S: Yeah, yeah.
Tell me something about this guy and the Black Muslims.
certainly part of Ali's impetus to regain the championship involves his
relationship with the Black Muslim movement. Since boxing professionally is an
activity that is against the Muslim rules, he'll be fully reinstated only when
he gives up prizefighting. Their laws and directives are very tough: no sports,
no dancing, moviegoing, dating, alcohol, tobacco, gambling or sleeping
"more than is necessary to health," no quarreling, or discourtesy
(especially toward women), or insubordination to civil authority except on
grounds of religious obligation. This last, of course, is why Ali felt he could
refuse induction into the armed forces. At the moment, because of the boxing
ban, Ali lives in a sort of benevolent exile that allows him to speak in behalf
of the Muslim movement, but not officially as a minister. Of course, the
championship helps him. He told me, "The championship strengthens my
reputation as a prophet. No more am I the onliest lil' voice crying in the
S: What is Ali
going to talk about when he becomes a minister?
W: He'll promote
the doctrine of the Nation of Islam. Its leader, the Prophet Elijah Muhammad,
is a man Ali venerates. He's now in his 70s, very asthmatic and frail. His
headquarters are on the South Side of Chicago, where Ali has purchased a
decaying mansion just down the street that he intends to renovate and make his
home. Elijah Muhammad is known as the Messenger of Allah.
S: What do these
people—Ali among them—believe?
W: Much of the
Muslim belief is a sort of homegrown theology developed from "visions"
divulged to Elijah Muhammad. They lack the roots one might expect from either
the black people's past in the United States, or from Africa origins, or even
Koran. The most ominous of their speculations is that civilization will be
destroyed in a holocaust caused by bombs dropped from a space platform manned
by Muslims, who are men, in Ali's words, "who never smile." The
platform is a big wheel-like structure. Ali says it can whip through the air at
18,000 mph and is able to stop on a dime. The platform is supposed to revolve
around the world until civilization's collective guilt calls for the
destruction to begin, at which point "the men who never smile" will
begin to push the bombs overboard. One early vision was that this would happen
in 1970. Elijah Muhammad has since moved the date up to sometime before the
year 2000. Exactly 144,000 blacks will survive the holocaust (almost all the
figures in the Muslim mythology are very precise) to get things going again.
Ali has seen the platform many times, he says, at least once a month and
usually in the early morning when he goes out on his training runs. He talks
about how it moves in the sky. He flails his arms. Its flight path is
apparently as erratic as a dragonfly's.
S: It all sounds
very goofy to me.
W: Well, I
suppose such myths and mysteries bear about the same relevance to the Black
Muslim teachings as the stories of the Old Testament to Christianity. The main
thrust of the movement is toward self-discipline—to provide some sort of
context for moral, material and cultural advancement. That's generally the
topic of the Sunday lectures in the Muslim temples. Ali himself is not allowed
to speak in the temples, but he has laboriously put together a number of
lectures for the college circuit, which he recites by heart. His wife helps
him. Their house is full of dictionaries. The talks have titles like
"Friendship," "The Purpose of Life," "The Intoxication of
Life," "The Wine of Failure." He wishes that his speaking talents
were recognized in more elevated circles. Ali told me, "I'd like to do
something for the new President. Perhaps he could send me somewhere to do
something for my country. I am known everywhere." It's all very wistful. He
says, "I could enlighten other countries about ours. I would do anything
for my country if it didn't interfere with my religion or my Islamic
beliefs." He'd like to be an ambassador of some sort.
S: An ambassador!
What next? Will it be easy for him to give up boxing for all that?
W: I don't think
so, but it's part of the Muslim idea of discipline that you should give up
something you love. It was awful for him in 1964 to give up "Cassius
Clay," a name he truly loved, for Muhammad Ali. Boxing is the only sport
that interests him. He finds the notion of football puzzling—that anyone would
want to disguise himself with padding and a helmet and stand anonymously out on
a field with 21 other people. He does not watch sports events on television.
The exciting moments come up so rarely that he fidgets in his chair. But any
fight film absorbs him. He says that even if it looks dull, "something's
involved, something's going on, something's going to happen." In the
evening Ali often pulls out a reel from this big collection he has—films of
Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan, Rocky Marciano and, of
course, Sugar Ray Robinson.