Thousands gather for Muhammad Ali’s funeral service

Thousands of people of all races and creeds gathered for a Muslim funeral service in Muhammad Ali’s hometown in Kentucky to pay their respects to a man who fought in the ring and sought peace outside it.

The jenazah, or funeral in Arabic, took place at a convention space in Freedom Hall, the complex where the former heavyweight world champion defeated Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961 in his last fight in Louisville. An estimated 14,000 attended the service.

Ali, known for his boxing prowess, showmanship and political activism in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, died last Friday of septic shock in an Arizona hospital. He was 74.

Imam Zaid Shakir, a founder of Muslim liberal arts school Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, led the half-hour service, in which worshippers said prayers over Ali’s body, lying in a casket. Ali and his family planned his funeral for 10 years, making sure it would honour his Muslim faith. A final goodbye for Ali will take place today, when thousands will gather for an interfaith service at the KFC Yum Centre.

US president Bill Clinton, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and comedian Billy Crystal will attend.

Among those at yesterday’s funeral was a Bangladeshi man named Mohammad Ali who said he flew to the United States to attend the service despite failing health. He showed pictures of his famous namesake visiting his home in Bangladesh nearly 40 years ago. 

“If I could not attend the funeral of Muhammad Ali, it would be a sad part of my life,” the Bangladeshi man said.

Another attendee, Perez Abdurrahman, 59, remembered when a young Ali visited Louisville public housing projects to hand out information about Islam and influenced his decision to convert in 1985.

“We pray for our brother that allah blesses him and give him paradise,” Abdurrahman said. “(Ali) was a very noble character. He set a good example for all of us.”

The Reverend Jesse Jackson said Ali set an example for athletes to “use the high platform of championships” to make a difference beyond sports.

The civil rights leader said Ali will be remembered not only as a boxing champion but also as a human rights activist. “He never stopped winning battles, whether it was in the ring or outside the ring,” Jackson said.

Former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard called his friend “a man of great character and courage.” He said Ali’s most important contributions were as a humanitarian and a fighter for civil rights and social justice. Leonard said Ali “impacted the world.”

Leonard believes Ali’s most memorable moment as a boxer was when he defeated George Foreman to reclaim the world heavyweight boxing title in 1974. Leonard said he “was so afraid that George was going to kill him.” 

He said Ali “meant the world” to him: “He was my idol, my friend, my mentor. He was someone that I looked up to and someone who I tried to emulate during my boxing career.”

Ali rose to the top of the boxing world when black fighters were expected to be quiet and deferential. His braggadocio, even before he changed his name from Cassius Clay, startled white America.

He further shocked Americans after he joined the Nation of Islam and adopted an Islamic name in 1964.

In the 1970s, Ali converted to Sunni Islam, the largest denomination among Muslims worldwide. Late in life he embraced Sufism, a mystical school of the faith.

He was admired worldwide, and gave US Muslims a hero they could share with the American mainstream.

Before a traditional Islamic funeral prayer service, the body of the deceased is washed and wrapped in a shroud, according to the Council on American- Islamic Relations.

Worshippers stood in rows facing Mecca and the casket, with a prayer leader in front of the congregation.

Those who prayed said “god is great” and folded their hands on their chests. After the reading of texts and silent prayer, the service concluded with the saying, “Peace be with you.”


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