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Mourners of All Faiths Attend Traditional Muslim Funeral for Muhammad Ali

  • VOA News

Nahed Ahmed Zeead, 51, of Iraq, takes part in the jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, for the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky, June 9, 2016.

Nahed Ahmed Zeead, 51, of Iraq, takes part in the jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, for the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky, June 9, 2016.

Thousands of people — black and white, Muslims and Jews, old and young — packed Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, Thursday for a traditional Muslim funeral for Muhammad Ali.

The boxing legend, who was known by billions around the world, died last week at age 74 after a long fight against Parkinson's disease.

His service was held in the same place in Ali's hometown where he fought his first professional match in 1960, shortly after his gold medal triumph at the Summer Olympics in Rome.

In the Islamic tradition, Muslim men and woman prayed in separate groups as Imam Zaid Shakir led the service.

IN PICTURES: Muhammad Ali: A legend and a cultural icon

"This is about ... sending him off in the very best of fashion and honor his memory, live his memory and love each other as he would wish," the imam preached.

Worshippers and admirers called Ali the true face of Islam — one that promotes peace and tolerance of people of all faiths.

Two days of services

Ali will be remembered again Friday at a public interfaith memorial service in Louisville.

Former President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal, whose accurate impersonation of Ali often left the champ doubled over with laughter, will deliver eulogies.

Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett will read a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama, who will remain in Washington to attend his daughter's high school graduation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Louisville to attend Ali’s funeral, but changed his mind suddenly and decided to leave Thursday evening without appearing at Friday’s funeral. Erdogan did not provide a reason for his early departure, but did confirm to VOA that he would not attend the funeral.

The service will be televised live.

Pall bearers for the funeral will be: Will Smith, the actor who portrayed Ali in the movie of his life and a family friend; John Grady, a cousin; Ibn Ali, a nephew; Komawi Ali, former brother-in-law; Jerry Ellis, brother of Jimmy Ellis, Ali's former sparring partner and former heavyweight champion of the world; Lennox Lewis, former heavyweight champion of the world; Jan Wadell, a cousin; John Ramsey, a family friend.

Embraced Islam

Ali was born Cassius Clay, but he cast off what he called a "slave name" when he embraced Islam in 1964.

His conversion came with a price. Many sportswriters and the conservative boxing community were slow to embrace his new name, and still called him Clay well into the late 1960s, infuriating him.

Ali also refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War because of his faith, saying he had "no quarrel" with the Viet Cong.

This cost him his heavyweight titles in 1967, and he was banned from professional boxing until the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 1971.

VOA's Turkish service contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.

WATCH: Neighbors Remember Muhammad Ali in Rhymes, Good Times

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