Muhammad Ali was just as Black as he was Muslim and he belonged to no one. He moved with purpose and helped me unlearn this idea that the Islam I practiced had to be quiet and respectable. Muhammad Ali shaped my consciousness and identity because of the way his faith and activism was just as Black as it was American. He was Black, Muslim, cocky and unapologetic about it.
Any quality I possess is immediately either separated from or attributed to my blackness. When the qualities are redeeming, I’m separated from my blackness. When the qualities are considered “bad,” they’re attributed to my blackness. When given compliments, people separate me from my blackness. I’m smart for a Black girl, pretty for a Black girl. I can never be both Black and beautiful. I’m not allowed to be both as a Black woman. I constantly felt like I was being put into a certain box, I could never be more than one thing at once and I was never allowed to define who I am for myself. I remember being told that I couldn’t be pretty, smart or funny unless someone told me I was.
Muhammad Ali is more than just a symbol of strength and radical, unapologetic blackness for me. I know how to be confident because of him. You won’t tell me who I am, I tell you who I am.
Even though it feels like everything has been said about Muhammad Ali, I still don’t know what kind of words to use for a man that influenced my life immensely. Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy excites me the same way Beyonce does when she claims that she woke up flawless. In her saying that she is flawless, she is saying that it’s innate. She isn’t Beyonce because she is flawless, she is flawless because she is Beyonce. (Not that anyone would disagree with Queen Bey) These declarations of self-love are revolutionary, a form of resistance against white supremacist beauty standards and they’re radical because they’re self-proclaimed. Muhammad Ali did not believe in being humble, he knew he was the greatest, and didn’t try to make people can feel comfortable with him. Instead, he told them to get used to him.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t a man who wore a thobe and had a long beard. He wore western clothing and didn’t speak Arabic and his Islam was pragmatic. His faith drove his activism and helped me see how Islam can be emancipatory not only for Muslims, but also for non-Muslims. Islam for him wasn’t about trying to re-live a reality that existed 1400 years ago, it seamlessly fit the reality he was living in during one of the most violent times for Black people in United States history. His politics, his blackness and his religion were all intertwined; they all informed one another.
I relate to his Islam because I don’t speak Arabic fluently, I am not Arab, and my Islam is constantly invalidated by non-Black Muslims. From asking me how I can possibly read the Quran, to whether or not I understand what my name Najma means in Arabic (it means star), these deriding comments are menial in comparison to non-Black Muslims using the n-word, or calling Black people like me, “abeed”.
Anti-blackness tries to invalidate members of the Nation of Islam, however it is through the Nation of Islam that Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X found their religion. Islam isn’t seen as American and was never seen that way, even though Black Muslim labor built this country. Black Muslims get the short end of the stick when it comes to solidarity in the Muslim world. To exist as Muslim and Black during the sixties in the height of the civil rights movement was radical in itself.
Muhammad Ali not only denounced Christianity, but changed his name from Cassius Clay and claimed his identity as his own. He helped me relate to my religion and my blackness in a way that no other figure in history could. Nothing ever stopped him from being vocal, even when everything could’ve been taken away from him. He truly was a champion in and outside of the ring.
Something shifted in me when I learned about Muhammad Ali’s life, and now I live in the truth of my own greatness.