The Interfaith Legacy of Muhammad Ali: “The Wise Man Changes”
October 28, 2021
In a public conversation hosted by IFYC, filmmaker David McMahon shared a story that didn’t make it into his recent PBS documentary about Muhammad Ali.
It was the mid-1960s, McMahon said, and a law student at the University of Chicago stood helplessly with a group of housing activists, watching police evict a man from his 2nd floor apartment. As the officers piled his furniture at the curb, she sensed someone approaching.
“And there was Muhammad Ali. He took off his jacket and handed it to her,” picked up a table and walked it past the police officers and back inside, McMahon said. “Immediately everybody jumped in and did the same. Within a few minutes, they had restored the apartment. Then he came back to her, as she described it, in a kind of cinematic way and took the jacket from her and disappeared.”
McMahon — who co-produced the film with his wife, Sarah Burns, and her father, Ken Burns — spoke with IFYC founder Eboo Patel and scholar Donna Auston about Ali as an interfaith leader. The Chicago eviction story didn’t make the final cut, McMahon said, but it captured how Ali played this role.
“He does these acts of good out of the spotlight, away from the cameras. He’s doing it all the time,” McMahon said. “I think cameras on, cameras off he was always trying to raise humanity where he could.”
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, was a flawed man who pursued his faith, became a legend and connected with humans across the nation and the world. When asked why he would make another film about this widely known figure, McMahon said that Ali is needed in a new way in this time to hold up a mirror to the nation.
The conversation on Ali as an interfaith leader included reflection on his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, inspired by his Muslim faith to be a conscientious objector. Over time, Patel says, Ali grew into a leader who comfortably reached across religious divides. Patel recalled seeing this nearly two decades ago, when he brought a group of high school and college students to a Chicago hotel for an interfaith breakfast with 1,000 religious and civic leaders.
“The elevator opens and there’s Muhammad Ali,” struggling with Parkinson’s disease but glowing, Patel said. When he learned the students were an interfaith group, Ali “nods and raises his arm and basically blesses us. And I will never forget that moment. It felt like being in the presence of a shaikh, someone whose blessing one seeks.”
This side of Ali became more visible to Auston after she went to a university conference on Islamophobia in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali’s hometown. Local residents told her that even during the height of his fame, “he would be found on a random corner on campus passing out Qurans and really acting as an ambassador for his faith to people, average folk, and engaging in conversation with them. Everyday human contact — if you’re thinking about his interfaith legacy — that’s one of the most powerful places to look.”
The documentary film doesn’t ignore Ali’s flaws, from difficult relationships to moments of cruel arrogance.
“Not all about Ali was holy,” Patel says. “But Ali changes. In the second episode he says, ‘The wise man changes, and I’m a wise man.’ ”
Auston noted that, “at the end of the day, Ali was still a Black man raised in the Jim Crow South,” one who spoke out against, but also endured and was deeply impacted by, racial injustice. His faith inspired him to strive to be better, not to rise above his history, she said.
“Life is sort of a sculpting process, I think for all of us. You start with a block of clay, and this experience will chisel you, this experience will shape you, and when you come out at the end you have something that doesn’t look exactly like what you started with,” Auston said. “I think that’s sort of the goal of any spiritual practice. You’re tyring to get something that’s a little bit more refined and chiseled than what you started with.”
Eboo Patel is the Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).
Donna Auston is an anthropologist, writer, and public intellectual whose body of work focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, protest and social movements, media representation, and Islam in America. She is currently completing her dissertation at Rutgers University, an ethnography of Black Muslim activism and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era. Donna has also been named one of the top 100 Muslim Social Justice leaders by MPower Change.
David McMahon has been making award-winning documentary films for more than a decade. With Ken Burns and Sarah Burns, he wrote, directed and produced The Central Park Five, Jackie Robinson, and East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story. Raised in Clarence, New York, and a graduate of the University of Michigan, McMahon lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sarah Burns, and their two children.
Eboo Patel: Hello everyone, asalaam alaikum, I welcome you to this very special webinar, Muhammad Ali: An Interfaith Leader Before We Knew What That Was. I want to welcome the two people I’m going to be in discussion with in this webinar.
The first is Donna Austin who is an anthropologist, a writer, and a public intellectual whose body of work focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social protest movements, media representation and Islam in America. She’s completing her dissertation at Rutgers University, which is an ethnography of Black Muslim activism and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era, named one of 100 Muslim social justice leaders by Empower Change. Sister Donna, we’re thrilled to have you with us, thank you for taking the time and offering your insight wisdom.
Donna Auston: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here.
Eboo Patel: And David McMahon who is one of the makers of this film, as somebody I’ve been on a panel with right when the film came out WTTW, Chicago Public Television station made several other films, including the Central Park Five, Jackie Robinson, and Eastlake Meadows: a Public Housing Story.
