Even in his final months, Muhammad Ali was speaking out on behalf of Islam, the religion he so famously embraced in the 1960s by changing his name and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
In December, the boxing legend issued a statement criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Ali called on fellow Muslims to “stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Ali, who died Friday at 74, endured public scorn when he joined the Nation of Islam as a young athlete. Decades later, long after he had achieved worldwide renown, he kept advocating for Muslims in the US who felt their religion made them political targets.
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“American Muslims would be well-served to look at the challenges that Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had to deal with,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ali’s lesson “from that difficult period is that although he was criticized and marginalized for his beliefs, there were many people who were not Muslim that came to his defense,” said Walid, who is black and Muslim.
“There are people in America today of goodwill who are not Muslim who are willing to stand with us. But we have to be the ones who have to be courageous and stand up for ourselves and be unapologetically Muslim and American.”
Ali’s persistence both inside and outside the ring won over many critics, according to Walid and other Muslims.
While detractors didn’t always agree with him, many came to respect his principled stands.
Muslims in particular praised his humanitarian work, which included lending his name and time to numerous relief campaigns and helping to secure the release of American hostages in Iraq.
Born Cassius Clay in a segregated Louisville, Kentucky, Ali angered many Americans when he refused to fight in Vietnam. But in 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. Lyndon Bilal, commander of the Muslim American Veterans Association, said through his “love, character and courage,” Ali had “always been a friend of soldiers and America.”