Sports fans. African Americans. Pacifists. Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at 74, was a hero to many.
But no group may have taken more pride in Ali’s accomplishments than Muslim Americans, who honored the legendary fighter Thursday at a heartfelt prayer service in the city where he grew up.
“Ali made being a Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant,” said one speaker, scholar Sherman Jackson. “Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim AND an American to rest.”
Some 14,000 people filled a large conventional hall adjacent to Freedom Hall arena, where Ali fought some of his early bouts, to view his closed casket and pay their respects. Despite the solemn nature of the occasion, many attendees appeared upbeat — greeting friends, swapping Ali stories and snapping photos of such celebrities as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, promoter Don King, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.
Thousands of free tickets were made available for fans to attend the service — a brief program of prayer, called a jenazah — honoring the global icon who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville but changed his name in the mid-1960s after converting to Islam. Many in the crowd wore traditional kufis or hijabs on their heads as speakers in both English and Arabic praised Ali’s dignity, courage, wit and selflessness.
Jackson said Ali did more than any sheik, theologian or imam to normalize Islam in the U.S. Rather than lash out at the racism and other tribulations he faced in life, Ali responded with “nothing but bigness of heart and graciousness of spirit,” he said.
“The passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world,” said Jackson, a professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. “It has brought us a nagging sense of sadness,” he said, wondering aloud “if God will ever grace us again with anything that comes anywhere close to the majesty that was Muhammad Ali.”
Imam Zaid Shakir, a Muslim scholar, called on people to continue Ali’s legacy of doing good deeds, touching the hearts of others and acting with charity.
“You know best, oh God, that the times we live in, they don’t call for another giant like Muhammad Ali,” said Shakir, co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. “They call for a lot of small, ordinary people convincing themselves that they will do everything within their power, that we will do everything within our power to begin to measure up to the greatness of the people’s champ.”
Ali’s casket was wheeled into the service shortly after it began, with a short steel barricade separating it from mourners. The brown wooden casket was covered with a cloth with Islamic inscriptions. Throngs of people swarmed it, forcing police to intervene as it passed through the hall, shouting, “Step back! Step back!”
Attendees were given a special Quran for the event, with passages printed in English. Some mourners wore white, others wore black suits, and still others wore Islamic clothing of all colors. The service was open to people of all faiths.
“I saw a Jewish man hug a Muslim man. I’ve never seen that,” said Kashae “Kween” Robinson, a Muslim woman who drove Wednesday from Atlanta to attend. “It just makes my heart sing to see something like this. To have all these people, all these colors, all these races, all these religions together.”
Khalid Samad came from Cleveland, Ohio. He wore a white outfit and carried a T-shirt that proclaimed Ali as the G.O.A.T, the Greatest Of All Time.
As he walked into the arena, he recited one of Ali’s famous chants, adapted for the occasion: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You can’t hit what your eyes can’t see. Rumble, young man, rumble. R.I.P. Ali”
Thursday’s service will be followed Friday by a morning funeral procession through the streets of Louisville (see route on map, above), followed by a public memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center arena. Former President Bill Clinton, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel and comedian Billy Crystal are among those expected to deliver eulogies.
Demand for tickets is high. Authorities are going after ticket scalpers trying to profit off selling funeral tickets, said Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell, who called their attempts to cash in “despicable.”
In the end, it was Ali himself who planned his own funeral. True to his giant character, he wanted it as open as possible — with a chance for his fans to say goodbye. Three days of funeral proceedings began Wednesday with a downtown festival called “I Am Ali.”
“He was the greatest,” Jeffrey Mitchell, 50, said Wednesday at the festival. “He was the most recognizable face in the world, regardless of sports. All over the world he was known, so that meant a lot to the city.”
“As an American, as a African-American, as a Muslim, he really inspired me to fight and to stand for what was right and what was strong,” Ayah Kutmah, 18, said on Wednesday at the downtown festival.
“He was a hero for all Muslims all around the world. You saw him as a symbol against oppression, against Islamophobia, against people who tried to put him into a small sphere. He was like, ‘These are my beliefs, you can take it or you can leave it.’ That really inspired us to take a stand.
“It’s a real testament to the power of Muhammad Ali, his message and all he stood for that so many thousands showed up to be able to recognize him,” fan Brian Eller told CNN affiliate WAVE-TV, leaving empty-handed after waiting in line for hours for tickets to Friday’s service.
Another fan, Jeanne Stone told the TV station she traveled from Rochester, New York, for a chance to attend Friday’s memorial service. She said she briefly met Ali, by chance, on a flight a few years ago.
“He came down the aisle of the plane and shone in my mind,” she said. “He was like the gift of kindness … you saw this shining soul. It made an imprint on my life.”