To honour UK Black History Month, we’ve spent the past two weeks telling you about the British black Muslims – and some non-British black Muslims – you need to know about.
Thus far, we’ve had artists and academics and architects. Last week, we ventured across the pond to tell you about Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American politician who could make history come November 6 if she is elected to Congress following the United States midterms.
This week, we’re focusing on two athletes: one British, the other not; one not-so-famous, the other one of the most famous to ever live.
While Nathan Ellington may not be the biggest name, he left his mark on British football. The retired striker spent almost 20 years playing for various clubs up and down the divisions; most notably for Wigan, where he helped the team secure promotion to the Premiership in 2004.
Ellington converted to Islam in 2005 before marrying his wife Alma, who hails from Bosnia. Sadly, it wasn’t long before his new faith became an issue for some of his managers, with Ellington claiming that one coach even benched him because he was fasting for Ramadan.
The thing was, Ellington had been playing – and fasting – for almost two weeks before the manager found out he was Muslim. As he wrote in 2013: “he said it was playing on his mind that I wasn’t eating or drinking. I said I was playing before without him noticing.”
Ellington always fasted during Ramadan throughout his career, a decision that often exposed the stigma surrounding Islam and sport. In an effort to tackle it, he founded the Association of Muslim Footballers in 2011. The AMF works to ensure that Muslim players are treated with fairness and respect.
Ellington’s efforts have no doubt helped Muslim players who have faced the same ignorance as him. We are sure many are grateful for the legacy he’s left in sport, even if it’s not quite as great as this guy’s….
Muhammad Ali is arguably one of the most famous men to have ever lived. Do we really need to explain who he is?
You know, the famous boxer? The iconoclastic civil rights activist? The “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee” guy? The surprisingly good singer (seriously, check it out)?
Yeah, you probably know about him
Well, you also probably know that he was a Muslim. Ali became part of the Nation of Islam in 1964, leading to his decision to change his name from Cassius Clay. His new faith riled much of America, not least because of the name, which many refused to call him by.
He remained resolute, famously stating: “Cassius Clay is my slave name’, later adding:
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Ali soon became a pariah when he refused to participate in the Vietnam War on account of his religious beliefs. He considered himself a conscientious objector, and elaborated on his views with words that have echoed throughout history:
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong….Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?”
Ali was arrested for his decision, a move that would see him cemented as a forerunner of athlete activism, a hero of civil rights and an icon of the anti-war movement.
In the mid 70s, Ali left the Nation of Islam, choosing instead to adhere to Sunni Islam. While he will be remembered for the boxing, charisma, politics and oft-repeated quotes, Ali always held Islam above all else.
Before his death in 2016, Ali spoke of the true nature of his faith in the wake of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks: A statement from Ali read:
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world….True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”
He went on to say:
“‘We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Ali: the greatest until the end.