By Noah Feldman
June 5, 2016
Ali (centre) prays at Cairo’s alabaster mosque in 1986. Photographer: mike nelson/AFP/Getty images
Boxing made Muhammad Ali famous, but his conversion to Islam -- and the meaning the world attached to it -- made him a global historical figure. Ali’s conversion came to be understood as an act of transnational identification with the oppressed wretched of the earth. And through Ali, Islam itself was symbolically transformed for many observers from a conservative, quietist faith to a force for radical protest against Western power.
This remarkable story says more about Islam in the last half-century than it does about Ali personally. Nevertheless, there remains something truly astonishing about how the first African-American athlete to achieve global celebrity could make that celebrity into a platform for religio-political activism, not patriotism or consumerism.
When Ali was publicly accepted into the Nation of Islam in 1964, that remarkable movement was doubly peripheral. The numerically tiny Nation was very much at the margins of American religious life. In theological and social terms, it was almost completely alien to international Islam in its various mainstream forms.
Seen in the context of American religious history, the Nation of Islam was one of numerous self-fashioned African-American religious groups. Founded in Chicago in 1930, its religious beliefs represented both an outgrowth of Christian Protestantism and a rebellion against the Christianity that was seen as the religion of slave-holders. The group’s founders told an origin story that elevated blacks over whites. Their thinking about Africa was complex; but by the time Ali joined, the Nation had followed Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism in seeking a connection with Africa, from which enslaved African-Americans had been brutally cut off.
Although the Muslims of the Nation self-identified with Islam, their original practices would not have been recognizable to the overwhelming majority of the world’s other Muslims. They did not read the Quran in its original Arabic, nor did they pray in the Prophet’s language. Elijah Muhammad, the group’s most important thinker and leader, taught that the world was 76 trillion years old and that white people had been created by devil named Yakub, teachings utterly unfamiliar to Sunni, Shiite or Ismaili Muslims.
Given this background, it’s little short of stunning that Ali’s conversion gripped the imagination not only of Muslims worldwide, but of non-Muslims in what was then coming to be known as the Third World. Part of this was that in the pre-internet era, headlines mattered more than details. “Heavyweight Champion of the World Converts to Islam” had a power that made it irrelevant that Ali had joined a denomination most Muslims had never heard of. It mattered, too, that in the Cold War, America’s combination of hard and soft power guaranteed that the story of an American champion would travel everywhere.
Equally or more important, however, was Ali’s own agency and incomparable communicative genius. For him, conversion to Islam was as much or more political as it was religious. He took his skill at making the news -- using poetry, slogans and epic charisma -- and turned it to his core message: resistance to white American hegemony. In this sense, there was a straight line between “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and “Ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
The Vietnam War was the canvas on which Ali painted his self-portrait of resistance. His refusal to fight combined the argument against American racism with the assertion of solidarity with Vietnamese victims of U.S. violence. His arrest, conviction and eventual vindication by a unanimous Supreme Court made him the most prominent individual in the world to have taken on the U.S. government and won.
All this made Ali a global symbol, as became clear in the run-up to his 1974 fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. As dramatized in the terrific documentary “When We Were Kings and to a lesser degree in writings by Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, Ali was treated by Zairians as a champion of Africa. The unfortunate George Foreman became the heavy, a stand-in for U.S. global power.
What’s rarely acknowledged about this symbolic process is that Ali was one of the first global figures -- arguably the first -- through whom Islam itself could be seen as a crucial vector for Third World resistance and revolution. Ali had become a Muslim, and by that act, he had simultaneously become a politically conscious Third World resister to the power and militarism of the West. That identity could be appreciated by Third World Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as in Zaire.
A nuanced recounting of the complex history of Islamic radicalism over the last half-century would have to include an accounting of how Ali’s symbolic role transformed Islam into a potential tool of anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-Western activism.
To be sure, Ali’s own professed pacifism was a very far cry from the militant Islam that would eventually emerge in the 1980s. That militancy grew from the melange of the Palestinian liberation movement, the Iranian revolution, the American-funded Afghan jihad and a range of other factors too numerous to be recounted here. But all these different streams of militancy had in common an identification of Islam with the Third World liberation.
Muhammad Ali made himself a living symbol of that resistance. Against the master’s house he used the master’s tools -- and others of his own devising.