I must have been a ten year old when I first heard of Cassius Clay, the American black boxer, the olympic and world heavyweight champion, and that he had become a Muslim and taken the name of Muhammad Ali.
This happened when I was staying for some time with my father in the small town of Hindaun city, on the Delhi-Kota-Bombay route of the then Western Railways, in eastern Rajasthan. It was early afternoon, just after namaz-i zuhr, when a retired sailor of merchant navy, who had now turned a pious namazi and some sort of a disciple of my father, told us the whole story. My father, who had no interest in sports, still found it remarkable and sent me to fetch the Urdu newspaper, which was full of the details. By the time of the second afternoon prayer, namaz-i asr, the attendees of the local mosque knew about it; by the evening payer, namaz-i maghreb, the entire Muslim community of Hindaun City was aware. The news had already reached the nearby towns of Karauli, Sawai Madhopur, Gangapur City, Bayana, Masalpur, Sapotra, Mandrail, Malarna, and Toda Bhim. By the final prayer of the night, namaz-i ishan, I think several people offered two more rakat, in thankfulness, in several mosques. This happened quite spontaneously, without any campaign or encouragement from any quarters. There was no religious zeal but a sense of humility and joy in it. This was 1964, Pandit Nehru was still alive, Chester Bowles was the US Ambassador to India. Only the Police station, the station master, the SDM, some traders and a doctor had telephones.
For a populace crushed under low literacy level, largely unaware of world affairs and the key events on the national level and its own place in the scheme of things – largely reconciled also to the slow and steady pummelling it continued to receive even in the Nehruvian ‘secular’ era – Muhammad Ali became a name that symbolised barakah (barkat, or blessing).
I had heard so many unfamiliar words in the course of an afternoon: negro, ghulami, olympics, heavyweight, champion, boxing, Cassius, Clay. And the man who brought the story then asked me if I knew the meaning of clay, and without waiting for a reply said: “Clay mitti ko kahte hain. Cassius Clay mitti ka bana hai, lekin ab se mera pir hua!” (Cassius is made of clay; from today, however, he is my pir).
My father followed the Ali story for a couple of days quietly. He found it important to point out to people who were around after the night prayers one day that the background of slavery should not be held against the former slaves, but their European and American oppressors, that Islam has a tradition of freeing slaves and the freed slaves have risen to great heights, became great generals, even controlled large empires. He described Mamluks, the Slave dynasty (Ghulam khandan) of Delhi, the whole series of rulers from Qutbuddin Aibak, Altmash (Iltutmish), Razia Sultan, Nasiruddin Mahmud, Balban and Kaiqubad – another series of new words and names for me!
More than 50 years have passed. Not many adults from the era are alive today. In the intervening years I learnt more of Muhammad Ali than I would ever care to learn about the Slave dynasty, Iltutmish and Razia Sultan – for he is and will remain important for the much longer time ahead of us, and for that quiet elation of adults from the obscure depths of half a century ago that shines through with uncommon clarity.