Thank you again, David for being with us, and one of the things I want to say to you is what you made is a work of art, I’ve said that before, but it is, it is so beautifully and perfectly crafted, the music, the pacing the voices. The kind of cradle to grave nature, the larger social story tells. I want to thank you for the film, and I want to thank both you and sister Donna, for how you’re going to illuminate a dimension of this film with us today.
David McMahon: Thank you Eboo. I’m really pleased to be here and I’m honored to be sharing a screen with Donna, who appears in the film and did a lot to clarify for me, the importance of Muhammad Ali’s spirituality while we were making the movie. Really glad to be here.
Eboo Patel: Great. So, everybody has a Muhammad Ali story, I think that somebody actually says that in the film, right, and we at IFYC actually have our own Muhammad Ali story. Back in the early days of the organization when part of what we would do is have high school and college students who are part of our first project at IFYC that was called the Chicago Youth Council, they would do a kind of performance at the Greater Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast, that you know the mayor and the senators from Illinois would host.
There would be a thousand business, religious, civic leaders at the Hilton on South Michigan avenue, and this must have been 2004, 2005 maybe. We were preparing for our performance. We put on performance clothes, we were exiting the green room area, and we get to the elevators, and the elevator opens and there’s Muhammad Ali. And he is glowing, resplendent, right, in his own way even at that time in his life. And we say asalaamu alaikum to the champ and one of his kind of entourage says, you know, what are a bunch of young people doing at the mayor’s leadership prayer breakfast, you’re not the typical audience.
And I said that we were doing a performance about interfaith cooperation. And Ali kind of nods and raises his arm, and he basically blesses us. And I will never forget that moment, I’ll never forget that moment, right, because it felt like being in the presence of a sheikh. It felt like being in the presence of somebody whose blessing one seeks, you know, in Islam there’s a tradition of visiting the graves of holy people, Rumi’s grave in Konya, Turkey, the dargahs of the great saints of South Asia, and it’s because they live holy lives. And that’s how it felt being in the presence of Ali that day.
David, I want to ask you about, not all of his life was holy, right, and you pull no punches in the film about this. But Ali changes and he actually says, I think it’s in the beginning of the second episode, he says: “the wise man changes and I’m a wise man”, right. Can you talk about what were some of the most powerful changes in Ali’s life that you learned about in the making of the film? What felt the most powerful, profound, and personal for you?
David McMahon: Yeah I like to address this in two ways. Muhammad Ali was a boxer, and you can see this evolution in his fighting across his career. He starts out as a guy who’s virtually unhittable and in the mid 1960s, is the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s at the absolute height of his physical abilities and at that time he’s drafted, but he refuses induction into the U.S. army. And he loses, in doing this, three years of his best athletic self. When he returns, he’s slower.
And what he did, in giving up those three years, was give up a chance to retain his heavyweight crown, to make a lot of money, and to grow his fame. And I think it’s real evidence of the commitment that he had to his faith that he was willing to do that. He also was risking five years in prison in doing this, and so there’s no doubting the authenticity of his commitment to his faith and to not being part of this war in Vietnam.
When he comes back, he’s a much different fighter. He’s slower and he has to fight in a different way, but he makes these adjustments. And over the years, he climbs back and wins back the title that was taken away from him, which really kind of ratifies for everyone, the depths of his commitment to his faith as all this is taken away from him. But he’s going to stick to his principles, and he’s still going to win back his crown, and he’s going to tell you that he’s going to do it on behalf of all the people who don’t have a voice. I have such admiration for him for how he was able to change in the ring and still meet his goals as an athlete.
Out of the ring, we really saw this movie as a spiritual journey. And as Donna helped illuminate for me, this is a man growing up in Louisville as a teenager, and he can see that he’s considered a second-class citizen. All the signals around him say “this is not a space for you”.
And I think when he discovers the Nation of Islam, it clarifies for him and helps make sense of this world for him. He has a place where he can be a part of a community, he has leaders and people who are pointing him in a new direction, he has a new commitment to this faith. And I think it guides the rest of his life.
We see him in the ring, before he fights, he bows in prayer. After the fight he thinks a lot and talked constantly about the honorable Elijah Muhammad. He always says, I don’t know how much he means this, but he always says “it’s okay if I don’t have another fight, that’s not necessarily the purpose of life here”, but he does consistently say it.
But when he joined the nation of Islam, it was not necessarily solely for spiritual reasons, it was also about making sense of this segregated world he inhabited. And Elijah Muhammad had a particular trajectory for the nation of Islam, but that meant one thing in the 60s and meant another thing in the 70s.
