LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Thousands of fans, dignitaries and faithful from across the globe filled a Kentucky arena Thursday to honor Muhammad Ali at a traditional Muslim prayer service where he was remembered as a global icon who used his celebrity to promote unity among faiths, races and nations.
The service, known as Jenazah, began two days of remembrances for the boxing legend, who died Friday at age 74. Ali designed his final memorials himself years before he died, and intended them to be in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and open to all.
“He was a gift to his people, his religion, his country, and ultimately, to the world. Ali was an unapologetic fighter for the cause of black people in America,” said Sherman Jackson, a leading Muslim scholar who spoke at the service. “Ali was the people’s champion, and champion he did the cause of his people.”
More than 14,000 got tickets for the Thursday service, and millions more were able to watch by live stream. Tickets for Friday’s memorial were gone within an hour. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King and Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, were among the high-profile guests in attendance Thursday.
Ali joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, in the 1960s, but left after a decade to embrace mainstream Islam, which emphasizes an embrace of all races and ethnicities.
The attendees at the service were young and old; black and white; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some wore traditional Islamic clothing, others blue jeans or business suits. Outside the arena, the term “Jenazah” trended on Twitter as the service started and the world began to watch.
Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent U.S. Muslim scholar, lead the Jenazah prayer service.
“We welcome all of you here today. We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community. We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters,” he told the crowd. “All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
In an introductory prayer, Shakir said: “Oh God, Almighty God, don’t deprive us of his reward, don’t cast us into tribulation after his departure. Forgive us and forgive him.”
People lined up early to attend the service. Ali insisted that it be opened to all and Muslims have traveled from all over the world to pay tribute. CBS2’s Otis Livingston reported that an estimated 14,000 people attended the Jenazah prayer service.
Bayan Hamid was among the first in line. He drove overnight from Atlanta to be there.
“In Islam, what we call Jenazah, is actually a right for him,” he told CBS2’s Don Champion. “So we are obligated to show up and send him off. So I am just fulfilling my obligation.”
Others attending said they were inspired by the way Ali was unapologetic about being Muslim, Champion reported.
“I grew up with Muhammad Ali first talking in the ring, but also standing up as a man and saying things that I never thought I could say or hear a black man say,” said Ali fan Dr. Jamil Alrazi.
Louisville native Charles Vandiver said the champ meant everything to the city.
“You couldn’t go anywhere without people talking about Ali, no matter what race or religion,” he said.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Don King, who promoted some of Ali’s biggest fights, were among the high-profile guests in attendance.
“Dr. King and Ali gave each other comfort, both were under attack, but they both vowed not to give up,” Jackson said. “Dr. King gave his life, Muhammad gave up his career, but because Dr. King and Ali stood together in that sense of justice and peace for the whole world, the whole world now affirms that.”
Leonard said Ali’s most important contributions were as a humanitarian and a fighter for civil rights and social justice. He said Ali “impacted the world.”
At the end of the service, Ali’s casket was taken out a side entrance. One of those with the honor of taking the casket out as a pall bearer was former heavyweight champ Hassen Rakman.
“I’m still speechless, actually Muhammad Ali is just inspiration, even though he’s not with us physically I still feel him. To be a pall bearer that will go with me to my grave,” he said.
On Friday, Ali’s body will be driven along a 19-mile procession route through the streets of Louisville to the Cave Hill Cemetery, where he will be buried. The procession will pass many places that Ali left an imprint, such as the Muhammad Ali Center, Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and his childhood home at 3302 Grand.
A public interfaith memorial service will follow and will include representatives of several religions, CBS News reported.
Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell said two of Ali’s daughters, Rasheda and Maryum, will speak at the service, as well as Islamic studies scholar Timothy Gianotti. Former President Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, will deliver the eulogy.
Actor Will Smith, who portrayed the boxer in the movie “Ali,” and former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis are among eight pallbearers. Also serving is Jerry Ellis, brother of Jimmy Ellis, who was Ali’s former sparring partner and former world heavyweight champion.
Ali died last Friday in Arizona following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.
Gunnell said Ali, who converted to the Islamic faith in the 1960s, started planning his own funeral nearly a decade ago. He said he wanted his services “to reflect his life and how he lived” with a heart open to people of all colors and creeds.
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