Maher Hathout: A Tribute
By Nayyer Ali MD
On January 5 th I attended the burial of my dear friend and mentor Dr Maher Hathout. Dr Maher, as he was known to most us, was one of the founding pillars of the American Muslim community, and played a leading role in the creation of the Islamic Center of Southern California, the flagship mosque of Los Angeles. But he was far more than a builder of mosques. He was an intellectual and moral giant, whose understanding of Islam was so deep and profound that he cast a huge influence on the entire American Muslim community. Having been born Egyptian, Arabic was his mother tongue, and he couldn’t soften his Arab accent much. But that did give him great credibility with the immigrant generation. His knowledge of the Qur'an and of the Islamic traditions and thinkers was expansive. He could match up quite evenly with any sheikh or even Al-Azhar rector.
What made Dr Maher such a visionary though was that he was not constrained by tradition or sectarianism or chauvinism of any sort. He could read the Qur'an and understand its profound message, and convey that message to others. He went beyond that, building institutions such as the ICSC, the New Horizon schools, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, that will continue to carry his wisdom long after he has left the scene.
Dr Maher once summarized Islam as “monotheism and good manners, all the rest is details”. He rejected sectarian views of Islam and was a great promoter of gender equality both in and outside the mosque. He mentored a generation of young men and women to be leaders in the Muslim community and in the country as a whole. He also pioneered the whole concept of a distinct American Muslim identity. His view was that one could be both wholly American and wholly Muslim, the two did not contradict each other. In fact, his view was that the American Constitution did a far better job of incorporating Islamic principles than the legal systems of most Muslim countries. He very astutely pointed out that home is not where our grandparents are buried but where our grandchildren are born. These views are now commonplace among the American Muslim community, but they were quite controversial 30 years ago.
Dr Maher was not one to shy from controversial stands. He always held the view that wearing headscarves for women was a personal choice but not an absolute religious obligation based on the Qur'an. The Sunday school at the ICSC, and the New Horizon schools, do not obligate girls to wear headscarves, a view I agree with completely.
He also was always willing to speak against authority, and never succumbed to the temptation of those who wished to buy his loyalty. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Gulf oil money was washing through the American Muslim community, but he drew a line against ever accepting money from sources outside our community, whether it be the American government or a foreign one. That policy served organizations like MPAC in good stead.
He was also willing to speak against the American government when it was in the wrong. He was a relentless critic of America’s one-sided support of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, and he was completely opposed to the Iraq War. This was not an anti-Jewish stand, he had many friends in the Jewish community and was always willing to work with other religious leaders on issues that we shared. He never allowed his views of Israeli policy to turn him into someone who trafficked in anti-Jewish sentiment.
Dr Maher had great intellectual integrity. He knew that as a Muslim, people are free to speak both for and against Islam. As such, he was an ardent supporter of free speech, and was among a handful of American Muslim leaders who supported Salman Rushdie’s right to write as he wished, when Muslims around the globe were incensed by Rushdie’s satire of the Prophet in The Satanic Verses. Again, when a Danish newspaper printed the cartoons of the Prophet in 2005, he refused to side with those who wished to ban or burn the paper. Which brings us to the tragic events in Paris just two days after Dr Maher’s burial.
The killing of the cartoonists is a sad reminder of how much work the Muslim Ummah still has in front of it. It must come out of this morass of extremism that has swallowed up far too many, and return to the basic message of the Qur'an, namely to uphold peace, justice, and human freedom in this world while we recognize and serve our Lord to whom we will give account on the last day.