OAKLAND, California — As we drove north on Interstate 880 toward downtown Oakland on a cold Friday night this winter, Amir Khan asked me a question that I could not answer with confidence.
“Look at that hill on the right side,” Khan said. “Is that a temple? Can you see it?”
Khan, a two-time world champion boxer, splits his time between his native Bolton, England, and the Bay Area. We were on our way to the Three Wise Men Toy Giveaway charity event, hosted by the Oakland Police Department, and the majestically lit building was fading away in the distance.
“It’s probably a mosque,” Khan said. “Mosques are important. It’s good to have them close by. That’s my favorite place to go.”
Every Friday around 1:30 p.m., Khan, a devout Muslim, spends his afternoons in prayer at a mosque near his training headquarters in Hayward. More than anything else, religion is evident in all facets of Khan’s life.
At the mosque, Khan rubs shoulders with locals, stands with them in worship, exchanges pleasantries and moves on.
Without question, Khan is the most popular Muslim boxer since Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam over 50 years ago. As was the case with Ali, it’s been impossible for Khan to keep his religious beliefs separate from the stereotyping and polarization of today’s political landscape.
“Ali was a champion in and out of the boxing ring because he stood up for what he believed in; I am the same way. I stand up for myself,” Khan said. “I am not afraid of saying I am a Muslim. I think some people would be scared to say that they are Muslim, especially during the current time, but I am a proud Muslim. There are a lot of good Muslims out there who are against terrorism, who are against, you know, people killing each other.”
But unlike Ali, who stood at the forefront of controversy, Khan desires to stay away from politics and focus on charity work.
To Khan, showing what it means to be a good Muslim starts in a simple place. It starts with showing that he’s a good person.
Khan’s next fight is May 7 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas against the heavily favored middleweight champion, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. He enters the Alvarez bout as an underdog for the first time in his professional boxing career in what promises to be the most anticipated boxing event of the year to date.
Everyone in boxing has an opinion about Khan’s place (31-3 with 19 knockouts) at or near the top of the sport. Khan’s fans, who number just over two million followers on social media, say the sport’s biggest names, such as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, have ducked him. The naysayers argue over his validity as an elite fighter because he hasn’t proved himself against boxing’s best.
Born in Britain to a Pakistani family, Khan rose to fame in the United Kingdom when he won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics as a 17-year-old. He has gone through the gauntlet as a professional, facing many of the best in the 140- and 147-pound weight divisions—including wins over Zab Judah and Marcos Maidana.
Back home in England, where boxing is one of the more popular sports, Khan makes front pages. His popularity has earned him friends in high places.
After being denied a visa to travel to the United States on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khan called British Prime Minister David Cameron for help. The head of Her Majesty’s government negotiated with the airport immigration officials on Khan’s behalf to clear the matter. He boarded the plane minutes later.
Last year Prince Charles paid a visit to the National Citizen Service project (which gives British teenagers opportunities for volunteer work in communities across the U.K.) because “King” Khan was its primary supporter. Just like the U.S. gleams over Stephen Curry playing golf with Obama, England gets a kick out of Prince Charles and Khan sharing sports injuries stories.
Despite megastar status in his home country, Khan chooses to fight in the U.S. because “this is the birthplace of boxing,” Khan said. “I could go back home. But I want to be a star in the United States.”
Khan’s Army, a rabid fanbase led by Khan’s childhood friend Majid Dad, shows unconditional admiration for Amir, as the boxer observed during his last fight in New York.
“I fought in New York where the terrorist attack of 9/11 happened, and everyone had that fear about being around Muslims, but I filled up a stadium,” Khan said. “The Barclay Center was full during my last fight [against Chris Algieri in May 2015]. There were Muslims, British and American people sitting together. I bring people together through boxing. I have people supporting me all around the world.”
The outcome of the Canelo fight will likely create a consensus about Khan’s legitimacy as an elite fighter. It might also change his long-term ambitions in the sport. A victory over Canelo could make Khan “the guy” in boxing. But a loss could mean that he never gets a fight of this magnitude ever again.
“I have been very fortunate,” Khan said. “I get a lot of love from people in the United States and the UK, both Muslim and non-Muslim. I get a lot of love from people that want to see me succeed.”
Outside of the ring, Khan leads by example, making his success inside of it a valuable commodity beyond just dollars and pounds. He wants his charitable efforts to be as visible as possible, and he wants his soapbox to have a wide reach.
“I do good things in the world besides boxing,” Khan said. “I want young kids to follow my footsteps and do positive things. People around the world know Amir Khan. It is not just Muslim people. I think people follow me because I focus on good things.”