Muhammad Ali is often parroting what the honorable Elijah Muhammad is saying in his public utterances. But when the honorable Elijah Muhammad dies and his son Wallace takes the organization in another direction, Muhammad comfortably goes in that direction. It’s a bigger, more open version of Islam. What he’s practicing is more mainstream, and he practices that across the rest of his life.
And it’s a big open-hearted mission that he’s on, and really you see this evolution from a guy who can sit before Bud Collins as a 20-something boxer and say, “I’m for George Wallace because he speaks truths about segregation”, to a guy who can travel the world and his retired days suffering from Parkinsons and connect with everybody everywhere. And it’s a big open-hearted version of his faith and, at the very end he has the thoughtfulness as he’s taken an accounting of his life to say, “This is what I got wrong and I’m okay addressing that. I’m okay. I’m going to atone for it now. I maybe wasn’t always good to my wives, I didn’t treat Malcolm X very well, I wish I had handled that differently. I was not kind to Joe Frazier, I wish I had handled that differently.”
And for us as filmmakers, we don’t want to tell a story about a guy who was superhuman. We want to make a portrait of a flawed human and make him seem as human as possible. And we’re grateful to him for pointing us to all the ways in which he was flawed. But I think that is through his faith that he could come to terms with what mistakes he made and publicly speak about them. He’s often an open book willing to share who he is, which made him such a compelling subject.
Eboo Patel: David, that was a lot, thank you for that. I want to underscore one of the many parts of what you said, and then kind of present it to Donna. Part of what I’m hearing you say David is, it is because Ali is Muslim. Let me rephrase: that Islam gives Ali the strength to change, to change the kind of Muslim he is, to apologize for some of the things, some of the hurts and harms he causes, and they’re plenty, and the film is open about that, right. But there is a different kind of courage that Islam gives Ali the human being.
Not the boxer, but the human being, that allows him to face up to past selves he wished had gotten more things right. I’m curious Donna, what you might make of that.
Donna Auston: Yeah, I mean I think for me, both as a person who studies religion professionally and also as a believing person, as someone who attempts to implement Islam in my own life. I think one of the things that I understand religion to be, is, religion is not a handbook for already perfect people. I mean you know, religion and spirituality is a guide to help you to approximate what you understand perfection to be or nearness to the divine, right.
And that means that you know, it sounds maybe a bit cliché, but we all fall short, but if you are somebody who takes your spiritual path seriously, the idea is that you’re always trying to get there, and I think that a lot of the experiences that Muhammad Ali had in his life – being stripped from his title when he was certainly at the peak of his athletic prowess, in many ways, and all of those things, actually. So taking, taking that the step in that direction.
And they were huge steps because as David mentioned, and you know as the history books tell us, right, you know, Ali sacrificed quite a bit in order to take this particular position that was in line with his spiritual beliefs about making war on the innocents, particularly and within the context of the nation of Islam, it’s not just random innocence right, but theology and cosmology and the way that the world is ordered, and relationships to the divine, understood from the perspective of a racialized Black person in North America right and all of that, and what comes along with that, right. So he’s understanding his place in the world through this lens of being a Black person born in segregated Jim Crow Louisville, right.
And so this journey, those things are always working in tandem with one another, right. His spirituality is constituted through his political experiences, racial experiences are also sort of clarified through his practice of religion, and he continues to move in the direction that he understands to be taking him closer to, you know to, closer to his maker.
And I think one of the other things that I’ll emphasize here is that you know, at the beginning of someone’s spiritual journey it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have all of the answers, right at the start of it, I mean I think that’s the idea, although often faith can be expressed in ways that communicate surety on the part of believers at any particular moment in time, right, but it’s always open to expansion. It’s always open and open to being deepened by the experiences that you have in the world, I mean the things that Ali experienced on so many levels are really extraordinary.
In terms of how most humans live their lives, most of us live our lives in a much more average way. But all of these experiences, both the things that are happening to him on the macro public level, but also the things that are happening in his spiritual life, his personal life, his family life, actually shape him into the person that he later became. And he moved with that you know, and so what we see at the end of his life, is not exactly the same as what we see at the beginning of his life. I also don’t think they’re always quite different as sometimes narratives posit because I think that core is there it’s just a matter of its sculpting. Life is sort of a sculpting process, I think, for all of us right. We know you started, you have this block of clay right and this experience will chisel you and this experience will shape you and then, when you come out at the end you have something that doesn’t look exactly like what you started with, and I think that’s sort of the goal of probably any spiritual practice, right. You’re actually just trying to get something that’s a little bit more refined and chiseled than what you started with.
Eboo Patel: The there’s a great line attribute of Michelangelo, “the angel already exists in the stone, the sculptor releases it” or life releases it, in this case and I, you know the different ways that Ali orients around Islam helps release a different part of him. You know I’m going to deviate from the script a little bit here and ask a question that continually came up to me, for me, as I was watching this film. But you know, the way that Ali speaks of Joe Frazier in the 70s, I mean, it’s painful to watch. I wonder, sometimes did Ali create a public character for himself that he felt trapped by.
