Many years ago, in a land before my balls had dropped for the first time, I was a Boy Scout. I remember one particular Thursday evening that the leader of our little prepubescent group announced that next week would be our troop’s diversity day. Or maybe it was an interfaith day? All I remember is that it had some BS name to it that would make all the white parents pat themselves on the back as though they had actually done anything to combat racism. Since it was going to be diversity day, naturally they chose the only minority in the group to speak, me. Not only did I have the honor of belonging to the only Muslim family in the town, but I also had the honor in living in the single whitest neighborhood in the state. I was about the second darkest person in my grade, and I make Drake look like Wesley Snipes. I had never done any sort of public speaking at that point in my life and I prepared all week for it. I was going to give a little speech on Islam, talk about its core teachings, the five pillars of faith, and the many misconceptions surrounding it. The following week I gave my speech and explained Islam about as well as any 10/11 year old could. At one point we started discussing Muslim stereotypes on TV, and for some reason I looked at one of the parents in the room and asked “Isn’t Muhammad Ali Muslim?” He told me yes he was, and that was the beginning of my relationship with a man who would transform my life.
We don’t have Muslim role models in America, at least role models in the public eye. The only images you see of Muslims on TV are guys with beards angrily yelling at the sky, burning American flags, or waving the flag of a terrorist organization. There aren’t any positive images of “us” on the news, television, movies, and nearly all platforms of the American cultural life. As a kid every year at the beginning of the year we were given a lecture about 9/1, and every year I dreaded the date. Maybe I was just paranoid, but as a kid I swore that every year my teacher made sure to emphasize the fact that the hijackers were Muslim. I wanted to scream. I wanted to stand up and defend myself, because whenever they would talk about Muslims attacking the country I live in I felt that they were talking about *me*. I always wanted to say something, but I never could. I would just put my head down and wait for the day to be over.
Ali was a superhero to me. He was the first Muslim I’ve witnessed to be proud to be Muslim in the public eye. He didn’t shy away from his faith, but he would put it right in your face and make you respect it. He was unapologetically Muslim in a country that has, and still silences any images of Muslims that does not fit the mold that has been laid out for them. He taught me to have pride in myself. He inspired me to speak up for myself and not shy away even when it would be easy not too. If he could lose his belt and risk five years in prison for his beliefs, I could overcome 15 seconds of shyness.
By the time you’re reading this there will probably tens of thousands of articles written about Ali. Some of them will talk about his athletic legacy, others will mention his impact as a civil rights leader, but I can’t do either, and that infuriates me. I cannot talk about Ali as eloquently as everyone else seems to be, and I’ve never been more frustrated with my own inabilities. However articulately people may describe Ali’s legacy, it is not enough. However great they may describe him to be, it is not great enough. Ali is the most loved athlete of all time, but that is still not enough. I wish I was a smarter man, because maybe, just maybe then I could explain to people how important Ali is to me. I can’t, nor could any man, do justice to the Muhammad Ali story. If the oceans were ink, and the land paper, you would run out of both before you could adequately describe his true being, and the impact he had on the world that surrounds him. He was able to change the lives of so many people that he had never seen or even heard of. He taught a lanky beige boy to be proud of who he was in a world rooted against such a thing. Ali gave me my dignity.
I didn’t think Ali could die. I assumed his smile would continue to radiate the world long after I was gone and that his face that lacked a single mark or scratch would be around until the end of time. I mean, how could he die? Dying is something us mere mortals do. Such a task does not seem fit of the man who once knocked out Superman, the man who once handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. But dying is the only ordinary thing Ali ever seemed to do. No man should be as big as he was and move as fast as him. It doesn’t make sense that someone could be the most loved and hated man in his own country. His persona was bigger than the world he shook up that one fateful night in Miami. When people are able to impact others the way Ali did they have religions made after them. He has only just passed away and already his accomplishments seem like folklore. People call for athletes to stand up against social injustice and be the modern day version of Ali, but that’s impossible. A man like him comes by only once in a millennia. Ali became the champion of this world, and now he’s gone on to be the champion of the next, and who am I to complain about that.