Muhammad Ali’s biggest fight outside of the boxing ring was in the arena of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court’s 1971 decision is a huge part of his legacy. What is also very interesting is that his case at the Supreme Court was all about the concept of Jihad as we will come to see below.
In 1964, Ali failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were sub-standard. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, the test standards were lowered in November 1965 and Ali was reclassified as 1-A in February 1966, which meant he was now eligible for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army. In response to this, Ali famously said:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, they never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
In another interview where he came face to face with college students who sought to call him out for his decision, Ali responded by saying:
”If am going to die, I am going to die right here fighting you, you are my enemy, not the Vietcong, Chinese or Japanese. You my oppressor when I want freedom, you my oppressor when I want justice, you my oppressor when I want equality. You will not even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight”.
Whilst the above statements are well publicised, there is one which eludes many. Ali also explained his decision by stating that he was a conscientious objector:
“War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”
Ali appealed his local (Louisville, Kentucky) draft board’s rejection of his application for conscientious objector classification. The Justice Department, in response to the State Appeal Board’s referral for an advisory recommendation, concluded, contrary to a hearing officer’s recommendation, that Ali’s claim should be denied, and wrote that Ali did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. The Appeal Board then denied Ali’s claim, but without stating its reasons.
He appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in Houston on April 28. As expected, Ali refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on 8 May and convicted in Houston on 20 June 20. The trial jury was composed of six men and six women, all of whom were white. The Court of Appeals affirmed and denied the appeal on 6 May 1968.
Ali was sent to prison and appealed to the highest court in the land and it is there that Ali’s views on jihad came to be known.
The Supreme Court Decision
On 19 April 1971 Ali appeared at the Supreme Court for his appeal in the case of:
Cassius Marsellus CLAY, Jr. also known as Muhammad Ali.
In order to succeed, Ali needed to show that he qualified for classification as a ‘conscientious objector’ which necessitated a registrant to satisfy three basic tests: (1) He must show that he was conscientiously opposed to war in any form; (2) He must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief; (3) And he must show that this objection is sincere.
The Judge who reversed the conviction found that, while there was some evidence which showed conscientious objection to the Vietnam conflict, the basic objection was based on the teachings of his religion.
Muhammad Ali’s testimony at the trial was truly an amazing one where he explained the concept of Jihad. He testified that he was:
“sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur’an.. tell us and it is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of nobody who—on the side of non-believers, and this is a Christian country and this is not a Muslim country…The Government has admitted that the police of Los Angeles were wrong about attacking and killing our brothers and sisters and they were wrong in Newark, New Jersey, and they were wrong in Louisiana, and the outright, every day oppressors and enemies are the people as a whole, the whites of this nation. So, we are not, according to the Holy Qur’an, to even as much as aid in passing a cup of water to the even a wounded. I mean, this is in the Holy Qur’an, and as I said earlier, this is not me talking to get the draft board or to dodge nothing. This is there before I was borned and it will be there when I’m dead but we believe in not only that part of it, but all of it.’
At another point he testified:
“(T)he Holy Qur’an do teach us that we do not take part of—in any part of war unless declared by Allah himself, or unless it’s an Islamic World War, or a Holy War, and it goes as far—the Holy Qur’an is talking still, and saying we are not to even as much as aid the infidels or the nonbelievers in Islam, even to as much as handing them a cup of water during battle.
So, this is the teachings of the Holy Qur’an before I was born, and the Qur’an, we follow not only that part of it, but every part.’ The Koran defines jihad as an injunction to the believers to war against non-believers:
‘O ye who believe! Shall I guide you to a gainful trade which will save you from painful punishment? Believe in Allah and His Apostle and carry on warfare (jihad) in the path of Allah with your possessions and your persons. That is better for you. If ye have knowledge, He will forgive your sins, and will place you in the Gardens beneath which the streams flow, and in fine houses in the Gardens of Eden: that is the great gain.’ [Ch 61: v10—13 – M. Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam 55—56 (1955)]
The Court also looked at the ‘The Sale edition of the Qur’ān’, which first appeared in England in 1734, and gave the following translation with respect to the concept of jihad:
“Thus God propoundeth unto men their examples. When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them; and bind them in bonds; and either give them a free dismission afterwards, or exact a ransom; until the war shall have laid down its arms. This shall ye do. Verily if God pleased he could take vengeance on them, without your assistance; but he commandeth you to fight his battles, that he may prove the one of you by the other. And as to those who fight in defence of God’s true religion, God will not suffer their works to perish: he will guide them, and will dispose their heart aright; and he will lead them into paradise, of which he hath told them. O true believers, if ye assist God, by fighting for his religion, he will assist you against your enemies; and will set your feet fast”.
