Muslims have traveled from all over the world to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a Kentucky arena for a final tribute to Muhammad Ali.
A fellow Muslim who shares the boxing great’s name traveled from Bangladesh. Mohammad Ali arrived with no hotel reservation, just a belief that this pilgrimage was important to honor the global icon in a traditional Islamic service.
The Ali from Bangladesh said he met the boxer in the early 1970s and they struck up a friendship based on their shared name. The Champ visited his home in 1978 and always joked he was his twin brother, he said.
He will join more than 14,000 people who have tickets to the service Thursday in Louisville, which will be broadcast worldwide and streamed online, offering a window into a religion many outsiders know little about, but have come to scorn.
Organizers say the service, or Jenazah prayer, is open to all, but meant especially as a chance for Muslims to say goodbye to a man considered a hero of the faith. U.S. Muslims hope the service for the Kentucky native will help underscore that Islam, so much under attack in recent months, is fully part of American life.
“Muhammad planned all of this,” said Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent U.S. Muslim scholar who will lead Thursday’s prayers. “And he planned for it to be a teaching moment.”
Ali, who died Friday at 74, famously joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, as a young athlete, then embraced mainstream Islam years later, becoming a global representative of the faith and an inspiration to other Muslims.
“One reason Muhammad Ali touched so many hearts, he was willing to sacrifice the fame, the lights, the money, the glamour, all of that, for his beliefs and his principles,” Shakir said. “That’s moving and that touches people.”
Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic scholar at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who has worked for years with the Ali family to plan the remembrances said the service will consist of short, standing prayers said over the body, which in this case will be in a coffin facing Mecca.
The Jenazah service lasts only a few minutes, with people customarily standing in lines, divided by gender, as they recite the prayers. At Ali’s service, Muslims lining up to join the recitation will be separated by gender, but the wider audience will not, Gianotti said.
The faithful will stand shoulder-to-shoulder, row after row, Gianotti said. They expect so many they will fill up the massive North Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center and spill over onto the main court of Freedom Hall.
The service is comprised of four recitations of “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great,” with silent prayers in between of a reading from the first chapter of the Quran, a blessing for Abraham, a general prayer for the well-being and forgiveness of the deceased for the next life, and a prayer for everyone at the funeral, Gianotti said.
It will take about 15-20 minutes, with additional remarks from prominent Muslims in attendance.
In addition to the traditional funeral prayers Thursday, an interfaith memorial service is planned for Friday, which will include representatives of several religions, including Jews and Christians. Muslim organizations are asking mosques around the country to participate by saying a special prayer for Ali this week.
Tickets are still available for the Thursday service at the Kentucky Exposition Center. But all 15,500 tickets for Friday’s memorial at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville were claimed within an hour.
The memorials are taking place after a burst of assaults on U.S. mosques and Muslims following the Islamic extremist attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the presidential election. Organizers of Ali’s memorials say the events are not meant to be political. Still, many Muslim leaders say they are glad for the chance to highlight positive aspects of the religion through the example of the boxing champ.
“One of the most loved, one of the most recognized persons in the world happens to be a Muslim — everyone is coming from all over to celebrate this Muslim’s death,” said Imam Abdullah El-Amin, founder of the Muslim Center in Detroit, who will attend the prayer service. “They will see the true nature of the religion and the way that Muslims — the majority of Muslims — live.”
Muslims typically bury their dead within 24 hours, but the timeline is not a strict obligation, and accommodations are often made, either to follow local customs or, in the case of a public figure like Ali, provide time for dignitaries and others to travel to the service. The world-famous athlete died in Arizona, and time was needed to transport his body to Louisville, Gianotti said.
Gianotti said in a phone interview that he and three others — two Phoenix-area Muslims and Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent U.S. Muslim scholar who will lead Thursday’s prayers — washed, anointed and wrapped Ali’s body within a day of his death. The body is typically wrapped in three pieces of simple fabric.
“The idea is to remind those who are still alive that when you came to life, you were completely money-less and you will leave money-less. What matters is if you live a simple life or do good,” said Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and a specialist in Islamic studies.
Ali’s body will leave the funeral home at 11 a.m. Thursday for the short drive to the Exposition Center, led only by a police escort. A miles-long processional is planned for Friday before the memorial. It will pass many points in the city where Ali left his imprint, including a museum in his honor downtown, a boulevard named after him and his childhood home.