MUHAMMAD ALI'S RELIGION
The man who began life as
Cassius Clay continues to be in the news, particularly
since a new movie ("Ali")
has been released on his life. The youngest of nine children,
Cassius became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world
when he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. That same year Clay
made headline news when he converted to Islam and assumed
the name Muhammad Ali. In 1967 Ali was stripped of his title
for refusing to enter the armed forces. Yet a few years later,
in 1974, the Associated Press proclaimed him athlete of the
Through his early decades,
Ali became infamous for his proud and arrogant ways as
well as his hostile demeanor
in the boxing ring. "I am the greatest!" was his
boastful assertion. Now, at age 60, Ali is experiencing the
effects of Parkinson’s Disease. His former bellicose and
belligerent manner has been replaced with slow-motion responses.
calmed down and seems to have received the acceptance of
many of those who earlier despised him.
Ali recently granted an interview with Reader’s
Digest (December, 2001) and revealed some of his religious
philosophy. The Digest must have known that Ali now
receives great acclaim and discussing his life philosophy
would be interesting to their millions of worldwide readers.
Let us notice his religious thought on several items and
how this reflects the religious philosophy of many other
Americans and others from around the world. (We are limiting
to the comments in the interview rather than examining all
that Ali has said on other occasions. Hopefully the interview
reflects the celebrity’s genuine beliefs.)
A Religion of Peace?
First, Ali speaks of the
terrorist suicide mission of September 11, 2001 in which
radical and militant
Muslims took the lives of over 3,000 people. Ali responds
by saying, "Islam is a religion of peace. It does not
promote terrorism or killing people." This is the same
message that President gave to the American public and the
world. It was the politically correct thing to say to gain
the support of the Islamic world.
However, as we discuss in
another article on the "True Discipleship" website, from the time
of Muhammad on, Islam has been a violent and warlike religion,
subjugating people with the sword. Simply reading an encyclopedia
article on the origins of Islam will be enough to show this.
Although many American Muslims and more liberal, secularized
Muslims in the world do not support the wholesale slaughter
of millions of civilians, we must see that Ali’s words are
not exactly truthful. Yet he spoke truth when he admitted,
"They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims,
permitting this murder of thousands."
While pointing out the general
Muslim acceptance of war and violence, we must truthfully
admit that during
the middle ages (the "dark" ages), the Roman Catholic
Church engaged in widespread violence and bloodshed as well.
Think of the millions murdered in the infamous Crusades and
the Catholic Inquisition. Think also of the false but professing
"Christians" of the world who are in the news regularly
for participating in bloody warfare with opposing peoples.
While pointing out the false belief of Ali in this subject,
we must not overlook the false belief of others on the same
Many Ways to Heaven?
Second, Ali was asked, "How do you feel
about different religions?" The celebrity gave this provocative
answer: "Rivers, pools, lakes and streams. They have
different names, but all contain water. Religions have different
names but all contain truth." It is interesting that
this is very similar to the prevailing thought of many people
around the world, including professing "Christians." People
claim that one religion must not claim to be the exclusive way
to God. Each religion contains truth and must be respected
by open-minded people. "We are all on different religious
roads, but they all take us to the same destiny!" It
is amazing how widespread this false and deceptive conviction
is in America and many other parts of the world.
Scripture, of course, gives an entirely different answer
to the question that was asked of Ali. Jesus declared words
that are considered arrogant today. He said, "I
am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the
Father but through Me" (John 14:6). Notice that Jesus
is not "a" way to God, or one truth among many
truths, or one means of receiving life. Rather, He claimed
to be the exclusive way of salvation, the only truth,
and the sole means of eternal life! Peter added to
this when he said, "There is salvation in no one else;
for there is no other name under heaven that has been given
among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This
means that we cannot be saved from sin and given eternal life
through Muhammad—or any other religious leader, such as Buddha,
Confucius, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, the Virgin Mary,
or the "Pope." If anyone is received by God in
heaven it will be through the Son of God, Jesus Christ our
Good Deeds Outweighing
Third, Ali went on to
answer the question, "What does your faith mean to you?" He answered,
"[It] means [a] ticket to heaven. One day we’re all going
to die, and God’s going to judge us, [our] good and bad deeds.
[If the] bad outweighs the good, you go to hell; if the good
outweighs the bad, you go to haven." He went on to elaborate:
""[I’m] thinking about the judgment day and how
you treat people wherever you go. Help somebody through charity,
because when you do, it’s been recorded." This former
boxing champ clearly believes in a "works" salvation.
