In interfaith work, we look to inspiring people, past and present, who exemplify how someone can be motivated by their beliefs to cooperate across difference.

Journalist and author Jonathan Eig writes biographies of some of the most influential interfaith leaders, including Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr.

In our recent conversation on the “Interfaith America” podcast, we discussed how Eig, who is Jewish, sees the great influence of King’s Christian faith and Ali’s Muslim faith in each of their lives and work.

Their biographies illuminate how our own faith and beliefs can inspire us, allowing us to dig deeper into impactful work and to consider what people of diverse faiths can accomplish together.

An excerpt of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Eboo Patel: What is it like to be Jewish writing about these massive Christian and Muslim figures?

Jonathan Eig: Yes, my friends and family want to know why I haven’t written about any Jews, and maybe it’s because I’m not as interested in the stuff I already know.

I think being Jewish and being raised somewhat religious — but becoming more religious as I get older — makes me appreciate the spirituality of all religions, and I’m drawn to people of faith. Muhammad Ali’s faith was really what made him Muhammad Ali and not just a boxer. The reason he deserved a big biography was because of his faith, not because of his boxing.

Christianity is absolutely the core ingredient in why Martin Luther King Jr. is Martin Luther King Jr. Without Christianity, without this deep faith that he’s got in God, there’s no way he does any of the things he does. So, I just think it’s essential to who I am, and it’s essential to who these characters are. I’m not as interested in writing about people who are in it for money or power. I’m interested in people who are trying to live their lives in a spiritual way.

EP: Were you aware of the centrality of Ali’s faith and King’s faith before beginning the projects? Was that part of the attraction for writing about them even before the deep dive?

JE: I was vaguely aware. I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how important. Part of why I love my work is that I get to dive in, explore and figure out what really made these guys go. Dick Gregory, when I interviewed him, said to me ... if you’re going to try to write a book about Muhammad Ali, you need to understand what made him think that he could be great. What made a Black boy growing up the same age as Emmett Till think that he could speak back to white power and live and that kind of challenge? What made Martin Luther King think that he could lead a movement to change American society, to try to rid it of its greatest sin? What gave him the chutzpah, as my people would say, and it goes back to faith for both of them. I think that is a big part of why I find them endlessly fascinating.

The faith that stares through death
How personal faith anchored Martin Luther King Jr.’s public life

EP: A friend of mine, as I was starting “Interfaith America,” pointed out that in high school, we learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we don’t learn about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That began my process of searching for the interfaith King.

Are there one or two details that you discovered through your research about King’s faith that moved you, even though they were not the kind of thing you would’ve learned about in high school or college?

JE: Without a doubt, and I agree with you completely that we’re not as comfortable talking about his Christianity. We’re not as comfortable talking about his radical Christianity in particular. We’ve softened him to the point that he wouldn’t recognize himself in this vision that we’ve created, “I Have a Dream.” So much of what he did was driven by his faith, and when he had doubts, he turned to that every time.

The earliest example is when his house was bombed, and he was just starting out really leading the Montgomery bus boycott. He didn’t have to keep going. He didn’t have to be the leader. He could have stepped back at that point, just for the safety of his family. His father, who was a very religious man, also the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., came to Montgomery and said, “You got to stop. You don’t have to be the leader, you can lead your church, you can be involved, but you’re putting yourself in danger and you’re risking your family’s life.” 

King said he really wrestled with it, and he was walking around the house in the middle of the night, his wife and baby were sleeping, and he sat down at the table and heard the voice of God telling him, “Go on. This is what you’re called to do.”

I found it in some archives, another example where he said, yet again, a second time, he heard the voice of God speak to him. As his career goes along, over and over, there are moments where he could pull back, where his life is in danger, where he is being criticized, where he feels like he is not really getting through to people anymore, but he can’t turn back because he believes in God and he believes that this is what the Bible tells him to do.

EP: It’s remarkable, and one of the threads in your book, which I think is so powerful, is, not only are there, like, the obvious forces against him — the explicit forces of white supremacy in the form of police dogs and fire hoses and truncheons — but J. Edgar Hoover knows that he can’t engage him in a more overt way, so he is basically engaging in this blackmail campaign and King perseveres. As you demonstrate, there’s so much of that that is about his Christian faith.

You’re a Jewish guy writing about Ali and now the Rev. King, and Jews play a hugely important role in shaping who King is. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, they meet right here in Chicago, 1963. As you’re researching and writing this book, how is your Jewish faith changing as you are learning about the Rev. King’s Christian faith and his openness to influences from other faiths?

View Comments

JE: There’s a lot there in that question. It was interesting because I was speaking at a bookstore in Pennsylvania and somebody asked the question, why isn’t there more Judaism in this book? Why don’t I pay more attention to the rabbis who influenced the Rev. King? Why isn’t there more on Heschel in this book? I was stopped by that question. I wondered if maybe I subconsciously downplayed the contributions because I didn’t want to be accused of favoring the Jews or giving them more credit than they deserved in the Civil Rights Movement.

They certainly deserved a lot of credit, and King had many great close friends and advisers in the Jewish community, but here was somebody saying that I had perhaps underplayed the contribution of Jews. Again, I think of myself as a journalist, and my job here is to be fair, is to be anonymous. I don’t want anybody to read this and go, well, obviously there’s this Jewish influence coming through again, but my influence as a believer in God is all over the book and my faith — I do a weekly podcast with my rabbi, and I’ve been doing it for three or four years now, every week we get on the phone and talk about this week’s Torah portion. In my notebooks in which I’m interviewing the Rev. King’s friends, you’ll see every week in those notebooks the page where I’m taking notes on my conversation with the rabbi.

These things are going through my head and through my life at the same time. I’m literally studying with my rabbi, and I’m studying with the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. Bernard Lafayette. I’m calling and speaking to them and asking them questions about the Rev. King and his faith as I’m exploring my own Jewish faith. I see them as being woven, just as they’re woven through my notebooks.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” The full episode of this podcast is available on Interfaith AmericaSpotify and Apple.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.