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Guess Who’s Coming to Muhammad Ali’s Funeral? Hint: a Strongman and a King.

Turkey's president and Jordan's king will pay tribute to their boxing idol in person.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Cassius Clay (L) throws a left punch to Archie Moore who ducks below the punch, during the fight at the Sports Arena on November 15, 1962 in Los Angeles, California. Cassius Clay won by TKO at 1:35 in round 4 of 12. (Photo by )
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Cassius Clay (L) throws a left punch to Archie Moore who ducks below the punch, during the fight at the Sports Arena on November 15, 1962 in Los Angeles, California. Cassius Clay won by TKO at 1:35 in round 4 of 12. (Photo by )

As the most renowned American athlete to convert to Islam, boxer Muhammad Ali struck a special chord with Muslim fans. So perhaps it’s little wonder that Muslim political leaders from Pakistan to Bangladesh to Chechnya are publicly mourning his June 3 death. And in a sign of his importance to the Muslim world, two heads of state — Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — will be delivering speeches at an interfaith funeral service this Friday in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, according to Ali family spokesperson Bob Gunnell.

Even as he racked up three world championships in boxing, Muhammad Ali made a point of visiting African and Middle Eastern countries, embracing nationalist and anti-colonialist leaders, and endearing himself to Muslim fans the world over.

Ali’s connection to Turkey dates back to a little-known trip to Istanbul in October 1976, when the boxer met with then-Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist who was later banned from politics. One of Erbakan’s most promising protégés was Erdogan, who became Turkey’s head of state after founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gunnell said Erdogan will attend the ceremonies on Friday and that the Turkish president asked to give a speech.

Ali prayed with Erbakan at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, reportedly calling the occasion “the first time a white leader hugged me.” His second day there, Ali said he was retiring from boxing to “devote all my energy to the propagation of the Muslim faith,” although many suspected his announcement wouldn’t stick. It didn’t; Ali stayed in the ring a few more years before really calling it quits.

Senior members of the Turkish government remember Ali quite fondly:

In a Turkish-language tweet, former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu joined the chorus. “May Allah with His mercy embrace Muhammad Ali, defender of human rights, who fought not with his fists but with his mind and soul,” he wrote .

Ali’s political activism also extended to the Iran-Iraq war. In a 1993 trip to the two countries, which between 1980 and 1988 fought one of the bloodiest border battles in modern history, Ali worked to secure the release of prisoners of war on both sides. Last Saturday, Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency published photos of Ali visiting religious sites and meeting with Iranian officials.

Even late in his life, Ali remained committed to humanitarian causes, calling on Iran to release Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in March 2015. Ali’s plea had an effect. The prison guards “started treating me in a better way, and I think it brought some doubt to them about the charges against me, and along with that my spirits were really lifted,” Rezaian told CNN on Saturday.

In 1964, Ali converted to Islam and dropped his birth name, Cassius Clay Jr. He joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial African American religious movement, and formed a friendship with civil rights leader Malcolm X, the group’s public face. A little more than 10 years later, Ali renounced the Nation of Islam in favor of mainstream Sunni Islam. Around 2005, Ali turned to Sufi Islam, a highly spiritual and personalized sect of the religion.

In his diary, Malcolm X noted that Egyptians and Saudis repeatedly mistook him for Muhammad Ali during a five-week tour of the region in 1964.

“The Muslim world,” Malcolm wrote, was so enamored of the boxer that “even the children know of him.”

Photo credit: STANLEY WESTON/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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