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Hdeel Abdelhady penned a Remembrance of Muhammad Ali for the first issue of Middle East Review, a new publication of the Middle East Committee of the American Bar Association Section of International Law. Click to download PDF with photos.

Muhammad Ali

Self-Made Man and Internationalist Who Was Beloved in the Middle East and Made His Mark on American Law[1]

By Hdeel Abdelhady*

To say that Muhammad Ali was an extraordinary human being is to state the obvious. In a world in which people are too often defined by others, Muhammad Ali defined himself—in name and in deed. Ali is the only person I can think of who named himself—literally—twice. In both instances the names apt and enduring.

At his first heavyweight title fight against then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, a 22-year-old Ali (then Cassius Clay)—universally expected to suffer an embarrassing loss, severe physical injury, or worse[2]—proclaimed himself “The Greatest.” Inside and outside of the boxing ring, Ali proved time and again that he was worthy of the moniker. As President George W. Bush said in 2005 when presenting Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award: “when you say the greatest of all time is in the room, everyone knows who you mean.” Indeed.

The Greatest Was Also Good

Muhammad Ali was a colossus. The first and still the only three-time heavyweight champion (1964, 1974, 1978) whose fast footwork was matched only by his quick wit, an Olympic gold medalist, a master of marketing, and hands down the prettiest boxer ever, these and other hallmarks of Ali’s remarkable career were and continue to be outshone by his character, hard-fought moral and legal victories outside the ring, and acts of kindness performed publicly and in private—from taking time to greet surprised fans at airports to secretly visiting hospitals and nursing homes “just to cheer people up.”

The Internationalist

Muhammad Ali went global before “going global” was a thing. Before multinational corporations and global law firms became fixtures of sophisticated business, Muhammad Ali was an international brand.

As an 18-year-old Olympian at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ali (then Cassius Clay) not only won a gold medal, he eagerly embraced the world beyond his home town of Louisville, Kentucky and the United States, with all its vastness. Ali “prowled the Olympic Village trading national insignia pins . . . engaging athletes from Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, and Europe, assuming that if he spoke English loud enough he could make himself understood.” Young Clay’s diplomacy earned him the title of “Mayor of Olympic Village.”

Throughout his career and life, Muhammad Ali demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the value of international presence and devotedly shouldered the benefits and obligations of global citizenship. In a 1963 appearance on the Jack Parr show, Clay made it clear that he was not just a United States Olympic champion, but a “world Olympic champion.” He saw and welcomed the added international access that came with his Islamic faith. As he explained in a 1975 interview: “If another fighter’s goin’ to be . . . [as] big [as I am], he’s goin’ to have to be a Muslim, or else he won’t get to nations like Indonesia, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey–those are all countries that don’t usually follow boxing.”

From mega events in Kinshasa and Manila to exhibition matches in Dubai and Bombay (Mumbai) to humanitarian work in Kabul and Havana, Ali was a welcome presence whose magnetism and wider meaning were utterly relatable across borders and cultural, religious, and class lines. As one of his eulogists, the Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby, put it: Muhammad Ali was “the property of all people . . . and the product of black people in their struggle to be free.”

Good Enough for Olympic Gold, But Not For Lunch Service in Louisville

When he returned from Rome to Louisville, Ali was not content with basking in the glory of, and capitalizing on, his Olympic victory. Ali (Cassius Clay) set out to challenge the legally and socially established system of racial segregation. By his own recounting, he “went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn’t eat,” thinking he’d “put them on the spot.” Wearing his “shiny gold medal,” Ali asked for a meal and was told: “We don’t serve niggers here.” Unflustered, the teenaged Ali retorted: “That’s okay, I don’t eat ’em.” The encounter would become one of many instances in which Ali put larger causes above his personal, material interests. Remarkably, Ali managed throughout his life to take serious stances while maintaining not only his composure, but also his infectious good humor. He must have been, at times, the most likeable, dangerous man in America.

Worthy of Praise, Most High

Ali’s boxing and captivating personality catapulted him into the spotlight at a young age. But his willingness to sacrifice boxing, fortune, fame, and his personal liberty for his convictions endeared him lastingly to multitudes. The day after his shock heavyweight victory in 1964, and amidst suspicions that he was a member of the widely feared and reviled Nation of Islam (a “Black Muslim,” in the parlance of the time), Cassius Clay appeared before the press, with the late (and unpopular) Malcolm X present, and confirmed that he had, in fact, become a Muslim. “’I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” said Cassius Clay . . . ‘I’m free to be who I want.’”