The Judge’s findings went on to state:
“War is not the exclusive type of jihad; there is action by the believer’s heart, by his tongue, by his hands, as well as by the sword. War and Peace in the Law of Islam As respects the military aspects it is written:
‘The jihad, in other words, is a sanction against polytheism and must be suffered by all non-Muslims who reject Islam, or, in the case of the dhimmis (Scripturaries), refuse to pay the poll tax. The jihad, therefore, may be defined as the litigation between Islam and polytheism; it is also a form of punishment to be inflicted upon Islam’s enemies and the renegades from the faith. Thus in Islam, as in Western Christendom, the jihad is the bellum justum.’ Id., 59.
The jihad in the Moslem’s counterpart of the ‘just’ war as it has been known in the West. Clay should not be subject to punishment because he will not renounce the ‘truth’ of the teaching of his respective church that wars indeed may exist which are just wars in which a Moslem or Catholic has a respective duty to participate.
What Clay’s testimony adds up to is that he believes only in war as sanctioned by the Koran, that is to say, a religious war against nonbelievers. All other wars are unjust.
That is a matter of belief, of conscience, of religious principle. Clay was ‘by reason of religious training and belief’ conscientiously opposed to participation in war of the character by [his] religion. That belief is a matter of conscience protected by the First Amendment which Congress has no power to qualify or dilute. For the reasons that construction puts Clay in a class honored by the First Amendment, even though those schooled in a different conception of ‘just’ wars may find it quite irrational. I would reverse the judgment “.
With the above judgement, which was delivered on 28 June 1971, Ali’s conviction was quashed and he was freed from prison. The Court found that it was impossible to determine on which of the three grounds his conviction was found given that no reasons were given at the time.
Points to Note:
The Judgement holds an important place in the life of Muhammad Ali. As a result of the findings, he was released two years earlier than he would otherwise have been. Had he not been released when he had, Allah knows best whether the world would have ever witnessed the epic fights which followed after his release.
In addition, the outcome from the Court remains very significant today at a time when the noble concept of Jihad has been hijacked by rogue groups masking their criminal actions whilst purporting to carry out this noble act. Their twisted and misconstrued ideas are considered synonymous with terrorism and extremism by the far right and neo-conservatives for their own agendas whilst reformist Muslims who suffer from an inferiority complex seek to reduce the concept of jihad to the spiritual sphere only.
What is also important to note is that the Judge at no point considered Muhammad Ali’s views as extreme or violent, even though some of the verses that were relied upon were given without their full context. In fact, the Judge accepted that these were Ali’s sincere beliefs, even if he did not agree with them and himself acknowledged that there was no right to expect Muhammad Ali to dilute his beliefs.
Whilst Ali never participated in the physical Jihad, it is clear that he led a life following the words of the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) that to speak a word of truth against an oppressive ruler, is the greatest Jihad. Perhaps most important of all is that it acts as an example to Muslims in the West as with respect to how we should conduct ourselves – that is to say that we must be good, law-abiding citizens whilst maintaining our values and principles at all times and not compromise these just as was the case with Muhammad Ali.
 Muhammad Ali: A Complete Guide edited by Brave Umari https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/403/698
 It would be interesting to hear how those who seek to encourage Muslims to join the British army for example, would reconcile their aims with the stance of Muhammad Ali in not seeking to be engaged in wars which he did not consider as permissible and legitimate according to his religious beliefs.
 Abu Dawud
Z.A Rahman is a community activist and a member of a large Mosque in the UK. He has a keen interest in politics and history, particularly Islamic history. He also enjoys traveling and has visited numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa.