[This interview was conducted by Shaheen Ahmed and Abdul Malik Mujahid almost exactly 20 years ago at his residence for "Young Muslim" magazine published by Sound Vision.]
Two hours from Chicago, Barrien Spring is a small village of about 2,000 people. The road leading to Muhammad Ali's house ends there. Al Capone once owned this 88 acre Michigan farm. The MacDonald on the Interstate 94 exit to his home has his signed gloves hanging there.
Ali speaks so softly that it is impossible to hear him. Therefore, whatever public comments or sentiments he is expected to, or chooses to, express are verbalized by his wife Yolanda Lonnie Ali, or his friend and famous photographer Howard Bingham.
Young Muslim: You have always had supreme confidence in yourself, calling: yourself ‘the greatest'. How did you balance this belief in yourself with your humility as a Muslim?
Muhammad Ali: Allah is the Greatest. I'm just the greatest boxer.
Young Muslim: What did lighting the torch at the Olympics mean to you? You are the only Muslim that ever had that opportunity.
Muhammad Ali: Not much, other than I knew that it would help Islam to have a Muslim take such a prominent role. That made me happy.
Young Muslim: Do you think your coming to Islam made the going easier for the like of Mike Tyson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to convert?
Muhammad Ali: Only Allah knows.
Young Muslim: Everyone knows you as Muhammad Ali now. But there was a time when sports writers and presenters refused to recognize your Muslim name. How did you feel about this?
Muhammad Ali: It didn't bother me.
Lonnie Ali: At the beginning Muhammad? When all the sports writers, "all the journalists refused to calling you Muhammad Ali, and kept on calling you by your Christian name, Cassius Clay?
Muhammad Ali: I beat them up.
[Muhammad Ali pounds his fist jokingly and shouts] What's my name?! What's my name?!
Lonnie Ali: I understand the pressure that children face with their Muslim names. They try to change them to fit in. We have a 5 year old son, Asad. Children want to be like their peers, it is an issue that comes up in their race, their attitude, their values. Fortunately for Asad, he's always had acceptance. His name is part of him. It is him.
Young Muslim: You once said, "The wealth of America and the friendship of all the people who support the [Vietnam] war would be nothing if I'm not content internally and if I'm not in accord with the will of Almighty Allah." What advice do you have to give to young people who are under pressure to compromise their beliefs to be popular?
Muhammad Ali: Stay strong. Read the Quran. Pray. Praise Allah. These things will help you.
Young Muslim: How does prayer help you in all the challenges you face in life?
Muhammad Ali: Praying makes me strong.
Howard: Have you ever seen Ali at a fight? Before he begins you'd see him sitting in the corner of the ring with his hands up, praying.
[Howard makes the gesture of making Dua.]
Young Muslim: You were placed under surveillance by the FBI, you were convicted for refusing induction in the Vietnam war, your title was stripped from you, your passport confiscated and you were banned from boxing for 3 1/2 years. How did you avoid feeling bitter?
Muhammad Ali: Whatever I've done, I've done for Allah.
Lonnie: Muhammad holds no malice. His attitude has also been, whatever obstacles that stood in his way in his life were brought about by Allah.
Young Muslim: In a fight against Ken Norton your jaw was "broken but you still fought a whole 12 rounds. In a fight against Sony Liston you were temporarily blinded in one eye and could barely see for an entire round, yet you still won. What keeps you going when the odds are stacked against you?
Muhammad Ali: [Makes the motions of doing Salat] Prayer.
Young Muslim: Who would you like to fight now?
Muhammad Ali: Joe Frazier
Lonnie Ali: Yep, that Ali-Frazier thing don't ever end, does it Muhammad?
[At this point in interview, Muhammad Ali falls asleep and starts snoring]
Lonnie Ali: Don't be offended. Because of his illness, he gets tired very easily and falls asleep. He also has flashbacks to the Frazier fight and starts punching in his sleep. [Muhammad Ali punches the air as he continues to snore. Suddenly, he lunges at me and shouts, "Boo!" I nearly fall out of my chair in surprise]
Shahin: You set me up
Lonnie Ali: Whenever he starts snoring, it's my cue to talk about his flashbacks to the Frazier fight. He did the same trick on the Sixty Minutes show.
Young Muslim: What do you think of Tyson?
Muhammad Ali: Tyson is a Muslim.If you were still fighting, could you beat him?
Muhammad Ali: Easily.
Lonnie Ali: Tyson wouldn't dare go one round with Muhammad. And it wouldn't take but one to knock him out.
Young Muslim: Does sports belong in Islam?
Muhammad Ali: Is the Quran against sports?
