A Muslim funeral for Muhammad Ali Thursday drew thousands of admirers to the boxer’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where mourners prayed over the body of a man who battled in the ring and sought peace outside it.
An estimated 14,000 people, representing many races and creeds, attended the jenazah, or “funeral” in Arabic, where he was repeatedly feted as “the people’s champion.”
Ali, a three-time heavyweight champion known for his showmanship, political activism and devotion to humanitarian causes, died last Friday of septic shock in an Arizona hospital. He was 74.
“The passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world,” Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar at the University of Southern California, addressed the crowd ahead of the prayer.
“Something solid, something big, beautiful and life-affirming has left this world,” he said of a man who was forced to give up more than three years of boxing at the height of his career for his refusal to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Jackson further praised Ali for making Islam more acceptable in U.S. mainstream culture while fighting against Islamophobia and advocating for peace.
“Ali made being a Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant,” he said. “Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim AND an American to rest.”
Imam Zaid Shakir, a founder of Muslim liberal arts school Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, led worshippers in prayers such as “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) over Ali’s body, which lay in a casket covered with a black and gold cloth.
According to Reuters Ali and his family planned his funeral for 10 years, making sure it would honor his Muslim faith while also adapting to the demands of Western media-driven culture.
CNN reported that attendees were given a special Quran for the event, with passages printed in English. The event saw attendees of many faiths who respected and admired Ali, who had advocated for peace between different religions.
“I saw a Jewish man hug a Muslim man. I’ve never seen that,” Kashae “Kween” Robinson, a Muslim woman who drove Wednesday from Atlanta to attend, told CNN.
“It just makes my heart sing to see something like this. To have all these people, all these colors, all these races, all these religions together.”
Luminaries including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and comedian Billy Crystal will attend Friday’s event, at the KFC Yum Center.
Others on hand to pay respects included U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.
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