Much has been written this week on the late Muhammad Ali, and all of it well deserved. But one perspective has been missing, that of the immigrant American Muslim, and I hope to shed some light on what he has done for me, indeed for all us, in these few lines.
None should underestimate the impact that Muhammad Ali had on the lives of any Muslim born to an immigrant family in the United States between 1960 and 1985. For we American Muslims in that Generation X, he was The Greatest, and we didn’t need an noun to follow that adjective. The Greatest Boxer who could have ever existed, the Greatest Athlete of all time, obviously, and the Greatest Muslim of our time. As children, we all had our different heroes, all pointed to different childhood legends in our small Islamic Center in Columbus Ohio, and not all of them Muslim. It was Columbus in the 1970’s, and if there was a child growing up there who didn’t know the name of Woody Hayes, someone had trapped him in a well. But not everyone was a football fan, so when it came to unanimity, we could only point to three–the Prophet Muhammad, his cousin, son in law and companion Ali, and the one they called the Louisville Lip and yet he came to took the name of the both of them, Muhammad Ali. If you wanted to find common ground at the Islamic Center among the youth in those days, you had three choices. Bless the Prophet, bless his progeny, or sing the praises of Muhammad Ali.
For us, it was not merely that he was a magnificent athlete and a Muslim. That was as true of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and even Ahmad Rashad, and while we knew them, and admired them, they were not Ali. (Those who want to point out the heterodoxy of the Nation of Islam, or the sect to which Rashad converted, may hold their comments. In the early seventies, I would not have hoped to know what heterodoxy meant, and my parents, searching the landscape for Muslims born in this land whom we could admire, were not inclined to explain it.) To understand Ali’s appeal, you had to understand us.
We were children born here, whose parents were not. Our parents, however, did not come to the land involuntarily as was the case with the other great branch of American Islam, rooted in the African American community. We did not know them, though we were told they were our brothers, and we accepted that, as children do. As for us, whatever the circumstances of our brethren about whom we knew so little, we had good opportunities, attended good schools, were raised in two parent families for the most part, largely went to college, and all in all have done good for ourselves. Fulfilled the American dream is how liberal white America might put it.
But you can’t grow up in middle America with a name like mine, or those of my friends (Muhammad, Ahmed, Mustafa, Yusuf, Tariq, Khalid, Heba, Dara, etc. etc. etc.) without just a few nightmares interspersed in that pretty little dream that has been interposed for us. None of us were persecuted in some legal sense, but you don’t have to be persecuted to be hurt, particularly as a child. I was Houdini on the football team, because the coach misread the name, and everyone thought it was funny. I’m sure they thought the joke was on the coach, but Jim Ross never got called Houdini. That was me. Or Hammy. It’s funny, get it? Because Muslims don’t eat ham. Or asked if I had a nickname, or asked if my father was really on a several week long trip to Mecca because good, family men don’t leave home alone for that long. And this, let me stress, was all from teachers. Best not to get into students and how my name can be contorted into songs from the Culture Club’s Karma Chamelon to the theme song of the Breakfast Club. Or the experiment on how long I could hold out when the only lunch left to eat was pork based. (As if that works–I’d have eaten any one of those tormenting motherfuckers before I’d let them win).
I don’t think any one of us could have survived without scars of some sort without our parents and each other. And, indeed, if you want to know who I credit most with where I am today, it is my mother and my father, who put me in those best schools, instilled me in that work ethic, drove me to success, and taught me how adults respond to these in the grander scheme minor taunts and jibes. We don’t get even, my father used to say, the mafia gets even. We make it right. Our Prophet teaches us no harm and no retribution. So form an advocacy group, join the ACLU, support an anti-bullying campaign. Make it right, don’t make it even, words I can live by, and in fact words Muhammad Ali came to represent in a far better way later in his life than I would pretend to be able to manage.
But when a kid is ten, well, no harm and no retribution does not sound so much wise as it does craven. I, and my fellow Muslim peers, and each one of them could tell you each one of these stories and more (my parents owned your parents, don’t kill me and go to heaven just because I’m Christian, anyone ever tell you you look like Moammar Gaddafi, and that’s what I remember from them) needed something else. We needed a big man, a brash man, easy with his words, with a lip he wasn’t afraid to use, one who was not humble but whose humility to quote one biographer could fit in a thimble with room for an elephant left over. One who stood in their face, spat in their eyes, made them all look foolish and ridiculous. One with the courage of his convictions and such immense talent that he could get away with all of it. And, most of all, one who could take the two worst possible non-Russian names you could have in 1970’s America–Muhammad and Ali–and make them his. Not because he had to, nor because he was stuck with them, as we were, but because he chose it. He saw them and their power, and he saw us, and he chose us. And for that, he idolized him.
