LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Thousands mourned boxing legend and humanitarian Muhammad Ali, a man who held Islam close to his heart, in a hometown service Thursday honoring “the people’s champ.”
The Muslim funeral service at Freedom Hall in the Kentucky Exposition Center was open to mourners of all faiths — like Ali had wanted.
“We welcome the Muslims; we welcome the members of other faith communities,” Imam Zaid Shakir said in opening the service. “All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
Shakir recited verses from the Quran in Arabic and led prayers. Following Muslim tradition, rows of men stood up front, women in hijabs behind them.
“For millions, perhaps billions of people across the world, of every race, of every religion ... the passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world,” said Muslim scholar Sherman Jackson.
Jackson, one of several speakers at the hour-long service, known as Janazah, told the crowd Ali “did more to normalize Islam in this country than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States.”
“Ali made being a Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant,” Jackson said.
Besides Ali’s family, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King, former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, were in attendance. Organizers said 16,000 free tickets were handed out, with attendees coming from across the country and as far away as Bangladesh.
Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay as a young man. He later parted ways with the group, embracing orthodox Islam. He died late Friday night at 74 after being hospitalized briefly for a respiratory problem. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984.
Salaam Bhatti, 30, a spokesman for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a Maryland-based Muslim organization, said Thursday’s service was upbeat and made him smile.
“There was an electricity in the crowd, everybody uniting to honor and remember Muhammad Ali,” said Bhatti, a Queens resident who graduated from Touro Law Center in Central Islip.
Louisville resident Mustafa Abu Shwiemeh, a native of Jordan, recalled seeing Ali fight on television as a child. He was a fan of both the boxer and the man “because he carried the name of Muhammad.”
“Muhammad Ali was not like a regular person,” said Abu Shwiemeh, 54. “He was like a superhero. ... Superhero in his beliefs, superhero in his power, superhero in his speech.”
Indeed, Ali alternated between confident and comedic, but was always charismatic. He picked up boxing in Louisville at the age of 12 after someone stole his bicycle, and that fury stayed with the three-time heavyweight champion in the ring.
Rick Ary, 64, of Louisville, a real estate agent and aspiring Presbyterian minister, never met Ali but said he attended the service to honor him “because he was someone who did great works in supporting others.”
“It’s a very special moment in time, especially for this country where we’ve got such extreme polarization going on and we need healing,” Ary said.
Ali’s death, he said, may be “a divine act” to be that symbol of healing.
Joyce Lynn of Springfield, New Jersey, who also attended, knew Ali. She cooked for him for about two years at his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania-based boxing camp in the 1970s, and was so impressed she later named her son after him.
“Ali was so gracious. You would think you’re going to cook maybe for 10 people and would end up with 60 or 70 people that he invited in — the people that just came to see the workout,” she said.
Memorial services here continue Friday with a 9 a.m. motorcade and procession through the city. A nationally televised funeral service starts at 2 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center, a multipurpose sports arena.
Former President Bill Clinton, comedian-actor and Long Beach native Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO’s “Real Sports,” are among those who will deliver eulogies. Will Smith, who portrayed Ali in the biopic “Ali,” former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, and family members and friends will serve as pallbearers.
Burial will be private.