He says that God will weigh the good things and the bad things
we’ve done and whichever outweighs the other will determine
whether we go to heaven or hell. We should do good to other
people since this will determine our destiny.
Interestingly, some people
who claim to be Christians or simply claim religion hold
to the same false
idea. They assume that at the Judgment, God will have spiritual "scales" that will weigh our life. Heaven and hell
will be the outcome of what we have done. Those who know the
Word of God, of course, can see how spiritually bankrupt this
philosophy is. None of us can do enough to be saved. None
of us, of ourselves, can erase one single sin—much less the
tens of thousands of sins we have committed in our lifetime.
Of ourselves, we are helpless and hopeless! Of ourselves,
hell is our sure destiny! "There is none righteous, not
even one" (Romans 3:10). "All have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God" (v. 23).
Since we were "helpless" (Romans
5:6), "ungodly" and "sinners" (v. 8),
and even "enemies" of God (v. 10), we needed God
Himself to come to our rescue. Thus, the good news is that
"God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while
we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (v. 8). In
other words, Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we need
face the judgment as sinners. As we come to Jesus in repentant
faith, expressed in baptism, we may come to God and accept
His grace and mercy and full forgiveness. On the judgment
day, we will either come with our sins unforgiven or with
our sins forgiven through the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:7;
Scripture is clear that we cannot be saved
from sin and made acceptable to God through our own personal
righteousness or obedient life. A transformed life of good
deeds and worthy character is the outcome of knowing Christ
Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:21ff) but is not the basis of
our acceptance by a holy God. Paul writes, "By grace
you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves,
it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no
one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). We live now and will approach
God in Judgment, "through faith in Christ" and in
"the righteousness which comes from God on the basis
of faith" and not through a "righteousness"
of our own "derived from the Law" (Phil. 3:9; cf.
Yet we must admit that
our obedience does have some bearing on our eternal destiny.
Genuine faith in
Christ will be manifested in an obedient life and we cannot
be saved apart from this obedience (Matt. 7:21; Heb. 5:9;
10:36; 1 John 2:17). This also is something overlooked
many professing "Christians." They assume that
one may enter heaven after living a life of sin and not repenting
of that sin. No, heaven will only be for those whose faith
in Christ is manifested in a holy and obedient life (Heb.
12:14). However, this obedience is not the basis or
ground of our salvation. The idea of the good outweighing
the bad leading to heaven, espoused by Ali, totally overlooks
reality—the reality that all sin must be punished unless
it is forgiven through the grace of God and the sacrifice
Sin and Hell
Fourth, Ali does have some interesting and
edifying comments about sin and hell. Notice his comments,
as recorded in the Reader’s Digest article: "I
go to parties, [see] good-looking girls. [I] see a girl I
want to flirt with, which is a sin, so I [light] my matches,
[touches his finger]—oooh, hell hurts worse than this. Buy
a box of matches and carry them with you. Put [one] on your
finger and see how long you can hold it. Just imagine that’s
going to be hell. Hell’s hotter, and for eternity."
Ali is stressing here
at least one thing that Jesus Christ also emphasized.
must be punished and it
is not to be taken lightly—as most people take sin. So many
joke about sin, play with sin, deliberately engage in sin,
and even encourage others to participate in sin. But Ali points
out that the horror of hell awaits those who engage in sin—and
this punishment will last for all eternity! Jesus likewise
said, "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out
and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one
of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be
thrown into hell" (Matt. 5:29; see vv. 27-30). Sin and
hell must be taken seriously, just as both Jesus and Ali
Regretfully, even Ali
doesn’t know how serious
sin is. Sin does not just pertain to outward flirting or outward
fornication or outward adultery, but Jesus said that it pertains
to our inner person, our heart (Matt. 5:27-28). Further, all
such sin must be punished eternally—unless we accept, by faith,
the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for all of our sin (cf.
1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; Rom. 5:6-11). We can’t simply try to "balance" our
sin with good deeds and hope to enter paradise.
Ali and Religion
In conclusion, it is interesting
to see in Ali’s view of religion, particularly Islam, a reflection of
the religion of many people in America and around the world.
Like Ali, many people may consider Islam a religion of peace,
although it has been a religion of conquest. Many people think
that there are "many roads to heaven" although
Jesus declared that there is only one way to God in heaven.
Many people think that God will balance our good with our
bad and allow us to enter heaven if the former outweighs the
latter, but the Bible says that our works do not provide the
basis of salvation from sin. And at least some people recognize
the horror of hell but they simply do not know how to escape
such a terrifying destiny.
Let us learn from Muhammad
and make sure that we are viewing life, death, and eternity
in light of the truth of God found in God’s Word (cf. John