Muhammad Ali was an important chapter in my personal understanding and growth in Islam.
When I was younger, I used to go to an Islamic School on a Saturday, the teaching was very strict and it really struck a fear of God into me. From a young age I have been conscious of my actions and the consequences, and for a while I was so overwhelmed by it and I distanced myself from my faith. I was scared that I wasn’t good enough and I felt so much pressure and very little peace.
As I got older, many things happened that made me feel like I was being called back to my faith. From the people I met to the places I visit and the little signs that you learn to read in life. Some of these signs manifested themselves through the words in books and quotes that I heard from people.
One of the biggest influences in drawing me back to my faith was without a doubt the literature and expression of Tariq Ramadan. When reading his work I really connected with the peace of the religion, and I felt the positive effect of having my Iman close to me.
It’s funny that my name is Iman, but for a while I got people to call me Leila because I got tired of having to avoid little wisecracks about my name having the word “man” in it. But when I got closer to my faith I got closer to my name, and now I feel like it fits me properly and I wear it with humble pride…
Apart from Tariq Ramadan, Muhammad Ali was another great influence. Ali is famous for many quotes, but there is one video that really changed my perspective on Islam and with time brought me peace and understanding. In an interview, a young boy got up to ask Ali what he intended to do after he retired. Ali could have said that he was going to wear slippers all day, watch all of his best matches back to back whilst eating rice crispies from the packet and that would have probably satisfied the little kid, but he didn’t. Ali took the opportunity, quite out of context, to relay to the audience the number of days and waking hours each person has left on this earth.
He went on to talk about how each person would meet his creator and the fate that would await those who would go to hell. I felt the uncomfortable feeling creeping up in my stomach like I used to get when my teachers told me of similar examples when I was a seven year old girl learning about the Quran. I felt a bit nervous and I wanted to turn the video off. But I didn’t. My friend who had showed it to me couldn’t understand why I felt uncomfortable by it.
I took a moment and thought about it. I didn’t want to lose the ground that I had gained in my spiritual journey but I knew that I could never talk like Muhammad Ali was talking. The fear in me is so high that it is enough for me to listen, but talking about punishments does nothing to strengthen my faith, it just makes me feel scared. I came to this realization though that for Ali, the words were exactly what he needed. Ali is the World’s Greatest by title, and is recognized as such even when the world knows that he is very ill at home. Ali has had decades of success and been held up by black, white, and Muslim communities worldwide. There is a film where he is played by Will Smith, a song sung by R Kelly, and thousands of teenagers, including myself, have pasted their walls with inspirational posters quoting him. The man looks invincible.
But nobody is invincible, and we all need to know that in order to keep ourselves in check, from power, arrogance and selfishness. Ali has always shown that Islam is what has kept him grounded, even when speaking of his long-term illness he once said: “God gave me this illness to remind me that I am not the greatest, he is”. It is a sad thing to think of such a strong man being so weak, but his words show such strong faith inside him that it calls for a lot of respect.
Ali found his peace in Islam, through the means which he required, being the man that he is. I too have found my peace in Islam, even though my needs, vices and virtues are very different from his. This is because Islam is a religion that knows that one size does not fit all. We are all created differently and find ourselves differently, and whilst Ali finds security in some areas of Islam, I know that they exist whilst focusing my learning on that parts that make me work harder to be better every day. I have faith, and the fear is present, but too much paralyzes me but the balance for Ali is stronger because his character is such that he requires a higher dosage.
In a way it is like when you are dealing with your children. You love all of them equally, and you expect the same basic priciples from each of them, but you recognise their differences, how they respond to praise and punishment, and whilst you treat them all fairly you take into consideration what it is they need as an individual to grow. Some children are more sensitive than others and need a little bit of extra encouragement, some are reckless and need to be reigned back in, but essentially you are all from the same family.
Muhammad Ali did not show me how to be a Muslim. He showed me that anyone can be a Muslim, as long as they accept the fundamental principles and look to improve themselves, give thanks and ask for forgiveness, there is space for anyone within this beautiful religion.
Today there are many more prominent figures who have adopted Islam, but Muhammad Ali was one of the first big names, and in a world where the media is often short of representing Muslims in a positive light, I am glad that I grew up in a world where Ali had broken the mould.
You may be of a different opinion, but my own opinion allows for that but I do not want to get involved in a debate. This is my own personal viewpoint that I wanted to share because I have been thinking about Ali a lot recently regarding his health. I wish peace upon you, whether you have faith or not, I am not looking to influence or convert anyone and I sincerely hope that you have a blessed and happy day.