Boxing, Activism and Nation of Islam: the amazing life of Muhammad Ali

Would you start an RE lesson with a boxing match? By that we mean a lesson about a famous boxing match, not a re-enactment in the classroom! To celebrate Black History Month we present a set of four learning sessions (suitable for Key Stages 2- 4) on Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s all-time greatest boxers. Ali was also a conscientious objector, antiracist activist and devoted Muslim. All these aspects of his life are intertwined, as our multiple worldviews are. As well as a contribution to teaching resources for Black History Month, these lessons are also an example of what worldviews can look like in the classroom.

Pupils might be confused to learn about a famous fight in RE, although some would absolutely love it. During his career as a boxer Ali fought in and won several iconic fights. His sporting career illustrates how he constantly challenged preconceived ideas about how a black athlete should behave in public. In our lessons, we present Ali’s actions inside the ring as just as important to an understanding of him as those outside. In a worldviews approach, the strands of someone’s life and context cannot be separated.

Ali was once called the most famous Muslim in America. Like most people Ali sometimes had contradictory beliefs and his Islamic interests shifted over the years. In our lessons we trace Ali’s path from Nation of Islam to Sufi Islam, to Sunni Islam. Pupils will consider Nation of Islam in historical and political terms, as well as religious.

After he had won the 1964 match, Cassius Clay announced to the world the name he now wanted to be known as: Muhammad Ali. He had always been interested in Islam. At high school he wanted to write an English paper on black Muslims (Nation of Islam), but was not allowed to. Muhammad Ali first saw Malcom X, one of the most influential black figures of his time when he spoke at a Nation of Islam rally and the two became friends. Malcom X watched Ali’s 1964 match with Sonny Liston match from the side-lines. The next day as the world was still in shock over Ali’s victory, with Malcom X by his side, he announced he was a Muslim and that he had a new name. He said ‘Cassius Clay is a slave name, I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhmmad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when they speak to me’.

Incredibly Ali visited the town of South Shields in 1977 to have his marriage blessed in the mosque there. The Al-Azhar Mosque serves the Yemeni community of South Shields, who had settled in the area around the First World War to work for the Merchant Navy. A short documentary details this moment, showing footage of Ali and his wife in South Shields and the pride of the local Yemeni community to welcome this dazzling figure to their mosque. In our lessons we give a link to this documentary, created by photographer and artist Tina Ghavari.

A worldviews approach to learning about Ali, whether in a lesson or at a lunchtime or whole-school event, means his antiracist struggle or his devotion to Islam is not separated from his whole life. Ali was an athlete, a campaigner, a public figure, a conscientious objector, a husband and father and a Muslim. All these strands make up the man. We hope you enjoy exploring Muhammad Ali with your pupils, you can find the resources on RE:ONLINE here.

Kate Christopher, part-time in a Secondary school teacher in East London and independent RE adviser

Lynn Revell, Faculty Director of Research, Canterbury Christ Chuch University