And he didn’t want to be that guy anymore, but in effect, who he was in 1965 he felt like he had to be publicly on stage and 1975, even if that was not in his heart. David, I’m sure you’re close to the material and, of course, Donna, I want to come to you on this also.
David McMahon: I think that Ali the showman is an authentic version of Ali, I think, as a young man he’s, before he’s won the title is braggadocio. He is drawing from gorgeous George, the professional wrestler, is not afraid to talk about how pretty he is, this is a little late 1950s.
And he seeing that it’s okay as a performer to be loathed as much as loved, because it’s still going to put butts in the seats and so he does craft this kind of public showman persona and part of that is a kind of pre-fight psychological advantage that he’s seeking against his opponents and so he’ll identify something about them and make it a contest of that. It can be as big as a battle between Christianity and Islam or it can be who’s more authentically Black. But for him it’s about making the fight about something bigger than a fight.
I think he knows that it plays to his advantage because he sets up his opponents and it draws more eyeballs, it makes the thing more of an event. It’s so successful that the promoters would say he’s better at promoting the fights than we are. When it when it comes to Frazier, and I think right to the end of his career he continues to do this, and by the 70s, I think he’s struggling a little more to make the fights about something more than just being a prize fight. And I also think that a lot of the fighters sort of go along with it, because as Earnie Shavers told me: Earnie shavers was a boxer that Muhammad fought in the late 70s, and he said “there was my life, before I fought Muhammad Ali and my life after I fought Muhammad Ali, I was much more of a significant figure after I fought him.”
You know, so a lot of them went along for the ride, but he uses such dark and brutal language. And talking about Joe Frazier, as Todd Boyd says in the movie, this is the ultimate conscious Black guy and he’s using the language of right white racist to frame Joe Frazier. A guy who was there to help him when he was out of the fight game by loaning him money and keeping in touch with him, and so it was brutal, but I think that it was a role that he felt comfortable playing.
And Frazier was the one who got hurt by it most, but he did play it right to the end and he craved that public attention he needed to connect with the people and they need to connect with him and so it’s an unfortunate chapter.
And he does admit to it being dark later in his life, but I think he always thought Joe should know better, that this is just about playing up a fight and drawing eyeballs and of course Frazier didn’t feel that way.
And so I think later he had to try and make peace with how he treated him, but it does fit into how Ali, the public figure, and Clay, the public figure always competed himself before and around fights.
Eboo Patel: Donna, if you want, if you have a comment on that, by all means.
Donna Auston: I think the only thing that I would add to that is that I think it’s important to understand all of these things, within the context of the totality and the extent to which white racist ideology impacts, all of us, and that includes those of us who are the targets of it and it includes those of us who are you know…that includes white folks, right, it’s not just I mean white racist ideology.
is something that many of us internalize and many of us struggle at various parts of our lives and again on our journey right to actually really rid ourselves of the types of things – of being capable of believing and/or sort of directing some of those same you know racist invectives against ourselves and those who look like us, and this comes out in a lot of different ways. so I don’t I think Ali as a as a Black man in America, regardless of how we understand him to be this sort of figure that you know that broke free of all of that right there’s it still takes a conscious effort and a lot of work to really totally step outside of that.
I mean, I think, and I think it’s certainly something that that shows up in various places, and it can be very insidious and very and very sneaky sometimes right, even from people who we who we think quote unquote should know better.
Right, this is not colorism it’s something there’s a whole history, you know sort of behind how you know even Black people understand and relate to, you know, the features that we are our family members have.
People being you know taunted for being darker skin people feel being taunted for having hair that’s a curly or texture mean these things I don’t think I think you know something that you said earlier, you know, is that you know sort of there’s you know Muhammad Ali has the superhuman place in our imagination right but he’s also a person and he’s not outside of all of those things that were a part of his growing up.
Pretty much any or very probably most of us would be able to admit to that most Black people will tell you that they’ve seen this they witness it, they’ve experienced it, and many of us, maybe have even
engaged in that sort of banter. Particularly understand, in addition to sort of being you know sort of a promotional tactic of at least you know this this tradition of playing the dozens right is very much a part of how you know which is you know sort of a verbal sparring right –
Taunts, jokes, you know cracking, whatever we call it right in our local vernacular is a very it’s very much a part of Black American oral culture right and you know roasting can be can be pretty harsh at times right in that sort of tradition and, in many cases, many of us if we’re not careful, if we’re not not cognizant of this can actually fall into some of the same because we’ve been watching the same media.
right that that sort of this white media industrial complex is put out about Black people we’ve been watching it we’ve been ingesting the same we’ve been reading the same history books we’ve been taught from the same apparatus, this same white supremacist apparatus, as everybody else, and it really gives you a sense of how severe a job that all of that does to a person. So I think it is unfortunate, it is dark, but I think we do have to understand that, yes, Ali in many ways sort of went above and I hate the word transcends and I guess maybe we can talk about, because I think this will come up later and some of the questions that I know we had planned.
