Sunday, November 12, 2017
Cassius Clay & Muhammad Ali
Cassius Clay. The name might ring a bell for some people who are sixty, or older, or who have a penchant for boxing trivia. It was the given name for the late Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer in history, and indisputably the best known around the planet. In the 1960's Ali famously gave up his name and Christianity, the religion into which he was baptized. He had become intrigued with the teachings of the Nation of Islam which argued that blacks were shackled with the names of slave owners of the past and their religion. Ali's shift to Islam was a pragmatic and public rejection of that oppressive past, rather than a spiritual conversion.
However, years later Ali's wife Belinda challenged his lack of humility after yet another of his reckless explosions of temper and asked him to consider what it meant to be a Muslim. She invited him to write an essay, like a school kid, which he did. As the years went by Ali studied the Koran and became more thoughtful about what his faith meant in terms of personal commitment.
One of Ali's biographers, Jonathan Eig, writes about this personal journey in a recent Washington Post article. He offers this:
As Parkinson’s disease slowed his speech and made it more difficult for him to entertain fans, he would sometimes invite admirers to join him for long religious discussions. He loved comparing the Bible and the Koran. He often said God didn’t care about him for his boxing; God cared only about whether he had been a good person and lived up to the responsibilities that came with being a believer.
This got me thinking about the difference between religion as convention and religion as transformation. I do feel that an aspect of the malaise of mainline religions in North America is the lack of spiritual depth which allows us to both experience God and live our faith in the world. I also pondered the sadness that Ali and many people of colour and many aboriginal people have rejected Christianity because of the failure of its institutions and practitioners to demonstrate a credible witness to Christ as peacemakers and redeemer.
Just the same, I'm grateful for this insight into Muhammad Ali's embrace of Islam as a religion and as a personal spiritual path which deepened over time.