Arts & Culture

Why we mourn Ali

A magnificent poet, principled Muslim and anti-war leader who altered the image of what it means to be American.

Mourners pay their respect at the Muhammed Ali Cultural Center in Louisville, Kentucky, US [EPA]

Minutes after the news of world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's passing hit the headlines, an avalanche of obituaries and eulogies came down with a cathartic momentum - which is more a sign of people coming to terms with their own loss than the enormity of the news itself. 

There is no eulogising Muhammad Ali. There are not enough words, tears or sighs. Usually you feel a hole, an emptiness in you when someone so towering like Ali dies. But this time, I look inside and there is a sudden volume in me demanding attention. What is this? Where does it come from? What does this mean? 

I was born in 1951, right in the middle of Muhammad Ali century. Why does he deserve an entire century named after him?

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Look at the spectrum of powerful public figures around the world that might lay a claim to it. Half of them are mass murderers like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or those who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don't get to define that century.

Purity of his soul 

But there are also scientists, artists, poets, novelists, dramatists - each one of them with a legitimate claim on defining an enduring aspect of that century.

Pablo Picasso taught us how to look, James Joyce how to read, Fanon how to fight, Che Guevara how to defy, Gandhi how to change, Kurosawa how to see. But none of them has an extended shadow beyond the light they had cast upon this world.

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Muhammad Ali towers over them all because he became the definition, the personification, of our inborn innocence - an innocence we all lose as soon as we enter into a full consciousness of the terror we live as adults in a deeply flawed and enduringly unjust world.

All other looming characters of that century made a virtue out of their presence in the midst of the troubles we lived. Ali bathed in the nastiest stormy seas of our world with the purity of his soul intact.

All other looming characters of that century made a virtue out of their presence in the midst of the troubles we lived. Ali bathed in the nastiest stormy seas of our world with the purity of his soul intact.

There is a reason we persist in abbreviating his name: From Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr, to Muhammad Ali Clay to Muhammad Ali to Ali. We need to wrap him lightly like a talismanic assurance and carry him with us inside so when we need him we can take him out and unfold him for the whole world that he was. 

In him, in his soaring intelligence and in his beautiful mind, in his poetry in motion when he was in the ring, and in his rebellious grace when outside, we see the innocence the world has so terribly lost and so desperately seeks.

Grace and poetry

He fought the most vicious distortions of the very timber of our humanity - hypocrisy, racism, militarism - with a noble anger he tucked inside his sublime sense of humour.

Even when he was punching his rivals in the ring, he was doing it with grace and poetry. He danced for his opponent like a ballerina, sang for him like a lyricist, and before they knew what hit them, they were knocked out. 

He emerged from the depth of an entire history of spiteful racism and slavery in the United States to redefine what it means to be American. There was the whole gamut of militarism, racism, and conquest on one side and on this side was Ali and all he represented, contesting what it means to be American.

US boxer Muhammad Ali lying on the ground during the 15th round of his bout against Joe Frazier in New York, March 1971 [EPA]

He made the Civil Rights and anti-war movement in the US proverbial to the world at large. Yes, there were Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. But compared to Ali, they were provincial names.

From the heart of Africa to the depths of Latin America, from the Arab and Muslim world to continental divides of Eurasia - he first conquered the heart of his fans and then sat down gently like a caring gardener and planted the seed of justice and fairness inside those hearts. 

The death of Ali does not leave a hole, but fills a whole spectrum of consciousness we had become too familiar with to see and sense. His sudden departure ignites and enlightens that space. We suddenly remember why we loved him, what he stood and fought for, and why and how we must mourn him.

Season of national sorrows

He was born in the season of national sorrows and global despair, and he died in the season of hateful politicians and opportunist carpetbaggers. In between, he graced the world with hope, with defiance, with speaking truth to power. 

Civil Rights leader, anti-war activist, the heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) has now joined eternity. The battle for whitewashing his defiant legacy has already started in the form of obituaries that seek to sugarcoat and distort his powerful, consistent, unrelenting anti-racist, anti-imperialist, legacy and make him palatable to future generations of submissive souls who take no for an answer. 

But remember him we must for who he was: a beautiful man, a soaring soul, a magnificent poet, a principled Muslim, a Civil Rights icon, a steadfast anti-war leader, a world champion, and a beloved American who singlehandedly altered the image of what it means to be American. May his magnificent memory forever shine beautifully upon our path ahead! 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

Source: Al Jazeera