LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – As the faithful chanted a Muslim prayer in unison, dignitaries and fans stood shoulder to shoulder to honor a man who used his celebrity to push for peace among races, religions and cultures.
On phones and screens around the globe, thousands more joined the service from afar through streams and broadcasts, watching a traditional Muslim funeral ceremony play out for one of their heroes.
The prayer service Thursday, known as Jenazah, began two days of memorials that Muhammad Ali crafted himself in exacting detail years before his death Friday. He designed them with the intent to make them open to the world and to offer a view into a faith many Americans know little about.
“Ali was the people’s champion and champion he did the cause of his people,” said Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar who spoke at the service. Jackson said Ali did more to normalize the Islamic faith than anyone else, both in his life and in his death.
“Ali made being a Muslim cool,” he said. “Ali made being a Muslim dignified.”
More than 14,000 got tickets for the Thursday service in Ali’s hometown of Louisville. Some traveled thousands of kilometers to attend. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King, former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, were among the high-profile guests in attendance. Ali joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, in the 1960s. He left after a decade in favor of mainstream Islam, which emphasizes an embrace of all races and ethnicities.
Ali insisted he wanted the traditional Muslim ceremony to be open to all, organizers said.
The attendees were young and old; black and white; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some wore traditional Islamic clothing, others blue jeans or business suits. Outside the arena, millions more were able to watch. The term “Jenazah” trended on Twitter as the service started.
“We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community,” Imam Zaid Shakir told the crowd at the start of the service. “We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters.
“All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
The service lasted less than an hour. There was no stage or altar. Speakers stood in front of a black curtain on the ground near the casket that faced Mecca.
The crowd of thousands lined up directly in front of them, many holding their phones high in the air trying to capture video of the legend’s coffin.
The service began with four recitations of “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great,” with silent prayers in between. They prayed that Ali find safe passage to the afterlife, and that his loved ones find a way to live without him.
Several speakers, including two Muslim women, described Ali’s impact on their own lives and as a champion for civil rights and acceptance of the Islamic faith.
Jackson said Ali’s passing “made us all feel a little more alone in the world” and detracted “from the sweetness of life itself.”
“Ali inspired us. He filled us up. He gave us courage,” he said. “And he taught us something about how to fight, not only inside the ring but outside as well.”
The memorials come amid a fever of anti-Muslim political rhetoric and wave of assaults on U.S. mosques.