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Muhammad Ali and the place of religion in legacy

Sporting legend Muhammad Ali is now being marketed to a new generation who grew up after his death. But while Ali was a devout Muslim, his religion is notably absent from these commercial efforts. Should his spirituality be erased for commercial ambitions when it was a fundamental part of his character and life?

Muhammad Ali, nicknamed “The Greatest”, was a world-renowned Olympic gold medallist and three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He was named Sportsman of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated magazine. In addition to his supreme athleticism, he was known for his civil rights and humanitarian work, which saw him being awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President George W Bush in 2005.

Recently a petition produced 14 000 signatures in favour of renaming the American town of Louisville’s airport after Ali. The airport is now known as the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. This is an irony that is not lost on those who know that he had a severe fear of flying, which he managed by travelling in a parachute.

Speaking about this posthumous honour, the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, said, “Muhammad Ali belonged to the world… Muhammad became one of the most well-known people to ever walk the Earth and has left a legacy of humanitarianism and athleticism that has inspired billions of people.”

As one of the major voices for Parkinson’s disease awareness before he passed away in 2016, Ali’s life and legacy spans many areas of excellence. However, many critics have noted the fact that the legend’s religion is continually erased from his legacy.

The erasure of Ali’s commitment to Islam

Several Islamic publications have highlighted the fact that while the six core principles of this Muslim legend’s life – confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality –have been marked by his family as being at the core of his legacy, his spirituality has been reflected upon the least.

Read: Religious fundamentalism and the erasure of African cultures, religions and traditions

Ali famously converted to Islam and was extolled for his devoutness throughout his life. He was even quoted as saying, “Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me. It means more to me than being black or being American.”

“Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me. It means more to me than being black or being American.” – Muhammad Ali

The company that owns and manages the Ali brand, Authentic Brand Group, a New York-based licensing company, aims to introduce this great humanitarian to a new generation of Americans who have come of age after his death. However, the company’s focus has been on commercial ventures such as energy drinks, airlines, watch brands, financial services, hotels and possibly a Broadway show. This direction does little to explore or honour Ali’s spirituality and the less “profitable” aspects of his life.

A Muslim professor at the University of Southern California, Sherman Jackson, told BuzzFeed that “religion is an inconvenient fact for companies looking to profit by putting his image on T-shirts, hats, and posters… It’s up to Muslims to really understand his legacy, to really preserve it, and to put it where it ought to be in terms of the pantheon.”

“A lot of young people in this age of Islamophobia are starved for heroes who can inspire them to straighten their backs and hold up their heads,” Jackson added. “And nobody personifies that as keenly, as forcefully, as unapologetically, as Muhammad Ali.”

Although religion is highly personal, it should surely feature highly in the collective remembrance of a famous and revered person if it was an integral part of their life? For Ali, not only did his religion define a great deal of his character it also helped him lead by example to the countless people who looked up to him as one of the country’s best-known African American athletes and activists.

When he publicly declared his conversion, he made an unequivocal, personal declaration of independence: “I believe in Allah and in peace,” he said. “I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptised 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.”

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