A Ramadan of Remembrance – Memories of Dr. Maher Hathout

A Ramadan of Remembrance – Memories of Dr. Maher Hathout June 30, 2015
Dr. Maher Hathout
Dr. Maher Hathout

This is Day 13 of Altmuslim’s #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.

By Ahmed Younis

For my community, this is a difficult Ramadan. It is our first without Dr. Maher Hathout.

The Man

Maher Hathout was our father, our brother, our leader and to many of us, our best friend. For more than 45 years he was a constant, booming force of positivity in Southern California. He was, by far, the fastest trigger on a joke in the West and likely across the nation. Rarely did he preach or teach; so often he was just being, and sharing in his being was like sitting at the bottom of a waterfall.

Maher never leaned on the emotive evocations of pietistic affectations. It was never about the show for him. He never fell into the trap of pietism (so far from piety), never joined the halls of men with robes and ambition with their righteous indignation of the other. Maher was seen as something different. He was invested in that other; her justice, her equality, her place in the larger puzzle of life.

He could not be bought and never sought benefit for his service. Among his peers, Maher was among the untouchables. A healer by work and agitator by choice, Maher did not find comfort in superiority but only in the fight for the untested feasibility of a more just potentiality. He never confused passion with arrogance. Never mixed the sacred breath of the spirit with the mendacity of competition with others.

He was centered, never flailing. Always upright, never bending. When he saw someone he loved, he would throw his hand far back and land with a slap on the hand of the beloved. His smile was contagious and his laughter unmistakable.

The Ideas

Maher Hathout’s groundbreaking contributions to the development of Muslim life in America, particularly in the crystallization of the American Muslim identity, cannot be understated. He was a man of ideology, but never static — always exhibiting the dynamism of authenticity.

He believed that generating ideas and then changing one’s mind was preferable to not thinking — in fear of being wrong. He taught that ideas gather like-minded people toward goals of social change. As they coalesce, they become revolutionaries, dedicated to a collective change, both within their own hearts and upon the world.

Among the ideas that gathered him (as leader) with other American Muslims into a social movement were:

  • Complete equality (in theory and practice) between the genders.
  • The centrality of individual freedom as a hallmark of the Islamic message.
  • Complete consistency between Islam’s current practice and Jus Cogens norms and current Treaties of International Human Rights law.
  • Marshaling the centrality of non-Arab contributions to Islam’s history and present and strict adherence to a respect for culturally responsive difference, Maher always amplified diversity and opposed the flattening of social constructions of the Islamic.
  • Unyielding commitment to progress and progressive readings of the world and the word, he saw Islam as a Liberation Theology, Philosophy, and Praxis.
  • The centrality of critical thinking as a means to attain knowledge of and proximity to the Divine, refusing to call himself sheikh, Imam or acquire anything that would create division of classes among humans. His commitment was always to enhancing individual literacy.
  • An elevation of reason over dogma through a clear understanding of the distinction between means and ends.
  • A complete rejection of sectarianism, especially in the Sunni-Shia context.
  • Interfaith engagement sourced in deep and personal love as a critical component of spiritual and communal development, and finally,
  • A commitment to the oppressed over the oppressor in any context, familiar or foreign.

Underpinning it all was one core idea: Maher believed that the purpose of religion is liberation not compulsion and oppression. In one of my final conversations with him, we confirmed to each other that individual freedom is the core of the Islamic experience.

Complete freedom is something very different from wanton nihilistic individualism. It is a maturing, organic, knowing mindfulness that allows for one to be truly tested by the Lord to show appreciation for His unlimited bounty of mercy and grace. The more free people are, the more they will lean toward justice.

Paulo Freire taught that “No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from doing so.” To be authentically human, one must embrace one’s unfinishedness. In Pedagogy of Freedom, Freire reminds us, “Education does not make us educable. It is our awareness of being unfinished that makes us educable.”

Ramadan is about our unfinished nature and the task God places before us as we attempt to attain beauty and mercy. It takes us beyond the domesticating suffocation of tribalism and ritualism. Ramadan is not blessed because it is ours.

It is not ours.

Ramadan belongs to God. It takes us beyond Islam as culture to the place of nexus between our belief, our worship and our action. It liberates us in order that we become vibrant, capable people. If energy follows attention, then Ramadan is about putting our energy in what matters — advancing the human predicament.

Maher was so aware of how unfinished we all are in the eyes of God and acted with a corresponding kindness and gentleness with those in his orbit.

The Movement

Today, as I gaze upon arenas of positive action, I see students of Dr. Maher Hathout excelling. In government, private business, interfaith engagement and advocacy, in the grassroots of communities – Maher’s students are excelling at the task that they were charged with by their teacher: To be a positive, vibrant, contributing force in America’s plurality.

To be a small light in a dark room, that does not fret nor tries to dominate; it simply shines. And in that shining, there is worship — a selfless submitting to the will of the most high through relentless praxis. His students are fulfilling their promise to him, “to continue the work that we started together.”

This Ramadan, we recommit to the principles that gathered us with Dr. Hathout. He believed in us, and we believed in him, because we all believed in God. May God bless Maher Hathout and may God bless his community, students and family this Ramadan.

Ahmed Younis is an Adjunct Assistant Professor, PhD student, and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice at The Paulo Freire Democratic Project in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University. A Juris Doctor graduate of Washington & Lee School of Law, Younis served as National Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council from 2004-2007.

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