Two decades ago I had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Hassan Hathout. A lot is known about him, but my experience with him reveals a picture that might not be familiar. Hassan Hathout was full of what ordinary people may consider contradictory elements. His greatness was exactly that – the reconciliation of aspects of greatness that single individuals usually to not combine.
In the character of Dr. Hathout, reflective calmness merges with relentless activism. He defined his mission in terms of care of minds and souls and embarked on developing a sophisticated public discourse on of Islam that avoids becoming consumed in trivial issues and controversies.
In the United States, Dr. Hathout tried to braid a message to American Muslims with that to non-Muslims. His message to Muslims was simple: live up to the paramount values of Islam and actualize them in your life. He often harshly criticized Muslim behavior that did not correspond to the refined ethics expected from the believers. His message for non-Muslims often focused on the duty to recognize the common ground that Islam has established for the Abrahamic religions, upon which they can meet in dignity.
Dr. Hathout did not simply espouse two messages for two separate peoples. Rather, in America, both of these messages have to meet in one God-centered melting pot. To this end, Dr. Hathout was also disappointed with some non-Muslim religious positions that compromised on the issues of sexual morality, eroding his hope for a morally elevated multi-religious world.
Dr. Hathout’s message to Muslims also contained seeming oppositions. He shared al-Ghazali’s utter rejection of what he labeled as the bedouin fiqh. He was mindful about camouflaging cultural tastes with Islamic requirements. Compassion, kindness, civility, moderation, and consideration were all central Islamic vocabulary for him. Therefore, his thinking stressed highlighting context in approaching Islamic texts.
However, Dr. Hathout did not seek to dilute the unique character of Muslim life. He envisioned second-generation immigrant Muslims living normal life as co-citizens, but he did not invoke the idea of American-Muslim identity. His concerns about the unsatisfactory situation of Muslim communities in the US were matched by holding the concerns of the ummah close to heart.
Throughout his life, Dr. Hathout was generally enthusiastic about politics, as he recognized the extent to which it affects the lives of ordinary people. However, in his last years he increasingly became worried that the glare of fame and leadership would overshadow sincerity and selfless dedication to the cause. To that end Dr. Hathout repeated, in his private meetings, an oft-cited saying: “Should I have the chance again, I would go back to the days of [character building].”
Dr. Hathout was held in esteem among all the stripes of Muslims. The magic of his discourse was in the incorporation of rational, spiritual, and Sharia elements, weaved together in literary mastery and an attitude of humility. Although he was often surrounded by people of stature, he and his family lived a simple and modest life, only wishing to garner the support of those who have means to help. During the invasion of Kuwait, many like himself who had savings there presumed that their savings would be gone. I remember him saying to me: “By Allah I am not concerned about my savings; I am concerned about the poor laborers from Egypt and other countries who would lose their meager money.”
If one Islamic ethic speaks of Dr. Hassan Hathout’s character, it was contended penitence. Through living this ethic he attained prominence. Dr. Hathout was tested in his patience in many years of illness, and he crowned this experience with contentedness and rida, longing to meet Allah. His patience was shared by his wife, Dr. Salonas, who is equally wise and perceptive.
May God bestow His mercy on all of us.
Mazen Hashem is a board member and the director of the American Center of Civilizational and Intercultural Studies and a founding member of Al-Rashad magazine. He holds a PhD from University California Riverside (2002) and an MA from DePaul University (1989).