Is This Licensing Company Trying to Scrub Muhammad Ali’s Muslim Faith from His Legacy?

Muhammad Ali converted to Islam in 1964 and formally changed his name. (Photo by the Associated Press).

Dubbed “The Greatest of All Time,” legendary boxer Muhammad Ali is remembered as an avid humanitarian, civil rights champion and Olympic gold medalist.

Ali was also unapologetically Muslim, and proud of it. However, this essential part of his identity has seemingly been erased from all of his social media accounts, according to a recent Buzzfeed News article.

The story, published earlier this month, noted how the late boxer’s connection to Islam is noticeably absent from the Ali brand, which is owned and managed by New York-based licensing firm Authentic Brands Group. The company, which also holds the rights to Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and other American greats, paid an undisclosed amount for Ali’s intellectual property in 2013, Buzzfeed News reported. This included troves of photos and videos, and even trademarked phrases like “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee.”

The licensing company, better known as ABG, also manages the Ali social media accounts. Boasting more than 876,000 Twitter followers, 2.2 million fans on Instagram and 11 million Facebook likes, the feeds now serve as the main stage for introducing the famous boxer to the next generation of Americans following his death last summer.

While his Facebook biography mentions his “early relationship with the Nation of Islam,” it doesn’t go much further than that — despite the fact that Ali was heavily involved with the Black religious organization after he converted to Islam and changed his name.

The religion’s influence in the heavyweight champ’s life is also missing from his Instagram account, which features black-and-white photos of him duking it out in the ring, visiting a child in the hospital and hanging out with the likes of activists Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Scrolling through the account’s nearly 300 posts, there’s little evidence that Ali was a proud follower of the Muslim faith.

Buzzfeed News noted that the last time Ali’s Facebook page referred to him as a Muslim was in 2014, though the late boxer was photographed on many occasions practicing and embracing the religion. One of the most famous photos shows Ali kneeling in the mosque at his old training camp as a beam of light bursts through the window behind him.

The news site said it reached out to ABG spokeswoman Haley Steinberg, who said the firm works closely with the Ali family to decide how his brand is managed. Steinberg offered to arrange an interview with with a senior marketing officer but later reneged for unspecified reasons, the new site reported.

A 2016 New York Times article on the sale said ABG’s plans for the late boxer’s brand mentioned deals with watches, airlines, energy drinks, financial services, computers and even an Ali-themed hotel.

“Think of it as an Ali destination,” Nick Woodhouse, president of ABG, told the The New York Times. “It would be fitness-based, with a boxing gym. It would have a miniature Ali Center to spread his message.”

Harris Zafar, a national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslims and regular commentator on American Muslim issues, noted that Ali’s social media pages celebrate his humanitarian and and activist efforts, but purposely leave out the fact that he challenged societal norms as they related to race and religion.

“You’re really whitewashing him, so to speak, by not coming to terms with that,” Zafar told Buzzfeed News. “He was Muslim, and he was an American hero. He was black, and he was an American hero. “That’s how you honor him, not by erasing those traits of his.”

Despite the significant role Islam played in Ali’s life, and now his memory, the news site highlighted that even the Twitter page and website for the nonprofit Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., lacks evidence of the boxer’s ties to the religion.

“We don’t preach one religion over another,” said Becky Morris, a communications and marketing associate at the Ali Center, who quoted Ali by adding, “Rivers and streams all contain the same water.”

Muslim fans of Ali have been dismayed with the downplaying of his religious identity, calling it unfair and historically inaccurate, according to Buzfeed. Still, his characteristic bluntness shines through the alleged suppression of his Muslim faith.

“Being a true Muslim is the most important thing in the world to me,” Ali was quoted as saying. “It means more to me than being black or being American.”

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