Muhammad Ali began boxing at the age of 12 because something was taken from him. Perhaps embarking on a career in boxing was an overzealous response to the theft of his red Schwinn bike, but in hindsight, the seemingly quotidian burglary might have been as consequential to history as the abduction of Helen from Troy.
Even as he began compiling accolades, including a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, he was again stripped — this time of his dignity — when he was refused service at a diner in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Then, as he surmounted the pinnacle of the sporting world as heavyweight champion, he again had something taken from him. This time, it was his career. Banned from boxing because he thought the war in Vietnam was unjust, he remained undeterred. He was aware he came from a lineage of people who would not deny themselves what they rightfully earned, even if the society at large continued to withhold what was due to them.
His patience was rewarded. Eventually, he not only regained his rightful place as heavyweight champ, he ascended to an even loftier throne: the universally recognized greatest of all time. And yet again, he had something taken from him. This time, Parkinson’s disease stole the motor and speech skills that had made him the most magnetic and celebrated personality on earth.
Yet, his spirit endured. His commitment to the cause of his people never faltered. He did what he had always done when something was taken from him. He gave more of himself.
This was the Ali I was introduced to as a boy through worn-out paperback books in my elementary school library. Before Islam was conflated with a menacing brand of terrorism, it was largely invisible, except for the larger-than-life Ali.
My 7-year-old brain puzzled over the question. How can a man so undeniably and unapologetically Muslim be so synonymous with excellence in America? I was at that point resigned to an idea of a life much like Apu in The Simpsons, comfortable in a supporting role providing comic relief so long as I could avoid greater scrutiny and alienation.
It was strange for me to come across such a man. I felt being a Muslim was about as unusual to my classmates in Germantown, Wisconsin, as being an alien from Saturn. In fact, it was more unusual because I actually told my classmates I was an alien from Saturn rather than reveal to them my true heritage.
But there he was, even in the early 1990s, the most recognizable and widely celebrated athlete in the world — no easy feat in the midst of Michael Jordan’s championship run.
And his name, Muhammad Ali.
His story taught me and millions more that patriotism is not merely a metric of obedience but also resistance. That infamy earned by a commitment to human rights could transform over time to universal praise and effusive love. That we are not the sum of the slurs society may project on us, but rather the way we refer to ourselves.
He never hesitated to call himself The Greatest, and so he was.
And for that, we are greater.
“Surely we belong to God and to him we shall return.” The Quran (2:156)