A Muslim funeral for Muhammad Ali on Thursday drew thousands of admirers to the boxer’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where mourners prayed over the body of a man who battled in the ring and sought peace outside it.
An estimated 14,000 people, representing many races and creeds, attended the jenazah, or “funeral” in Arabic, where he was repeatedly feted as “the people’s champion.”
Ali, a three-time heavyweight champion known for his showmanship, political activism and devotion to humanitarian causes, died on Friday of septic shock in an Arizona hospital. He was 74.
“The passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world,” said Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar at the University of Southern California.
“Something solid, something big, beautiful and life-affirming has left this world,” he said of a man who was forced to give up more than three years of boxing at the height of his career for his refusal to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Jackson praised Ali for advancing the cause of black Americans during and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Others admired him for making Islam more acceptable and giving U.S. Muslims a hero they could share with the American mainstream.Imam Zaid Shakir, a founder of Muslim liberal arts school Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, led worshippers in prayers such as “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) over Ali’s body, which lay in a casket covered with a black and gold cloth.
Ali and his family planned his funeral for 10 years, making sure it would honor his Muslim faith while also adapting to the demands of Western media-driven culture.
U.S. President Barack Obama also praised Ali on Thursday in a Facebook live broadcast from the White House, showing off a copy of the book, “GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali,” and a signed pair of boxing gloves gifted to him by Ali.
“It’s very rare where a figure captures the imagination of the entire world,” Obama said. “He was one of a kind and in my book he’ll always be the greatest.”
Ali was due to be buried on Friday, after a funeral procession and before one final goodbye when thousands more will gather for an interfaith service.
Luminaries including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and comedian Billy Crystal will attend Friday’s event, at the KFC Yum Center.