O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty. — Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī
In Miami, February 1964, Cassius Clay was preparing to face Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. For all his braggadocio, Cassius Marcellus Clay was scared. Liston was an overwhelming favorite, the most punishing puncher in boxing history, a devastating foe. Oddsmakers had trouble finding takers for bets against Liston. Malcolm X believed in Clay totally and sincerely, and communicated that faith to the underdog. “This fight is the truth . . . Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the Champion?”
Malcolm X was undergoing his own crisis of faith. Since being named the assistant of the Detroit Temple No. 1 in 1953, Malcolm X had become the Nation of Islam’s public face. He had faithfully promoted the teachings and cause of Elijah Muhammad in the face of his own increasing doubts for several years. By 1964, before the fight, he had already been suspended by Elijah Muhammad for his outspoken behavior and support of civil rights activism. The Nation of Islam also condemned boxing and disapproved of Malcolm’s support of Cassius Clay.
Cassius had first been exposed to Elijah Muhammad’s teaching in Chicago during a Golden Gloves tournament in 1958. He met Malcolm X in Detroit in 1962. Malcolm recalled, “Some contagious quality about him made him one of the very few people I ever invited into my home.” Clay went out of his way to attend as many of Malcolm’s teachings as possible. Later, they would spend hours discussing the Koran according to Ali’s close friend, Howard Bingham, who took the remarkable photo of Malcolm and Ali at the top of the page.
Before the Liston fight, J. Edgar Hoover leaked the Nation of Islam-Cassius Clay connection. Malcolm’s presence in the Clay training center in Miami sparked outrage from sports writers and the fight promoters who promptly cancelled the bout. “My religion’s more important to me than any fight,” Clay responded, and he refused to denounce Islam. Malcolm X left for New York and didn’t return until fight night when he was at ringside.
In January 1946, Malcolm Little was arrested in Boston trying to retrieve a stolen watch he had left for repair. By February, he was serving time in one of the most infamous and filthiest prisons in the world, Boston’s Charleston. Within a month he began a self study program in the prison library. In 1948, his brother Philbert wrote him that the entire Little family had converted to Islam, and Malcolm followed. His first falling out with the Nation of Islam came from disapproval of a campaign he led in prison for the rights of Muslim inmates. The NOI was not about rights campaigns.
Malcolm Little’s prison progression from shifty thief to a disciplined, serious student of Islam shows the powerful pressure ideas exert upon a mind within the steel and concrete reality of prison walls. Illuminate a mind and change a life. That message, which manifested in Malcolm’s life, is pronounced in present-day programs such as Pure Vision Foundation’s Thomas Merton Prison Project. By providing free spiritual books to inmates across a wide range of faiths, the project provides a source of inspiration to inmates and allows society to help people create change from within, a change which can only benefit the whole of humanity.
These are the ideals that Malcolm LIttle — who became Malcom X — lived for and that contemplatives such as Thomas Merton realized. Merton called Shaikh Ahmad al’Alawi, pictured on the cover of Merton & Sufism, “one of the greatest religious figures of this century, a perfect example of the Sufi tradition in all its fullness and energy.”
Two of society’s great evils forged Muhammad Ali from Cassius Clay. Racism came first then Vietnam. In August 1955, when Clay was thirteen, Emmett Till a fourteen-year-old from Chicago was visiting his mother’s family in Mississippi. Till made the dreadful mistake of flirting with a white sales lady. Three days later, her husband and his friends dragged Emmett from his uncle’s shack and took him to a bridge over the Tallahatchee River. There they beat him with an iron pipe, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head before tying a 75-pound cotton gin to his neck with barbed wire and throwing him in the river. The all-white jury deliberated for little over an hour before finding the killers innocent. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop it wouldn’t have taken that long,” one juror quipped.
Nor was it possible for black people to vote in the south. In 1966, James Meredith set out to walk alone from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi to begin a voter registration campaign. On the second day of his walk, he was shot point blank with a shotgun by a man who strolled away easily as the police watched. As usual, the first man at Meredith’s hospital bedside was Dick Gregory who vowed to continue the walk alone if need be. Rather, the March Against Fear became a cause célèbre attracting blacks and whites, rousing Martin Luther King and blazing Stokely Carmichael to national prominence.
Walking has always proved a powerful motivator for change both in real life and in fiction. In 1930 Mohandas Gandhi led a 24-day march to the sea to protest the British government’s monopoly on the production of salt. In the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, inequalities and violence are confronted by women from around the world, who march toward Jerusalem demanding the creation of a world peace capital.
