Khalila Camacho Ali, former wife of legendary world boxing champion Muhammad Ali, has advised Muslim women to follow the principles laid down in Islam for how they should live and work, and not what she called “Hislam” which is a prejudiced point of view. Ali was speaking at an event hosted by the Spiritual Chords Foundation, a charitable and social welfare organisation with Muslim ethos run in Johannesburg by social activist Safeeyah Moosa, on Saturday during a whirlwind tour of South Africa. Ali gave an account of how she had been instrumental, at the age of 10, to get the ambitious aspirant world champion Cassius Clay to change his name, eventually marrying him some years later.
She also outlined her role in convincing him to become a conscientious objector and refuse to do military service for America in its lengthy war against Vietnam.
Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to be conscripted into the US Army.
He was convicted of draft evasion, with the sentence comprising a five-year jail term, a USD-10,000 fine and a three-year ban on professional boxing.
The conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court three years later.
“I told him to say: ‘Hell No! I don’t want to go!’ about being drafted into the Vietnam War and he did it live on TV for the whole world to see, word for word,” Ali said.
She divorced Ali later because of his indiscretions, but said she had forgiven him now and had found her peace, as will be reflected in her book that will be launched next month.
“There were a lot of things I had to go through to heal and to forgive, so now my healing is over and I’m ready to share my story,” Ali said, adding that it was important to do this for women and girls, whether they were of Muslim origin or not.
She explained how she had first met Ali when she was just ten years old at the school she was at.
“This man got onto the podium. He was about 18 years old and his name was Cassius Marcellus Clay. He said: ‘I’m going to be the heavyweight champion of the world before I’m 21, so get your autograph now because I’m going to be famous.’” Ali detailed how she had made fun of his names and tore up the piece of paper that he gave her with his name on it, telling him to come back when he had a decent Muslim name.
Enamoured by her feistiness, Ali persisted in meeting her again over the years and eventually proposing to her when she was 16, when he also decided to adopt the Muslim faith and change his name.
They got married in 1967, and parted ways after an acrimonious divorce battle a decade later.
A karate expert herself, Ali suggested that the legendary martial arts champion and actor Bruce Lee might have become Muslim if he had not met with an untimely death at the age of 32 in 1973 at the height of his career.
“Bruce Lee was a very important guy. He was a wonderful man and he is so missed. If he had not passed away so soon… he was very interested in Islam at the time. He loved what I said about Islam,” Ali said.