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Baltimore's Muslim leaders hold funeral prayer for Muhammad Ali

When Abdul-Jaami Salaam was a kid in the 1980s, he didn't identify with many of the public figures that were held up as role models. Muhammad Ali was an exception.

When Abdul-Jaami Salaam was a kid in the 1980s, he didn't identify with many of the public figures that were held up as role models.

"There were few heroes to choose from that looked like you, sounded like you and felt like you," said Salaam, who grew up in an African-American Muslim family.

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Muhammad Ali was an exception.

"Ali made you proud," the 37-year-old said Monday afternoon at the Masjid Al Ihsan, a mosque in Northwest Baltimore.

Salaam was one of about a dozen worshippers to participate in a funeral prayer for Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion and devout Muslim. Ali died late Friday at the age of 74 in Arizona of septic shock, according to a family spokesman.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and leaders of Maryland's Muslim community organized the funeral prayer, called salat al-ghaib, commonly performed to commemorate Muslims who have died elsewhere.

The participants lined up solemnly in the mosque's wide, carpeted prayer room, arms folded. Hassan A. Amin, an imam at the Johns Hopkins University, led a brief prayer for Ali.

Afterward, representatives of Baltimore's Muslim community reflected on the life of the boxer.

"He never let anyone take him outside his faith," said Amin. "No matter who it was, he always held on to his faith."

To Amin, Ali was as much a role model for his religious conviction as for his pride in being an African American.

Ali was raised a Christian, but joined the Nation of Islam in the early 1960. He discarded his birth (what he called his "slave") name of Cassius Clay to become first Cassius X and later Muhammad Ali.

Ali would leave the Nation of Islam and convert to mainstream Islam, but not before facing religious discrimination — including the initial refusal of many news organization to call him by his adopted name.

Ali's unflinching embrace of his religion in the face of discrimination resonated strongly with the speakers — "especially during the times now, when you have a lot of Islamophobia that's floating around," said Bilal Ali, a community liaison for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

He said he plans to attend Ali's funeral this week in Louisville, Ky.

Ali visited Baltimore only a few times during his long fighting career. In 1972, Ali fought four opponents in front of more than 6,000 fans at what was then the Baltimore Civic Center.

In 1977, Ali fought Kweisi Mfume, then a local radio personality, to raise money for a Nation of Islam mosque in West Baltimore. Ali also made stops in Baltimore in 1992 to promote an anti-drug and anti-crime event, and 20 years later to visit the Baltimore Ravens, who then went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

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Ali's visits to Baltimore thrilled the city's small Muslim community.

Zainab Chaudry, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, estimates that around 5 percent of the city's population is Muslim. There are 10 to 15 mosques operating in the city.

Masjid Al Ihsan, which opened three months ago, has become a community center for the neighborhood's Muslim population, said Mujahid Muhammad, the mosque's community relations coordinator. It is the first mosque in Baltimore to be built from the ground up, he said.

Moses Hammett, who works for the Center for Urban Families, remembered seeing Ali fight in Baltimore in 1977.

"It was just amazing the inspiration that Muhammad Ali provided for the youth," Hammett said.

Aadam Abdullahi said Ali remains an inspiration for young people.

"He's a role model," said Abdullahi, 19, a regular at the Al Ihsan mosque and a student at McDaniel College in Westminster who plans to teach when he graduates.

Abdullahi said Ali set a high standard, but one that's worth striving to attain.

"Every Muslim is supposed to do the best that he can," Abdullahi said. "And if we have him as an example, that means we have to shoot higher."

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