I might even march on foot through Venezuela, Israel, and the Sudan, all those countries, and tell people to stop fighting and agree on a peace that’s fair to everyone. Some people say that might be dangerous, but you have to take risks in life. — Muhammad Ali
In 1967, in the face of a roaring tiger, with nothing but faith in his God and a vision of righteousness as defense, Muhammad Ali faced the American government and stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” At that moment, Muhammad Ali single-handedly began the great turnaround in public opinion on the Vietnam imbroglio — a sorry bit of history that has its lurid birth in the days after World War II when Great Britain was determined to hold on to India at any cost, which meant supporting France’s colonial claim on Vietnam.
At the time, Truman backed the British. French soldiers in Vietnam who surrendered to the Japanese at the beginning of the war, now stood alongside their captors and aimed their collective weapons at the Vietnamese who simply wanted a free country. Muhammad Ali, with a mind at once spiritual and clear, saw evil and resisted. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, losing his livelihood. Even the Nation of Islam shunned him.
Malcolm X was on his own pilgrimage to Mecca, a hajj to the heart of Islam. After preaching segregation and racial hate for twenty years, Malcolm was on the path of faithfulness.
In the Islamic tradition as well as in the Book of Genesis, the journey to Mecca was one of profound importance. At the dawn of western faith, Abraham drove his lover Hagar and his first born son, Ishmael into the desert at the behest of his wife Sarah. Near Mecca, their water ran out. Ishmael was close to death when an angel appeared and began scratching the ground near him. Water began flowing from the ground — the well of Zamzam (abundant water) became the mainstay of the Mecca community. Abraham stayed in contact with Hagar and Ishmael, and on his third visit he was commanded by God to build a Sacred House. Along with Ishmael he dug in a spot commanded by sakina (a divine presence) and uncovered a foundation built by Adam after his exile with Eve from Eden. Using the sacred power of sound and breath and a Black Stone given them by the angel Gabriel, Abraham and Ishmael constructed the Kaaba – Sacred House. This is still the most sacred site in Islam, toward which Muslims around the world pray five times a day.
April, 1964 — Saudi Prince Muhammad Faisal, decreed that Malcolm was a guest of the state, and one of the most extraordinary transformations in spiritual history was underway. Malcolm Little, ‘Detroit Red’, burglar and numbers runner, arrived in Saudi Arabia as Malcolm X, the fiery ex-spokesman of a renegade Muslim sect. Now, Malcolm was immersing himself in the sacred waters of Islam–total submission to the Will of Allah. He would return to America as El-hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, a prophet of peace and reconciliation. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
For thirty years I sought God, until I realized that god was the seeker and I the one sought. — Al-Bastami
I was forced to make a choice when Elijah Muhammad insisted that I break with Malcolm. I was on a tour of Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. I saw Malcolm in Ghana where he stopped on his way back to America. He’d just finished a holy journey to Mecca that devout Muslims are required to make once in their lives, and he was wearing the traditional Muslim white robes, further signifying his break with Elijah Muhammad. He walked with a cane that looked like a prophet’s stick and he wore a beard. I thought he’d gone too far. When he came to greet me I turned away, making our break public. Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary–ahead of all of us. — Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali has completed the pilgrimage of Malik El-Shabbaz. His speech slurred and his motor skills weakened by Parkinson’s Syndrome, Ali today teaches us all the meaning of courage and dignity. As a United Nations Messenger of Peace, he was a “relentless advocate for people in need and a significant humanitarian actor in the developing world, supporting relief and development initiatives and hand-delivering food and medical supplies to hospitals, street children and orphanages in Africa and Asia.”
Ali injected God into the arena. Whenever you saw Ali at the end of a fight, before he said anything else he would give all his praise to God. He injected Religion. He injected Faith. He injected Belief. And that turned my grandmother on and my great-grandmother on. Even though he was a Muslim, he turned on the Baptist church and church people like nobody turned them on before. And I’ll tell you something else. If people from outer space come to Earth and we had to give them one representative of our species to show them our physical powers, our spirituality, our decency, our warmth, our kindness and most of all our capacity to love–it would be Ali. — Dick Gregory
Let us honor Muhammad Ali and El-hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, formerly known as Malcom X, by remembering our common heritage as Children of Abraham and treating the strangers among us, the poor and unwelcome, as the lost members of the one family to which we all belong.
Article written by Lawrence Birney, coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation.
“A thrill ride in the vein of The Da Vinci Code but with a much larger vision for all of us. The alchemy is part historic fiction, part spiritual adventure, and a variety of interfaith metaphysics that metamorphosize into a golden vision of world peace . . . a page turner.” —Paul Hertel, Whole Living
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