AmirKhanWorld.com has a Beyond Boxing section that showcases the fighter’s life outside of the sport. When he is not in the ring busting heads, Khan helps to build orphanages in developing nations. He volunteers all over the world, aiding victims affected by natural disasters and refugees in poverty.
Khan’s Muslim world is a far cry from the one we see in the action movies and the news stories that place Islam and terrorism hand in hand. He grew up in Bolton, a quiet town in Manchester County, England, with his parents, two sisters and one brother, Haroon “Harry” Khan, who is also a professional boxer. The family built a business around Amir’s success in the ring, including the Amir Khan Academy, a company that established boxing gyms in Bolton and Islamabad, Pakistan, to help kids stay off the streets.
But the general portrayal of terrorists in the media forces Khan to fight a greater battle than any he would face in the boxing ring. He raises awareness about issues that are close to the hearts of many who feel the global effect of terrorism.
“Being a Muslim or going to a mosque does not teach you to be a terrorist. That’s the big misconception,” Khan said. “If these terrorists read the Quran or follow the Quran, they will know that the Muslim people are taught to respect all different religions and respect people in general.”
The violent acts of extremist organizations like the Islamic State inspire Khan to adopt his place as an unofficial religious ambassador for Islam, preaching a message of tolerance and inclusiveness.
“It upsets me because I want people to know that all Muslims are not bad,” Khan said.
Khan believes the media convince the public to ridicule Muslims in America because of the actions of radical Islamic terrorists.
“Those aren’t real Muslims,” Khan said when referring to Islamic terrorists. “I think people need to start thinking for themselves and not listen too much to the media. No religion tells you to go kill people. No religion tells you to hurt people. I can’t believe any religion would teach anyone to harm another person.”
Meanwhile, the Muslim community has had to grapple with the controversial comments from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Telling the country, “Islam hates us,” and his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States created a firestorm of predictable backlash toward the outspoken businessman.
In response to Trump’s remarks, Khan outlined his own view of Muslims in the United States.
“It is upsetting when you hear someone running for president like Donald Trump, coming out with remarks like, ‘Muslims are bad people and they should not be allowed in America.’ We live in a very tough world,” Khan said. “There are people who happen to be Muslim that did harmful things. But what about the good Muslims, like me? We live in America. We work in America. We entertain millions of people around the world. How could Donald Trump turn around and say I shouldn’t be allowed in this country? I bring nations together. Maybe Donald Trump should come to a fight. When he sees how Muslims, Pakistanis, British, Mexican and American people come together, he’ll be amazed.”
The 7th Annual Three Wise Men Toy Giveaway had a holiday feel to it. There was a choreographed dance group and music blaring of Christmas songs, but the religious overtones of the event were beside the point for Khan.
After the music ended, we waited as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf introduced herself to roughly 1,000 people in attendance. Amir glanced at the murmuring crowd with a proud grin on his face and told me, “Community work is important. I like to give back. It’s a good thing.”
Most of the children waiting for toys didn’t recognize him but acted outwardly like he was somebody important. Khan handed out gifts and took pictures to the delight of many, including Oakland PD area commander Nishant Joshi.
“Amir is just a good dude, man,” Joshi said. “I think we gave him one day’s notice for the Toy Giveaway, and he was eager to participate. He makes time for people. That’s what I respect about him.”
Falah Salem, an amateur Muslim fighter who trains with Khan in the Bay Area, echoes this sentiment.
“Amir is a great guy. He’s very easygoing,” Salem said. “We have prayed together. We have gone to mosque together, but it’s really not a big deal around the gym. Our trainer, Virgil Hunter, and another boxer, Andre Ward, are hardcore Christians. We never talk about religion. They believe what they believe, and we believe what we believe.”
A few weeks after the event I asked Khan about what he thought was the hardest part about being a Muslim athlete. The topic of religion is still delicate, but he did not have a problem with a reply.
“There is nothing hard about being a Muslim athlete. I am not a politician. I am an entertainer,” Khan said. “When I step in that boxing ring, I like to show people what type of fighter and champion that I am. I have to back who I am as a person. People love me for my boxing, but I want them to love me for who I am as a person as well. I have a lot of fans from the Christian religion. I think that’s the beauty of sports. Sports bring people together. When I fight, I have a lot of non-Muslim fans as well.”
Being a Muslim fighter with a Pakistani background makes him a target for discrimination, but it also gives him the opportunity to showcase his values that should be universal. Khan’s version of Islam is not about intimidation and terror; it’s about kindness and goodwill.
Anyone looking for peace can respect those morals, and the person preaching them.