An American Muslim 

Maher Hathout and his philosophy of radical openness

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007

It’s a scorching hot Friday, around noon, as congregants in their brightest pure-before-God colors approach the Islamic Center of Southern California for the lunchtime khutbah, or sermon. An impossibly tall, sleek-necked Somalian woman wearing a brilliant powder-yellow veil and matching skintight pants struts down this Koreatown stretch of Vermont like it’s her catwalk, unaware of the curious eyes that follow in her wake. From the opposite direction, two South Asian men with thick copper beards dramatically open a white umbrella to protect their vulnerable scalps from the heat. In their bleached-white thobes (the versatile male gowns that can be worn during the day for conducting business or at night for sleeping) they create a blinding light reflected in the windows of a nearby Sizzler. I can’t see through the dark, tinted glass to check for any raised eyebrows or hesitant pauses at the salad bar among the restaurant customers witnessing this Muslim procession. In any case, none of these traditionally dressed Muslims seems worried about onlookers; none has toned down the display of religious symbols — veils, skullcaps, flowing robes, prayer beads.

In Europe, where the burgeoning fear of Muslim invasion and the specter of “Eurabia” have increased anti-immigrant sentiment, these symbols have been called “intimidating,” a “public imposition of faith.” Even in Culver City, at King Fahad Mosque — a lavish gift from Saudi Arabia — the home immediately adjacent is decked out all over in patriotic and sometimes belligerent American bumper stickers, as though the mosque had provoked the reaction. Here on Vermont, however, there’s no overt tension and only a few security guards. A couple of African-American locals say hello to the Muslims as if they’ve watched this scene unfold a hundred times before.

The Islamic Center itself is less flamboyant than its congregants. Much more modest than the King Fahad Mosque, the center feels more local and more American, with its ’70s beige-and-brown station-wagon interior. Obviously a converted space, the mosque is situated with the pulpit in the corner; concentric rings in the yellow carpet around it allow the faithful to orient themselves toward Mecca. (New mosques are ordinarily constructed so that their main axis aligns more naturally with the direction of Mecca.)

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Still, this cool, soft abode offers a respite from the urban harshness outside. Many sit idly gazing into space, a few nap on the inviting surfaces and others shake hands, chat or greet each other with an energetic “Keyf halek?” (“How is your health?”) When the praying begins, we will stand side by side and connect our pinkie toes until we form an uninterrupted chain of bare feet facing the pulpit, filling in every space along the arc-grooves of the carpet.

Normally, it feels like punishment to stare into a corner, but there is some pride here in the moral worth of an austere house of worship. The congregants seem like pilgrims who've come to establish a house of God and reinvigorate a building that has fallen out of use, in the best pioneering spirit of the American West. The embodiment of this pioneering spirit for Muslims in the U.S. is the spokesperson and former chairman of the Islamic Center, Dr. Maher Hathout, an Egyptian-born former cardiologist who has risen as one of the messengers for an American Islamic identity that engages modernity and sees friends rather than foes in the great intellectual innovations and progressive theories of our time.

“I believe that a real Muslim ought to be progressive,” insists Hathout, who has become an American citizen. “Anyone who doesn’t adapt and cope with the dynamics and changes in life is actually rendering the religion archaic and irrelevant. If this is what is meant by ‘progressive,’ then certainly I am.”

In an era when Muslims are increasingly feared as a monolithic, impenetrable community of believers, dangerously insular and rigid in their doctrine, Hathout and the members of his mosque are carving out a new form of American Islam, founded in line with the progressive political philosophies that created the United States and headed by an immigrant who wants to distance himself from certain negative memories of the East. His ideas put him at odds with Islam’s most conservative voices; at the same time, he has acquired a small but vocal group of non-Muslim critics who are quick to lump him in with the same America-hating strain of Islam that he is working so hard to change. But to dismiss Hathout and the Islamic Center is to miss an important part of the evolving story of Muslims in America.

Even Islamic traditions as seemingly ingrained as the segregation of the sexes during worship — a nagging bone of contention in the liberal societies in which many diaspora Muslims have made their homes — are being adapted to the modern world. Some mosques have completely separate male and female quarters, including separate entrances for “brothers” and “sisters.” Others separate men and women in parallel aisles, and some have a single space with men in front and women in back. In a few mosques, the female space offers more visibility of the imam giving the khutbah, but usually the reverse is true. Here at the Islamic Center, all congregants enter through the same door and talk freely in the hallways. Most of the women don’t bother to wear a head scarf until they walk into the actual prayer area. Still, in the main hall, the men pray in front and the women in the back, separated by chairs for the elderly, who cannot bend and prostrate.

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