Search Sports Theology

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali at the Intersection of Sports and Religion

At the intersection of sport and faith, there is perhaps no more profound and compelling figure and exemplar than Muhammad Ali. His faith as a Muslim was and is the very core of his being. Ali reflected, like a brilliant crystal, so many manifestations of exceptional, courageous, and enlightened ultralight beams. His creativity, the dance of his words and his feet, the poetry of his punch and the punch of his poetry, made him seem superhuman. Yet the sacred bonds Ali created with so many people over his lifetime, with his "playful jab", the flash of his smile and the light in his eyes which, as Keith Olbermann wrote this weekend, seem to honest-to-God telepathically communicate Ali's great and overflowing love and affection, revealed his clear, plain humanity. His faith as a Muslim was the fuel of his human heart and spirit, his generosity, and his defiance of the inhumane.

In his spiritual memoir Soul of a Butterfly, Ali spoke of his own understanding of faith:

My wealth is in my knowledge of self, love, and spirituality.

Ali, in his persona and spirit, was a revelator of the complexities and potentialities not just of the American character, but of the entire intertwined mutuality of the common thread of human character itself. He crossed boundaries of inhumanity with intention and strength. He resisted the cages we place around ourselves and others. His faith as a Muslim allowed him to understand that he was first and foremost a servant of God. His mood of service, his devotion, was actually the source of his greatest wealth, and this wealth, in the great cosmic irony that comes with true humble devotion to God, was what actually gave him the audacity and integrity to claim himself as The Greatest.

Ali found himself, in more ways than one, in the middle of one of the important theological moments in American history: the rise of black nationalism and black theology. Converting to Islam through the Nation of Islam, Ali advocated, with all his might, for the empowerment of the black community in America. In the volume Sport in America, From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization, David K. Wiggins wrote:

By embodying Muslim ideals, triumphing in the ring, and refusing to acquiesce to either the sport establishment or the broader American society, Ali helped invert stereotypes about blacks and inspired members of his race whose daily lives were often filled with drudgery and belittlement. Black Americans of every age group, economic class, political affiliation, and religious denomination were inspired by Ali’s refusal to sacrifice his principles when the clash came between individual success in sport and the imperatives of group action.

The righteous fire of his Muslim faith was his primary motivation for what can be considered the essential defining moment of his life: his refusal to fight for the American military in the Vietnam War. He proclaimed with full conviction that "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." The very peak years of his boxing prowess was thus taken away from him by the U.S government and by every major boxing commission for his refusal to "serve" a cause he felt and knew was ghastly against his service to Allah. Ali may not have wanted to choose faith over sport, and he felt the denial of the dance of his fists and feet in the ring was indeed an injustice, but when the crossroads came, he ultimately did not hesitate to put the practice and the demand of his faith and devotion first and foremost.

Ali was one of many voices in the 1960's, including and especially James H. Cone and his groundbreaking works such as Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation, who began to publicly and with great affect to question the very concept of whiteness, and the way whiteness colored everything from Jesus to pound cake.

Ali's journey as a Muslim, from the Nation of Islam to his identification with the broader global ummah (Muslim community), a journey reflecting the interrupted path of his friend and comrade Malcolm X, must be understood if we are to understand in any truthful and profound way who Ali was and is and who he remains for us today. His journey, and the way that it intersected with American culture and the realms of race, war, politics, and sports, is as relevant as ever. It is easy to forget or to not know how much Ali was considered a pariah to the "decency" of American whiteness in the 1960's. To this day, there are certain pockets of American society which would still resist Ali's blackness and the blackness of his faith. Some of us can take a step back and understand the contingencies and complexities of that historical moment and our historical moment in a kind of academic or scholarly way. Too few of us actually listen to what he and Malcolm X were saying, and understand the truth of their experience and the spirit of their call and resistance for the human over the inhuman. We need Ali's wisdom more than ever today.

Ali was, of course, also the greatest boxer of all time. Yet that greatness came with a dear and distinct price. Joyce Carol Oates, in a 1992 essay at the New York Review of Books, writes that:

Though highly ritualized, and as rigidly bound by rules, traditions, and taboos as any religious ceremony, it survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests...boxing’s mimesis is not that of a mere game, but a powerful analogue of human struggle in the rawest of life-and-death terms.

Boxing, as expression and spectacle, certainly can enter into that uncanny extraordinary space we previously argued can be found in Football as Religious Experience, where the sports becomes ritual, where as ritual sports becomes, as explained by religious scholar Christopher Key Chapple, "the connection point through which one embraces and understands emplacement within the universe." Yet that extraordinariness of boxing is also one-and-the-same as its brutality. We can marvel at the Thrilla in Manila as one of the greatest fights and sporting events of all times, yet we can't separate the greatness from the violence, and the effect it had on both men. This is, to say the least, a very important question as we explore Sports Theology. Sports and religion can provide important, extraordinary, ritualistic experiences which can seem to provide us with meaning within the vast scope of the universe. But what happens when the extraordinary nature of this experience comes married with the brutality of violence, when it comes with a punch to the head or a nail to the cross?

Throughout his life, Ali gave himself to his fellow humans, insisting that every moment he gave to one of his fans and well-wishers was another notch to help him get into heaven. Throughout his last days, he advocated for Islam as a religion of peace and understanding against the phenomenon of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other like-minded thieves of the tradition and against the idiocracy of demagogues like Trump. We remember him as the Greatest, but we can only do so if we remember him as a man of deep faith and devotion, a devout Muslim, and a spiritual teacher who can continue to guide our lives. 

No comments:

Post a Comment