One of the most impactful memories I had of growing up in California was during a Muslim youth retreat in the hills above Malibu over 20 years ago. Over a hundred of my fellow Muslim teenagers waited for Dr. Maher Hathout to introduce a friend with whom he worked closely, and whom he felt had something important to say to us. After a short pause, the guest speaker, playwright and artist Peter Sellars, broke the silence. “I am so jealous of you,” he remarked. “Few generations have the opportunity to define the values and culture of an entire community from scratch.” These were heavy words for youth who were still grappling with the everyday struggles of adolescence, but they were words we needed to hear in order to empower us for the task that lay ahead.
It revealed much about Dr. Hathout’s vision of the role Muslims should play in American society that he would put a non-Muslim speaker – and an openly gay one to boot – in front of the next generation of Muslims because he believed this man had something to contribute to the building of our identities. Over the next several decades, this experiment in community development, cultivated in just one mosque, created generations of visionary leadership whose impact continues to be disproportionately felt throughout the American Muslim landscape.
In order to understand the profound impact that Dr. Hathout has had on the development of American Muslim identity, one must review the history of Muslims in America over the past half-century, and the unique challenges and opportunities that period presented. Though Muslims have been part of the fabric of this nation from the beginning, it wasn’t until after WWII that the beginnings of a cohesive American Muslim identity began to coalesce. As the playwright Sellars alluded, this was a blank canvas upon which anything could be painted. How would this community related to other Americans? To various Muslim-majority countries around the world? What values and cultural trappings would an American Muslim culture be composed of? And most importantly – what unique contributions could we make to America?
Dr. Hathout and the community he nurtured were one of several looking for answers to these questions. Among the competing visions, he put forward some basic principles that could serve as a foundation for American Muslim identity. First, while we should all be proud of our heritage, we were to stand on our own as Americans and not look to overseas sources for guidance or leadership. Second, we should internalize the fact that, as he so often liked to say, “home is not where my grandparents are buried, but where my grandchildren will be raised.” This burn-the-boats mentality freed us to paint our own vision on that campus, and allowed us to underscore American values of respect for diversity, commitment to public service, freedom of conscience with a firm Qur’anic foundation. We weren’t to be Americans in spite of our Islamic identity, but because of it.
To that end, he guided his community in ways that sometimes caused tension with other Muslim communities, but he did it for the best interests of both Muslims and other Americans. He spent an inordinate amount of time with youth in order to drive home basic principles: your religion requires you to be leaders, to be creative thinkers, to embrace the ethnic and intra-religious diversity of our communities, to never leave the less fortunate behind, to respect the God-given equality between men and women, and to never judge another person’s religious state. He never dictated to us, but engaged us in conversation. He asked us, “Why?” and encouraged us to do the same. No question was off-limits or too stupid to ask. Answers were always peppered with humor to ease the learning process. He was a consummate storyteller, and encouraged us to do the same.
Dr. Hathout made the Islamic Center of Southern California a welcoming place to all, regardless of dress code, socio-economic status, or religiosity. His basic premise was that Islam, despite the confusing narratives that sometimes surrounded it, had something special to offer everyone, if only people would seek it out and apply it properly. Out of his vision came institutions that applied this philosophy in different areas: the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has sought to integrate American Muslims into the policymaking arena for the benefit of all Americans; the New Horizon school system, which for 25 years has produced generations of American Muslim leaders; the now-defunct Minaret Magazine, which challenged Muslims in the West and elsewhere to live up to the high standards that God expects of his creation. In addition to these projects, there is an entire ecosystem of projects and endeavors whose DNA can be traced to Dr. Hathout’s guidance – including the American Muslim Civic Leadership Initiative, the Muslim Public Service Network, the UMMA Clinic, and more likely to come.
But most important to Dr. Hathout were simple relationships, particularly with other faith leaders, for he believed that true fraternity was best cultivated not just by tolerating each other, but embracing each other as brothers and sisters. He never believed that faith should be a barrier between people, but a unifying force. He believed in the beauty of religion – any religion – in a world where we see so much ugliness associated with it.
Dr. Hathout certainly was not alone in this vision for Muslims in America – much of his philosophy was shared by the equally impactful Imam Warith Deen Muhammad – but what he did do was to make a clean break with a tumultuous past, and to create a new identity out of disparate ingredients – our American home, our Islamic heritage, our God-given talents, and most of all, a sense of optimism. He believed deeply that despite the narratives about Islam and Muslims, we are a truly blessed community with inherent dignity, and that our institutions and behavior should reflect that.
Now that he is gone, our communities in America, and indeed the West, have a choice. We can isolate ourselves from others in the mistaken belief that it will somehow preserve our identity, or we can confidently engage with the world and show through our actions and behavior that it is better off having Muslims in it than not. He has shown us a model that works – all we have to do now is apply it.