Recalling Muhammad Ali -- His life, his impact and his influence on his daughter Maryum
Days before Ramadan, a deeply spiritual month, Maryum "May May" Ali buries a man that the splintered world collectively mourns. That the two coincide during such vitriolic times seems an extraordinary coincidence. The loss of Muhammad Ali -- the only globally celebrated black and Muslim athlete -- becomes a necessary paradigm for the intolerant present.
"[My father] looked at his religion and the inequalities in the world and he saw himself being equal to every other African-American or downtrodden person," Ali's eldest daughter, Maryum, reflects a week after her famous father's burial and televised memorial.
Indeed the legendary boxer's draw was his stentorian voice that confronted injustice and represented his beliefs on the public platform.
He was the quintessential alpha male, his daughter recalls. "There was not a wave of energy that went against him," she adds. His well-documented life attests to how defiantly Ali charted his own course.
That confidence to stand for something earned him the love and respect of the people who saw themselves in him. "I am them and they are me," he once told his daughter. The poignancy of his words within the context of his deeds is what made him The People's Champ. Even in death, his connection with people was palpable.
Though relatively obscure in the public eye, Ali's daughter isn't much different. She too sees herself in her community and uses her platform to help at-risk youth. And like her father, Maryum's natural certitude permeates her often-unfiltered speech, challenging current political rhetoric and socioeconomic discrepancies.
Problems like mass incarceration and economic disparities that plagued her father's time are still relevant today, she feels. But nobody challenges them the way he did, she thinks. Ali went beyond symbolic gestures of protest and consistently resisted oppressive norms, even when it touted controversy. His was no silent or scripted rebellion.
When some athletes stood against police brutality toward African-American men in the past, "they got torn apart for [it]," Maryum reveals. Others were instructed "not to be a hero in the neighborhood." Their activism was relegated to selective philanthropy.
Maryum believes that her father's existence informed institutions how to condition others so they wouldn't follow suit. "[They] didn't want a bunch of Muhammad Alis running around, you better believe that one," she states.
Apart from his intrinsic candor, Ali made conscientious choices to be who he was regardless of his wealth and fame. "I don't care about the money. I gotta die and meet [God]," he'd exclaim.
The difference in Ali's choices was also a result of his strong faith, which the media generally glosses over when highlighting his trademark confidence -- behind the rope and the mic. "If he contemplated anything, it was based on 'what does my faith tell me to do.' He didn't care about what John was saying over in the corner. John didn't hold a candlelight to his God," his daughter contends.
Ali's religion gave his voice reason, his mind strength, and his relationships guidance.
He wasn't perfect, she admits, but he was honest, especially in acknowledging his shortcomings. His integrity earned his daughter's respect and validated the lessons he imparted on her. Witnessing the different characters unceremoniously enter and leave their lives -- the women who flocked to him, the people who took advantage of his wealth and his kindness -- became lessons for her. She learned how to infuse those lessons with her religion into her life to seek betterment. "Faith is a muscle you have to exercise," she muses. " I saw my father exercise that muscle over and over again."
Her father's response to his illness is an example of this spiritual workout. In a conversation with his daughter, he was asked if he'd be as observant without Parkinson's. Taking a moment to respond, he reflected, "That's a good question." Ali and his children saw Parkinson's as a mercy more than a punishment. "I'd rather suffer now than in the hereafter," he told them. Maryum believes that Ali's disease offered him a chance for redemption.
Ali believed in living life in service of others. His altruism, however, was not for public consumption. "You're not supposed to tell people when you're helping [them]." He'd advise. "It's not Islamic to brag about it. If you brag about it, you just undid your blessings."
The manifestation of his day-to-day humanitarian efforts informed Maryum's own career path. Her stint as a rapper presented the youth with a role model whose lyrics replaced profanity and violence with positive messages. Her 12-year comedy career was devoid of vulgarity and focused instead on social issues. After attending her first set at the Comedy Store in L.A., her father approved, "It was clean. Good comedy. I liked it."
Eventually Maryum settled on a more direct path to helping others through her social work, which focused on gang prevention and youth development. Even this was influenced by her father's partiality to the youth. "His main focus [was] young people 'cause he knew there was a chance for them," she remembers.
Though her own faith isn't part of her professional exchanges, Maryum openly embraces her religion. That she's his child, resembles him, and shares his faith makes her words more resonant, she feels. Like her father, she believes that educating others without "water-hosing" them is the best way to dispel myths and protect the faith from media onslaught.
As if to illustrate her point, conversation drifts to the Orlando shooting and the backlash that further ferments the ongoing divisions. There's an irony in it occurring two days after Ali's memorial, which brought together the fragmented world. "It was kinda depressing," Maryum sighs. "That high didn't last long, did it?"
Then sounding uncannily like the Ali of the '60s, she takes to task the politicians and agents who target her faith, capitalize on the tragedy, and create scapegoats. Despite the statistics, the calibrated blame-game predictably shifts to a certain group of people.
