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Long Island Muslims embrace Muhammad Ali's legacy

Jean Bilello meets Muhammad Ali during his 1996

Jean Bilello meets Muhammad Ali during his 1996 visit to Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County in Roosevelt. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

While Dr. Faroque Khan’s grandniece was getting married last Saturday, the conversation at the dinner table was devoted almost entirely to the death of boxing legend and humanitarian Muhammad Ali. Someone quipped that the day of her wedding would always be known as the day after Ali died, he said.

“That’s the kind of impact it had,” said Khan, a founder of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury and a retired physician at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. “He was ill for a long time, we knew that. But it always comes as a little shock.”

As the world reacts to the death of Ali, Muslim communities are reflecting on a person who they say embodied the attributes of someone who lived the true Islamic faith. Ali, born Cassius Clay, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name in 1964, soon after winning his first heavyweight championship.

When religious leaders at the Islamic Center of Long Island learned of Ali's death on June 3 at the age of 74, they held a private service at the mosque to give fatiha — a group prayer for his soul and for those whom he left behind.

“It’s a great loss because he was a devout Muslim and a great champion of rights for everyone,” said Isma Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center. “He was a true believer of Islam as a religion of peace.”

Muslim-Americans groups, including the Islamic Circle of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, encouraged local communities to send representatives to Ali's funeral prayer service, or Janazah, in Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday, or organize local prayers in his honor. At the Islamic Center of Long Island, members will be praying for Ali during their congregational prayers during the month of Ramadan, Chaudhry said.

Ali's death comes as anti-Muslim rhetoric by political figures has become part of public discourse. When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced in December that he would ban Muslims from entering the country, Ali denounced the plan, saying terrorism has nothing to do with his religion.

“He is an example of how a true Muslim should live his life, which is in direct opposition to what some major political leaders are talking about,” Khan said of Ali.

Ali was widely respected for his devotion to the Islamic faith, having made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972 and several visits to countries with large Muslim populations like Morocco.

“He was a great role model for the Muslim community and an uplifter for youth,” Chaudhry said.

Khan added that he has five main role models, among them the Prophet Muhammad and Ali.

“As somebody who believes in something and then lives up to it, he [Ali] was basically the model for everybody,” Khan said.

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