A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali and the Middle East

With Nasser, 1964
The late Muhammad Ali, who died this weekend, was often described in his heyday as the most famous man on earth. It may well have been true, especially in the Third World, where his embrace of Islam, his willingness to give up his title rather than support the Vietnam War, his staging championship bouts in Kinshasa and Manila, all added to his global fame.

When he announced his conversion to Islam, it was to the extremely unorthodox Nation of Islam, which many Muslims did not accept as Islamic. Later, in 1975, he converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. In 2005, he announced himself an adherent of the Universal Sufism movement led by Inayat Khan.

Praying at Hussein mosque, Cairo
Throughout his career, he made many visits to the Middle East, beginning with a visit to Egypt in 1964, where he met with Nasser and visited the High Dam under construction at Aswan. It should be remembered at the time meeting with Nasser was itself cause for controversial, as was his meeting with Mu‘ammar Qadhafi in Libya. It added to his reputation as a rebel.

At the Kaaba
In 1972, Ali famously made the hajj. He would thereafter speak of how moving he found the experience.

He would make many other visits to the Middle East. He was decorated by heads of state from Morocco to the Gulf, He generally drew crowds wherever he went. In 1982, having retired from the ring, he held two exhibition fights in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In 1986 he visited Egypt for the second time, posing at the pyramids.

This is only a partial catalog of Ali's love affair with the Middle East, which was very much mutual.
Receiving a decoration from King Hasan II of Morocco

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Met Ali twice. In Benghazi in 1971 or 72 when I was Principal Officer there. Unsure how he stood with Washington, I did not tell them or the U.S. Charge in Tripoli that I was going to the airport to help the Foreign Ministry receive him for a brief stopover. He looked at me suspiciously when I introduced myself, but I said "Welcome to Libya, Champ," and he smiled. On Libyan TV he told young Libyans to educate themselves rather than entering the military. A diplomat's dream. The second time was in the State Department in the mid-1980s. Jesse Jackson had gotten Ali to agree to go with him to Damascus in an effort to free a U.S. prisoner. I briefed them on the state of U.S.-Syrian relations (as usual, not good). Ali's Parkinson's Disease was already having its effects. He said nothing until they got ready to leave when he said a faltering but sincere thanks. Muhammad Ali was a class act.