On phones and screens around the globe, thousands more joined the service from afar through streams and broadcasts, watching a traditional Muslim funeral ceremony play out for one of their heroes.
The prayer service on Thursday, known as jenazah, began two days of memorials that Muhammad Ali crafted himself in exacting detail years before his death on Friday.
He designed them with the intent to make them open to the world and to offer a view into a faith many Americans know little about.
“Ali was the people’s champion and champion he did the cause of his people,” said Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar who spoke at the service. Jackson said Ali did more to normalise the Islamic faith than anyone else, both in his life and in his death.
“Ali made being a Muslim cool,” he said. “Ali made being a Muslim dignified.”
More than 14,000 got tickets for the Thursday service in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Some travelled thousands of kilometres to attend. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King, former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, were among the high-profile guests in attendance.
Ali joined the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religious movement, in the 1960s. He left after a decade in favour of mainstream Islam, which emphasises an embrace of all races and ethnicities.
Ali insisted he wanted the traditional Muslim ceremony to be open to all, organisers said.
The attendees were young and old; black and white; Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some wore traditional Islamic clothing, others blue jeans or business suits. Outside the arena, millions more were able to watch. The term “jenazah” trended on Twitter as the service started.
The service lasted less than an hour. There was no stage or altar. Speakers stood in front of a black curtain on the ground near the casket that faced Mecca.
The crowd of thousands lined up directly in front of them, many holding their phones high in the air trying to capture video of the legend’s coffin.
Several speakers, including two Muslim women, described Ali’s impact on their own lives and as a champion for civil rights and acceptance of the Islamic faith.
A fellow Muslim who shares the boxing great’s name arrived in Kentucky with no hotel reservation, just a belief that his 12,872km pilgrimage was important to say goodbye to a person considered a hero of his faith.
Mohammad Ali from Bangladesh met the boxer in the early 1970s and they struck up a friendship based on their shared name. The Champ visited his home in 1978 and always joked he was his twin brother, he said.
He stood weeping at the funeral, a green Bangladeshi flag draped over his shoulder, holding snapshots he took of the boxer during his visit, one standing with his family, another of him sprawled on a bed in his home.
He delayed a scheduled open-heart surgery so he could travel around the world for the service.
Mustafa Abdush-Shakur leaned on his cane as he limped into the arena. He came 1287km from Connecticut despite a recent knee replacement that makes it excruciating to walk.
He believes Ali made the world more accommodating to Muslims.
“He never backed off from his religion he never denied who he was,” he said.
“He had an ability and a capacity to reach into places and to people who the average person wasn’t able to reach.”
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