Louisville - Thousands of people are
expected to attend an Islamic prayer service for Muhammad Ali on Thursday, the
start of two days of poignant ceremonies honouring the late boxing legend.
Ali's hometown of Louisville in the
southern US state of Kentucky will host the tributes that will bring together
VIPs and huge crowds of ordinary fans in the city of 600 000.
Ali, a three-time heavyweight world champion
whose remarkable boxing career and civil rights activism made him one of the
indelible figures of the 20th century, died last week at age 74 after a
decades-long battle with Parkinson's disease.
Born Cassius Clay at a time of racial
segregation in the American south, the boxer converted to Islam in 1964,
changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
The 30-minute prayer service will be held
at Louisville's Freedom Hall arena, the site of Ali's last fight in his
hometown, where he defeated Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961.
"The service is a traditional Muslim
funeral," said Imam Zaid Shakir, who helped organise it.
"Muhammad Ali has a very special
significance for the Muslim community," he said.
"This is about... sending him off in
the very best of fashion, and honour his memory, live his legacy and love each
other as he would wish."
For millions of Muslims around the world,
Ali symbolised the true face of Islam, promoting peace and tolerance.
Thousands are expected to attend the
On Friday morning, a funeral procession
will wind through Louisville, passing sites that were important to Ali: his
childhood home, the Ali Centre, the Centre for African American Heritage - which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky - and, of course, along Muhammad
Ali Boulevard before arriving at the cemetery.
Actor Will Smith - who earned an Oscar
nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen - and former
heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers.
An anonymous individual has pledged to
cover the path to the grave with red rose petals.
On Friday afternoon, Ali will be honoured
at an interfaith memorial service at a large sports arena that will bring
together heads of state, VIPs and ordinary fans.
Former president Bill Clinton and comedian
Billy Crystal will eulogize Ali, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
is also expected to attend.
The 15 000 free tickets to the event were
given out in half an hour and a black market for the coveted tickets soon
"Anyone selling or buying tickets
online at Craigslist, eBay or any of the other sites that have those sales up
will be reported to law enforcement," Ali family spokesperson Bob Gunnell
said, calling the activity "despicable."