Thousands gather for Muslim prayer service to honor Ali

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Thousands of people attended Thursday's Jenazah prayer service, a traditional Muslim funeral service that was broadcast worldwide and streamed online. (WPVI)

Thousands joined together shoulder to shoulder inside a Kentucky arena for a Muslim prayer service that begins two days of memorials for Muhammad Ali.

The brief service, which is part of a plan designed by Ali himself years before he died, began with a message of inclusion from the imam leading it.

"We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community," Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent U.S. Muslim scholar, told the crowd. "We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters."

"All were beloved to Muhammad Ali."

More than 14,000 were expected for the Thursday service, which is being streamed live around the globe. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and boxing promoter Don King were among the high-profile guests in attendance.

The attendees at the service, known as Jenazah, were young and old; black and white; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some wore traditional Islamic clothing, others blue jeans or business suits.

Mustafa Abdush-Shakur leaned on his cane as he limped into the arena. He came 800 miles from Connecticut despite a recent knee replacement that makes it excruciating to walk.

"This is a physical pain," he said. "But had I not been able to come and pray for my brother, it would have caused me a spiritual pain and that would have been much deeper."

The streamed service invites the world to attend and offers a window into a religion many outsiders know little about. U.S. Muslims hope the service will help underscore that Islam is fully part of American life. Ali insisted the service be open to all.

"Muhammad planned all of this," Shakir said. "And he planned for it to be a teaching moment."

The word "Jenazah" started trending on Twitter shortly after the service began.

A fellow Muslim who shares the boxing great's name arrived with no hotel reservation, just a belief that this 8,000-mile pilgrimage was important to say goodbye to the global icon considered a hero of his faith.

Mohammad Ali met the boxer in the early 1970s and they struck up a friendship based on their shared name. The Champ visited his home in 1978 and always joked he was his twin brother, he said. He stood weeping at the funeral, a green Bangladeshi flag draped over his shoulder, holding snapshots he took of the boxer during his visit, one standing with his family, another of him sprawled on a bed in his home.

Ali, who died Friday at 74, famously joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, as a young boxer, then embraced mainstream Islam years later.

The Jenazah service lasts only about 20 minutes, with people customarily standing in lines as they recite the prayers. At Ali's service, Muslims lining up to join the recitation were separated by gender, but the wider audience was not.

The service is composed of four recitations of "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great," with silent prayers between of a reading from the first chapter of the Quran, a blessing for Abraham, a general prayer for the well-being and forgiveness of the deceased for the next life and a prayer for everyone at the funeral.

Organizers said the Thursday event was designed as a more somber moment to allow Muslims a chance to say goodbye to one of their own.

The memorials are taking place after a burst of assaults on U.S. mosques and Muslims following the Islamic extremist attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the presidential election.

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Organizers of Ali's memorials say the events are not meant to be political. Still, many Muslim leaders say they are glad for the chance to highlight positive aspects of the religion through the example of Ali, one of the most famous people on the planet.

"In this climate we live in today, with Islamophobia being on the rise and a lot of hate-mongering going on, I think it's amazing that someone of that caliber can unify the country and really show the world what Islam is about," said 25-year-old Abdul Rafay Basheer, who traveled from Chicago for the service. "I think he was sort of the perfect person to do that."

Muslims typically bury their dead within 24 hours, but the timeline is not a strict obligation, and accommodations are often made, either to follow local customs or, in the case of a public figure like Ali, provide time for dignitaries and others to travel. Ali died in Arizona and time was needed to transport his body to Louisville, said Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic scholar at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Gianotti said by phone that he and three others - two Phoenix-area Muslims and Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent U.S. Muslim scholar who will lead Thursday's prayers - washed, anointed and wrapped Ali's body within a day of his death. The body is typically wrapped in three pieces of simple fabric.

"The idea is to remind those who are still alive that when you came to life, you were completely moneyless and you will leave moneyless," said Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and a specialist in Islamic studies. "What matters is if you live a simple life or do good."

Abdush-Shakur said his death feels like a loss to the entire world because he had an "ability and a capacity to reach into places and to people who the average person wasn't able to reach."

"But there is no need to be sad for him," he added. "We are all going to make that trip."


AP religion reporter Rachel Zoll contributed to this report from New York. Reporters Jeff Karoub contributed from Detroit and Claire Galofaro from Louisville.
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