The changes in Ali’s religious beliefs capped a long spiritual journey marked by steadfast devotion and commitment. Though renowned for his sexual appetite and enjoyment of worldly pleasures, Ali was unwavering in his faithfulness to the Muslim religion and his belief in Allah. He derived strength and a sense of freedom from unquestioning obedience to Muslim leadership and belief in the omnipotence of Allah. His commitment to the Nation of Islam also supported him in his own quest for a sense of identity and racial consciousness. His loyalty to the movement gave him the confidence necessary to express pride in his blackness and the merits of black culture. He shed the humility and accommodating attitude typically associated with black athletes and defiantly rebelled against the limitations imposed by American society.
The Nation of Islam benefited as much from Ali’s membership as did the fighter himself. Elijah Muhammad might have preached black separatism, railed against the evils of commercialized sport, and viewed boxing with disdain, but he had recognized the value of having Ali as a member of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad knew that what ultimately set Ali apart from anyone else in history was that he was both a Muslim and the heavyweight champion of the world, a combination that would attract unprecedented attention for the Nation of Islam, act as an uplifting force in America’s black community, and cause impassioned responses in a society that placed unremitting faith in the power of sport to break down racial barriers. Ali could be held up as a symbol of unlimited possibilities for black achievement even while he was portrayed as a proud black man who received his basic sustenance from the Muslim religion. He proved invaluable to the Nation of Islam because he encouraged believers to rebel against social oppression and helped to create unity among competing factions.
Ali’s importance to the Nation of Islam can be measured to a large extent by his influence on both the black and white communities in this country. His membership in the Nation of Islam, along with the heavyweight championship, elevated him to hero status of almost mythic proportion among many black Americans. Even those blacks who were appalled by the Nation of Islam’s extremism and segregationist policies were infused with racial pride because of the champion’s boldness in upholding a religion that accused America of everything from crass materialism to racial oppression. By embodying Muslim ideals, triumphing in the ring, and refusing to acquiesce to either the sport establishment or the broader American society, Ali helped invert stereotypes about blacks and inspired members of his race whose daily lives were often filled with drudgery and belittlement. Black Americans of every age group, economic class, political affiliation, and religious denomination were inspired by Ali’s refusal to sacrifice his principles when the clash came between individual success in sport and the imperatives of group action.
Although he garnered respect from white Americans for his great boxing skills and even for the courage of his convictions, large segments of the dominant culture were appalled by Ali’s membership in a movement that talked of “white devils,” scorned Christianity, refused to fight for their country, and believed in black racial superiority. To many whites, Ali was a traitor, pure and simple, an ingrate who had turned his back on America and joined forces with hate-filled blacks who worshiped an unfamiliar god and refused to abide by the guiding principles of this country. They believed that Ali was a misguided soul who had been taken in by manipulative charlatans interested merely in self-aggrandizement rather than true religion. It was inconceivable to many whites that Ali could criticize a country that had provided him with limitless opportunities and the chance to secure wealth beyond that of ordinary citizens.
The transformation of the Nation of Islam following the death of Elijah Muhammad, along with the winding down of the war in Vietnam, the lessening of racial tensions, and other societal changes, would eventually lead to greater admiration of Ali by members of all races. Refusing to join forces with Louis Farrakhan and other blacks who remained loyal to Nation of Islam policy, Ali adhered to the orthodox Islamic religion adopted by Wallace Muhammad and the World Community of Al-Islam in the West. In so doing, Ali assumed an honored place in the public consciousness and became less threatening to many Americans. Like the World Community of Al-Islam in the West, Ali seemingly evolved from a revolutionary who was intent on promulgating social upheaval to a conservative American more concerned with spiritual salvation than racial confrontation.
The discipline, self-help, and strict moral code Ali was expected to observe as a member of the Nation of Islam would be forcefully transmitted into his new religion. Finding himself in an atmosphere more favorable to African Americans and armed with a transformed religiosity, Ali shed his racism to speak of the brotherhood of man and the power of God. His new religious beliefs did not sit well with blacks who continued to worship at the shrine of Elijah Muhammad, but it was a relatively smooth transition for the heavyweight champion, who realized that the promise of freedom in American society served to diminish the belief in racial separatism. Ali had helped to liberate African Americans psychologically. He now involved himself in the uplifting of all people through the promotion of Islam. For Ali, separatism had given way to integration, devils and saints were now members of both races, and Christians were no longer responsible for all the evils in the world.
This is an excerpt from Sport in America: From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization, Volume II, edited by David K. Wiggins.