If Religious Education in schools survives into the future I have a suggestion for a unit to be studied at some point when the pupils are mature enough to understand its connotations. It could be called ‘When Hal met Al’, meaning the meeting and subsequent friendship of Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper. ‘Why?’ I hear you gasp. Well, they could do a lot worse and probably are as I write this and still when you read it, studying, for example, ancient saints about whose real lives there is scant verified detail.
Children will and should get to an age when they ask, ‘what’s religion got to do with me?’ That is a hard question to answer and studying these two men is an excellent starting block. Life has two interwoven aspects to it, what you do and what you could have done. For a human being, not doing anything at all while still breathing is not a choice. It is, however, possible to do so little your action, or ‘inaction’ as it would mistakenly be described, is not much above just breathing.
For instance, it is possible to lie on a big, comfy settee in the afternoon eating crisps and watching day time television. Here, as actions, you can add to breathing and the occasional flatulence, eating, reclining and watching. What will not be in this list is ‘understanding’ or ‘deep thought’. Immediately it can be seen that what is done has a ‘what could be done’ parallel world. A health expert might suggest that what could have been done included walking instead of lying, maybe in the park, not eating or eating a celery stick instead and reading, not watching. Immediately an assumption grows that what could be done is always better than what is done, but the object of our debate, the couch potato, could have gone and robbed a bank or murdered someone and everyone would have ardently wished they had stayed on the sofa.
Thus, pupils in studying religion should get to a point where they study and question what people do and why they do it and what they don’t do and why not, ultimately to contemplate what choice of actions they will personally make as and when their choices increase in their impact on themselves and others. To discuss that in a vacuum would be very sterile and probably inconclusive. The answer is to study real and, preferably, recent people and their actions. In order for someone’s actions to be sufficiently recorded to lend themselves to study that person must have been famous.
My argument is that Henry and Muhammad Ali are perfect for this exercise as the implications of what they did and what they could have done are so complex and far reaching. It could easily occupy a whole term at the end of which the pupils will have an understanding of what it means to be the best that you can possibly be and to have thought deeply about it. Hopefully that will rub off on pupils without such aspirations to develop their character while encouraging pupils who already aspire, thereby vindicating them in their secret or public ambitions to maximise their talents and interests for the good of themselves and others.
Other champion boxers and sports persons attracting wealth and publicity in equal amounts often succumb to the powerful temptation to lavish money on sex, cars, possessions, gambling, faithless friends and embark on a path of self-destruction, sometimes ending, incredulously to the public without access to such wealth, in declaring bankruptcy, the bankruptcy of their soul far outstripping the emptiness of their bank account. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, rather than pursuing fast women and fast cars became a Muslim and merely pursued a fast. When David Frost asked him how he wanted to be remembered he replied;
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.
When teenage pupils, and anyone else for that matter, affirm the Ten Commandments and all that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff is old fashioned and for sissies and definitely not for them they would do well to fill the void with Muhammad Ali’s ten aspirations, to love, be patient, generous, kind, happy, concerned, willing, trusting, persevering and of service to the deserving. Muhammad Ali did not just say this, he did it all his life. Only the shallow and the bigoted thought he was a big head.
Pupils in their late teens could do a lot worse than study in detail why Muhammad Ali turned to Islam, rejecting Christianity, the religion of his slave masters, and more importantly why he, at great risk to himself and his reputation turned away from the more aggressive stance of his fellow ‘Nation of Islam’ converts, despite initially shunning Malcolm X for his defection, which he regretted all his life, and turned to Sufism, a profoundly gentle, meditative and philosophical manifestation of Islam. Something pointedly ignored by the populist media as it was too far outside their realm of experience and would have needed explaining to their, readers, viewers, listeners, an explanation they would not be capable of delivering. Inwardly they would be willing Muhammad Ali to fall, to stumble to give them the scoop and banner headline craved by the voyeurs their own art created, fueled by the comfort and solace given to the incapable by the sins of others.
What did Henry Cooper do with the adulation and heady notoriety being possibly U.K’s best ever boxer afforded him? I like to imagine he made a list that said, ‘What is important to me; honour family, friends, neighbours, the community I live in, be modest and humble, serve others, defend the vulnerable, be scrupulously honest, make my country proud of me for all the right reasons. He pointedly aligned himself with ‘anti-fascism’ to illustrate his belief that people of any background had the right to peaceful coexistence.
If you are a lovely bloke you want everyone to enjoy the loveliness that unasked for comes your way. When I hear all the hoo-ha that accompanies beatifying a saint I think I can offer you two with no need for devil’s advocate or three miracles but you will have to stomach one of them being a black Sufi and, worse than that, one of them being a cockney. The ultimate religious lesson in this vital module is that if you want to be loved you have to be loveable. It has been said that the most important things in life are not things. If you find that hard to believe study Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper and that will be a sound platform on which to realign yourself along the road to detachment, contentment and generosity of spirit.