Today, one of the students in my lecture class gave a presentation on Muhammad Ali. In his deep-south intonation, he spoke enthusiastically about Ali's successes as a boxer ("The Jungle Rumble! Thrilla in Manila!") and his status as a mainstream superstar that I hadn't been that aware of. I learnt, for instance, that Ali had a reach of 78.8 inches and a ration of 100:5 in his amateur fights which, even I understood, was phenomenal.
The point of the presentation was of course Ali's conversion, first to the Nation of Islam and then to Sunni Islam, but the guys got all excited about his boxing record and as I am a bit tired out from teaching during the chaggim, I let them run with it for far too long. The marines started discussing why and how he could have received a presidential medal although he had refused to serve in Vietnam (Ali was pardoned in 1971). In honor of the occasion, some of the deep sleepers emerged from their stupor, while the women, strangely and entirely uncharacteristically, remained silent. From boxing, they moved on to Ali's take on jihad which made me very happy because this was also one of today's topics: jihad in the Qur'an, in English parlance, the hijacking of the term by mujahaddin and western journalists and what that meant for the term today etc... For many, the stark multivalence of terms such as jihad is difficult to grasp and I cannot decide if this complexity is only tough for teenagers or compounded by the south where, religiously and in theory, a lot is seen much more clear-cut then elsewhere. We'll see how they do in their quizz on Islam on Friday. I'm expecting some gems!
Here is Muhammad Ali, already marked by Parkinson, lighting the torch: