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Mourners From Far And Wide Honor Muhammad Ali At Muslim Prayer Service


Muhammad Ali is being honored today with an interfaith memorial service in his hometown, Louisville. Yesterday, a Muslim prayer service took place at the site of his last hometown fight in 1961. Tara Anderson of member station WFPL was there.

TARA ANDERSON, BYLINE: The doors at Louisville's Freedom Hall were open three hours before the prayer service began. It was such a nice day. Many attendees arrived early and gathered outside. Some people traveled a long way, including Imam Azam Akram from Chicago. He came not only to honor the champ, but to make a statement.

AZAM AKRAM: You know, America is going through an interesting period of time where Muslims are being singled out, and here we have one of the greatest Americans who happens to be a Muslim as well and exemplified the very fact that you could be Muslim and an American at the same time.

ANDERSON: We're used to seeing Christian funerals on a large scale in the U.S., whenever a president dies, for example. But a Muslim prayer service in a huge public building is unusual, especially in the South.

Salaam Bhatti is a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community based in New York City. He says the occasion was a way to increase visibility of Muslims in America.

SALAAM BHATTI: Muhammad Ali became a household name, and essentially he was the first Muslim a lot of people knew in life. And now in death, his funeral is the first Muslim funeral prayer service many will get to witness, and it's something that he would be so proud of.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

ANDERSON: Inside the building, the crowd stood throughout the hour-long program. There was no stage, just a simple lectern for the service. Turkish President Recep Erdogan was in attendance as well as pop singer Yusuf Islam, boxing promoter Don King and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. The service was punctuated with the exclamation Allahu Akbar, God is great.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Foreign language spoken).

ANDERSON: There were plenty of people in attendance who didn't identify as Muslim, among them Kathleen Parks, Gracie Lewis and Nancy Demartra who says they came to show solidarity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think we need to support the Muslims...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Because they are as important.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: They are under attack, and they are under attack.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And they are under attack and that is wrong.

ANDERSON: And are you all from Louisville?



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: This is our hometown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is our hometown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Home of our native son, Muhammad Ali.


ANDERSON: Also in attendance Jerry Martin came from Virginia with his horse, a white robe draped over the horse's back, Ali written in large red letters along with a pair of boxing gloves tied to the saddle and red sneakers placed backward in the stirrups.

JERRY MARTIN: And this is called the riderless horse, and it denotes a leader or an individual has fallen, and the boots are reversed backwards to show that he's taken his last ride in saying goodbyes.

ANDERSON: The service in the day was a moment to honor the religious man that was Muhammad Ali and send him on his way properly blessed according to tradition. For NPR News, I'm Tara Anderson in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tara Anderson