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Muslim World Hails Muhammad Ali as 'Symbol for Muslims

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Ali's conversion to Islam won him the support of many across the region.

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2012, file photo, retired boxing champion Muhammad Ali, center, waves alongside his wife Lonnie Ali, left, and his sister-in-law Marilyn Williams, right, after receiving the Liberty Medal during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Of all Muhammad Ali's travels in the Muslim world, his 1964 trip to Egypt was perhaps the most symbolic, a visit remembered mostly by an iconic photo of the boxing great happily shaking hands with a smiling Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's nationalist and popular president.

It was a mutually beneficial meeting: Nasser was viewed with suspicion and mistrust by the United States, but was revered across much of Africa and Asia for his support of movements fighting European colonial powers. For Ali, the new heavyweight boxing champion, being received by one of "imperialist" America's chief enemies announced his arrival on the global stage as a powerful voice of change.

AP Photo/John Rooney

The boxing genius and revolutionary political views of Ali, who died Friday at age 74, emerged when America's civil rights movement was in full swing and the Vietnam war raged on, sharply dividing Americans.

His conversion to Islam won him the support of many across the region. Three years later, his refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam — "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong" — and his subsequent loss of the world title resonated with Muslims, many of whom saw that conflict as the epitome of America's global tyranny.

AP Photo/File

"Muslims wanted a hero to represent them, and Clay was the only Muslim champion... No other Muslim athlete managed to achieve what Clay did ... Thus, he was a symbol for Muslims," said Mohammed Omari, an Islamic law professor in northern Jordan's Al al-Bayt University.

It was the diversity of the causes embraced by Ali during his lifetime — from the civil rights movement and anti-war activism to global charity work and dealing with Parkinson's disease — that has won him a large following among a wide range of admirers in the Muslim world. To them, he meant different things.

"The uplifting exuberance of Muhammad Ali will endure long after his passing, ensuring that the lasting political achievements of one of the 20th Century's greatest sports superstars will remain a vital part of the history of the turbulence that changed the world in the 1960s and 1970s," Dubai's Gulf News, a widely read daily in the United Arab Emirates, said in an editorial.

Jordan's King Abdullah II wrote that Ali "fought hard, not only in the ring, but in life for his fellow citizens and civil rights."

"The world has lost today a great unifying champion whose punches transcended borders and nations," Abdullah wrote on his Twitter account. Accompanying his tweet was a photo of Ali, King Hussein, Abdullah's late father, and U.S. President Gerald Ford — all in tuxedos.

Pakistan's cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan, writing a series of tweets mourning Ali's death, described the boxer as the "greatest sportsman of all time" and a man of strong convictions. "Sportsmen have a limited career life span in which they can earn and Ali sacrificed it for his beliefs with courage and conviction."

In Iraq, where Ali visited in 1990 to secure the release of 15 Americans who had been taken hostage by Saddam Hussein, retired heavyweight boxer Ismail Khalil mourned the "greatest."

"Today marks the death of a great champion. It is sad day for the world of boxing. This champion does not represent America only, but the entire Islamic world too."

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