I think, often when we think about people who we revere you know we understand them to not be sort of subject to all of the mundane, terrible you know oppressive, difficult things that we all struggle with right, but Ali is not outside of that at the end of the day. He was still a Black man raised in the Jim Crow South, and that does a number on people, it just it does a number and it’s very difficult to get out of it.
Eboo Patel: yeah, thank you that is powerfully said so, you know I remember when Ali dies – I think it’s June 2016 right, and this is like right in the teeth of this racist Trump campaign.
And I remember I’m on a flight back from D.C. or New York to Chicago and I I like purchase the $4.95 you know viewing the TV on the on the plane.
And I watched the funeral and it’s like a state funeral that’s, the only way I can describe it it’s on every channel it’s on ESPN it’s on NBC it’s like a state funeral. Bill Clinton speaks and one of the final speakers is Billy Crystal and he tells the story that I just found so deeply moving. He says that he’s in Louisville one day, maybe it’s the 70s, or 80s and he says to Muhammad Ali…or Ali says to Billy Chrystal, “ You want to go for a run tomorrow?”
And Billy Crystal says that “No, it’s okay, thanks so much” and Ali’s like ripping him he’s like, “Oh, you’re too afraid to like do a five mile jog with the champ?”
And Billy Crystal says, “Actually, no the place where you run, the Louisville Country Club, I can’t go I’m Jewish doesn’t let Jews.”
Billy Crystal says Ali is so infuriated like by that, just like viscerally infuriated, right, it’s this instinctive set of principles that I think once he’s around Ali, in many instances.
And Ali doesn’t run it that country club again and it’s this, you know, I it’s this way of Ali saying, “You’re not just my friend, you are part of the diversity of human creation and it is my job as a human being, as a champ, as a Muslim, to stand up and cherish and protect the diversity of human creation and wherever that is not. that is not cherished and protected, I’m not going to be a part of that place. And I’m curious either David or Donna, are there other instances that like pop out to you of Ali, that at we at IFYC would call an interfaith leader, which is basically somebody who takes inspiration for their own tradition, which is can be anything from secular humanism to Shia Islam or evangelical Christianity or orthodox Judaism. to pro-actively partner with people from other traditions, including protecting them if protection is necessary and required.
David McMahon: yeah well, I can speak a little bit to that. I think what astonish me about Ali always was his authenticity and he’s always been true to that effort, I think, to live his faith.
He’s a showman and that’s a big part of who he is, but he can perform a magic trick, without them, showing the people who have just seen it, how it is that he performed it, right, what the secret is.
So I think that’s him staying true to his faith and his tradition and who he wants to be.
And he does these acts of good, I think, out of the spotlight away from the cameras he’s doing them all the time.
One story that we could unfortunately include in the movie came to us from Bernadine Dohrn, the activist, and should cut University of Chicago trained lawyer who actually tells it was a second year law student and was at a church gather with a number of activists and they were plotting, they were working with Dr. King and they were plotting their next move when word came in that down the street, there was an eviction unfolding.
And so they quick jumped up from their chairs and ran down the block and when they got there, the sheriff’s deputies had removed all the furniture from the apartment on the second floor and put it out on the curb and she’s standing there watching this unfold kind of feeling helpless. And she says, you know that moment when somebody bigger than you sort of appears beside you and you haven’t seen them yet, but you can feel that they’re there.
And she said this happened to me and I turned and looked at, and there was Muhammad Ali.
He had also heard what was happening, he had come from wherever he was and he was sharply dressed and he took his jacket off and handed it to her.
And he walked over to the pile and picked up a coffee table or something and in the face of the sheriff’s deputies in the crowd gathered walked it up the stairs and back into the apartment. And immediately everybody jumped into the same and within a few minutes, they had restored the apartment to what it was, and then came back to her.
As she described in a kind of cinematic way and took the jacket from her and disappeared, and so I think cameras on, cameras off, he was always trying to you know raise humanity, where he could whether people’s faith, whatever their skin color, whatever their traditions, he saw people as humans.
And you spoke to this at the beginning, when he did this, he imprinted heavily and everybody he encountered. Everybody I met while making this movie you had a Muhammad Ali encounter told the with the details, as though that happened the day before, they remembered every aspect of it.
And it felt like a pivotal moment in their life. I don’t want to overstate that, but there is some truth to how he was able to leave people with an impression, whether it was an action he took and funny he would always say, “I’m not a leader there’s only one leader, it’s the honorable Elijah Muhammad,” but then he would do things that would show people the way.
