Over the weekend a pioneering American Muslim leader, Dr. Maher Hathout, passed away. It definitely starts the New Year off to a somber start, but as per Dr. Hathout’s style, even his death was a way to learn life lessons because with the start of the New Year, we are faced with our own mortality and of carrying on a legacy.
I’m at a place in my life where my faith is rooted in a strong streak of independent leaning, people and movements don’t grab my attention. But, there are a handful of people, and movements, I can point out, that I appreciate. Since I heard of his passing, I haven’t been able to stop myself from thinking back to the many interactions I had with Dr. Hathout while working at CAIR Los Angeles.
I think in reflecting back on my relationship with Dr. Hathout, I realized he impacted me in a much more meaningful way then I had imagined. I narrowed it down to three life lessons I learned from my six years of interaction with Dr. Hathout.
1. Always find a way to teach.
The image that best captures my interaction over the years with Dr. Hathout was the one from the Shura Council of Southern California’s Ramadan Interfaith Iftar dinner in 2010. It was my last interaction with him, and I am happy that the moment was caught with him leaning over whispering, and me unable to keep in the moment, grinning cheek to cheek.
That was the thing with Dr. Hathout, he was always using all moments to teach, and teaching was always interwoven with a witty joke. But he wasn’t just a teacher, he was a passionate life long learner too.
2. Engaging, always engaging.
I believe that his desire to engage grew out of his insatiable curiosity. All great teachers are learners, and learning is propelled by curiosity. Dr. Hathout’s desire to learn was rooted in a desire to know about the “other” which in turn was probably propelled from his professional role as a physician. He was squarely placed at the center of human psychology and social interactions, and the Quranic injunction to “know one another” kept him engaged.
Here, on this issue of engagement, Dr. Hathout and I would disagree to an extent, but I am not one to loose sight of the lesson he was trying to teach. He believed that in engagement and getting to know others, there was good, it was this quality that marked him as a man of optimistic faith, and which I greatly admire.
My first direct interaction with Dr. Hathout was when he was awarded by the LA Human Relations. I had an invested interest in him getting this award. As a green professionally paid community activist, this was my big thing. I was getting a chance to pursue my desire of protecting the community by protecting him. When he got the award, it was an accomplishment for me, because I was part of the effort to defend him. But in all that hoopla I saw the power of relationships play, and in particular people from other Faiths. This was a seed that deposited itself in me, and over six years germinated.
Later on, I sat on the other side of the table, frustrated with him when he defended MPAC’s involvement with LAPD’s Muslim mapping program. Even when I didnt agree with him, he would always come back to discuss, and then never failed to leave the conversation on a note of leaving the door open for more conversation. He wouldnt agree, but he would always keep engaging.
Over the years I have nurtured that interfaith seed, and pursued it. Eventually this seed blossomed into my experiences with NewGround: Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change and as a Inter-religious Council of Southern California’s Future50 Fellow, both of which he directly was part of bringing to life. Its where I came into contact with a deeper driving force inside me, one that went unrecognized for a while, but one that has helped me reconcile my faith with my politics, and an even more important task of cultivating a diverse faith based community around me.
3. The Most Important Lesson of Them All
This third one is important, and without the first two, I don’t ever think I would have come to appreciate this one lesson and the significance it has had on me. Like I mentioned, I found myself strongly disagreeing with him and his politics, and not just on one occasion.
But Dr. Hathout, he encouraged dissent, and he treated me equally by engaging me. In that process, he also showed the way that Muslims carried out their disagreement. This spoke to his spirit, his understanding of the deen, and also his own confidence in his leadership style.
He was a role model for what he preached, and this lesson alone was incredibly great in how I would move forward as I sought out independent, progressive stances. He gave to me a lesson in leadership, for which I am greatly thankful for.
Father of American Muslim Identity?
Dr. Hathout, was a longtime leader of the Islamic Center of Southern California and founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). People knew of him, even if they didn’t know him directly. I didn’t grow up with Dr. Hathout as my teacher or as a community figure. In fact, my direct relationship with Dr. Hathout started in earnest when I took a job as a Civil Rights Department Coordinator at the CAIR-Los Angeles office in 2006 (a sister organization with a slightly different mission that often overlapped or complimented MPAC’s).
I, like so many others who have poured out their souls on social media, was shaped by his thoughts and received direction.“Dr. Hathout inspired generations of American Muslims to serve their nation through positive civic engagement and interfaith outreach,” said CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush (my former boss). “His leadership and intellectual contributions to the American Muslim community will be missed.”
In a way, its not far fetched to say that he was indeed the “Father of American Muslim identity” because so many of the young folks I look at today (including myself), were in fact, shaped by the Islam he role-modeled and the ideas he championed.