Re­gional fig­ures re­mem­ber in­spi­ra­tional Ali

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

f all Muham­mad Ali’s trav­els in the Mus­lim world, his 1964 trip to Egypt was per­haps the most sym­bolic, a visit re­mem­bered mostly by an iconic photo of the box­ing great hap­pily shak­ing hands with a smil­ing Ga­mal Ab­del-Nasser, Egypt’s na­tion­al­ist and pop­u­lar pres­i­dent.

It was a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial meet­ing: Nasser was viewed with sus­pi­cion and mis­trust by the United States, but was revered across much of Africa and Asia for his sup­port of move­ments fight­ing Euro­pean colo­nial pow­ers. For Ali, the new heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion, be­ing re­ceived by one of “im­pe­ri­al­ist” Amer­ica’s chief en­e­mies an­nounced his ar­rival on the global stage as a pow­er­ful voice of change.

The box­ing ge­nius and rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­lit­i­cal views of Ali, who died on Fri­day at the age of 74, emerged when Amer­ica’s civil rights move­ment was in full swing and the Viet­nam war raged on, sharply di­vid­ing Amer­i­cans. In those years, the Mus­lim world was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a post-colo­nial era de­fined by up­heaval, with most de­vel­op­ing na­tions tak­ing sides in the Cold War, al­ly­ing them­selves to vary­ing de­grees with the United States or the Soviet Union.

His con­ver­sion to Is­lam won him the sup­port of many across the Mid­dle East. Three years later, his re­fusal to serve in the US Army in Viet­nam - “I ain’t got no quar­rel with them Vi­et­cong” - and his sub­se­quent loss of the world ti­tle res­onated with Mus­lims, many of whom saw that con­flict as the epit­ome of Amer­ica’s global tyranny.

“Mus­lims wanted a hero to rep­re­sent them, and Clay was the only Mus­lim cham­pion... No other Mus­lim ath­lete man­aged to achieve what Clay did. Thus, he was a sym­bol for Mus­lims,” said Mo­hammed Omari, an Is­lamic law pro­fes­sor in north­ern Jordan’s Al Bayt Uni­ver­sity.

In a Mus­lim world with a seem­ingly in­fi­nite num­ber of peo­ple called “Mo­hammed Ali”, the Louisville, Ken­tucky, na­tive was mostly re­ferred to as Muham­mad Ali Clay - iron­i­cally re­tain­ing one of the “slave” names that he ar­gued so hard and long for peo­ple to drop af­ter he be­came a Mus­lim.

It was the di­ver­sity of the causes em­braced by Ali dur­ing his life­time - from the civil rights move­ment and anti-war ac­tivism to global char­ity work and deal­ing with Parkin­son’s dis­ease - that won him a large fol­low­ing among a wide range of ad­mir­ers in the Mus­lim world. To them, he meant dif­fer­ent things.

Jordan’s King Ab­dul­lah II wrote that Ali “fought hard, not only in the ring, but in life for his fel­low cit­i­zens and civil rights”.

“The world has lost a great uni­fy­ing cham­pion whose punches tran­scended borders and na­tions,” Ab­dul­lah wrote on Twit­ter. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing his tweet was a photo (be­low) of Ali, King Hus­sein, Ab­dul­lah’s late fa­ther, and US Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford - all in tuxe­dos.

Yet oth­ers in the re­gion re­mem­ber him for his box­ing first, not his re­li­gion or pol­i­tics.

Mo­hammed Assem Fa­heem, a three-time youth heavy­weight cham­pion in Egypt, takes a dif­fer­ent view of Ali. “To me, he was pri­mar­ily a box­ing role model to fol­low,” he said.

To Nashaat Nashed, a 55-year-old Egyp­tian box­ing coach, Ali was an in­spi­ra­tion. He said: “God cre­ated him to box, not for any­thing else. I owe it to him that I took up box­ing and that I fell in love with the sport.”

Pak­istan’s cricket leg­end-turned-politi­cian Im­ran Khan, writ­ing a series of tweets mourn­ing Ali’s death, de­scribed the boxer as the “great­est sports­man of all time” and a man of strong con­vic­tions. Khan said: “Sports­men have a lim­ited ca­reer life span in which they can earn and Ali sac­ri­ficed it for his be­liefs with courage and con­vic­tion.”

In Iraq, where Ali vis­ited in 1990 to se­cure the re­lease of 15 Amer­i­cans who had been taken hostage by Sad­dam Hus­sein, re­tired heavy­weight boxer Is­mail Khalil mourned the “Great­est”. He said: “This cham­pion does not rep­re­sent Amer­ica only, but the en­tire Is­lamic world too.”

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