After Muhammad Ali died Friday at the age of 74, many of the laudatory retrospectives on his life talked about Ali’s refusal to be drafted in the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs. He took this stance at the prime of his boxing career, and his career never recovered from his forced four-year sabbatical from the sport.
Knowing what we do know about the Islamic State group Al-Qaeda, the Sunnis and the Shiites and the state of war the Middle East has been in — on and off — since 9/11, the idea that someone would refuse to fight because he’s a Muslim is so 20th century. And, if there’s any religion that’s been involved in warfare during this present century, it’s Islam. Was Ali, then, the earliest ambassador of Islam as the "religion of peace?"
Let's review: When Ali refused being inducted into the U.S. Army on April 28, 1967, conscientious objection to Vietnam was in its infancy, and his decision was criticized by even baseball great Jackie Robinson as hurting the morale of black soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
I've read lots of recitations about Ali’s refusal to fight. But other than saying the boxer was refusing on the grounds of his religious beliefs, I've not seen any explanation of which beliefs those were. The Atlantic comes closest to bringing up the question but does not answer it:
In April 1967, Ali refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and was charged with draft evasion, resulting in a five-year prison sentence—he remained free pending appeal—and a large fine. The World Boxing Association stripped him of his heavyweight title, and Ali was effectively cast out of the boxing world in his physical prime.
When Ali appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court for the final time in 1971, liberal stalwart Justice William Brennan convinced his colleagues to hear the case. Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself because he had been solicitor general when Ali was prosecuted. That left eight justices, who on a first vote sided with the Justice Department in a 5-3 decision.
Ali claimed he qualified for conscientious-objector status because he opposed the war as a black Muslim. The Justice Department challenged that status, citing his statements that he would fight the Vietcong in a “holy war” if they fought Muslims. The justices began drafting their opinions when one of Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s clerks convinced him to take home Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. Harlan returned to the Court the next day and, convinced of Ali’s sincerity after reading the text, switched sides.
Harlan’s move raised the prospect of a 4-4 split, which would preserve Ali’s conviction and send him to jail without explaining why. The justices instead chose to resolve it on narrow technical grounds and unanimously vacated the conviction.
Am I missing something here? What did Elijah Muhammad write that made Islam a non-battling religion? The article never says. I did one search for his quotes but haven’t found anything forbidding Muslims to fight. So on what Islamic principles was this conscientious objection based?
Everything I see, including this history site, quotes Ali citing racial reasons as to why he would not fight. But what were the “laws of Allah” he was referring to? There are plenty of commands in the Quran about going to war with unbelievers, so from where did Ali draw his inspiration? Whatever his source, I’m guessing that reporters in 1967 knew little about Islam and didn’t care to dig to find the answer.
Even today, I see a lot of sloppiness about this point. After looking up feature articles/obits from the Houston Chronicle and CNN.com to the Indian Express and the Nation, I found no story that set out just which verses from the Quran, or which specific Muslim beliefs, told Ali not to fight.
The Los Angeles Times was the only publication to mention (in a very well-done story) that Ali saw himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam and as such, was entitled to an exemption.
But did he really serve as a minister? I get that many writers had to throw together a story before the weekend. Plus, once a story is retold that many times, an over-familiarity breeds sloppiness among those assigned to sum up the man's life.
Reporters are a lot more knowledgeable about Islam than they were in the 1960s, so it's not like they couldn't look up the same sources I have. Journalists are called to always maintain a critical distance, even when they have to write obits.