A jenazah, or Muslim funeral, on Thursday was followed by a procession and interfaith memorial service on Friday where religious and political leaders, as well as family, friends, and fans, all gathered to honor and remember Ali’s lifelong dedication to humanitarian efforts and his legacy as “The Greatest” heavyweight boxing champion who ever lived.
“I think he decided very young to write his own life story,” said former U.S. President Bill Clinton in a eulogy delivered Friday. “I think he decided that he would not be ever disempowered. Not his race, not his place, not the expectations of others whether positive or negative would strip from him the power to write his own story.”
Ali passed away on June 3 of septic shock at a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 74. He struggled with health issues throughout much of his later life, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Like dementia, Parkinson’s is a condition whose likelihood increases with age; of the 10 million people living with Parkinson’sworldwide, only 4% of cases are diagnosed before age 50. By contrast, there are more than 47.5 million cases of dementia today, projected to reach 75.6 million by 2030.
Ali was born under the name Cassius Clay in 1942. At age 18, he won gold for the U.S. at the 1960 Rome Olympics and shortly thereafter embarked on a professional boxing career after converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Outside the ring, he was an outspoken civil rights activist and pacifist, forced to sit out of professional boxing for four of his prime years because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
“He dared to love black people at a time when black people had trouble loving themselves,” said Dr. Kevin Cosby, a local Louisville preacher.
“Ali made being a Muslim cool,” said another speaker, religious scholar Sherman Jackson. “Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and an American to rest.”
Ali and his family had reportedly been planning the details of his funeral and memorial services for years in advance. All events were free to the public.
“Muhammad had something to do with all this,” said Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali. “Even in death, Muhammad has something to say.”