The Interfaith Legacy of Muhammad Ali: "The Wise Man Changes"

In a public conversation hosted by IFYC, filmmaker David McMahon shared a story that didn't make it into his recent PBS documentary about Muhammad Ali.

It was the mid-1960s, McMahon said, and a law student at the University of Chicago stood helplessly with a group of housing activists, watching police evict a man from his 2nd floor apartment.  As the officers piled his furniture at the curb, she sensed someone approaching.

“And there was Muhammad Ali. He took off his jacket and handed it to her,” picked up a table and walked it past the police officers and back inside, McMahon said. “Immediately everybody jumped in and did the same. Within a few minutes, they had restored the apartment. Then he came back to her, as she described it, in a kind of cinematic way and took the jacket from her and disappeared.”

McMahon -- who co-produced the film with his wife, Sarah Burns, and her father, Ken Burns --  spoke with IFYC founder Eboo Patel and scholar Donna Auston about Ali as an interfaith leader. The Chicago eviction story didn't make the final cut, McMahon said, but it captured how Ali played this role.

“He does these acts of good out of the spotlight, away from the cameras. He’s doing it all the time,” McMahon said. “I think cameras on, cameras off he was always trying to raise humanity where he could.”

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, was a flawed man who pursued his faith, became a legend and connected with humans across the nation and the world. When asked why he would make another film about this widely known figure, McMahon said that Ali is needed in a new way in this time to hold up a mirror to the nation.

We invite you to watch or listen to this dynamic conversation and use this new Muhammad Ali Reflection Resource to integrate Ali’s story into your courses, programs and conversations. 

The conversation on Ali as an interfaith leader included reflection on his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, inspired by his Muslim faith to be a conscientious objector. Over time, Patel says, Ali grew into a leader who comfortably reached across religious divides. Patel recalled seeing this nearly two decades ago, when he brought a group of high school and college students to a Chicago hotel for an interfaith breakfast with 1,000 religious and civic leaders.

“The elevator opens and there’s Muhammad Ali,” struggling with Parkinson’s disease but glowing, Patel said. When he learned the students were an interfaith group, Ali “nods and raises his arm and basically blesses us. And I will never forget that moment. It felt like being in the presence of a shaikh, someone whose blessing one seeks.”

This side of Ali became more visible to Auston after she went to a university conference on Islamophobia in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali’s hometown. Local residents told her that even during the height of his fame, “he would be found on a random corner on campus passing out Qurans and really acting as an ambassador for his faith to people, average folk, and engaging in conversation with them. Everyday human contact -- if you’re thinking about his interfaith legacy -- that’s one of the most powerful places to look.”

The documentary film doesn’t ignore Ali’s flaws, from difficult relationships to moments of cruel arrogance.

“Not all about Ali was holy,” Patel says.  “But Ali changes. In the second episode he says, ‘The wise man changes, and I’m a wise man.’ ”

Auston noted that, "at the end of the day, Ali was still a Black man raised in the Jim Crow South," one who spoke out against, but also endured and was deeply impacted by, racial injustice. His faith inspired him to strive to be better, not to rise above his history, she said.

"Life is sort of a sculpting process, I think for all of us. You start with a block of clay, and this experience will chisel you, this experience will shape you, and when you come out at the end you have something that doesn’t look exactly like what you started with," Auston said. "I think that’s sort of the goal of any spiritual practice. You’re tyring to get something that’s a little bit more refined and chiseled than what you started with."

Eboo Patel is the Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).  

Donna Auston is an anthropologist, writer, and public intellectual whose body of work focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, protest and social movements, media representation, and Islam in America.  She is currently completing her dissertation at Rutgers University, an ethnography of Black Muslim activism and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era. Donna has also been named one of the top 100 Muslim Social Justice leaders by MPower Change.  

David McMahon has been making award-winning documentary films for more than a decade. With Ken Burns and Sarah Burns, he wrote, directed and produced The Central Park Five, Jackie Robinson, and East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story. Raised in Clarence, New York, and a graduate of the University of Michigan, McMahon lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sarah Burns, and their two children.  


If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.