(RNS) — Topps, the sports trading card company, has released a series of cards called “Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ” that includes a look at the role of faith in the career of the legendary boxer who announced his conversion to Islam in 1964.
Ali’s religious beliefs are the topic of two of the first dozen cards in the series which have been released online.
The second card in the series, “Converts to Islam,” tells the impact of his decision on Ali’s life and on the world. “His faith guided him as he confronted the indignities of racial discrimination. As one of the most famous Muslims in the world, he travelled widely as a goodwill ambassador, spreading the message of Islam as a religion of peace.”
Another card, “Muhammad Ali becomes Muhammad Ali,” relates how Ali, then a member of the Nation of Islam, made the announcement of his affiliation shortly after winning the heavyweight boxing championship in 1964. For a brief time, in keeping with the practices of the Nation of Islam, he took the name “Cassius X,” before becoming “Muhammad Ali” — though Ali’s opponents and enemies taunted him with his old name throughout his career.
While the Topps card implies that his 1964 conversion settled the matter of his faith, Ali’s religious beliefs continued to evolve. As early as 1961, he had attended meetings of the Nation of Islam, the religious and civil rights movement founded in the 1930s and led by Ali’s time by Elijah Muhammad. But after Muhammad’s death in 1975, Ali, like a majority of Nation of Islam members, began to follow Sunni Islam, the ancient sect followed by the majority of the world’s Muslims.
It’s not at all common for sports trading cards to note the religion of an athlete featured on the company’s cards. Seymour Stoll, a Los Angeles-area physician who owns the world’s largest collection of cards of Jewish baseball players, going back to the 19th century, told Religion News Service that none of the cards in his collection includes a reference to the player’s faith.
A 1991 card featuring NFL star Reggie White, produced by the company Pinnacle, includes both a Bible and an account of White’s work as a nondenominational minister. White’s nickname, “The Minister of Defense,” played on both his work as a preacher and a defensive player.
The sports trading cards industry, which began to falter in the 1990s, has revived in recent years to become a billion-dollar industry.