The most famous Muslim on Earth visited Ground Zero when the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering.
“What’s really hurting me, the name ‘Islam’ is involved and ‘Muslim’ is involved, and causing trouble and starting hate and violence,” Muhammad Ali said as he prepared to enter the site nine days after the attack.
The words were all the more significant because Ali had uttered so few public ones since the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease became manifest. He was wearing an FDNY cap.
“Islam is not a killer religion,” he continued with a conviction that had nary a tremor. “Islam means peace. I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for the problem.”
Ali had famously been stripped of his heavyweight title and suspended from boxing at his fighting prime in 1967, after he refused on moral grounds to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He now expressed total support for whatever coalition might seek to bring to justice those behind the 9/11 attack.
“Whatever decision they decide, I’m behind 100 percent,” he declared.
Ali then proceeded to the pit, where he stood in the rain and expressed his appreciation one-on-one to those who were searching for the dead among the toxic mountains of debris. He spoke with firefighters and cops and members of the National Guard.
“He shook the hands of a lot of us,” said National Guard Lt. Scott Youngs.
Among the guardsmen who were later deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq was another Muslim named Ali.
Spc. Azhard Ali was killed along with a fellow soldier during an ambush in Baghdad in 2005. Ali was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star. A sergeant who later stood by Ali’s plain wood coffin in the Islamic Burial funeral parlor in Queens, New York, credited him with being among those who saved his life.
“He died a great soldier,” Sgt. Adrian Melendez said.
Ali’s father spoke softly through a translator.
“When I heard he was going to Iraq for America, I was proud,” Mubarak Ali quietly said. “He was a very sweet son, very loving, caring, and religious.”
The imam offered a prayer such as would guide and comfort those of any faith.
“The purpose of life is to do good,” Imam Zameer Sattaur intoned. “From God we came and to God is our return.”
By that time, the recovery effort at Ground Zero had long since ended. The list of the dead included 54-year-old Syed Abdul Fatha, a father of six from India who worked in a trade center photocopy operation. He was remembered for shrugging and saying they would just have to try it again when a big job went awry. He was also remembered as a quietly devout Muslim who prayed five times a day and studied the Quran between tasks.
“He was going to buy me a [Quran] in Spanish because he wanted me to know about his religion,” a co-worker, Beatriz Soto, told The New York Times.
Among the other Muslims who perished was Salman Hamdani, an NYPD cadet who dashed to the scene to offer his skills as an EMT. Abdoul Karim Traore was a 49-year-old banquet cook at Windows on the World who was devout enough to pause to pray during the workday and well liked enough to be elected union shop steward.
Also at Windows on the World was 38-year-old Mohammad Sallahuddin Chowdhury, who had earned a master’s degree in physics in his native Bangladesh but was now working as a waiter. He had a 6-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife who gave birth to a boy on Sept. 13. The wife, Baraheen Ashrafi, would tell a reporter that baby Farqad had his father’s eyes.
“Very expressive,” Ashrafi was quoted saying. “Eyes, like he’s trying to tell me something.”
The Muslim passengers on the hijacked jetliner that crashed into the North Tower included 28-year-old Rahma Salie and her 32-year-old husband, Michael Theodoridis. She was seven months pregnant, as has since been acknowledged at the September 11 Memorial, where the names of the dead are inscribed.
“Rahma Salie and her unborn child,” it reads.
The 60 dead from the 9/11 attacks along with the fallen solider Ali and the very much alive boxer Ali are the kind of Muslims President Obama cited during his Oval Office speech on Sunday.
“Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors; our co-workers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform,” Obama said.
As has been widely reported, Donald Trump apparently forgot about Muhammad Ali, among others, when he tweeted, “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who?”
On Monday, Dec. 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Trump declared from aboard a mothballed warship that he would bar all Muslims from entering America, not just immigrants but also tourists, even American citizens who traveled abroad and sought to return. That would presumably include Muhammad Ali.
The other Ali, the fallen Spc. Azhard Ali, was not able to say what he thought of Trump’s words. Nor were the other three Muslim service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor were the 60 Muslim innocents who perished at the World Trade Center.
Muhammad Ali did not need to say anything. The most famous Muslim on Earth had already said it all nine days after 9/11, when he stood in the rain at the smoldering pit in an FDNY cap.