And so I was amazed that no matter what corner of the earth, he was in he could act in a way or connect with people in a meaningful way that would leave them with a memory that they would share or build on, for the rest of their lives.
Donna Auston: I would just say, just in addition to that there’s a couple of things, one, I was invited to a conference on Islamophobia, a couple of years ago.
I was it was in Louisville actually and one of the things that that was remarkable, of course, many people there had stories, but one of the other speakers at this particular conference, one of the things that he pointed out, he was a Louisville native and he was talking, part of his presentation was about the ways that…the incident where Muhammad Ali Jr was actually stopped and detained at an airport profiled as a Muslim and detained. And you know this was sort of talking about his presentation and he was telling the stories around that. I mean one of the things that, you know, he was talking about was the ways that the city of Louisville and people who lived in Louisville loved Muhammad Ali so much and one of the features of his presence there, and the city of course you know, aside from you know everything that he’s done in his life, was that he would be found on a random corner on campus you know passing out Qurans and really acting as an ambassador for his faith to people, you know just average folks like you know he’s sitting by, a truck full of literature.
He’s just started, you know parked on campus and giving out Qurans to whoever happens to be passing by and you know engaging in conversation with them and just serve that that human you know just everyday human contact with something that I think if you’re if you’re thinking about his interfaith legacy that’s one of the most powerful places to look.
One of the other things that I would mention, of course, is his refusal to go, to be deployed to Vietnam at great personal cost to kill people who he saw as you know, as his as his fellow human beings that didn’t deserve to be murdered. I mean, I think we underestimate and particularly in the way that this was articulated as a faith-based stand, I mean on the basis of his religiosity, his spiritual path, this was something that his conscious could not allow him to do at that time.
I don’t know probably 99% of Americans had never heard of Muslims or Islam, they certainly hadn’t heard of the nation of Islam more than likely unless they lived in Detroit or Chicago or someplace like that.
So you know, but actually articulating this set of principles that are concerned with the preservation of human life that are concerned with sort of you know at you know, taking an active stand against violence and imperialism and militarism as a religious principle and actually framing that for people in a way that they could understand.
You know, to people who had generally, many of whom had no prior exposure to this to this faith tradition or even to thinking about this type of action right as I mean, yes, there are you know, certainly conscientious objectors of other faith traditions before him.
But actually being able, because of who he was as an athlete in a public figure, being able to actually articulate this on a worldwide scale. I think it’s something that is really a huge part of his interfaith legacy if we’re talking about it in that way, I think, for many people.
And even though this was certainly something again that I think we you know if you if you’re a student of his life at all, you understand was connected deeply to his spiritual path.
He certainly articulated that and the basis on which his case was ultimately dismissed was because the legal clerk in his case you know really understood that this was not you know not quote unquote a political decision necessarily right, even though I don’t think there’s a neat separation between those two domains.
But this was actually rooted and rooted in his spirituality I think empowered and expanded the realm of possibilities for what faith is capable of, and what types of issues that faith is capable of speaking to right in the larger society, so I think I think that’s definitely one of the ways that he sort of shines in that area.
Eboo Patel: That that’s powerful, thank you for that, Donna. You know one thing I think that’s worth highlighting is that the United States, for better or worse, has a constitutional architecture that effectively privileges faith.
Amongst identities it privileges religious identity and the Muhammad Ali Supreme Court case is a really powerful illustration of this. If Muhammad Ali had said, “I don’t want to go fight in Vietnam, because I’m a democrat,” he doesn’t win, he’s got no case. If he says, “I don’t want to go fight and Vietnam, because I’m in my 20s,” he doesn’t have a case. If he says, “I don’t want to go fight Vietnam, because I’m Black.” That’s not a case but “I don’t want to go fight in Vietnam, because I’m Muslim,” you can claim a conscientious objector status based on religious identity and America’s constitutional framework.
And I think it is worth noting that you know the various dimensions of identity that are typically talked about – this is clearly not true of you Donna and David, given this film that’s not true of you either – but it’s true on campuses, it’s true at companies, etc.
We talk a lot about race, gender sexuality, these are really important things, but the American constitutional framework privileges religious identity.
And the Muhammad Ali doesn’t go to Vietnam and doesn’t and wins this case based on that.
What do you think we need to do to like elevate conversations about religious identity in the public discourse so that they’re kind of equal to how important religious identity as the in the constitutional framework?
David McMahon: Well, if I could just add one thing to what you were saying when Muhammad Ali refuses induction.
