Thousands have joined together shoulder to shoulder inside a Kentucky arena for a Muslim prayer service that begins two days of memorials for Muhammad Ali.
The brief service, which is part of a plan designed by Ali himself years before he died, began with a message of inclusion from the imam leading it.
“We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community,” Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent US Muslim scholar, told the crowd. “We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters.” “All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
More than 14,000 were expected for the service, which is being streamed live around the globe. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and boxing promoter Don King were among the high-profile guests in attendance.
The attendees at the service, known as Jenazah, were young and old; black and white; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some wore traditional Islamic clothing, others blue jeans or business suits.
Mustafa Abdush-Shakur leaned on his cane as he limped into the arena. He came 800 miles from Connecticut despite a recent knee replacement that makes it excruciating to walk.
“This is a physical pain,” he said. “But had I not been able to come and pray for my brother, it would have caused me a spiritual pain and that would have been much deeper.”
The streamed service invites the world to attend and offers a window into a religion many outsiders know little about. US Muslims hope the service will help underscore that Islam is fully part of American life. Ali insisted the service be open to all.
“Muhammad planned all of this,” Shakir said. “And he planned for it to be a teaching moment.”
The word “Jenazah” started trending on Twitter shortly after the service began.
A fellow Muslim who shares the boxing great’s name arrived with no hotel reservation, just a belief that this 8,000-mile pilgrimage was important to say goodbye to the global icon considered a hero of his faith.
Mohammad Ali met the boxer in the early 1970s and they struck up a friendship based on their shared name. The Champ visited his home in 1978 and always joked he was his twin brother, he said. He stood weeping at the funeral, a green Bangladeshi flag draped over his shoulder, holding snapshots he took of the boxer during his visit, one standing with his family, another of him sprawled on a bed in his home.
Ali, who died Friday at 74, famously joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, as a young boxer, then embraced mainstream Islam years later.