Within two weeks, Clay announced to the press that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, the meaning of which he explained, proudly and inimitably: “Muhammad, worthy of all praises; Ali, most high.” Just as his chosen professional appellation, The Greatest, fit his status as a sportsman, his chosen name, Muhammad Ali, befitted his character. Notably, many—including respectable newspapers—continued for years to call him Cassius Clay.

Conscientious Objector to Vietnam War, Stripped of Heavyweight Title and Boxing, Victorious at the Supreme Court

Conscientious Objector Claim Denied

Neither Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam nor his adoption of an exotic name was, to put it mildly, a good career move. But Ali was undaunted. In the early months of 1967, Ali, who in 1964 was deemed not qualified for the draft, was drafted to the Army and sought a conscientious objector exemption on the grounds that Islam prohibited him from participating in the Vietnam War.[3] A local draft board in Kentucky rejected his conscientious objector claim. Ali appealed, and the matter was referred to the Department of Justice for an “advisory recommendation.”

The FBI conducted an inquiry of the sincerity of Ali’s conscientious  objector claim.[4] A retired Kentucky state judge, who reviewed the case as a DOJ-appointed hearing officer at a DOJ-requested “special hearing,”[5] concluded that Ali’s conscientious objector claim was sincere and  recommended that Ali be granted conscientious objector status after examining Ali, other witnesses, and the FBI’s report.[6] But the DOJ, according to accounts, neither provided the Kentucky judge’s recommendation to the Kentucky State Appeal Board nor informed Ali of the judge’s finding.[7] Unusually, the DOJ advised the Appeal Board to reject Ali’s conscientious objector claim. “Promptly” and without explanation, the Appeal Board obliged.

In the political backdrop, “[l]etters poured into the White House demanding that Ali be drafted. And once the prosecution of Ali began, the U.S. attorney handling the case, Morton Susman, was in contact with high-level White House officials. In one letter to Barefoot Sanders, a top aide to Lyndon Johnson, Susman reassured the White House that ‘this conviction will stick!’”[8] The DOJ’s actions and the Appeal Board’s silence may have satisfied political objectives, but they did not pass muster at the Supreme Court, where Ali ultimately prevailed.

Conviction for Draft Evasion; Stripped of Boxing Title, Boxing Licenses and Passport

Knowing that his appeal had been rejected and that a criminal conviction—and imprisonment—were likely, Ali reported to a Houston Army induction center on April 28, 1967 and twice refused to step forward when his name was called to accept induction into the Army. Within hours of Ali’s refusal, the New York State Athletic Commission withdrew Ali’s license to box in the state and its recognition of his heavyweight title. “Within days, every important state boxing commission . . . had followed suit, effectively preventing Ali from fighting in the United States.”

On June 20, 1967, at a federal court in Houston, an all-white jury found Ali guilty of “wil[l]fully refusing to be inducted into the Armed Forces of the United States”[9]after deliberating for 21 minutes. The presiding judge imposed the maximum penalty: five years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. In addition, the judge ordered Ali to surrender his passport pending appeal—the State Department and FBI deemed Ali a flight risk— depriving Ali of the ability to box abroad.

Clay, a.k.a. Ali v. United States: Victory at the Supreme Court

Ali appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which twice upheld his conviction.[10] The Supreme Court agreed to hear Ali’s case. As has been reported,[11] the Justices had initially planned to affirm Ali’s conviction on the grounds that he was not a conscientious objector to all wars, but a selective objector as evidenced by his stated willingness to fight in a certain kind of Islamic war (jihad).[12] But the voting Justices changed course after some of them concluded that Ali met applicable statutory conscientious objector criteria. In the end, the Court decided the case on narrower grounds. On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction on the grounds that the DOJ’s actions and the Appeal Board’s silence afforded the Court no legitimate bases on which to judge whether Ali’s conviction—which derived from “an erroneous denial of . . . [his] claim to be classified as a conscientious objector”[13]—was lawful.[14]

A Draft Dodger? No. Going to Vietnam Would Have Been Easier for Ali

In his life and even after his death, some have called Muhammad Ali a draft dodger. The label is inapt, both technically and in its suggestion that Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam was motivated by cowardice or opportunism. Technically, a draft dodger is someone “who illegally avoids joining the armed forces.” Ali legally refused participation in the Vietnam War and was unjustly prosecuted for asserting a conscientious objector claim as provided for under the law.

