Born Cassius Clay, which he later referred to as his “slave name,” Muhammad Ali was raised a Baptist in a lower-middle class neighborhood of Louisville.
He joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name in 1964.
In the 1970s, Ali converted to Sunni Islam, the largest denomination among Muslims worldwide, and embraced Sufism, a mystical school of the faith.
“Jesus is the white man’s God,” Ali said, when asked why he chose the Muslim religion over the Christian faith of his mother.
“My mother took me to church every Sunday,” Ali said. “I asked her, Mother, why is Jesus white? Why is the Lord’s supper all white men? Mary is white. All the angels are white.”
This seemed to be a huge obstacle in Ali’s spiritual life. He could not come to believe in a God that people portrayed as white. Ali spoke of Christ as an enlightened, loving, prophet, but that is where it stopped.
In an interview with James Robison in 1982, before the Parkinson’s disease took it’s effect, Ali said, “Muslim leaders approached me about becoming a Muslim evangelist after my boxing career. They want me to become the black Billy Graham for Muslims. They said they would buy me a 747 to travel the world.”
Ali never became the black Billy Graham. He did become a great ambassador for Islam in a country where it’s followers say this minority faith is widely misunderstand and mistrusted.
“We thank God for him,” Talib Shareef, president and imam of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, told a gathering of Muslim leaders who honored Ali in Washington on Saturday, a day after he died in a Phoenix hospital at age 74. “America should thank God for him. He was an American hero.”
Hopefully, before his final breath, Ali had gotten past the color of skin, which he had preached to millions worldwide to do.