The outpouring of genuine sentiment from Muslims and non-Muslims across the world at the news of the death of Muhammad Ali is overwhelming – the people’s champ has gone never to return. Many have taken to detailing his legacy, but the direction such celebration has taken is somewhat difficult to reconcile.
We are reminded continuously that he was unapologetically Muslim and he spoke truth to power, but in the context where some project our situation on to his setting, the tone is as if his fight was one of Islamophobia. Yet it wasn’t. His spirituality was later welcomed (in his earlier Nation of Islam days religion was used to buttress the black-power movement); a man who had found God and was unshackled from the constraints of racial prejudice and discrimination that has gripped the US for hundreds of years. Closer to the mark is the point that in the theatre of politics and power, Muhammad Ali was unapologetically black.
Yet for many, the main driver of his activism is not so much overlooked than what seems to be an overt disregard. Some Muslims activists quote the likes of Malcolm X and Ali presenting them as primarily Islamic icons, yet they didn’t do so themselves. Indeed they affirmed their religion and exhibited their beliefs, but it is undeniable that their cause centered on the place of black people and their right of equality in a ‘white’ America.
Some have come to fashion themselves as new age civil rights heroes in the image of men like Ali, yet the actual cause for which they fought for with much passion is continuously marginalised. Black men are still far more likely to be stopped by the police than any other racial group. More black men die in police custody (both in the UK and US) than South East Asians or Arabs who make up the vast majority of Muslims. For all of the appropriation of black icons, where exactly is the speaking to ‘power’ in communities where Muslim black men and women attempt to share religious bonds but are continuously reminded of their otherness? Is truth only one-way, a tirade against former colonial masters, or does it include communities that ascribe to the Islamic faith and clearly have a problem with blackness?
For black people, including Ali and Malcolm X, appropriating the black struggle serves to underplay the existence of racism the black people have specifically faced and effectively whitewash the legacy of successive black icons.
Let’s take for example Nelson Mandela. When he died, Muslims were quick to point to his anti-Israeli and pro Palestinian stance largely unable to empathise with his foremost struggle and greatest legacy: the dismantling of a cruel inhumane apartheid system that saw black South Africans treated as third class citizens in their own country. It is difficult to understand how they could be so selective as to gloss over the black South African struggle, instead opting to solely magnify the comments he made in respect of Palestine. Similarly, some Muslims have already pointed to Muhammad Ali’s pro-Palestinian stance, but seldom is his ‘blackness’ (in the political sense) thought of. Yes, it is noted that he refused to fight in the Vietnam war, but we must remember why; the absurdity of black men in America being drafted into the US Army to fight for a nation that trampled on the rights and lives of black men and women in the US.
Perhaps it is the tendency to relate to what might be perceived as ‘anti-white’ views, assumed so because of his refusal to pander to sensibilities or leave audiences uncomfortable, like when he called out a white woman claiming minority status in a country where black people were still denied property ownership, “don’t compare yourself to no black man”, he declared amidst awkward shy claps. But that would be a gross misunderstanding and simplification of his cause.
Muslims have often said to me that ‘race doesn’t matter’, or ‘there is no race in Islam’. Yet here was Muhammad Ali, the very man who you may well admire, telling America that race mattered then just as it matters today. Fundamentally, his Islam did not negate his blackness.
Highlighting his Muslim identity whilst overlooking his blackness, just as is done with Malcolm X points to an ongoing culture of denying black Muslims their black identity whilst in the same token celebrating their Muslim one as if the two are mutually exclusive.
One of the ways this manifests itself, and perhaps a bit misunderstood when the argument is put forward, is the hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement with ‘Muslim Lives Matter’. It seems beyond some as to how and why this is insensitive at best and offensive at worst to black people (including those who are Muslims) who have been, and continue to be, the chief victims of institutionalised racism, societal prejudice and state violence. It smacks of opportunism by a community that successively fails to call out anti-blackness amongst their midst but is only too happy to ride off the wave of the black rights movement – to many in the black community it is simply disingenuous.
But even worse are those Muslims who choose to deny the struggles of black people in fundamentally rejecting ‘Black Lives Matter’ and instead purport to support the all encompassing ‘All Lives Matter’. What they fail to understand is that ‘All lives Matter’ is a political tool inherently designed to dismiss the experiences of black people, and perpetuate the view that there is nothing exceptional about the experiences of black people despite centuries of recorded oppression that far exceeds the barbarity inflicted on any other people.
It is not simply the case of comprehending our struggles, of course our lived experiences are different, even amongst black people there are variations in our experiences of racism, anti blackness, and state violence. But as Muslims we should refrain from playing a misguided part in whitewashing black history.
For those anti-black Muslims, many of whom showed their true colours when the Islamophobic incidences on the bus surfaced on YouTube, who will still quote Muhammad Ali, he was unapologetically black. To those who will choose only to celebrate his Muslim identity and conveniently gloss over his blackness, he was unapologetically black. To those who seek to hijack the black struggle, Ali was unapologetic about focusing on the political notion that black lives matter.
And no doubt, he was an unapologetic man of faith. By this I don’t mean simply a Muslim where religiosity is now a secular counter-colonial identity, but that he spoke resolutely of Allah the Most High, his belief in the afterlife, and that Judgement Day shall come to pass when everyone will account for their deeds. In actuality, Ali’s Muslimness was rather different to the rhetoric we’re becoming used to. His persona commanded the attention of audiences, and with it a genuine expression of imaan was revealed:
This life is not real. I conquered the world and it did not bring me satisfaction. God gave me this illness to remind me that I am not number one, He is.
Indeed for many black Muslims, that will probably be the lasting impression he made and the legacy that he left for us: being black and Muslim are twin facets of our identity that we embrace without compromise – just as he did with effortless ease. If one quote summaries Ali:
I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.
No doubt the mainstream narrative will bear no resemblance to who he really was as the whitewashing begins in earnest.
May God mercifully overlook the shortcomings of his servant, grant him tranquility in the grave, and allow his legacy to elevate his rank in paradise.