It was Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami, a skillful, mouthy young boxer from Louisville, Ky., Cassius Clay, had just beaten his opponent Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Something else, though, was also stirring in his soul.
He and his brother, then Rudolph Clay, had been talking for awhile with members of the Nation of Islam. He had studied the Quran and attended mosques. He had met and developed relationships with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Rumors had circulated for a while that Clay was somehow involved in the NOI, a group founded in Detroit that fused black nationalism and separatism with Islam.
The day after the Liston fight, Ali changed his name to Cassius X and, later, Muhammad Ali, a name given to him by Elijah Muhammad.
Ron Brashear, of Marietta, knows the family well and is author of a book about Ali’s brother, Rahaman Ali, “That’s Muhammad Ali’s Brother: My Life on the Undercard.”
“The champ was feeling pretty down about the way blacks were being treated at the time. Joining the Nation of Islam gave him a sense of pride and inclusion. You are special. You are someone.”
Ali became the most famous public figure to convert to Islam at the time. Ali died Friday at 74 in Phoenix, after he was hospitalized for a respiratory aliment. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for decades.
“He put that faith on the map, especially in the United States,” Brashear said. “They landed a true spokesperson.”
Even outside the U.S., if other Muslims didn’t know boxing, they knew by his very name that he was Muslim.
‘The whole world opened up to him’
Minister Abdul Rahman Muhammad of Atlanta is often cited as the person who set Ali’s feet firmly on the path of Islam.
Muhammad, 84, was living in Miami at the time. Ali was in town at the time and ran across Muhammad as he was selling “Muhammad Speaks,” a NOI publication. He was quoting a song by Louis Farrakhan.
“I said, ‘Man, you’re hip to the teachings’,” Muhammad said. “He said I’m Cassius Clay and I’m going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world.”
The two developed a friendship that turned into teacher and student.
“He was more of a listener,” Muhammad recalled. “He didn’t ask too many questions because he believed. He might ask about what language we used or how old the religion was. Just common questions.”
When Clay converted “the whole world opened up to him. He had reclaimed his own,” Muhammad said. “Clay was not his name. It was a slave master’s name. I traveled with him sometimes. In the Islamic world, he could go among people like a prince.”
Longtime friend and former business manager Gene Kilroy of Las Vegas said Ali “was always a God-fearing person but he was looking for something.”
Kilroy, who was so close to Ali that he was a pall bearer at his mother’s and father’s funerals, said “he started reading the Quran and really lived by it.”
Kilroy went to Ali’s hometown on several occasions.
Once, Ali took him by a Baptist church, where his father had painted several images inside. Ali pointed out that there were no black images. When they went to a white church, where they were singing songs like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Jesus Loves Me”, the minister came out and said, “Boy, get away from here.”
“He knew something was wrong,” Kilroy said. “You believe whatever you believe. Just don’t be wishy washy and he wasn’t. He lived and practiced the Islamic religion. “
He said Elijah Muhammad used to call Ali before fights and tell him how could he lose with Allah on his side?
“It was like a booster rocket to him,” he said.
‘They never lynched me’
Ali’s conversion, however, did not sit well with many, including some members of his own family. His dad accused the group of “brainwashing” his son. Others feared the sect’s separatist ideology.
In his book, “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship”, writer Dave Kindred recounts the time reporters challenged Ali’s connection to the NOI.
“Muslims, that’s a name invented by the press,” Ali retorted. “The real name is Islam, which means peace. More than 750 million people believe in it. I’m one of them. I can’t be a Christian, not when colored people are getting blowed up. I don’t want to be washed down sewers, or hit by stones, or chewed by dogs. The Nation of Islam doesn’t want to take over the United States. It is no hate group. Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons. They pray five times a day. Muslims only want to live in peace with their own kind.”
Later, Ali again made headlines outside of the ring when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. It cost him dearly financially and kept him from the sport he loved.
He refused to serve, citing his faith and the fact that Viet Cong “Never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
Imam Ibrahim Pasha of Decatur first met a younger Ali when he would visit Chicago.
“The foundation of what we know of Muhammad Ali is faith. That’s why he achieved all of his victories,” he said.
Pasha has no doubt that it was that faith that got him through the trying times when he could not fight because of his anti-war views.
“His faith kept him strong.”
Embracing global Islam
Plemon El-Amin, imam emeritus of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in east Atlanta and Ali experienced similar faith trajectories.
Both came from Christian backgrounds and converted to Islam in their 20s, joining the Nation of Islam first.
After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son took over and led the transformation in the NOI into a global Islamic practice, which both Ali and El-Amin followed. They met after both had made that transition.
When Ali visited Atlanta, he often prayed at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in east Atlanta.
In fact, there is an annual Muhammad Ali Road Race, now known as the Annual Road Race for Education, fundraiser for the nearby Mohammed Schools of Atlanta.
El-Amin talked with Ali multiple times at national Islamic conventions and whenever he visited Atlanta.
“He was a very active part of our community,” El-Amin said. “He supported fundraising affairs for the school and supported our mosques. He was always joking and friendly and real serious about the religion.”
On many occasions they discussed the universal concept of religion and the oneness of God.
“The Nation of Islam was good for people to find themselves and get out from under racial inferiority complexes but it was not enough,” El-Amin said. ” It wasn’t universal. The transition from the Nation of Islam to a universal Islamic belief was a bigger transformation than his conversion and changing his name. The second transition was based on purity of faith and oneness of God.”