Muhammad Ali was my personal champion

Muhammad Ali was introduced to the Nation of Islam while he trained in Miami in the 1960s, and later converted.
Muhammad Ali was introduced to the Nation of Islam while he trained in Miami in the 1960s, and later converted. via Getty Images

Muhammad Ali shocked the world in 1964 when he won the World Heavy Weight Championship by beating Sonny Liston. Sixteen years later, Ali shocked my world.

As a 4-year-old immigrant Muslim kid growing up in Miami, my world was very small. My Miami was a mix of errands and hanging out with my mom while my sisters were at school and my dad was at work. My parents’ social circle was a tiny group of fellow immigrants and a few of our neighbors. Our spiritual life was defined by prayer services at homes that served as makeshift mosques and the occasional trek to Miami’s oldest mosque, Masjid Al-Ansar in Liberty City.

My world was overwhelmingly brown, black, immigrant, and other. My first meal at another family’s home was for Passover. The flavors and beats of that period were a blend of curry, corner store guarapo, Jamaican patties and Dad’s reggae and Bollywood vinyls. No part of the America that I saw through TV resembled my world. I knew that we lived in America because my parents talked longingly about their homeland of Guyana, but I didn’t yet feel American.

One lazy Saturday, I accompanied my parents to pick up a friend at the airport. As we waited at arrivals, we saw a gaggle of people surrounding a Herculean man. My mom told me that it was the famous boxer, Muhammad Ali. As soon as I locked eyes with his, something strange happened — this giant reached down and put me on his shoulders and started chuckling. Mom whipped out a pen and got me an autograph. As Ali took me down, he asked me my name and then looked at me and told me with authority that I was a “champ.”

When I got home, my dad told me all about the legend of Muhammad Ali. He took me to the library down the street to get a few books. Even though I couldn’t read, I devoured every picture of The Champ and every anecdote my dad could rustle up about legendary battles like the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

The biggest reveal came when my dad told me that Muhammad Ali was Muslim just like us. This packed a punch because it seemed impossible that someone as American as Ali could also be a Muslim. Ali, after all, was that figure who had a comic book cover of him fighting Superman. My 4-year-old brain struggled to comprehend that Ali and I shared this bond.

As the weeks went by, the memory of Ali began to fade. The occasional trip out to Friday prayers was special mostly for the biriyani (spicy rice) and cane juice. Then one Friday in the prayer line, I heard whispers from other boys: “Ali is at Jumaa.” I was in disbelief.

After prayers, I saw the congregation surround one figure. It was my hero, The Champ. Here he was having prayed at the same place that I prayed. I got my high-fives and hug from The Champ and was ecstatic.

Seeing Ali inhabit a space that was otherwise so foreign to the rest of America, made me appreciate the richness of my new homeland. I’ve since spent decades in a study of Ali’s journey to reconcile the complex facets of his identity: a Black man, a celebrity, a Muslim, a father, a patriot & a rebel. Ali established that the Muslim identity need not be the binary options of victim or villain, but could be that of human being. Ali also demonstrated that while our identity might be a singularity we create, the real beauty lies in the intersections. Ali did what millions of ordinary Americans do each day in making our founding motto, e pluribus Unum — “out of many one” — a reality.

A year ago, The Champ exited from the world stage in the first ever globally televised Muslim funeral. One year on from Ali’s passing and amid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I reflect on his enduring legacy to choose love and understanding over fear of the “other.” Ali inspires me on the power of bridge-building in the public square. I am eternally grateful that The Champ lent me his shoulders to see the world as it should be, and I believe that is what we must all do for all kids.

The Champ’s belief in the power of service lives on in his own words:

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

Saif Y. Ishoof is senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs at Florida International University. His work focuses on promoting civic engagement, innovation, educational equity and cross-sector collaboration in the public square.