In Louisville, Ali seen as face of 'real Islam'

On Sunday, two days after the three-time heavyweight champion known simply as "The Greatest" died at age 74, hundreds of people filed past his childhood home in Louisville, now a museum dedicated to his remarkable life.

A member of the Louisville Islamic Center writes messages on a memorial banner as she pays her respect to Muhammad Ali at the Islamic Center in Louisville, Kentucky.   -  REUTERS

At a time when Muslims in America are facing scorn and bigotry, the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali should be remembered as the true, peaceful face of Islam, residents of his hometown say.

On Sunday, two days after the three-time heavyweight champion known simply as "The Greatest" died at age 74, hundreds of people filed past his childhood home in Louisville, now a museum dedicated to his remarkable life.

Mourners leaving flowers and other mementos remembered his sporting prowess and his activism, but also spoke of Ali and his Muslim faith -- he converted in the mid-1960s -- and how his example can help dispel stereotypes about Islam.

"As a Muslim, I think it's definitely important for us that we have such a person in the respected world that's known to everybody, that gives us a good image," said Hamza Shah, a doctor in Louisville, where Ali grew up and first started boxing.

"With the stuff going on these days, most of the time, you see in the media there's a bad image of Muslims," Shah said.

"The one person we can definitely get a good image of was Muhammad Ali, and he portrayed what the real Islam is."

Since early 2015, attacks by Muslim extremists in Paris, San Bernardino, California, Brussels and elsewhere have fuelled animosity among some Americans toward the Islamic world.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, now the party's presumptive nominee, has seemingly co-opted that hostility for political gain, on Sunday even suggesting a Muslim judge could be biased against him in US courts.

Trump sparked outrage at home and abroad in December when he suggested a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

"We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," Ali said in a sharp rebuke to the Trump proposal.

"I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam, and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is."

When he learned that Ali -- who abandoned his given name Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam in 1964 -- had died, Chicago-based imam Syed Hussein Shaheed said he dropped everything to head to Louisville. Shaheed was traveling with several other men, all dressed in white and wearing caps.

"He was famous for multiple reasons, but the biggest was that he became Muslim," Shaheed said, as he and his group contemplated an art installation at the Muhammad Ali Center, another place in Louisville where fans have gathered.

Ali was respected throughout the Muslim world -- from Pakistan to Indonesia, from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia and across Africa -- for the values he espoused and promoted, the imam said.

"He didn't want to kill anybody, he couldn't do it and he did not want to support people who were killing people in a wrongful way," the imam said in reference to Ali's refusal to serve in the US armed forces in Vietnam.

That decision cost Ali his heavyweight title, years of his career and nearly landed him in prison.

"He stood up as a man of truth, and Muslim countries look to people who not only are truthful but also compassionate and merciful."

That message of tolerance and compassion was celebrated Sunday at an interfaith prayer service in Ali's honor at Louisville's Islamic Center.

"At a time when a candidate for the most powerful position in the world encourages us to fear those who are different from us, we need the voice, we need the presence of Muhammad Ali," said Derek Penwell, who leads a Christian church in the city.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Ali sharply cautioned Americans against categorizing all Muslims as extremist killers.

"Islam is a religion of peace. It does not promote terrorism or killing people," he said.

"I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting the murder of thousands."

He repeated the message in his December response to Trump, saying: "True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion."

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who is fighting Hillary Clinton for the right to face Trump in November, said Saturday that Ali was not only an elite athlete but a champion of civil rights, and a true believer in Islam.

"To all of Donald Trump's supporters who think it is appropriate to tell us that they love Muhammad Ali but they hate Muslims, understand that Muhammad Ali was a devout Muslim who took his religion very seriously," Sanders said.

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