That war is still popular and it’s also at a time when I think for those few people who didn’t know about the nation of Islam, they viewed it with fear and trepidation, and what you see over time, as a kind of evolution, where, by the time that cases decided, the country has moved against the war and there’s less fear around the nation of Islam, mean that law clerk, he was seeking a way in which he could make sense of this case that invited the justices to see it as an issue of faith and that kind of authenticity that Muhammad Ali brought to that.
And there was more of an openness, so I think the country was moving more towards Ali and by the early 70s, they were willing to accept, he was right about the war and it’s okay for him to practice that faith.
And you know the generation of the law clerk, he was a young man and his he had an openness to those ideas and he brought the Court, he and his fellow clerks brought the justices along.
I think that, we’re talking about evolution at the beginning and Ali evolving, but I think it’s also important to consider that the country changed and all he stuck to his principles and, yes, he was flawed, but we really did see a country that had an openness, I think, by the early 70s, to Mohammed Ali being a practicing Muslim and we see that you know, starting with Howard Cosell, white reporters begin to call him Muhammad Ali and slowly, over time, more and more go along with that, whereas by the time that cases decided many more sportscasters and many more journalists are willing to call him Muhammad Ali that wasn’t true at the time when he refused induction.
That’s not quite the question you asked, but I think it’s important to consider that popular opinion around this stuff can transform how the Supreme Court justices are interpreting the Constitution.
Eboo Patel: Donna, I want to, I want to ask a version of that to you so so thank you for that David.
So Muhammad Ali dies in June of 2016 and there is an event at the end of that summer which, which is also kind of a Muslim moment in America. It’s when Khizr Khan at the democratic National Convention, Muslim-American gold star father, brandishes the Constitution on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, and says, “Mr. Trump, I bet you’ve never read this, but my son died in a war for this.”
And there’s probably no more important public figure, at least in the Democrat, in you know blue America for the next six or eight weeks, than Khizr Khan.
And it strikes me, Muhammad Ali is celebrated in part, for his refusal to go to an unpopular war. Eric Holder says the most important thing Muhammad Ali did wasn’t in the ring it was the refusal to go to Vietnam.
And Khizr Khan is celebrated for being a gold star father, for his sons is American Muslim son, Humayun’s, decision to go to an unpopular war and not be conscripted, going voluntarily. And I watched this and I think to myself, however hateful Donald Trump is – and the man is hateful and the movement is hateful – this is a sign of American openness to Islam and Muslims, because we can be complex, we can be opposed to wars and we can go to wars and we can still be cultural figures curious what you think of that Donna.
Donna Auston: There’s a lot, and what I can say is that, I think what I’ll start with at the outset, is really to just highlight here that, of course, the American Muslim community, demographic I should say right. Because I think community implies more of a uniform is than there actually is, which is precisely the point I want to emphasize here. The American Muslim demographic is incredibly diverse along not only national, ethnic, racial, sectarian lines, but certainly in terms of political opinion, socio-economic status, etc, etc, etc, so both of these things represent sort of the story of American Muslims, at some point, right?
So I think that’s one thing that that I’d like to point out there. I think, also, though, one of the things that this represents because, of course, these two moments are, you know, separated by 40 years or so in terms of time and you know a lot has changed since then and not necessarily all for the better.
This is post-9/11 and actually, as a matter of fact, I think the day after Ali’s funeral or maybe two days later, you have the Pulse shooting in Florida, where a Muslim was accused of shooting up, you know, a gay club, and killing a number of people. And so this was an interesting juxtaposition for me experientially, is that you have this really public moment where Muslims are sort of celebrated and, you know, through Ali, right, this revered American Muslim figure, and then the very next day we’re sort of back to “Muslims are terrorists” and profiling and surveillance and all of these other things that we’re experiencing.
And one of the things that I understand about Khizr Khan’s experience is like I that that moment actually is really complicated for me emotionally, because on you know, on the one hand, like what’s happening here is not that he’s accepted as, he’s not there because he’s a human being, he’s there because he has to defend his humanity.
And the way to defend his humanity as a Muslim because Muslims in this and current you know sort of political discourse, certainly within the context of the last presidential election or that particular presidential election, I guess, we’ve had one since then right.
Within the context of that particular presidential election cycle, Muslims are really sort of taking center stage in a way, like they hadn’t before in terms of that sphere of electoral politics, which is that, where we are this securitized populate. We’re only understood within the context of national security, like we’re not actually people.
We’re not people who care about health care or care about infrastructure, who care about, it’s just are you a terrorist or not.
And the litmus test for this is that this couple you know because Khizr Khan and his wife was Ghazala have to stand in front of the public and defend the right of Muslims to be seen as human beings, on the basis of the fact that these people sacrifice their son to the American military project. Now I’m not necessarily, you know, this is not really a conversation per se about whether or not that’s the right choice or not, but it, but the fact that this is what he has to offer up, what this family has to offer up in order to sort of act as a foil against bigotry and Islamophobia emanating from the pool of presidential candidates is really problematic right, and this is so, you know so, and this is not an effective against Khizr and Ghazala Khan at all, but it’s an indictment of, it’s an indictment of the American political machine that understood that still racialized is people.