Importantly, by refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Ali was not avoiding combat—the high risk of bodily and psychological injury or death. Ali, according to a number of reports, would have been assigned to the morale-building Special Services unit of the Army. “Ali was assured that he would not have to pick up a gun or enter combat. All he would have to do would be to fight exhibitions a few years and resume his boxing career.” Had Ali taken the low risk, non-combat route to Vietnam that the U.S. Government had offered, he likely would have returned from Vietnam an American hero with a fast-track to “crossover” celebrity status and its associated material and intangible benefits.

By openly refusing induction and remaining in the United States—as opposed to seeking an education deferment or taking refuge from the draft in Canada, as many educated and affluent young men did—Ali became a convicted felon, a former heavyweight champion without losing a fight, a professional boxer cut off from a boxing livelihood in his prime years, the target of “constant” death threats, and the subject of public scorn. “A bitter and dismissive editorial in Sports Illustrated in May 1967 was, unfortunately, representative of the way that many white Americans viewed Ali and the Nation of Islam:

‘Without his gloves on, Ali is just another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion, and his views on Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal . . . . It is, of course, purposeless to dwell on the good Ali could have done for black and white alike if he hadn’t aligned himself with the Muslims. But if indeed he does go to jail, Ali can achieve the martyrdom he seeks only if it is shown that he is sacrificing himself for the sake of a principle worthy of the name.’”

Muhammad Ali Clay, Beloved in the Middle East

In the Middle East, Ali was known as “Muhammad Ali Clay,” to distinguish him from Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. His Islamic faith brought him into focus in the region, but he was beloved and admired for who, rather than what, he was. The affection and reverence for Ali was evident during his travels in the region, where, among other encounters, he was received by eager crowds and a president in Cairo in 1964; honored by the King of Morocco in 1988; and, while struggling with Parkinson’s disease, successfully negotiated the release of American hostages from Iraq on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990. Even Saddam Hussein could not deny Ali’s moral authority, stating in a meeting with The Champ that he “would not countenance ‘Hajj Muhammad Ali’ leaving Iraq unsuccessful, without securing a number of hostages.”[15]

What Muhammad Ali Means to Me

I had not yet been born when Muhammad Ali was at his professional zenith. But I cannot remember a time when I did not know the name Muhammad Ali. To know Ali and be in his corner was an unspoken family value that I understood as a child. I have never been a follower of boxing. Ali’s boxing victories are undoubtedly meritorious, but they factor little in my admiration for the man.

As he was and is for many around the world, Muhammad Ali is, for me, relatable on a number of levels. As a Muslim, Ali’s lived values—courage, kindness, sincerity, justice, patience in adversity, and humility in matters of faith—set a profound example. Ali knew and consistently showed, as the Qur’an states clearly, that “it is not righteousness that ye [only] turn your faces to the east or West” in prayer.[16]

As a lawyer, Ali’s Supreme Court and state-level legal battles, and his activism—to regain his wrongly-denied right to box, for freedom of the speech, for the free exercise of religion, and for equal treatment under the law and in society —reaffirm the law’s role and reach, as well as the more noble aspects of law practice that too often are easy to forget in today’s metrics-driven world. The same legal system that injured Ali ultimately delivered justice. The political machinations that fueled Ali’s prosecution for his refusal to fight in Vietnam were put down, albeit belatedly, by the Supreme Court. Ali’s case illustrates the essentiality of an independent judiciary, and more broadly the separation of powers, to the rule of law.

As an American, Muhammad Ali epitomizes America—the parts we choose to recognize and the parts we prefer to ignore; the real and the ideal. Ali came up in racially segregated Louisville.[17] But throughout his life he defied the legal, political, and social structures that mandated the subordination of African-Americans and others in the United States, and millions around the world. On his merits—and he had many—Muhammad Ali reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession, and was capriciously denied the fruits of his talents and hard work. But Ali roared back. Muhammad Ali’s life illustrates what makes America good, as well as great: diversity, forward-motion, and the people and institutions that continually strive for the rule of law and higher social and political ideals, even during—especially during—those times when the legal system fails to deliver justice and regressionism takes hold in the public sphere.

A Fitting Epitaph

It has been reported that Muhammad Ali’s final resting place is marked with a gravestone that bears only his name. “In keeping with [the] Muslim tradition” of simple funerary practices, “there are no dates or loving tributes.” This is most appropriate, as Muhammad Ali needs no special inscriptions or tributes. The name he chose for himself as a young man is the epitaph that describes him best. “Worthy of all praises, most high.”

*Hdeel Abdelhady is a Co-Chair of the Middle East Committee. The views expressed herein are entirely her own.



