When it was all said and done, it was Ali himself who planned his own funeral. True to his giant character, Ali wanted it as open as possible — with a chance for his fans to say goodbye.
Wednesday kicked off three days of funeral proceedings with a downtown festival called “I Am Ali,” in his hometown of Louisville, KY, and continue Thursday with a public Muslim service at the city’s Expo center. Thousands of free tickets have been made available to his fans to pay their respects during Thursday’s service — a brief program of prayer, called a jenazah.
Fans of the Champ don’t come bigger than Louisvillians — people in the northern Kentucky city revere him. The city has already started embracing its most famous son’s legacy, celebrating the three-time World champion Wednesday, sharing memories and paying tribute to the man they know as the “Louisville Lip.”
People brought flowers and photos to a memorial at the Muhammad Ali Center and left tributes on a wall at the the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts.
Thursday’s service, one of the most public parts of this very public send-off, is in a fitting location: The Kentucky Expo Center’s north wing, with overflow crowd admitted into the center’s Freedom Hall — where Ali defeated Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961, his last fight in the city.
His spokesman Bob Gunnell said a total of 14,000 free tickets were made available on a first come, first service basis. Gunnell also made it clear that authorities are going after ticket scalpers trying to profit off selling funeral tickets, calling their attempts to cash in “despicable” and “deplorable.”
According to Gunnell, Ali had said it was important that the memorials be conducted in the Muslim tradition. Doors for the ceremony will open at 9 a.m. Thursday and the jenazah will begin at 12 noon.
Imam Zaid Shakir, a Muslim scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, will lead the service. The ceremony is simple, and not fundamentally different to the funereal rites of other faiths.
At its essence it is a prayer of seeking forgiveness for the deceased, showing support to the family, and praying to the prophet Muhammad and Allah. 18,000 people are expected to attend the service and all faiths are welcome, although those who self-identify as Muslims will be given priority seating.
Proper preparation for Muslim burial
Those who can’t make it inside the arena can watch the funeral streamed live on the Muhammad Ali Center’s website. Shakir said in a statement provided by organizers “To be properly prepared for burial, prayed over and then buried is a right owed to every single Muslim. If no one fulfills those rights, then the entire community has fallen into sin. In the case of someone of Muhammad Ali’s stature, to leave any of those rights unfulfilled would be a crime.”
Thursday’s jenazah will be followed Friday by a morning funeral procession through the streets of Louisville before the public memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center. The main service will see former President Bill Clinton, longtime sportscaster Bryant Gumbel and comedian and close Ali friend Billy Crystal, among others, delivering eulogies.
The people’s champion
Fan Brian Eller told CNN affiliate WAVE-TV, leaving empty-handed after waiting in line for hours for tickets to Friday’s service”It’s a real testament to the power of Muhammad Ali, his message and all he stood for that so many thousands showed up to be able to recognize him.”
The death of the boxing icon has resonated around the world, but perhaps no more so than within his own communities: African-Americans and American Muslims.
According to CNN Ayah Kutmah, 18, said on Wednesday at the downtown festival “As an American, as a African-American, as a Muslim, he really inspired me to fight and to stand for what was right and what was strong. Hearing that he died was awful, it was one of the worst things, because we lost a hero. This was his home, and even though there may have been times when people might not have been the kindest to him here, he still went back to his roots and appreciated his hometown. He was a hero for all Muslims all around the world. You saw him as a symbol against oppression, against Islamophobia, against people who tried to put him into a small sphere. He was like, ‘These are my beliefs, you can take it or you can leave it.’ That really inspired us to take a stand. To not hide when times get tough. To show people we shouldn’t be ignored.”
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