MUHAMMAD ALI: Reflecting On the Champ’s Life and Enduring Legacy

Reflecting upon the life, death, and enduring legacy of Muhammad Ali

Timothy J Gianotti

June 17, 2016

Exactly a week has passed since we laid Muhammad Ali’s meticulously and lovingly prepared body to rest in Louisville, Kentucky.  As Providence would have it, the light and peace and love and hope that his passing generated was quickly challenged by the all-too-familiar news of another mass shooting, the worst in America’s long and sobering list of such killings in recent years.  Thus, even though only a week has passed since Muhammad Ali’s funeral, burial, and interfaith memorial service, we are forced to face the atrocities of Orlando as we seek to look back to his passing and reflect upon his enduring legacy, the light of which shines yet in the darkness of our grief and horror.

If there is a single word that encapsulates what we witnessed last week in Arizona (where Muhammad Ali passed into his Lord’s mercy) and then Kentucky (where the Champ was buried and given both a traditional Muslim funeral and an interfaith memorial), it is “belovedness.”  Muhammad Ali touched and transformed the hearts of all those who knew him, even those who were his fiercest opponents in the ring, and the evidence of his presence has been palpably manifest in the intense love that he generated in these hearts.  This love transcended all boundaries – ethnic, religious, socio-economic, national, etc – so much so that countless souls came up to us and stated, “he belonged to us.”

In the verified traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace and blessings be ever upon him and his family), it is reported

“When God loves a servant, He calls Gabriel and says: ‘I do indeed love so and so; you should also love him.’ And so Gabriel begins to love him. Then he [Gabriel] makes an announcement in the heaven saying, ‘God loves so and so and you should also love him.’ Then the inhabitants of the Heaven (the Angels) also begin to love him, and honour is bestowed upon him on earth…”

To those of us who had the profound privilege of being part of his journey from death to the grave, and to the millions of lives who stand in testimony to the transformative power of Muhammad Ali’s love, there is no question that God loved this brother.  Because I believe this to be true, I am emboldened by the hopeful conviction that the transformative power of his love, his inclusivity of all folks and faiths, his concern for the poor and the marginalized, his generosity of spirit and wealth, his courageous adherence to principle, even when it cost him dearly, and his unwavering faith in God will continue to illumine and inspire hearts, even in this present moment of pain and grief and fear.

The champ has been laid to rest; the baton has been passed; it is now our time to be Muhammad Ali.

Dr. Gianotti’s tribute at the memorial service can be viewed here.