Teaching Starter: Stressing Definitions and Relativity

I was washing dishes the other day and happened upon this video of Muhammad Ali. I haven’t tracked down the date, but I surmise that it’s after the champion “reverted” to Islam. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching boxing with my grandfather, father, and brother, so I’m always up for watching videos of Ali.

This video caught my attention because it illustrated so much of what my Islam class has been discussing in these first few weeks of the semester. My course is a semester-long study of two things that, taken together, I use to define Islam: what stresses Muslims and what Muslims stress.

Rather than focusing on standards and practices or “anything goes” relativity, I make the argument that we have more to learn in the tensions that connect people–whether that connection is one of opposition or congregation. Like anyone who has been in the ring knows, you learn about one’s mettle thorough stress. Definitions are important, yes; Relativity, certainly apparent through comparison. But in observing stress, we learn about the relationships that Muslims hold between people and ideas and things in order to make Islam important or find Islam significant.

In the video, a Muslim woman asks Ali about his conversion, the level of his observance, and whether he is as good a Muslim as he is a boxer. Ali gives his answer in the company of Muslims and non-Muslims alike as well as under the scrutiny that followed him through his career. But watch as he bobs and weaves around what could have been trouble spots for him. And notice how his unsuspecting jab garners the crowd’s respect.

If one goes into studying this video with a checklist of Islamic doctrines, one will miss out on what made Muhammad Ali not just one of the prettiest boxers, but one of the most fierce public speakers of the 20th century.

Here are a few questions that might be worthwhile for classroom discussion?

  1. How does Muhammad Ali show/prove himself to be Muslim to the Muslim woman?
  2. What does Muhammad Ali do and say to make Islam compelling to non-Muslims?
  3. To what extent does Muhammad Ali’s presentation reflect what you’ve learned of other contexts in which Islam is held in esteem? Where does it depart?
  4. What is the broader historical (i.e. social, political, and geographic) context of Muhammad Ali’s conversion?
  5. To what extent is Muhammad Ali’s Islam defined by surrounding nationalist politics?
  6. What do you make of his mention of other religious traditions?

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods

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