Nurtured by The Nation of Islam: Muhammad Ali’s Purposeful Life


I wrap my mind around the encounter between life and death as I reflect upon the passing of Muhammad Ali. A quote by Muhammad Ali is engraved in my imagination: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Death coerces reflective revelation. It has found itself resting in the life of a man who symbolizes his own phrase. Ali floated like a butterfly, and , indeed, his purposeful life stung many people into living with a sense of purpose. That Muhammad Ali has called the collective conscience of the world community to stillness.

Stillness: I recall my time in Israel. There I saw people of many faiths praying at the “Wailing Wall.” Muhammad Ali was that kind of man. His humor and seriousness brought people of all faith traditions together at the “wall” of purpose.

So what of reflection in the presence of this thing that has a way of placing a semi-colon between human beings. At death, we become linked as death enters the lives of the rich, poor; black, yellow, white; Jew, Christian, Muslim. Death draws us out of our cloistered communities to join humanity at the “Wailing Wall.” On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali’s passing called me to the “Wailing Wall” of historical reflection.

Resting in my historical memory is a lesson garnered concerning Muhammad Ali’s transition from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali—a transition signaling his purpose.

This eruditely noble citizen’s civil and spiritual consciousness was birthed in the uniquely African American Islamic tradition as nuanced by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. We cannot forget the tradition(s) that influence, shape, and ground us. One of the lessons in the passing of Muhammad Ali is this: An important part of his life’s purpose was forged by the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. We must know the community that provided a safe place for Ali to grow his spiritual and religious ways of being and living in the world. Therefore, we cannot forget the Honorable Elijah Muhammad; he understood the width and breath of African Americans forced to live with the twoness of being American and Negro. Like Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad feared for himself and his African American brothers, sisters, children what James Cone identifies as a “lynching tree,” and he provided a safe place from which men like Muhammad Ali could grow. He birthed the Nation of Islam, and he nurtured Muhammad Ali. Marlene Shah-Winkfield registers this idea graciously in a recent Facebook post:

As Salaam Alaikum (Peace be upon you) 

Let’s be clear, with all due respect…The Great Muhammad Ali was named and taught by The Honorable Master Elijah Muhammad!We have to speak the truth. Muhammad Ali was OUR BROTHER first before he became a world figure. His ROOTS were here in the African American Community and we have ALWAYS loved and supported him as he ALWAYS did us.

May Allah’s perfect peace be upon them both in the Jannah. (Paradise)


The teachings of the Nation of Islam morphed Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. into Muhammad Ali. By changing his name, Ali solidified his purpose. Names establish identity and philosophical leadings. Naming provides a context from which to mount dreams and visions. Muhammad Ali mounted his name upon the metaphorical wings that compelled him to fly. Initially, he was tutored and lived in a uniquely African American Islamic tradition. Because of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali shall always be known as the American boxer whose faith carried him, as he said “NO” to fighting in the Viet Nam war. Indeed, he did not say “No” to the courageous soldiers who fought in the war; he said no to the war.

Muhammad Ali was a dreamer who inspired us to locate our dreams with purpose and live them fearlessly. He wore no mask; he did not hide. He was and will always be the man who floated like a [socially conscious] butterfly and [stung] [because of his social consciousness] like a bee. In honor of Muhammad Ali, LIVE WITH PURPOSE!


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