Muhammad Ali was a 2012 Liberty Medal Recipient / https://www.flickr.com/photos/constitutioncenter/
By Riyah Basha, community submission
This is how we bury an American Muslim hero.
That’s the sentence that kept running through my head on the way to Louisville, as we crossed state lines in shadows illuminated by a Ramadan crescent moon. My head was swimming with the tributes that had flooded social media outlets for a week and I was confident in my intention to pray over and honor Muhammad Ali’s body and soul.
You see, I assumed I grasped the full meaning of Ali’s death. I had watched the clips: his phantom punch that sent Sonny Liston tumbling, his joy in shocking the world, his eloquent exegeses of everything from the problems of white feminism to his preparation for the afterlife. I read Malcolm’s descriptions of Ali in his autobiography as he took me along the pair’s walks through black neighborhoods before the bout with Liston.
“You’re my own kind,” he would tell startled children. “I get my strength from being around my own black people.”
That same strength flowed throughout the week of memorials. He was an unapologetic and beautiful black Muslim man, dancing his way past the clutches of anyone’s expectations (and drafts).
The janaza (Islamic funeral rites), I expected, would then be a manifestation of Ali’s honor and stature. Upon arriving at Freedom Hall—has a name been more fitting?—I was challenged. Throngs of people swarmed the podium and we struggled to form straight lines. A canopy of smart phones hovered above us. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the champion. I was surprised, dismayed even, to see that this indeed was how we were burying our hero.
We eventually quieted down some hours later for a recitation of the Qur’an. The lilting verses of Surah al-Rahman reverberated across the concrete walls and over suddenly hushed attendees, some swaying silently with closed eyes. My eyes were closed too, until the the reciter got to this verse:
Is the reward for good [anything] but good? [55:60]
That word, ihsan, is more than just good: it’s excellence. I then opened my eyes to the beauty present in the service, undoubtedly rendered as recompense for Ali’s own distinction. Excellence is more than 14,000 believers from around the world praying together for one man’s entrance into paradise, and the thousands of non-Muslims who honored him all the same. Excellence is solidarity in diversity—I never once thought I’d take part in a prayer with the various world leaders at the same time.
Excellence is the entire world over repeating names as sublime as Muhammad—the oft praised—and Ali—the High—during the most sanctified month of the year. Ali broke rank in his expressions of merit and his funeral was no exception.
Make no mistake that this beautiful output was also Ali’s consistent input. He was the hardest working athlete his trainers had ever seen. He smiled. His service and activism weren’t his side jobs; his work for social justice was molded from a divine devotion to God and His people. Many have argued that had Ali not been softened by a battle with Parkinson’s disease, he wouldn’t have been embraced by the rest of the country so wholeheartedly. His excellence was dangerous.
It’s on us, then, to march forward with this banner of ihsan on every front. We especially cannot claim Ali as our own without recognizing our deficiencies in spreading this excellence with equal access regardless of race or class. Ali’s story was one of America, Islam, and blackness, and a lesson in the inherent coupling of the latter two identities in this country. Muslims are at a precarious juncture in this election year, and we will not see it through without an internal rectification.
Yes, we buried our hero. But, now we must give life to his fight.