That still, you know, that still a presence people on the basis of social identity, race and religion.
Right being two of the most powerful vectors along which this happens right because the whole discourse that he’s speaking to is this, “well Muslims can’t be American. They can’t be one of us,” right and we all know, who us is. Us is not the diversity of America us is sort of you know implied, if not outright stated, particularly when we’re talking about the Trump years and which, more often than not, it was explicitly stated, not just do rhetoric, but also through policies such as the Muslim ban, right.
That American, that Muslims are default the enemy and it’s their job, meaning our job, I’m speaking me now as an American Muslim, it’s now my job to prove to everyone else that i’m not a threat, even though, you know.
I mean, and so on, so on it’s face, it’s sort of this touching moment for a lot of people, “Oh wow look at this family” but it’s also, for me, begs the question, “Where are we as a nation where people have to do that?” Where they have to put their trauma on display in order to have a shot at being regarded as something of a human being who deserves all the protections that the Constitution, that he held in his hand, allegedly grants him and people who look like him and believe like him and practice their faith like he does.
So for me, that wasn’t actually I particularly feel-good moment. To be honest, yeah.
Eboo Patel: Well, I mean I offered it simply as an interesting book end, right, as an interesting counterpoint and I appreciate your interpretation of it. So we’re moving towards the end, I want to do a big thank you to both of you and ask kind of one final question.
David, I asked you first and then Donna, I’ll ask you a slightly different. David, in 50 years how Muhammad Ali be remembered?
And then, Donna, to the question I have for you is, Muhammad Ali is a part of a powerful era of Black activism, right, and it’s the Nation of Islam, it’s Black pride, it’s Black power and Civil Rights and the beautiful movie, I mean a terrific accompanying movie to watch alongside David’s film and your film also, as you appear in it, is One Night In Miami, the conversation between Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and who’s the fourth figure…
Donna Auston: Malcolm X
Eboo Patel: Right, of course, and Malcolm X. Like that powerful moment in Black activism. Muhammad Ali plays a central role and Donna, the question I want to ask you going out is, what’s the role that the memory of Muhammad Ali plays in today’s world of Black activism?
So, David you first, how are you gonna remember Muhammad Ali in 50 years?
Donna, closing out with your comments on what do you think the memory of Muhammad Ali, the role it plays in today’s world of Black activism? And we’re going to need about 90 seconds each so it’ll be super disciplined here.
David McMahon: People asked when we started making this movie, “why another film about Muhammad Ali, there are so many?” And I would say Muhammad Ali is a subject that we should continue telling his story indefinitely and anyone who feels like they should tell it. In any way they feel like they should tell it, and so in 50 years I think with Muhammed Ali there will be new scholarship, there will be different perspective. There will be footage we’ve never seen before, there will be new photographs, there will be something happening in the world where it’s important to hold him up as a mirror, so we can have him reflected back at us to help us make sense of the times we’re in. Muhammad Ali in 50 years it will still be timely to tell his story, there will still be new things to learn about him and he will still have fresh things to say about the moment that we’re in.
Eboo Patel: If anyone contains multitudes it was him, thank you so much, David. Donna, take us out.
Donna Auston: Okay, so what I think I would say, regarding resonance between Muhammad Ali’s era of activism, and today is that I think – and many tellings up to this point – of Muhammad Ali’s life, there’s sort of been this arc that has a type of closure in the sense that he sort of went from this sort of hated figure to a revered figure, right?
And so the work that he was trying to accomplish in his lifetime for more justice, more equality, you know, the issues that he spoke to are sort of solved. And the way that we tell Muhammad Ali’s life is often sort of wrapped up in the way that we tell ourselves as a nation that we’ve, you know, sort of gotten over, or we’ve come full circle, you know around these issues and, of course, as we know from last summer’s flare ups that the work and issues that Muhammad Ali spoke to are far from solved, they’re far from resolved, and I am hopeful when I see athletes such as Colin Kaepernick, especially, picking up what I understand to be Muhammad Ali’s central mission. I think, in many ways, yes, he changed, I think, yes, he moved on some things but I don’t think he was ever unconcerned with justice and liberation for Black people and all human beings by extension.
And so what I would like to see is more of that, right. I think a lot of us who are trying to do the work today actually look back to exactly what he did and said, you know, this is a model for us and how we have to think about speaking to these issues today because they haven’t gone anywhere.
Eboo Patel: Donna Austin, David McMahon, you are awesome, we are grateful to you, are grateful to your work, we’re grateful to your art, we’re grateful to your intellect, we’re grateful to your illumination.