(RNS) As a young New York Muslim, who did not watch or understand boxing, I knew Muhammad Ali was the greatest. After all, he bore the name of two of the most important figures to Muslims: Muhammad and Ali.
The first name is the name of the prophet of Islam, who received the revelation of the Quran and remains a role model for Muslims. Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and successor to his authority, is known among Muslims as the “Lion of God” and the “peerless hero.”
There are moral facets of these historic figures and the great boxer manifested them. He was unabashedly Muslim when no one in the U.S. really knew who Muslims were. I could say, “I’m Muslim, like Muhammad Ali.” By the time I was old enough to say that, people liked him again.
But for a time, Ali was the most hated man in America. He was on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, and came back with a gold medal. Yet he could not get a seat at a restaurant because of the color of his skin. He became Muslim, and gave up the name Cassius Clay, calling it his slave name.
People started rejecting him then, as though they owned him and could call him by his birth name. His act of transformation resulted in people acting in a way that proved Ali’s point — that he could not be fully human in the racial system in America.
He refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Much like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he recognized that racism at home and the way we fight wars are linked. Racism does not end at our shores, and to fight for democracy overseas while denying it at home was hypocritical. His views quickly became part of the American mainstream.
This history was something I would learn as I got older.
When I was a kid, his name was synonymous with determination, hard work, success, and community. Muhammad Ali was a man with the people. He would spend time at schools, do charitable work, and lend his voice to questions of moral justice.
In 1996, Ali lit the Olympic torch at the start of the Atlanta Games. His moral stands were vindicated, as he went from the most hated man in the country, to the symbol of the U.S. at an international event.
Ali defined more than a generation. His religious identity was new to the American public, but he did with it what many believers have done — offered a voice of moral clarity and urgency to the issues of the day.
The vision he had would radically change the way the country was structured.
He was right. The country shifted. We recognized that segregation was wrong. He wore no collar, kippa, nor kufi, but he had that sense of what was right and that he had to act on it.
That surety of faith, a faith that was active in the world, through which you could affect change, is inspirational. He did not coerce by the fist, but by charisma and righteousness. The weight of his certainty drew you in, with an inescapable gravity.
Ali, an American Muslim, defined the nation and a generation. Our heroes are the people who inspire us to the best in ourselves, and he is an American hero.
According to Muslims, God is greater, Allahu Akbar. It is a humbling thought, and perhaps what grounded Ali in the needs of the people.
When someone dies, a Muslim will say “we are from God, and we return to God.” As Ali returns to God, the good he did will carry him forward.
(Hussein Rashid is an adjunct professor at Barnard College)