'an a lot. But I also believe all religions are true. If I had to choose one religion that most expressed what I believe, it would be Islam.

Is your mother Christian?

She's not Christian-she's Science of Mind. I have the influence of both. I'm not religious, I'm spiritual, which I think is better.

Your dad writes in the book that he thought he'd be the "Muslim Billy Graham," but then he got Parkinson's. But he's still the most famous Muslim in America.

Yeah, you're right. He's one of those people who goes with the flow and sees how many people he's helped since having Parkinson's. At first he was in denial, in the beginning stages. At the same time, he was never bitter, he was never sorry. He's had it for almost 25 years. The doctors don't understand it, but they say he's better off than people who've had it half that time.

It's part of his journey in life, and he knows it. A lot of people who are famous and have something like this happen to them try to use it to help others. He got so much mail after he lit the Olympic torch. People with the disease wrote to say they don't feel so alone. Someone who was unconquerable, who stood up to the government, who defeated the government, has this disease. They look up to him, and it helps them to get up out of bed. And that helps him, too.

After September 11, your dad made an important statement condemning the terrorist attacks. Has he considered doing more public service related to Islam?

All there is to do is to live your life and be an example. It's not a religion, but a person's actions that makes them right or wrong. He did give his announcement, his speech on TV. He doesn't do interviews. That was his contribution.

What was Malcolm X's main influence on your dad?

My father really respected Malcolm X. He was very articulate, very intelligent, and he lived a clean life. He was strong-willed and he considered him to be like his brother. The problem was when Malcolm branched off [to mainstream Sunni Islam], my father wasn't yet at that point spiritually. He was here in America fighting his battles. That [Islamic] knowledge came after Malcolm's death, and naturally that makes him sad. All the Muslims were ordered to keep from socializing with Malcolm. But my father's natural instinct was to talk to him.

Why did you write this book together?

It's a happy accident. My dad has always wanted to write a book, but he never does anything about it. He still likes to read his fan mail and a lot of people have a lot of questions and there's a lot of things he feels that he would want to share with the world.

One thing people ask him about, that he dealt with in the book, is how he really feels about Joe Frazier--because Frazier still holds a little bit of a grudge. Joe Frazier has apologized in public. So my dad gets bombarded with a lot of questions about that. He loves Joe Frazier. He considers him to be a great fighter. He's sorry for all the pain that he's caused him. I think my dad was a little intimidated by him in the beginning, but he wouldn't be who he is today without Joe Frazier.

My father loves stories and anecdotes and he likes to share them with people. They're inspiring stories that help him to be a better person,and he tries to live by them. So many people want to know how he is so gracious, so giving, so loving, and so patient with his illness. Really, he does it all through his religion. He reads little quotes and takes them to heart, little stories you learn from the Sufi religion. Those stories are sprinkled throughout the book.

How did you write this book together?

I live about a 15-minute drive away. I would go over there every single day, and sometimes we would sit together and talk and I'd write notes down, or I'd bring a tape recorder. I'd write, based on things I know, and put it together and show it to him. Nine times out of 10 he'd have me add something or change it. It's amazing how much he remembered. It was just like we always do-we'd sit around and watch TV, only this time I'd ask him questions. There were days when he didn't want to do it, and I'd just type up notes. It took over two years.

What is his health like right now? Is he able to communicate?

There's never a time when he can't communicate. There are intervals in the day when he might be tired, but it's not like you have to struggle to understand him. Sometimes the words don't come out as clearly, but it's not as bad as people might think. Often he speaks clearly but with a whisper.

How did you decide to become a writer?

My first book started out as a gift to my dad. It's really hard to give him stuff because he doesn't need anything. The things that make him the happiest are books or things you make. So I tried to create a memoir. I was going to go to Kinko's and copy it, but my mom thought it was so good that she called a friend who is now my agent and had her look at it. And it got published. It's not like I wanted to write more books about my dad-this one just happened when I was visiting him here. I'd been working on another story that got pushed aside.

Why did you move so close to your dad, in such a small town?

I lived here a year before I even thought of the book, and then I just decided to move here. My dad always wished that I'd come live with him. So I moved in with him and actually lived there for a year, and then I decided to buy a house, just to have my own space. There's nothing for me in Los Angeles, where I grew up. I'm closest to my dad, and also I'd like to help out with him.just to be close and make him happy. One day he won't be here, so I think right now I don't mind sacrificing by being here. And it is a sacrifice because it's a boring town. There is nothing here, just my dad.

But you do have a boyfriend?

Yes, I met him here, actually. That's a little blessing from God.

Do you get your poet's soul from your dad? Oh, definitely. I wake up in the middle of the night and I have to write. A lot of my ideas come from things I've learned from my father, from watching him.

What was your childhood like, with Muhammad Ali as your father?

My dad was gone a lot. So when he was home, my dad gave us 100 percent of his attention. There was never a time when we were shunned, quieted, or asked to leave the office. We went everywhere with him. I'm grateful for the time we had. He was a great father because we felt love and that's the most important thing. I've had no problems with boyfriends or whatever else comes along with absent fathers. I could talk to him about anything. I got great advice about men.

You're the closest of your siblings to him, right?

I'm very close to my dad, yeah. Even when I was a little girl-and not to take anything away from my sisters-but I'm just very close to my dad.

Has boxing brought your sister, Laila, closer to your dad?

In a sense it has. Laila has never been close to my dad, in the sense that they weren't friends--but they weren't enemies and they weren't fighting all the time. They just weren't particularly close. She was close with my mother. My dad and I are a lot alike in a lot of ways.

How are you like him?

We have the same heart. The same things that make my father sensitive that he cares about, I care about. Also mannerisms and our reaction to people. My mother is like my father, too, because they're both very spiritual. My dad was very religious, but my mom never was. But she's extremely spiritual, and so we got that from both sides.