M. Cooper Harriss
The morning after he defeated Sonny Liston for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in February, 1964, Cassius Clay confirmed that he was a Muslim, a convert to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. To a reporter who referred to him as a “card-carrying member of the Black Muslims,” the man who was becoming Cassius X and would become Muhammad Ali responded “I believe in Allah and in peace. . . . I’m not a Christian anymore. . . . I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” The obituaries for Ali, the three-time champion who died June 3, speak of his iconic stature and monumental courage. He was a man ahead of his time as a boxer, a showman, a prophet, and a humanitarian who became arguably the most famous person in the world—a global American who exuded charisma, empathy, and love. Though certainly very human, Ali proved extraordinary across the many arenas of his life.
Islam proved inextricable to this excellence. Converting first to the Nation of Islam and later, in 1975, to Sunni Islam (with more recent excursions into Sufism), the religion gave form and substance to his childhood recognition that it wasn’t just public facilities in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky that were segregated but that churches, Jesus, and even heaven itself bore the fingerprint of Jim Crow. Christianity only confirmed “slavery,” “suffering,” and “death”—represented in a 1968 cartoon he drew for Avant-Garde magazine by “the so-called Negro . . . being lynched.” Beside this frame he drew a red flag with a white crescent and star—“the flag of Islam”—which represents “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality.”
To be authentically black like God, the Nation of Islam preached, is to be Muslim. Only by the recognition of and purchase into this identity may one become free—spiritually, to be sure, but free moreover from the colonialism of Christian America and its European adjuncts. This is the theology that underlies Ali’s famous resistance to military induction, diminishing any “quarrel” with the Vietcong. US police action abroad deploys poor and marginalized citizens overseas to enforce the same Gospel of white supremacy and economic domination that oppresses them at home. Ali—this fighter who wouldn’t fight—took exception, found himself under arrest, stripped of his titles, and banned from boxing for three years of his prime.
Scholars and cultural commentators have yet to grapple adequately with Ali as an American religious figure, largely reducing his religiosity to a biographical talking point. Muhammad Ali, in fact, redefines the category of “American religion” in the postwar era. One standard retelling of this period focuses on decline—especially of mainstream Protestantism’s influence, which historically formed American exceptionalism. In its place the “special” quality of American religious identity became pluralism. As Stephen Prothero argues in 2010’s God in America documentary: “[W]hat makes [America] special is that we have some kind of special relationship with God. . . . And exactly who’s included has always been up for debate. . . . This moment in American religious life really is about pluralism. We just keep . . . extending the sacred canopy over more and more people.” The sanctification of diversity thus preserves American exceptionalism.
Ali’s life and career coincide precisely with Prothero’s “moment”: Born in 1942, Cassius Clay chafes against Jim Crow Louisville yet remains faithful to the American dream. He fights for his country in the 1960 Olympics, believing that his Gold Medal makes him an exception—a belief quickly corrected by a segregated cafe in downtown Louisville. Becoming Muhammad Ali, however, he turns the exceptionalist narrative on its head by taking exception to American exceptionalism. He transforms himself into a nightmare caricature of white Americanness: loud and brash (the ugly American), his raps and rhymes perform a poetics of borderline minstrelsy. He deals in racial supremacy derived from overt, unapologetic, and unchristian religiosity. In the process he embodies important new lenses through which more interesting recent scholarship has recast religion’s cultural significance in postwar America: race, embodiment, disability, law, decolonization, transnationalism, and the growing irrelevance of Protestant authority. He wields ironically exceptional components of American identity to take exception to US pretensions to innocence and virtue.
He paid dearly, yet by taking exception Ali himself became exceptional. He became America. This certainly owes in no small part to the fact that we live in a world for which Ali devised the template. Still, the story of this transformation leaves open the question of a wider (and whiter) American public so willing now to embrace and mourn a former pariah. Powerful, magnetic, loquacious, gorgeous, and dangerous as he burst on the scene, the death of his sick and diminished body struck many as a mercy. Perhaps it was only through the enforcement of such humility in later years that he became sufficiently safe to enter the pantheon of American civil religion.
In other ways he was simply a man of contradictions who craved attention and esteem. Ali was freed by Islam, but not unfettered by convention, expectation, and the tendency of political, economic, and religious interests (including the Nation of Islam) to manage the bodies and identities of black men for sport and profit.
Now as echoes resonant of the same American exceptionalism to which he took exception grow louder in our political sphere, we are left with reason for measured hope, perhaps, or an opportunity to appreciate one further ironic exception-taking by a person (and no less a persona—their hands can’t hit what their eyes can’t see) whose long-term legacy is just beginning: In an age of unprecedented US Islamophobia Muhammad Ali—the pronunciation of whose very name invokes the Prophet of Islam—has found valediction as perhaps the Greatest of all Americans.
Lipsyte, Robert. “Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century.” New York Times, June 4, 2016, Sports.
Remnick, David. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. New York: Random House, 1998.
Roberts, Randy and Johnny Smith. Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. New York: Basic Books, 2016.
“God in America” on PBS.org.
Image: Nov. 23, 1988 file photo of Muhammad Ali as he prays with a class of Muslim boys at Dafaalah el Sa'em Mosque in Khartoum, Sudan; Credit: Abder Raouf / AP Photo (file).
Author, M. Cooper Harriss, (Ph.D. 2011 in Religion and Literature and a 2008-09 Marty Fellow) is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, in Bloomington, where he teaches courses on American religion, literature, and culture. He is the author of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (forthcoming from NYU Press) and hard at work on a book tentatively titled The Fighter Who Wouldn’t Fight: Muhammad Ali and the Irony of American Religion.
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