“When I met Ali”: Leeds imam’s tribute to ‘The Greatest’
People throughout the world have been mourning the loss of legendary Muhammad Ali, however he had told the world quite some time ago that he was “ready to meet God” as he had lived his life to the full.
Though of a different generation, I was drawn to Muhammad Ali’s magnetic personality from an early age. His charisma and self-sacrificing nature together with his confidence, principles, and the courage to stand up for justice were some of the many things that dearly appealed to me and made me one of his admirers, like millions of people across the world.
I always wanted to meet Muhammad Ali and invite him to my mosque in Leeds, Makkah Mosque. Makkah Mosque had been working with his Muhammad Ali Centre on youth projects as both institutions shared the same vision to promote ‘peace, social responsibility and respect’.
My opportunity to meet the superstar Muhammad Ali came in 2009 when he was in England. I will cherish those moments for the rest of my life.
I went up to him to shake his hand, instead he offered me his classical sparring boxing move. He held his hands up as if he was about to knock the life out of me. After this brief and somewhat intimidating exchange, he held my hand in his soft and warm palms.
Despite the fact that he had declared himself to be ‘the greatest’ to his opponents - and proved to be so by his example - he was remarkably humble and spoke with a gentle and loving voice. He was still very handsome and had great charisma, with a twinkle in his eye.
Whilst sitting besides the champion and taking to him, I could not help but think how the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, was now in an endless bout against Parkinson’s disease. His will and self-belief were as strong as ever. Despite his pain, he had a smile on his face.
Part of Ali's greatness was his ability to be different things to different people. He belonged to everyone, and his impact transcends continents, backgrounds and languages. Hence, in poll after poll, he has come out as the most loved person. He was crowned ‘Sports Personality of the Century’ by the BBC. To sports fans he was an unbeaten champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To the African-American community, he was a fearless black man, who was willing to stand up against injustices and bigotry.
Muhammad Ali was not perfect but I found him to be a deeply spiritual individual who had tremendous respect and passion for his faith. In 2002, he was honoured with a star on the world famous Hollywood Walk of Fame – but it wasn’t like all the other stars. Ali would refuse for the star to be on the pavement because "I bear the name of our Beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name," he said. The star was mounted on the wall at the Kodak Theatre entertainment complex.
His wife told me that during the night when Ali was been unable to sleep, he would get up and read the Qur’an. When I presented to him a copy of the Glorious Qur'an during one of our meetings, he wanted to hold it and read it, even though his hands were shaking due to his physical condition and he was struggling to hold it. He asked for the copy of the Qur'an to be put in his library. Muhammad Ali was not a materialistic person. His close friends told me that whenever people gave him gifts, such as expensive watches, he never kept them to himself, rather he gave them away, but whenever someone gave him something personal, albeit inexpensive he kept it in his library.
It was Muhammad Ali's faith that inspired him to be a champion of civil rights; he fought for a better world for fellow human beings. He wanted to bring smiles to people's faces, as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said “smiling is an act of charity”. Amongst the memorabilia that the Makkah Mosque community has is a cheque that Muhammad Ali signed and dated 18 March 1970 but in the place of an amount, it says “Keep Battling”.
At the time of writing the cheque, Ali was in exile due to the stance he had taken against the Vietnam War by refusing to serve when called to do so. During those days, he was asked for money by someone in need, and although he had no money to give to this person, he did not want to turn him away with nothing therefore he gave him what he could; inspirational words.
Although Muhammad Ali may no longer be with us, his courage, his outspokenness, and his sacrifice for the sake of his community and country lives on in the best part of each of us. I hope that we can find appropriate ways to celebrate his life and continue with his legacy to stand up for justice, freedom and equality.