[1] Citations are provided in endnotes and/or via hyperlinks to materials readily or exclusively available online. Thus, these endnotes identify only some of the sources relied upon and/or quoted herein.

[2] In covering the Clay-Liston fight, “New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte . . . had been instructed by his newspaper to map the shortest route to the hospital. “I understood perfectly,” Lipsyte said, “that I’d never see Cassius Clay again.””

[3] The contrast between Ali’s interpretation, in the 1960s and consistently thereafter, of Islam’s position on war and violence and the “interpretations” propounded today by Daesh (ISIS) and other self-proclaimed “Islamic” groups is inescapable, particularly to those Muslims and others who have endeavored—even modestly—to read and understand the words and meaning—rather than self-servingly selected words or verses—of the Qur’an, the highest source of Islamic law (Shari’ah). (The four core sources of Islamic Law (Sunni) are: Primary sources, Qur’an and Sunnah (essentially the authenticated examples, rulings, and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)); Secondary sources, Qiyas (analogical reasoning) and Ijma (consensus of qualified Islamic scholars)).

[4]Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 699 (1971). An informative account of the Supreme Court and related proceedings is provided in a June 8, 2016 SCOTUSblog post, “Muhammad Ali, conscientious objection, and the Supreme Court’s struggle to understand “jihad” and ‘holy war’: The story of Cassius Clay v. United States,” by Marty Lederman [hereinafter “Lederman”]. Portions of this article rely heavily on Lederman’s account of Ali’s conscientious objector cases (indicated by hyperlink and endnote citations). Note that the Lederman incorporates insights about the Supreme Court’s internal deliberations, as provided by Tom Krattenmaker, a former clerk to Justice Harlan (who filed a concurring opinion in the Clay case).

[5] Clay, 403 U.S. at 699; Clay v. United States, 397 F.2d 901, 918 (5th Cir. 1968).  

[6] “The hearing officer reported to the Department of Justice that the registrant [Ali] stated his views in a convincing manner, answered all questions forthrightly, that he was impressed by the statements, believed the registrant was of good character, morals and integrity and sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form. He recommended that his conscientious objector claim be sustained.” Clay, 397 F.2d at 918.

[7] Hampton Dellinger identifies some of the political reasons for the DOJ’s breach of standard practice in a June 6, 2016 Slate article, When Muhammad Ali Took on America [hereinafter “Dellinger”]. “Why did the DOJ decide to disregard the judge’s recommendation? Which Justice officials made the decision? What factors went into it? One possible influence was political pressure from congressmen like Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who promised a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that ‘we’re going to do something if that [draft] board takes your boy and leaves Clay home to double-talk.’”

[8] Dellinger, supra n. 7 (postulating “another possible source of political pressure on the department to prosecute Ali: the president” of the United States).

[9] United States v. Clay, 430 F.2d 165, 166 (5th Cir. 1970).

[10] Clay, 397 F.2d at 901.

[11] See, e.g., Lederman.

[12] The Arabic word “jihad” is often understood to mean only “holy war,” but this is only one of the various meanings (in noun form) of the term, which derives from the root j-h-d, which means essentially “endeavor” or “strive.” See, e.g., The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 168 (J. Milton Cowan ed., 4th ed., Spoken Language Services, Inc. 1994) (hereinafter Wehr Dictionary).

[13] Clay, 403 U.S. at 699.

[14] Clay, 403 U.S. at 704-05. The record showed, and the DOJ eventually conceded, that Ali’s “beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them.” Id. at 703.

[15] The translation above is my own and differs slightly from the Arabic-to-English translation provided in the linked video.

[16] Noble Qur’an, Chapter 2, Verse 177. The complete text of this Verse, as it appears in one English language translation of the Qur’an, is as follows. “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.” Abdulla Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, 16 (Amana Publications, 11th ed. 1425AH/2004CE).

[17] “Louisville, when Cassius was growing up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, was a Jim Crow city. American apartheid. Not quite as virulent as in Jackson [Mississippi] or Mobile [Alabama], but plenty bad. ‘There were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas.’ It was a childhood in which Cassius saw his mother turned away for a drink of water at a luncheonette after a hard day of cleaning the floors and toilets of white families. These were daily scenes, the racial arrangements of Louisville.” David Remnick, The Outsized Life of Muhammad Ali, The New Yorker, June 4, 2016 (quoting “Blyden Jackson, a black writer from Louisville, who was in his forties when Clay was growing up . . . ”).

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