Remembering ‘The Greatest’

We can all learn a great deal from the way the late Muhammad Ali lived his life.

By Osama Al Sharif

I met Muhammad Ali, briefly, when I was a boy of eight in Doha in 1968. He was visiting the emirate to seek donations for charitable projects to help America’s black Muslims. He was young, vibrant, and charming and the short encounter with him left an indelible mark on me.

It was an honor to be in the presence of ‘The Greatest.’ I never liked boxing and I rarely followed Ali’s professional career growing up. But the power of his personality, his commitment to civil rights, equality, justice, and religious tolerance inspired me, like millions others, until his death earlier this month.

Ali not only showed courage in the ring as a heavy-weight boxer and champion, but also as a black man in America facing racial discrimination and bigotry. He showed how deeply principled an individual he was when he challenged his government on the Vietnam draft and was willing to lose his title and go to prison. His struggle inspired millions of people, not only African Americans and civil right activists, but disenfranchised citizens all over the world.

His bravery in dealing with Parkinson’s disease is inspiring to all; those who are crippled by physical illness or psychological ones. Ali taught us that belief in oneself is the key to achieving the impossible. Following his retirement in the 1980s, he continued to dominate the world stage as a good will ambassador, a man of peace and someone who loved humanity.

Even in his death, Ali taught us many lessons. The interfaith memorial held to celebrate his life brought together Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people from all faiths, races, and colors. He had a unique capacity to unite; something that’s sorely missing in today’s world.

Ali was a gifted orator and communicator. He was a man whose charisma glowed naturally all the time. He has infected us with love and humility and that is why he remains a hero even for the millions of people who never knew him as a world champion.

Ali’s understanding of Islam, as a faith, is simple that it’s true genius. He caught on the essence of this great religion: love, peace, and fraternity. It’s a stark contrast to the world we live in today. His Islam is a universal one; bringing people together and infusing them with love, dignity, and humility.

I watched Ali’s funeral procession and the memorial ceremony on international TV channels. Not a single Arab station carried the proceedings live. It was scandalous that celebrating the life of the greatest man in our lifetime was so ignored by Arab broadcasters and journalists. Ali’s life and death were the antithesis of the skewed brand of Islam that is being promoted by bloodthirsty outlaws who are attempting to hijack this great universal religion. It was amazing that Christian priests and Jewish rabbis celebrated the life of Ali as they delivered their eulogies along with Muslim clerics. Native Americans and Buddhist monks were also there. This was Ali’s last fight; to deliver a shattering message that what unites us as human beings is much larger and far deeper than what separates us.

Ali’s true greatness is that he remained faithful to his ideals even after he gained world fame. People remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila” fights, but these are not Ali’s only legacy. His humility, courage and self-confidence will be remembered many years from now long after world records are broken and new champs appear on the scene.

I would have loved for Arab and Muslim leaders to come out and remind their people of Ali’s true greatness as a human being and as a Muslim whose beliefs did not prevent him from opening up to so many people of all faiths and color. This is the message that we should retell, especially to our children whose heroes today are animated cartoon figures and not real human beings. Long ago I wrote that we are missing true heroes in our lives; today we miss the likes of Ali.

President Barack Obama delivered a profound tribute to Ali. “The man we celebrate today was not just a boxer, or a poet, or an agitator, or a man of peace. He was not just a Muslim, or a black man, or a Louisville kid. He wasn’t even just ‘The Greatest of All Time’,” he said. “He was Muhammad Ali, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. He was bigger, brighter, more original and influential than just about anyone of his era. How fortunate we all are that ‘The Greatest’ chose to grace our time.”