I was walking through Rockefeller Center one spring afternoon about 30 years ago. There was a large knot of people in front of the NBC Building, which ordinarily wouldn’t have attracted my attention at all.
But there was something different about this gathering. At the center was the kind of glow that comes from a big Hollywood-opening spotlight or carbon arcs, pure spectacle with no apparent source. I had to move closer, if only to satisfy my curiosity. In the middle of this mini-mob was Muhammad Ali. He, and no one and nothing else, was the source of the brilliant illumination.
This was not, let me hasten to add, some kind of hallucination on my part. The lights emanating from the heavyweight champ were probably coming from a bevy of cameras, although I didn’t see them. But the impact was unmistakable: Ali had his own 50,000-watt aura.
I need to provide a bit of context here. With the Vietnam War still in violent progress, my college entering class was the first not to have the easy comfort of the 2-S student deferment. When the draft lottery took place, unless I was fortunate, I would be faced with a difficult choice, jail or exile. I felt then — and do now — that the war was illegal and immoral. I couldn’t claim to be a pacifist (and as a Jew, I would be unlikely to be granted conscientious objector status). I wouldn’t countenance either fighting or prevaricating. It was Club Fed or Canada.
So when Ali famously refused to serve, declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel against them Viet Cong,” it was heartening and empowering. It was the voice of the greatest fighter in the world (metaphorically, at least) saying what I wanted to say, but with all the world listening.
In the aftermath of his death Ali has been the subject of the expected media scrum, including encomia and opprobria from the Jewish press. It has been pointed out, rightly, that during his days as a putative spokesman for the Nation of Islam, then under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, Ali frequently made reference to the “Zionists” and “imperialists” who supported Israel and supposedly manipulated the media. The writer Benjamin Ivry has noted elsewhere that as he moved away from the Black Muslim’s absurd home-brew of Islam and space invaders, Ali’s statements became more temperate and the use of Zionist as an epithet seemed to depart from his vocabulary.
To my mind, Ali’s transformation to a more thoughtful, pluralistic and accepting brand of Islam, according to Ivry, a version of Sufism, seems to have coincided with the unraveling of NOI after its founder’s death. With Elijah Muhammad gone, Ali’s trajectory appeared to follow that of Malcolm X, who denounced the bizarre racial theorizing of his once-mentor, transformed by what he saw when he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and saw Muslims of all shades of humanity. Had Malcolm not been murdered shortly after, we might be able to examine that parallel in greater depth.
This much is certain: The champ who called out the “Zionist power structure” in 1980 was a different man from the one who publicly pleaded for the life and safety of Daniel Pearl two decades later. Muhammad Ali had evolved from a political figure who went to Israel to negotiate the release of 700 Shi’ites from the Atlit detention camp to a universalist who would extend himself for a single Jewish reporter.
And a grandfather who could shep naches at his grandson’s 2012 bar mitzvah in Philadelphia.
In his 2004 book, “The Soul of a Butterfly,” Ali wrote, “Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. … It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”
All I know is that Muhammad Ali’s aura was extinguished by his death this weekend, and the world seems a less interesting place without its bearer.
George Robinson’s column appears monthly.