Muhammad Ali’s Relationship with Jewish Broadcaster Prevents Islam from Claiming him as its Own

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Jun 5, 2016 2 Comments ›› admin

By Ben Barrack

In 1964, Cassius Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The brand of Islam he embraced was that of the Nation of Islam (NOI), which is led by anti-semite Louis Farrakhan to this day. Something happened though. Try as he might to hate a Jewish ABC sportscaster, Ali and Howard Cosell struck up a friendship that transcended hate based on ideology. It was one instance in which television brought two men together like nothing else could.

Malcolm X and Ali (L); Ali and Farrakhan (R)

Malcolm X and Ali (L); Ali and Farrakhan (R); FOI stand for “Fruit of Islam”, the paramilitary wing of the NOI

The recently deceased Ali once said of Malcolm X:

“I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm.”

Malcolm X was Muhammad Ali’s inspiration to become a Muslim. At the time, Malcolm X promoted the Nation of Islam (NOI), which is a black supremacist version of Islam, founded by Elijah Muhammad. Today, the head of the Nation of Islam is none other than Louis Farrakhan.

Early on, Ali embraced Farrakhan as well. Here is a video from the 1960’s in which Farrakhan discusses how America is conflicted by the fact that a black Muslim was rising in prominence (the beginning of the video features NOI founder Muhammad and Farrakhan speaks beginning at the :32 mark):

It must be remembered that Malcolm X was not assassinated by whites; he was murdered by NOI members. That’s where Malcolm X started his Islamic quest but upon returning from his Hajj to Mecca, Malcolm X became more of an Islamic purist and rejected the notion of NOI’s brand of Islam in 1964. Then, in 1965, three NOI members murdered Malcolm X for betraying the supremacist teachings of the NOI.

Ali and Farrakhan in 2008.

Ali and Farrakhan in 2008.

As X became a fundamentalist, he converted to the same brand of Sunni Islam that we see today. After his conversion, X believed less in racial divisions and more in ideological ones. In essence, it didn’t matter what color or race you were, only that you are a devout Muslim. In a sense, it’s another brand of supremacy. Instead of it being based on skin color, it’s based on religious belief systems.

Nonetheless, when X broke from the Nation of Islam, Ali chose to stick with the NOI and by extension – Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad. Not only is this brand of Islam supremacist in nature but white Jews are viewed with even more contempt. This is where Howard Cosell comes into the picture, and perhaps a point of severe conflict for Ali.

As he was learning to hate the Jews because that’s what the Nation of Islam preached, Ali found himself befriending a Jewish man he increasingly had a tough time hating.

Photos of Ali and Farrakhan together come at two times. The first is when the boxer was young and impressionable. The second is when he is old and decrepit. In between, the photos of Cosell and Ali are far more prolific, and genuine.

Those who remember the legendary ABC sportscaster know that the exchanges between the Jewish Cosell and Ali were thoroughly entertaining. However, viewed through the lens of Ali’s Nation of Islam belief system, perhaps Ali – at least in the early years – wasn’t trying to be funny when the two were going at it. Part of what made the exchanges between Ali and Cosell so entertaining was that it was difficult to tell whether Ali was joking or serious.

As the years went on, however, it became obvious that the two men grew to respect one another despite it all. Here is a montage that was played at Muhammad Ali’s 50th birthday celebration in 1992. Note how emotional Cosell is at the end while paying tribute to Ali, whose reaction pulls at your heartstrings just as much.

While Ali never left Islam before he died, he did seem more comfortable with the Jewish Cosell than he did with Louis Farrakhan.

If Islam would like to claim him as its own, it must accept his years-long friendship with a Jewish sportscaster as well.

That is something it will never be able to do.

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Comments

  1. woody says:

    I’ve been interested in the Nation of Islam for most of my (long) life, so if I could make just a couple of observations . . . In 1975 the NOI underwent an ideological transformation under the leadership of Wallace D. Muhammad, son of the previous leader Elijah Muhammad. Many of the doctrines were changed, and the NOI moved closer to Sunni Islam, finally going out of existence. Some of the members eventually left the movement, including Louis Farrakhan, who reorganized the Nation of Islam in 1979. Muhammad Ali, however, became a Sunni Muslim, so it wouldn’t be surprising that he would have white friends, including Jewish friends. I’m not a Muslim, but for quite some time I’ve been studying the Qur’an, and my understanding is that the prohibition against having Jewish (and Christian) friends applies in circumstances in which they are actively opposing the Muslim’s right to practice Islam. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that a person of any religion would want to have friends who actively oppose their right to practice their faith. It’s one thing to disagree, but quite another to try to forbid religious practice. Since Howard Cosell had no problem with Ali’s right to practice Islam, Ali would have had no problem with him. Muhammad Ali had a long track record of friendships with people of all races and all walks of life. Since the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and Malcolm X aren’t the primary subjects of your article, I’ll withhold comment on the matter of antisemitism, but I’d be happy to discuss it further if the opportunity arises.

  2. woody says:

    I’ve been interested in the Nation of Islam for most of my (long) life, so if I could make just a couple of observations . . . In 1975 the NOI underwent an ideological transformation under the leadership of Wallace D. Muhammad, son of the previous leader Elijah Muhammad. Many of the doctrines were changed, and the NOI moved closer to Sunni Islam, finally going out of existence. Some of the members eventually left the movement, including Louis Farrakhan, who reorganized the Nation of Islam in 1979. Muhammad Ali, however, became a Sunni Muslim, so it wouldn’t be surprising that he would have white friends, including Jewish friends. I’m not a Muslim, but for quite some time I’ve been studying the Qur’an, and my understanding is that the prohibition against having Jewish (and Christian) friends applies in circumstances in which they are actively opposing the Muslim’s right to practice Islam. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that a person of any religion would want to have friends who actively oppose their right to practice their faith. It’s one thing to disagree, but quite another to try to forbid religious practice. Since Howard Cossell had no problem with Ali’s right to practice Islam, Ali would have had no problem with him. Muhammad Ali had a long track record of friendships with people of all races and all walks of life. Since the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and Malcolm X aren’t the primary subjects of your article, I’ll withhold comment on the matter of antisemitism, but I’d be happy to discuss it further if the opportunity arises.

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