Why Muhammad Ali was 'the greatest' American Muslim

(CNN)It was a fitting end to this country's most famous Muslim life: Family and friends gathered around the bed of Muhammad Ali, the boxer whose conversion to Islam decades ago sent countless seekers and sportswriters scrambling in search of a Quran.

Whispering good-byes into his ears, the family recited a series of prayers and passages in Arabic from the Muslim holy book, including the well-known invocation in Al-Fatiha, the Quran's first chapter.
"It was a very smooth and somber transition from this world," said Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent Muslim scholar who ministered to Ali and his family for the past six years, including the boxer's final hours. "It was a moment that united his family and his children."
    Before he died at age 74 last Friday, Ali composed a message to be conveyed this week in Louisville, Kentucky, said Shakir, who will lead Islamic funeral prayers there on Thursday. A memorial service will follow on Friday.
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    Ali's death after a long battle with Parkinson's disease did more than unite his large family. It also connected the diverse and often discordant American Muslim community.
    Islam is the only religion in America without a majority ethnic group, which can be a source of friction and infighting. But in the days since Ali's death, South Asians and Arabs, white converts and African-Americans, not to mention Sunnis and Shias, all hailed Ali as a hero.
    Ali pioneered a new path in this country's religious life, they said, marrying an all-American bravado with an unapologetic embrace of Islam.
    "There is no denying that Muhammad Ali is the most famous and influential American Muslim, ever," wrote Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim-American scholar and cleric, on a Facebook post that garnered 58,000 "likes."
    "If the only good that he brought was to bring a positive image of Islam, and to spread the name of our beloved prophet in every household and on every tongue in the world, it is a life that is indeed enviable."
    In an unprecedented sign of respect, a coalition of national groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council and Islamic Society of North America, have urged Muslims to honor the late boxer this week with special prayers at local mosques.
    Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, said Muslim Americans have launched national campaigns over civil rights cases and humanitarian crises, but never before over a death like Ali's.
    "It's an indication of his impact and his legacy. He is a symbol of Islam in America -- and in a positive sense," Hooper said. At a time when Islam is the subject of so much bad press, Muslims said it was a rare pleasure to hear newscasters pronounce the name "Muhammad" with "care and reverence" in the days after Ali's death.
    Sherman Jackson, one of country's pre-eminent African-American Muslim scholars, said Ali demonstrated "a new way of being black," a courage backed by religious conviction, a swagger infused with faith.
    "It is my hope that the passing of Muhammad Ali will not mark the end of an era in the United States," wrote Jackson in a column this week, "an era in which Islam in America is represented not by the deeds or misdeeds of actors in far off places but by the accomplishments and contributions, the resolve and courage of American Muslims themselves."

    'Beloved of God'

    The media struck quite a different tone when Ali revealed his conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964, soon after winning the heavyweight title. Rumors were spreading about the boxer's close friendship with Malcolm X, a leader in the controversial sect. Was it true, a reporter asked the new champ, that he was a "card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?"
    "'Card-carrying.' What does that mean?" replied Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay. "I believe in Allah and in peace. ... I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not a Christian anymore. I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."
    It was a defiant stance at a time when Muslims and black athletes were expected to keep quiet and blend in. Ali would have none of it. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali, explaining that it means "beloved of God," and insisted that people use it.
    Biographer David Remnick wrote that Ali was attracted to the Nation of Islam's message of racial pride, self-sufficiency and almost militant sense of manhood. In public, Ali defended the Nation of Islam's racially charged doctrines, telling one incredulous interviewer, for example, that he really believed all white people are devils, one of many tenets that separate the sect from mainstream Islam.
    Ali later recanted, writing in his 2004 biography, "The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don't believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen."
    In 1966, citing his faith, Ali filed for conscientious objector status, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. "War is against the teachings of the holy Quran," Ali said at the time. "I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or his messenger."
    The ensuing legal battle cost Ali millions in boxing revenue and nearly landed him in jail before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. But what he lost in athletic accolades, Ali gained in street cred. From then on, he was counted among the rarest of religious objectors: those who fought the law, and won.

    Silenced by God

    In the 1970s, Ali followed some Nation of Islam leaders into the mainstream of Sunni Islam, the sect encompassing about 85% of Muslims worldwide.
    He later completed the full transition from militancy to mysticism through Sufism, a strand of Islam that emphasizes a direct, personal connection to God. That connection is sometimes accompanied by an openness to other religions, as demonstrated in Ali's request that Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and other religious leaders receive invitations to the memorial and funeral services this week in Louisville.
    "Muhammad Ali was a person who respected other faiths," said Shakir, who is co-founder of Zaytuna College in California, the nation's first Muslim liberal arts college.
    "He understood at this critical juncture of human history, when faith is under attack, that we need a critical mass of moral and spiritual energy to overcome our obstacles, and our challenges can't be overcome by Muslims alone."
    Despite his peaceful personality in later years, Ali could still land a verbal jab. In December, he slammed Donald Trump's proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the United States.
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    "We as Muslims have to stand up against those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," Ali said. "They have alienated many from learning about Islam."
    He was equally critical of terrorists, saying days after 9/11 that "Islam is peace, and against murder and killing, and the people doing that in the name of Islam are wrong. And if I had the chance, I would do something about it."
    By then Parkinson's had taken a notable toll on Ali, as it had on another beloved religious figure, St. John Paul II. Men who became famous for their physical prowess and eloquence now had trouble moving and speaking. But like the late pontiff, the boxer endured his ailments gracefully, friends and family said.
    "I ran my mouth like nobody else and now God has silenced me," he told his friend Shakir. "And I'm good with that. I've done my talking."
    In the mid-1990s, Ali told journalist Remnick that he thought constantly about death, especially during his five daily prayers. "Thinking about after," Ali said. "Thinking about paradise."
    Ali's legacy will continue, and his star will burn especially bright this week, as kings and presidents, comedians and celebrities, sports stars and spiritual gurus gather for memorial services in Louisville.
    "All of them will be there to honor and celebrate the life of this great man," said Jackson, the scholar. "And not one of them will be able to separate Muhammad Ali's greatness as an American from his commitment as a Muslim. Ali emphatically put the question of whether one can be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let that question now be interred permanently with his noble remains."