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Prayer Service for Ali Draws Thousands to hometown

06 12 16



By KEN BELSONJUNE 9, 2016, NY Times
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Muhammad Ali was well known as a world champion boxer, but Hussein Hamdani remembers him more for what he did out of the ring, especially his devotion to Islam.

And that was why Hamdani, his brother, Sallah, and their friend Kamran Bhatti traveled from Toronto to pay their respects to Ali, who died last week after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, and who was honored here on Thursday at a Muslim funeral ceremony.

Boxing is “not how we knew him best,” said Hamdani, a lawyer and Muslim who joined thousands of others in the Jenazah ceremony. “We know him as one of the best ambassadors for our religion. In many ways, he was a hero in our community.”

Ali, of course, was a hero beyond the Muslim world.

His broad appeal and his unusual magnetism transformed the normally brief and unadorned ritual into something much larger on Thursday, with various dignitaries, boxing impresarios, retired fighters and former neighbors and friends of Ali’s in attendance.

An hour before the ceremony, thousands of people filled one end of a cavernous event space in Freedom Hall, a sports arena a few miles from downtown Louisville. People in flip-flops and football jerseys mixed with those in robes, scarves and suits. They hugged and took selfies, swapped stories of when they met Ali, sometimes taking out photos as proof.

Naeem Baig, the president of the Islamic Circle of North America, a nonprofit educational group, showed a picture of Ali attending one of the group’s charitable events in 1990, when food was given away to poor people on the South Side of Chicago.

Thursday’s ceremony, which was held in a spartan convention space, was to be followed by a more elaborate public event on Friday. A funeral procession will pass through part of Louisville in the morning, followed by Ali’s burial, and a downtown, interfaith memorial service will be held in the afternoon at which former President Bill Clinton is expected to deliver one of the eulogies for Ali.

At Freedom Hall on Thursday, there was a sense of informality as young children ran circles around their parents and friends from around the country and globe greeted one another with hugs and handshakes. Locals from Louisville, including some people who knew Ali before he converted to Islam, reveled in all that their native son accomplished.

“I’m awed,” said Ed Laster, 68, a retired educator who grew up on the west side of Louisville and recalled Ali’s numerous visits to his hometown. “To rise from such humble beginnings to the world stage is like a grain of sand turning into a beach. In Louisville, you feel you are part of it.”

Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent American Muslim scholar from Berkeley, Calif., brought order to the gathering. A few minutes before noon, he asked non-Muslims and women to move toward the back of the room to make space for the Muslim men who were present, who then proceeded to form long rows about five feet apart.

In a corner of the room to the imam’s right was a section with four rows of chairs for family members and other dignitaries. Nearby, a large gray shutter slowly lifted to reveal a hearse containing Ali’s dark brown coffin. The room fell to a hush as pallbearers rolled the coffin slowly toward the imam. Hundreds of people took photos with their cellphones.

The imam announced that after the brief, four-part prayer, a portion of the Quran would be read. The ceremony proceeded, with the men who were praying bringing their hands to their heads during each section of the prayer.

Then came three short speeches, including one by Sherman Jackson, an Islamic scholar and professor at the University of Southern California.

Jackson said that Ali did more than anyone to “normalize” Islam in America, and that “he gave us courage and taught us how to fight.”

“He was a gift to his people, to his religion, to his country and ultimately to the world,” Jackson said.

Afterward, the crowd spilled out of the building into a plaza. Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s most famous fights, drew a crowd as he walked by, clutching about a dozen flags and wearing a scarf with the colors of the American flag.

Jesse Jackson Sr., the civil rights activist, stood and spoke of Ali’s larger mission fighting discrimination. “He got better, not bitter,” Jackson said. “He didn’t see us through a keyhole, but through a door.”

Nearby, Jerry Martin stood in a cowboy hat and boots holding the reins of Rekoa, his horse, which had a white robe inscribed with Ali’s name, boxing gloves draped over the saddle and boxing shoes turned backward in the stirrups.

Martin, who said he spent 21 years in the Air Force, said Rekoa represented a riderless horse normally reserved for a fallen soldier. Ali was stripped of his boxing titles after he refused induction into the United States military during the Vietnam War. But Martin, who drove here from Virginia, said there was no contradiction in the tribute. To him, Ali was the ultimate warrior.

“It’s easier to fight with a group of soldiers than to fight alone,” he said.

Article Courtesy: NY Times