By Rebecca Gebauer
Last week the world mourned the loss of the “Greatest of All Time”, Muhammad Ali. Having grown up long after the great times of Ali as a boxer and generally being suspicious of superlatives being attributed to anyone, I observed the media coverage with some interest and surprise.
My memory of Ali is that of a man impacted by Parkinson’s disease who I merely remember lightening the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1996 and carrying the US flag at the Olympic Games in 2012. Additionally, as I was living in Germany at the time, even during those big events I did not get to see original interviews of Ali but only documentaries on him. Essentially, I had no idea why a boxer of the 1960s and 1970s was called “The Greatest of All Time”.
Now, living in the UK, I could not escape the greatness of this man as TV was dominated by commemorations flooding in and old interviews of the young and strong Ali being shown. I came to know what a young, dashing man with a truly witty sense of humour Ali had been who was so much different from the old, sick man I had associated him with. I admired his boasting self-confidence which surprisingly never seemed to drift into arrogance. I read about his on-going engagement in the citizens’ rights movement and his strong opposition against the Vietnam war and his personal cost for that. I learnt how he engaged with, befriended, helped and inspired people from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds while he also was a devout Muslim.
I also watched a BBC interview with him on Michael Parkinson’s show in 1971 and truly enjoyed it for the many jokes Ali made but also got into deep thinking about the powerful answers Ali gave. Mr Parkinson prompted one of his questions stating that Ali was involved in a power struggle as part of the citizens’ rights movement. Ali strongly denied being in a power struggle, as it was not at all about having or gaining power of blacks over whites but rather an equality struggle. However, he did not mean a struggle to make everyone equal – no, to Mr Parkinson’s surprise Ali made very clear that races are different and that people should be as clever as birds who know that “blue birds mate with blue birds and red birds mate with red birds”. What a simple but confusing way of explaining that the aim is not at all to be equal but to have equal rights! To exist in peace with each other, appreciating differences rather than trying to mix and mingle everything and to judge everyone by the same cultural standards.
Eventually, I began to understand to understand why this man has fascinated and inspired so many.
Finally, this Friday I watched the memorial ceremony. My understanding is that Ali himself had chosen the speakers and that he wanted it to be a public event. And indeed it, a public event it was. 15 000 free tickets were given out within an hour, and thousands more paid tribute on the 30-mile procession from the A.D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home in Ali’s hometown Louisville, KY to the Cave Hill Cemetery where Ali was laid to rest in a private ceremony before his widow Lonnie proceeded to the public memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center.
The ceremony was led by Imam Zaid Shakir but Ali’s widow Lonnie had invited many other speakers from all walks of public and religious life: actors, pastors, rabbis, Muslim scholars, civil rights activists, politicians, comedians, sportsmen, leaders of native American tribes and many more. All of them shared memories and anecdotes of Ali many of which made the crowd chuckle in happy memory.
In a heartfelt eulogy Billy Crystal shared how he met Ali as a very young stand-up comedian, just at the start of his career in 1974, who happened to be hired to do his Ali impersonation in front of the “greatest of all time”. He described how Ali came to him after his performance and gave him a “bear hug” and said “You’re my little brother.” This was the starting point of a friendship between a Jewish comedian and a black Muslim and the Ali impersonation became one of Crystal’s signature acts. When Crystal was honoured by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ali attended and helped him to raise funds to initiate “Peace through the performing Arts”, a theatre group in which Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians stage plays together. Once, Ali asked Crystal to run with him on the court of a very exclusive country golf club and became incensed when Crystal told him that Jews were not welcomed at the club – Ali never would never run at that club again.
Lonnie also took stage highlighting how Ali used adversity to get stronger and never allowing it to put him down. She said: “If Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he rewrote them.”
Mrs. Ali further said that “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment. He wanted to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. He never became bitter enough to quit or engage in violence.”
Allegedly, some of Ali’s family were not happy with the memorial ceremony and funeral arrangements as they did not follow strict Muslim customs, however, they reflected what Ali had lived all his life – that first of all he was a human concerned for his fellow humans and that he lived his religious values and principles through this concern.
To speak with Bill Clinton’s words:
“The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them. We should never stop looking at the movies.
“But the second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned by the disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa. In the second half of his life he perfected gifts that we all have. Every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart.”
I believe that is the precious legacy Muhammad Ali left us with. He lived his life as a fighter who focused on the good which can be achieved rather than the bad that happened to him and as such he gave a shining example. He lived his faith by putting the human first and hence called all them as brothers and sisters. That is the lesson we should take from this great man’s life.
Can you live by his example and let the Ali in you shine?
Rebecca Gebauer is one of the trustees of Global Minorities Alliance. She tweets at @RebeccaGebauer