Everyone knew the fights, and if Ali was fighting, we were watching. No American Muslim old enough to remember will ever forget the Rumble in the Jungle. They said he’d lose, they were sure of it, every single old white commentator on television couldn’t say it enough. And he rope a doped every last one of them. A few of us tried rope a doping at school after a taunt or two after that, but it didn’t much work. Turns out fists hurt much more than Ali let on. But he managed it, he beat them, because he was better than them. One of us was the Champ. And as much as the Rumble in the Jungle defined our triumph, so did the Holmes fight define our loss. Because that time They proved right, and the Champ could be Champ no more. I resolved that night never to watch another Ali fight again. I’d have died rather than see him lose once more. In fact, I never really watched another fight again.
Of course, Ali himself proved watching for many years later–out of the ring–for showing just as much courage then as he did inside of it. Fighting a disease that ravaged his body, living a more orthodox Islam, maintaining an equanimity in the face of an adversity that would have destroyed many others. The child, the youth, and the man, as Goethe said of Beethoven. Few have lived as fully, been through as much.
In the end, for me as a child, the best fight of them all was the one I had not seen. Muhammad Ali against Ernie Terrell, the one they said was Ali at his cruelest, but I didn’t think so at the time. There had been a news conference before it, Ernie Terrell repeatedly called him by his child name, Cassius Clay, the one he gave up to join us. Ali said to him the words which countless American Muslim children can repeat by heart. My name is Muhammad Ali and you will announce it right there in the center of that ring. It rang so true, so authentic, so real, and melded itself into my own streams of consciousness. The name’s not Hammy, or Houdini, and it’s not funny melded into the lyrics of Karma Chameleon. Laughing with the joke doesn’t make the hurt go away either. It’s Haider Ala Baqir Abdul Majeed Hamoudi, and YOU, shithead, will announce it, right there in the middle of that ring. But of course, I did not have the fists to make that a particularly sensible thing to say, nor did the reference to the ring make much sense. Not that it mattered.
What mattered then was that Ali carried Ernie Terrell from the seventh round to the end of the fight just to beat him senseless. Opened up on him and didn’t knock him down. Instead, he came in with a barrage of punches and repeatedly asked him one simple question. What’s my name? They called it a taunt, they said it was heartless, they said he could have just kindly knocked him down. Once, on ABC, I remember the words “uncalled for.” Uncalled for? Really? Oh, I think Ernie called for it. I think he called for it quite a bit.
My parents never let me watch that fight (on film, I wasn’t born when it happened), balancing my adulation for an American Muslim they were happy to support with a strong desire to inculcate in me a distaste for violence, and that was one particularly bloody fight. And I could not begin to understand my father’s repetition of no harm and, he emphasized, no retribution, even against Ernie Terrell. He called him Cassius Clay, I’d say. And do you think they’ll stop calling him that now? He’d ask me. Because he beat that man silly? And of course he was right. As the world changed, and as Ali helped change it, his name went in the news from Cassius Clay, to Muhammad Ali Clay, to Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, to finally, just Muhammad Ali. And none of it was because he beat another man silly.
I came to know that many years later, of course, and later still I finally did see the Ali-Terrell fight. It more or less went down as I had imagined it, except for one important thing. Ernie Terrell was actually black. In my imagination, it had been a white guy Ali had been beating senseless for calling him Cassius Clay. Seemed to make more sense that way. Still does. And it was not nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be.
And now, these many years later, I know what Muhammad Ali did for me, indeed for all of us, which was far more important than anything his fists alone could deliver. He filled our hearts with pride, with unadulterated joy, and he gave us just a little more license to deliver a little more sass, in the style of the Louisville Lip. If in the end the way forward doesn’t involve hitting a man who wrongs you, well I think it’s more important to remember that once, there was a man who chose a name that everyone else reviled and who stood toe to toe with the powers that would recognize it, and told them his name was Muhammad Ali, and they were going to announce it right there, in the middle of that ring. And eventually, after a lot of pain and hurt, that’s what they did. He shook it up, when it most needed shaking, as the President said, for that, I honor him.
And so farewell Champ, and let the boxing experts say what they will, I don’t need to know the sport to know you were, are, and always will be The Greatest of All Time. In our shared, honored and forever proud tradition, for your soul on its passing, the Fatiha:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
All Praise is Due to God, Lord of the Worlds
You alone we worship, and in You alone we seek refuge
Lead us on the straight path
The one tread by those with whom You are pleased
Not the one tread by those with whom You are angry
Nor the strayed.
God speaks truth.