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Opinion
Noah Feldman

Muhammad Ali Transformed the Image of Islam

His conversion made the faith into a symbol for radical protest against Western power.
Ali (center) prays at Cairo's Alabaster Mosque in 1986.

Ali (center) prays at Cairo's Alabaster Mosque in 1986.

Photographer: MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Boxing made Muhammad Ali famous, but his conversion to Islam -- and the meaning the world attached to it -- made him a global historical figure. Ali’s conversion came to be understood as an act of transnational identification with the oppressed wretched of the earth. And through Ali, Islam itself was symbolically transformed for many observers from a conservative, quietist faith to a force for radical protest against Western power.

This remarkable story says more about Islam in the last half-century than it does about Ali personally. Nevertheless, there remains something truly astonishing about how the first African-American athlete to achieve global celebrity could make that celebrity into a platform for religio-political activism, not patriotism or consumerism.