"There's no indiscriminate killing," Maryum states, adding that it's an impermissible act contradicting the faith. But for people to understand this they must be willing to learn by reading the text in whole, knowing the statistics, and speaking up. Those who're unwilling are predisposed to opposition and antagonism, she thinks.
"My dad would've been a spokesperson for the religion," Maryum assures. "Everything he talked about and stood for... he would be doing the exact same thing with [his faith]."
Ali believed in dialogue. Growing up with a father like him gave his children ample opportunity for conversation. As the eldest, Maryum caught the brunt of the discipline as well as the expectations. But with them came teaching moments.
Ali often used his own encounters with women as a gauge for his daughters to understand his expectations of them. Their attire, for instance, was a common theme in Ali's earliest talks with them.
"Your body is not made to attract men in that way," he counseled. "It causes problems when you do that. They're not gonna know you for your mind. They're gonna like you for somethin' else. And if that's the reason they like you, they're just gonna go to the next woman."
Recognizing the wisdom in his advice, though she never adopted the traditional hijab, Maryum chose to dress more conservatively. "Something's really wrong if you see me [in] scantily-clad clothes," she laughs.
Every lesson Ali imparted on his children was linked to its rationale. "He really explained everything to us," Maryum says. He wanted his children to build their characters, know the importance of believing in God, understand that life is limited, and make time for prayer. "This life is the blink of an eye," he'd emphasize. The reality of death wasn't a morbid idea but a reminder of how best to live a more productive life.
Ali's advice and example shaped Maryum's thoughts in life and informed her decisions. And when he passed, those decisions helped her withstand his loss.
"Grief is an unknown," she pauses, her voice still clear. "I'm really surprised at how well I'm holding up." Even when she spoke at Ali's memorial, the tears didn't come, she reveals.
There are a number of reasons for this, she thinks. His death was a natural progression of his decades-long illness. As a Parkinson's advocate, she's well aware of its 40-year life expectancy for patients in the age range in which her father was diagnosed. She recognizes the signs of late-stage Parkinson's. "I've been preparing for his death for five years. Mentally and psychologically," she explains.
But what she credits most is her faith. "My Islam kept me strong," she reflects. "We remember death. We know we're all gonna die. We respect it. And we know the spirit lives on."
There's another reason for Maryum's strength -- one that she shared with her siblings following their father's death. As she sat with her dying father, who was hooked up to tubes and wires, she begged him to visit her after he was gone. "I needed something," she recalls. The night he passed, she beseeched him once more. As CNN footage of Ali's worsening condition rolled, Maryum returned home to watch the coverage. It was the last time she would see her father alive. That night was the first time "his spirit visited me," she discloses. "And I know it was him," she repeats with conviction.
"There is a pressure, warmth and tingling on your skin that's supernatural," she explains. "It's not like anything that I've felt before." Comparing the sensation to the pressure of having one's blood taken, she describes the feeling as being a very specific, very physical experience. "It's not something in my mind. I'm wide-awake. It's not like I'm dreaming," she continues.
Her first encounter with the experience was the night Ali died. After that she felt it a few more times both in Louisville and at home. Hers wasn't the only metaphysical experience with the late boxer. After Ali's death, Laila Ali's daughter gestured toward an empty chair where Ali once sat. "Don't you see him? He's right there... sitting in his chair," she exclaimed. "I could go through him..."
When the days become hard and Maryum is reminded of her father's absence, it's experiences like these that comfort and breathe strength back into her. She believes they're Ali's way of reassuring his children and grandchildren that he's okay.
But the absence of a man like Ali to carry us forward in the volatile present begs the question: Are we?
Though his daughter isn't convinced his passing will have a lasting impact on the world just as it didn't with the deaths of other greats like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, she believes it could open the door to more conversations.
"We are his mouthpiece," she declares. "People will want to know what he was like as a father... what did he teach you... what would he think... And I can only guess based on how well I think I know my father..." So it's important to represent him well, she believes. "And I feel I've already done that."
Every moment he took to the stage, Ali raised it to be heard above the monotonous chatter. Even when a dark illness stole his formidable voice and racked his powerful body with tremors he would've otherwise knocked out with a single punch, Ali's was an unyielding force. That fortitude seems to have taken up quiet residence in the children he left behind -- the ones who embody his greatest life lessons and his enduring legacy.
Whether his passing will be a harbinger of change we may never know. But when a world so broken comes together to celebrate a man who even in death defies its divisive present, it unwittingly invites a token of hope. It shows us that even dissent carries a grudging respect when it's packaged in truth. It tells us that we may just be okay.
Nasha Khan is a freelance writer with a graduate writing degree from the University of Southern California. She has studied under noted writers at the University of Cambridge. Her work was recently featured in The Tempest and Blue Minaret.