MUHAMMAD ALI: reflecting on a decade of serving a soul’s preparations for the journey home

 Timothy J Gianotti

June 19, 2016, Toronto


For over a decade, I was blessed with the privilege of being one of two Muslim scholars/theologians who worked with Muhammad and Lonnie Ali, along with a small team of dedicated professionals – lawyers, accountants, funeral directors, PR specialists and event planners, law enforcement and security, government officials, etc. – to prepare for Muhammad Ali’s inevitable passage from this world to the next.  Muhammad had given this much thought as his body declined, and he wanted his funeral events to be his last statements to the people of planet Earth.  He insisted that his burial and funeral be in accord with Islamic law and traditions, but he wanted everything – insofar as it was possible – to be open to and inclusive of folks of all backgrounds and faiths.  In other words, anchored in an unwavering belief that God is one and so godly religion must be unitive, he wanted to bring diverse peoples and faiths together in these special and definitive celebrations of his life and legacy. 


The spiritual and practical preparation for death and the afterlife is considered to be a critically important dimension of Muslim spiritual life, and so I was happy to be of service when I received a call some ten years ago to help an anonymous yet “prominent” American Muslim think through what it would mean for him to have an authentic Muslim funeral that would be religiously inclusive.  As I researched Muslim traditions and consulted with trusted scholars and religious leaders about an increasingly complex array of hypothetical situations and questions, I crafted briefs for the client and his/her team of advisors.  As the trust grew between us and the briefs were becoming one larger work on Muslim funerary practices and possibilities, non-disclosure agreements were brought out, and the identity of the client was revealed.  At this point, the contractual nature of my consulting melted away and the work became a work of love and service to a great soul whom I was just beginning to know.


When the time finally came for meetings and meals in the Ali home in Louisville, I had no idea how powerfully I would be affected.  I have been somewhat estranged from the sporting world since high school (more than three decades), and, even when I had been more engaged as an athlete and fan, I never followed boxing.  So, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I did not know very much about the Champ’s boxing career when I first met him and Lonnie.  The man I met in Louisville, however, was not the personification of physical power and verbal brilliance that revolutionized boxing and changed both sporting and human rights history; he was rather a humble, purified soul, who spoke very softly when he spoke at all, and whose physical vulnerability was both evident and moving.  It was almost as if the arc of his life was proclaiming a universal truth that even the greatest, strongest, and most celebrated among us leave the world the way they come: vulnerable, weak, humble, dependent, and yet – in all of this – bearing witness to God’s miraculous power.  This Divine light radiated, I think, from his grace-filled acceptance of his condition and his intense drive to use his remaining strength to serve humankind in compassion and courage and unwavering faith.


So what I remember from the passage of this great soul is the way he loved universally, the way in which peoples of all faiths and cultures and socio-economic situations embraced him back as one of their own, the way he gave dignity and hope to people, the way in which his compassion reached the most desolate areas and the most desperate hearts, the way his courage ignited new hope and inspired so many to stand for what they believed.  This was the spirit that hovered over the procession of his coffin in his hometown of Louisville, where folks of all ages, all colors, all faiths, and all socio-economic situations lined the streets and wept and tossed flowers in the blessed streets through which he ran one last time… Amidst the tears of grief and love and pride, they chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali” and held up hand-written signs saying “Thank You!”  Never have I witnessed such an outpouring of love.  Riding in the car directly behind the hearse, both Imam Zaid Shakir and I commented that this could be nothing other than “Wilaya” – the intimate belovedness to God that awakens and emboldens the love of humans and angels alike. 

Watch Dr. Gianotti’s interview with CBC News here.