In 1964, when Muhammad Ali announced that he believed in Islam, he shocked and enraged many Americans. His association with the Nation of Islam, a radical sect most people considered a violent cult, made him the most polarizing villain in sports. Preeminent sportswriter Jimmy Cannon accused Ali of turning boxing “into a mass instrument of hate.” The heavyweight champion, Cannon charged, was “using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit.”
Yet Ali refused to let Cannon or any other critic define his religion. “ ‘Black Muslims,’ ” he said, “is a press word. It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is ‘Islam.’ That means peace.” Ali insisted that Americans’ suspicions of Islam were unfounded. “Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons. They pray five times a day. . . . All they want to do is live in peace.”
Since Ali died this past weekend, the story of his conversion has been told and retold. But one subtle point has gotten lost in the recollections: Ali used boxing as a platform to promote Islam as a peaceful religion. In defense of his faith, he became a visible symbol of resistance against Islamophobia. Before of each of his fights, he would pray in his corner with his eyes closed, head bowed and his gloves turned skyward. When he embraced his “original name,” Muhammad Ali, most Americans refused to use it. It sounded too foreign and too subversive in a country that generally distrusted Muslims of any kind. In the 1960s, his boxing matches took on a larger cultural meaning as a threat to traditional Christian values.