Being Muslim and black in the America of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali's faith was central to his identity. He prayed five times a day. The Courier-Journal/USA TODAY Sports

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The account of the Prophet Muhammad, as it was most frequently told to me, is the story of how the Quran was revealed to him. In Mecca, during a yearly retreat to a mountain called Hira, the prophet was visited by the angel Gabriel in his sleep, carrying a book and commanding him to read. He recited the verses in his sleep, woke with them etched in his soul, heavy on his tongue. He came down from the mountain and heard Gabriel shouting from above:

"O Muhammad! You are the messenger of Allah!"

Ramadan, the holy month that commemorates that first revelation of the holy book, comes as a beloved Muhammad is laid to rest. The world that loves him speaks loudly of his fight but too quietly of his faith, as if the two aren't eternally in concert. Especially now, I still find value in the observation of Ramadan, even as the rest of my roots in Islam have faded as I have aged. I share a name with Muhammad Ali, mine the middle, less prominent name. But the meaning of Muhammad is the same: "Most Praised One."

When I was very young and I heard talk of the Prophet Muhammad, I believed elders to be speaking about Ali himself. He was, after all, the Muhammad that I knew as a living entity. The man who could, like all prophets, proclaim the future. Muhammad promises another man will step into the ring with him and fall soon after, and the other man falls. Muhammad says he is a bad man, and the world trembles and worships. All I had were videos and pictures. The one I remember most: Ali in a suit, walking down a street surrounded by his Muslim brothers, holding a newspaper in his hands that read, "ALLAH IS THE GREATEST."

Faith is a tricky thing, depending on whom or what you pray to. For people who did not grow up Muslim in America in the 1980s and 1990s, or decades before, perhaps it is easy to imagine that anti-Muslim sentiment is less than 20 years old, something that spilled out of 2001 and began to spread. In reality, it has always been present; it just keeps changing into something more dangerous. Cassius Clay, at 22, joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and demanded to be called Muhammad, a new man with a newer, bolder purpose. Muhammad Ali stood tall and said: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours." He became a target. He was not just loud, not just arrogant, not just black, he also was now Muslim. His yelling was not only about the fight inside of the ring but also the fight out of it, and exactly how he saw the world.

I imagine when you fight for a living, there is bravery in knowing when not to. Americans who see war as a responsibility no doubt believe the men and women who fight abroad are fulfilling a sacred duty. For others of us, the fight is at home. American Muslims were once an annoyance, then a burden and now, frighteningly, a threat that must be erased. When Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, it has to be remembered that he did this in the name of Allah. It has to be remembered that the Islamic idea of sacrifice isn't always the American idea of sacrifice. Ali, who lived a loud and pugilistic life, also lived by the Quran, revealed to a prophet whose name he took.

Of course, simple Muslim representation can't be enough when entire corners of the world wish to see Muslims disappear. When I was playing soccer in high school and college, during Ramadan I would hear stories of Muhammad Ali training for the Thrilla in Manila in the heart of the holy month, and this kept me going. To know that someone great has carried what you carry and succeeded is a blessing. To know that they did this and won the hearts of a world that did not understand them is truly a gift.

When Muhammad Ali is discussed now, after he is gone, people worry about his blackness being ignored but rarely about his religion, as vast and ever-evolving as the hate for it is in his country. In 1975, Ali converted from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam. Late in his life, he embraced Universal Sufism. In this way, he is like me, like many of us who first learned one set of teachings and then another until we found one that fit us best. Ali never stopped seeking a spiritual base that worked for him. He was my hero because I imagined him praying five times a day, as I once did. He wore his blackness on one sleeve and his faith on the other in an era when people wanted both to be silent. It should not be the burden of Muslims to bridge the gap between themselves and the people who hate or fear them. The true greatness of Ali is that he never offered that option. He was the line in the sand, and either you loved him, both black and Muslim, or you weren't worth his time. I hope there is room for us to remember both of those things.

It is Ramadan now. The holy month. Somewhere, without question, there is a young Muslim boy who has the name Muhammad, living through his first Ramadan during a long, hot summer month. He will watch the sun rise and eat the last bits of his morning meal before a day without food, water or any impurities, mental or physical. He may also watch an old video of Ali in Manila, fighting what people would one day call the most important fight of his life. And like so many Muslims in America, he may look at Ali, the greatest of all time, and realize that the fight for acceptance, the fight to be who we are, in both deed and faith, never ends.

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, "The Crown Ain't Worth Much," will be released in July by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.