Abdul Malik Mujahid: No, there is nothing against it. Even the Prophet, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, participated in wrestling and other sports.
Muhammad Ali: If it is not in the Quran, then there is nothing wrong with it. (What is permissible, Halal and not permissible, Haram is determined only by Allah in Islam).
Young Muslim: I heard that before you became Muslim, you never used to read and thought you couldn't read very well?
Lonnie Ali: Muhammad may have been dyslexic as a boy. He never focused on the mechanics of reading, but now he can spend hours a day reading. When he reads the Quran, he'll copy out passages that really touch him. He reads Islamic books, research books, particularly those that point out contradictions in the Bible. He checks them out thoroughly, to find out if there's any bias.
Young Muslim: How do you deal with success?
Muhammad Ali: Thank Allah.
Young Muslim: How do you deal with defeat in the ring and in life?
Muhammad Ali: I can do my best and leave the result with Allah.
Young Muslim: What is the hardest thing you ever had to do?
Muhammad Ali: [He thinks for a long time] Divorcing my first wife. It was the hardest thing.
Lonnie: Tell them why, otherwise they might not understand.
Muhammad Ali: She would not conform to the faith.
Young Muslim: You won the world heavyweight championship 3 times and successfully defended it 19 times. What are your goals now?
Muhammad Ali: Propagating Islam. And that's all.
Lonnie Ali: Tell them about the Museum. He's to so modest. Muhammad is working on a Museum project for children in Louisville, Kentucky where he grew up. It will be named after him. It will be something to give back to children, to encourage them to work towards a goal. When Muhammad was a boy, Louisville was very segregated. It was hard to find places to work out. To train and stay in shape, Muhammad would run to the gym, run to school.
Do you ever wish you'd led a normal life?
Muhammad Ali: No. Never.
Lonnie Ali: Muhammad is one person that God has blessed. Some people who become famous can't handle the pressure, they don't understand the obligations that fame puts you under. When Allah chose Muhammad to become famous - and Allah knows best - He had His reasons. Muhammad has been able to channel his fame to a good purpose, to lead a responsible, good life.
Young Muslim: You are known for your generosity and there are countless anecdotes about you giving away money to complete
strangers. What does your wealth mean to you?
Lonnie Ali: I've seen him give money to people he's never met, just because he thought that they might need it. There'll be homeless people on the street and Muhammad will give them money to buy new clothes. You know that they're probably going to buy alcohol with it. I know it. He knows it. He does it anyway.
Muhammad Ali: My intent in my heart is good. That's why I do it--it's what matters.
Young Muslim: The 1960s were a time of assassinations and violence in the States: Malcolm X., J.F.K., Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King. Did you ever fear for your life?
Muhammad Ali: No. I would beat them. [Muhammad Ali makes a mock gesture of pounding his hand with his fist. As I proceed to the next question, he suddenly slumps in his chair as if dead. We all laugh.]
Young Muslim: What do you think your greatest achievement is?
Muhammad Ali: Joining Islam.
Young Muslim: If you could go back and change anything, what would that be?
Muhammad Ali: I would become a Muslim at the age of ten.
Young Muslim: Which Masjid do you like the most?
Muhammad Ali: All of them. I like all Masjids because every one of them faces Mecca.
Howard: Wherever he happens to be as part of his travels, he always asks where the nearest mosque is so that he can go there to pray.
Young Muslim: Which prayer do you remember as being the best/most significant to you?
Muhammad Ali: The one before the Joe Frazier fight.
Young Muslim: Favorite book?
Muhammad Ali: That's a dumb question! It has to be The Quran.
Young Muslim: Favorite food?
Muhammad Ali: Chicken and rice, or if I'm in a Muslim country, Lamb and Rice. Also, ice-cream.
Young Muslim: Favorite color?
Muhammad Ali: Black.
Young Muslim: Favorite flower?
Muhammad Ali: Roses, but I appreciate all things from Allah.
Young Muslim: Which country do you like the most?
Howard: We were in Jakarta, Indonesia and it was amazing. There must have been about 70,000 people, all Muslims who came out to see him. Muhammad has traveled everywhere, but he loves going to Muslim countries.
As the interview came to an end we prepared to go, Muhammad Ali beckoned to us:
Muhammad Ali: I want to show you something.
[He closes his fist, stuffs a handkerchief into his closed palm and then opens both hands. His hands are empty and the handkerchief has disappeared. He closes his right fist again and slowly pulls out the handkerchief. He performs the trick again.
He explains how it is done by means of a fake finger to hide the handkerchief]
Muhammad Ali: I do magic to show you how the devil can deceive you.