Boxer Icon Muhammad Ali’s Lesson of Peace to Arabs

Perhaps the most famous American Muslim is sports boxing legend Muhammad Ali. We, as Arab Muslims, could learn a lot from his life.

Born Cassius Clay, he converted to Islam in 1964 at the age of 22. After being drafted into the Army in 1967, Muhammad Ali (at the prime of his career and after already achieving tremendous success) decided to forgo the Army and the Vietnam War for religious reasons. He became a conscientious objector to the war, and was America’s first national figure to speak out against the war.

His refusal to go to Vietnam resulted time spent in prison, being stripped of his World Heavyweight title, being banned from boxing in the United States, and being stripped of his passport. In 1970, Ali, however, won his biggest fight ever – a far bigger fight than any he waged in the ring with his fists.

In that year, he won his case at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court’s decision reversed his earlier conviction and rightfully acknowledged his status as a conscientious objector. After having his name cleared and feeling vindicated, Ali went on to fight many more boxing matches and regained the title that was stripped from him. [the Supreme Court Decision]

After ending his boxing career and being a three-time world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali went on to fight another major battle: that against world poverty and violence.

In 2000, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan honored him as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Ali has advocated relentlessly for people in need, delivering millions of dollars in food and medical relief to African and Asian countries, and having raised in excess of $50 million for charities throughout the United States and the world. In 2005, Ali and his family established a Peace Institute for Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution.

I think what is important for us as Arab Muslims to take away from his story, is that here was someone that represented the proto-typical symbol of our masculine Arab societies … he was a great fighter and champion.

Nevertheless, unlike Arabs, he knew that the greatest fights one must wage (with the largest impact for humanity) should be conducted non-violently. Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War led, at least in part, to America’s exit from the War. His charitable giving and establishment of a Peace Center for non-violent conflict resolution has and will continue to impact multitudes for years to come.

Muhammed Ali is a shining example of how “might does not always make right.” Everyone in the Arab world (citizens and nation states alike) please remember this the next time a conflict arises in your lives.

Dr. Al-Roomi is a Professor teaching, training, and consulting in leadership and Communication Studies.

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