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 nineinchildren, 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 year.
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 Parkinsons Disease. His former bellicose and belligerent manner has been replaced with slow-motion responses. Ali has calmed down and seems to have received the acceptance of many of those who earlier despised him.
Ali recently granted an interview with Readers 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 consider how this reflects the religious philosophy of many other Americans and others from around the world. (We are limiting ourselves to the comments in the interview rather than examining all that Ali has said on other occasions. Hopefully the interview reflects the celebritys 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 Alis 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 subject.
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 Muhammador 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 Lord!
Good Deeds Outweighing Bad Deeds?
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 were all going to die, and Gods 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: “”[Im] thinking about the judgment day and how you treat people wherever you go. Help somebody through charity, because when you do, its 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 weve 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 sinmuch 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 not 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; 1 John 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. Titus 3:5).
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 by 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 realitythe reality that all sin must be punished unless it is forgiven through the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ.
Sin and Hell
Fourth, Ali does have some interesting and edifying comments about sin and hell. Notice his comments, as recorded in the Readers 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 thats going to be hell. Hells hotter, and for eternity.”
Ali is stressing here at least one thing that Jesus Christ also emphasized. Sin must be punished and it is not to be taken lightlyas 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 sinand 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 point out.
Regretfully, even Ali doesnt 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 eternallyunless 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 cant 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 Alis 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 Alis interview and make sure that we are viewing life, death, and eternity in light of the truth of God found in Gods Word (cf. John 17:17).