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That speech at Muhammad Ali’s funeral

Humanity, not just the boxing world, suffered a big blow from the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday June 3, 2016. The three-time world heavyweight…

Humanity, not just the boxing world, suffered a big blow from the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday June 3, 2016. The three-time world heavyweight champion who had Parkinson’s disease for 32 years died in Phoenix, Arizona; and was buried at Cave Hill cemetery in Louisville, the city of his birth in 1942. Aged 74, the boxing legend was said to have died from “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes.” Abraham Lieberman, Ali’s doctor and a director at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Centre in Arizona, dismissed insinuations which suggested that boxing was solely responsible for Ali’s illness.
It is a tradition across cultures to mourn the dead. However, it was ‘celebration,’ not grief, in Muhammad Ali’s case. Ali’s admirers celebrated him with encomiums of honour for a life well lived. The celebration of Muhammad Ali by millions of mourners across religions and races is a reflection of his devotion to his religion and respect for people of all races and backgrounds.
Muhammad Ali’s funeral which held on Thursday June, 2016 was an occasion that drew thousands of admirers of different races and creeds from far and near the boxer’s hometown. The funeral prayer over Ali’s body was led by Imam Zaid Shakir, founder of Muslim liberal arts school; the Zaytunah College in Berkeley, California. The funeral was held at a convention space in Freedom Hall, the complex where the late boxing legend defeated Willi Besmanoff in 1961 in his last fight in Louisville.
At the interfaith event of Ali’s funeral which began with a recitation from the holy Qur’an (41:30-35) by Imam Hamza Abdul Malik. Many Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other speakers paid tributes to Ali. Some of the tributes were no less eloquent and effectual than the classical prose and poetry that dominated the intellectual space of the 5th century pre-Islamic Arabia.
Ali’s wife Lonnie told the crowd: “If Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he re-wrote them… Muhammad wants young people of every background to see his life as proof that adversity can make you stronger. It cannot rob you of the power to dream, and to teach your dreams.” Former US President Bill Clinton described Ali as “a free man of faith.” He said: “I think he decided very young to write his own story.”
Of all the speeches at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the address by a rabbi, which more than other speeches at the event received a standing ovation was, in the opinion of his writer, the most outstanding. That powerful speech was by Rabbi Michael Lerner who spoke on behalf of all American Jews. Lerner is a long-time interfaith activist and Berkeley-based editor of the Jewish magazine, Tikkun. He praised Ali for daring “to love black people at a time when black people had a hard time loving themselves.” Lerner who called for an end to Islamophobia said: “We Jews, as well as our non-Jewish allies in all religions and secular humanists, wish to pay honour to the Muslims of the world as they continue today the fast of Ramadan, and join with them in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali; a great fighter for justice and peace.”
In his attack of the injustice committed against black people and Muslims, Rabbi Michael Lerner said: “the way to honour Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today; speak out and refuse to follow the path of conformity.” He added that: “Tell the US to stop sending military supplies to Saudi Arabia, which is the sponsor of some of the most hate-filled teachings in the Islamic world…”
Lerner sparked uproarious applause when, in his speech, he denounced the occupation of Palestine, the US drone war and rampant Islamophobia. He used his eulogy for Ali to differ from others, including the US politician Donald Trump who are invoking Ali’s legacy to advance their personal interests. Lerner said: “Tell the politicians who use violence worldwide and then preach violence to the oppressed that it’s time for them to end their drone warfare and every other kind of warfare; to close military bases around the world and bring the troops home.”
The most striking of Lerner’s address was when he unequivocally and unapologetically told the crowd raising his fist and pointing his fingers saying: “Tell the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian state.” This call, coming from a Jew, does not only give credibility to the demand for a Palestinian state but further substantiates the illegality in the 68-year-old Jewish occupation of Palestinian land. Lerner ended his point-blank oration by affirming his “commitment to the well-being of all Muslims on this planet, as well as people of all faiths and secular humanists.” Indeed, Michael Lerner is a rabbi different from not just many other rabbis but also from some non-Muslims whose phobia against Islam and Muslims makes Lerner a true interfaith activist.
Ali was, indeed, a bridge-builder by whose life and religious convictions Islam was better understood and appreciated, especially by non-Muslims. Allah (SWT) who states in Qur’an 6: 124 that “…Allah knows best where (and how) to carry out His mission…” certainly knows best how and why He chose the Sufi-minded Muhammad Ali as a propagator of His chosen religion, Islam. Ali was a character whose Muslim-blended personality provided a platform for people of different creeds to converge. Ali chose the path of Sufism when he courageously said ‘No’ to Farrakhan’s pattern of homophobia. Louis Farrakhan is the leader of the religious group, the Nation of Islam, with which Ali became affiliated in the 1960s.
Muhammad Ali’s religious convictions and his commitment to the principles and ideals of his religion, Islam, more than other sundry factors earned respect for him and for Islam, particularly from followers of other religions. Ali, for instance, refused the offer of a star on the Hollywood walk in reverence of the name of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), which he answered. Ali said he cannot bear anyone walking over the Prophet’s name. So, his star was instead placed on the wall. A more practical demonstration of his religious identity and conviction was when in 1964 he changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali after accepting Islam and joining the Nation of Islam. Ali stood for and defended his beliefs as well as everything he thought was right. May Allah (SWT) grant Muhammad Ali eternal forgiveness and mercy; making Al-Jannah his final abode, amin.

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