Quaker Universalist Conversations

In Memoriam: Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

Friend Gerry Yokota an American living in Japan, a member of Osaka Monthly Meeting, Japan Yearly Meeting. Born (Ohio) and raised (Kentucky) Southern Baptist, began attending Friends Meeting in Princeton, NJ, in the early nineties and then became a member of OMM/JYM after moving to Japan.

Muhammad Ali was not a conscientious objector in the narrowest sense of the word. He said he would have fought for his country if he had been convinced that the Vietnam War was a just war. His conscientious objection was conditional, not absolute. But I still believe he deserves some respectful acknowledgment from our community today.

Some Quakers may at some unconscious level feel uncomfortable acknowledging him, considering the violent nature of his profession, boxing. But just a moment of mindful reflection, I believe, might open our eyes and hearts to the potential harm of such distancing. How can we know what profession he might have chosen had he had equal employment opportunity? Who are we to judge?

Muhammad Ali was Muslim, but he requested an interfaith service for his funeral, which was officiated by one imam, two rabbis, and a Christian minister. I would like to share some quotes for contemplation, and let him speak for himself.

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam War-Draft (1967, on YouTube)

I’m not gonna help nobody get something my negroes don’t have. … You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.

— Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam War-Draft (1967)

I hated every minute of it. But I said to myself, ‘Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion’.

— On training, as quoted in “Ali: Born Again!” by Pete Axthelm
and Peter Bonventre, Newsweek (25 September 1978)

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.

I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

— In Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999)
by Mike Marqusee, and in International Socialist Review, Issue 33

Religions all have different names, but they all contain the same truths. … I think the people of our religion should be tolerant and understand people believe different things.

— In “Bush: ‘Justice Will Be Done’” on CNN (20 September 2001),
speaking of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks

Over the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone.

The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey,
by Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen Ali (2004), p. xvi

We all have the same God, we just serve him differently. Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways forms and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.

The Soul of a Butterfly (2004), p. xvii

My soul has grown over the years, and some of my views have changed. As long as I am alive, I will continue to try to understand more because the work of the heart is never done. All through my life I have been tested. My will has been tested, my courage has been tested, my strength has been tested. Now my patience and endurance are being tested. Every step of the way I believe that God has been with me. And, more than ever, I know that he is with me now. I have learned to live my life one step, one breath, and one moment at a time, but it was a long road. I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace and understanding. l am still learning.

The Soul of a Butterfly (2004), p. xix

A statement by Charles Elliott, pastor of Ali’s boyhood Christian community, King Solomon Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, in an interview with BBC, also speaks volumes, I think, about the range of Ali’s ability to reach human hearts: “[God] don’t look at our religion, He look at our heart.”


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