‘The greatest truth in life is that the happiness and peace of each can only be reached through the happiness and peace of all‘
– Muhammad Ali
This comment is typical of Muhammad Ali, who died earlier this week. What is remarkable about his passing was how little grief it has elicited in comparison to celebration of his life and achievements. Even right-wing bigots in UK newspapers like ‘The Sun’ and ‘Daily Mail’ were forced to swallow their own bile and write glowing eulogies.
If you investigate, you will find many saintly or ‘wali‘ type stories about Ali: he gave his time and money to everyone and was a lesson in how to use fame and wealth to achieve noble aims without compromise. I remember a story told by the manger of a Jewish old people’s home in New York. He had gone on radio or television to appeal for some sixty thousand dollars as the home was to be closed otherwise. Ali sneaked in incognito that night and gave him the money. He would not be Ali if he didn’t also tell him ‘now go get the rest from the Jews!’ People who have read about Ali will be able to multiply such examples at will, just as people who study the lives of the Sufi adepts will know that such acts of hidden compassion are typical of them – and indeed Ali was a Sufi adept under Sheikh Hisham Kabbani – although, as with his boxing, he was in no need of a guide – he was a natural.
Ali occupies a strange place in the minds of ‘practising’ Muslims however, largely because these people have a near infinite list of ‘bad’, ‘sinful’ and ‘haraam‘ things that they are obsessing over constantly. Much like the great Muslim luminaries of the past, such as Avicenna and Al Beruni, Muslims would like to take ownership of these individuals because their fame and achievements make them feel proud – all the more so now because Muslims don’t really have anyone to feel proud of – their achievements in all fields from the arts to sciences are defunct and have been so for a very long time (just take a look at what ‘practising’ Muslims consider to be ‘music’ for example – five unattractive men in dresses standing around and ‘harmonising’ in ‘nasheeds‘ – it ain’t ‘Jersey Boys‘, that’s for sure). At the same time though, these individuals are often criticised in hushed (or not so hushed in the case of Salafists) tones by these same Muslims – wasn’t Avicenna actually a philosopher and a ‘kaafir‘? Isn’t it a shame the Al Biruni was an ‘astrologer’?
It is truly lamentable that virtually all of the greats of the Islamic past are anathematised or accused of committing heresies or heinous sins. It is a bad habit of Muslims which they have acquired from the scholars and Imams – unable to make any glorious achievements or legacy of their own (due to the narrow window of operation afforded to them by the puritanism which they themselves propagate), these people have nothing better to do than to decry the great scientists, philosophers and artists of the past and present.
In the case of Ali, ‘practising’ Muslims always worry about his membership of the heretical ‘Nation of Islam’, his colourful love life and even that boxing is ‘not allowed’ in Islam. Or even something as foolish as the fact that he wore shorts. This is a trait of such people and reflects the same moral inversions under which they live their own lives (violent and sexual acts done in the name of Islam never illicit as much indignation from them as ‘free mixing’ or ‘showing your awrah‘).
In fact it is precisely Ali’s life experiences, his honesty about them and the wisdom which he passed on due to them (and that includes his religious evolution, entertainment experiences and romantic life) which make him relevant and important. In a hundred years you can bet your hat that the only Muslims that anyone will remember or care about from the last century are Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. There is a lesson in this for people who would understand it (unfortunately, Muslims are not such people). The reason is that both of them, instead of employing the nauseating trait of pretending to be angels as soon as they came into Islam, were actually very honest about their ideas and practises before and after being Muslim. You can never learn from the experiences or mistakes of someone if the ‘cover their faults’ as Muslims mistakenly tell people to do. Malcolm X is very open about his exploits in crime and sex, and because of this we benefit and learn something. Otherwise his famous biography would be as irrelevant and hideously boring as those of the ‘scholars’ which Muslims love to read and which are as about as realistic as ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ and portray these individuals (who were often truly horrible) as inhuman virtue engines as opposed to real people.
Another thing that Muslims should, but won’t, learn from the impact of Ali’s life and fame is that they should try to excel in public life and the entertainment industry. Ali used both his fame and wealth for noble causes. But if he did not have this fame and wealth, then his impact would have been much diminished. Just because most celebrities, especially today, are empty vessels of fashion and hedonism, doesn’t mean that this is an unavoidable corollary of fame. Ali is the best proof of that. Perhaps because ‘practising’ Muslims know that they would be unable to survive the vicissitudes of fame, they assume that all others are similarly handicapped (after all, they usually cannot control their lusts when blessed with very trifling recognition as Muslim speakers and scholars – imagine if they had the fame and beauty of Ali. They would show no restraint).
We are unlikely to see another Ali in the Muslim community in the foreseeable future, just as we will not see another Malcolm X or an Avicenna. The reason is because Muslims today have a huge list of spurious complexes and ‘haraams‘ which make the emergence of truly famous figures with mass appeal virtually impossible.