Influential American Muslim leader Dr. Maher Hathout was remembered as an interfaith pioneer, feminist and loving father at a memorial service held Sunday night at the Los Angeles mosque he helped lead for three decades.
"Most people, myself included, seem better than they really are," said his son, Dr. Gasser Hathout to an overflow audience at the Islamic Center of Southern California. "He stands nearly alone, in my mind, as a man who is actually a better human being in private than he was in public."
Hathout died Saturday from liver cancer at the City of Hope hospital in Duarte. He was 79.
More than 1,000 of Hathout's friends and fellow Muslims filled the mosque in Koreatown for the first of several events to be held this week in his memory. A funeral for Hathout will take place today at 2 p.m. at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. A public memorial service is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, according to mosque leaders.
As a long-time spokesman and chairman for the mosque, Hathout collaborated with other faith leaders and urged members, and young people especially, to carve out an American Muslim identity.
He also founded the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national advocacy group that is trying to prevent violent extremism among American Muslims.
Akifa Khan, 27, interned with MPAC, and said Hathout changed her views on Islam.
"I grew up being fearful of God," Khan said. "But when I was talking to Dr. Hathout, it was the first time I was able to see the love and mercy that Islam actually shows."
Khan and others at the mosque said Hathout also worked to elevate the role of women.
"If I had an opinion, I was able to say it and not just be sideswept because (of people saying) 'you’re a girl, you’re not educated,'" Khan said. "He always wanted to listen to everybody."
Hathout founded what is believed to be the first-ever co-ed Muslim youth organization.
The Egyptian-born cardiologist developed a reputation as a moderate Muslim voice. But some Jewish groups have criticized him for speaking out harshly against Israel, calling it a "theocracy" and "apartheid state."
In 2006, some Jewish leaders fought Hathout's nomination for a humanitarian award from the LA County Human Relations Commission.
Ruth Broyde Sharon, a Jewish interfaith leader attending Hathout's memorial, said that critics didn’t understand the breadth of his work.
"We can see from what Dr. Hathout has done and who he has befriended and what he has said to his own Muslim community about confronting the violence demonstrated in Islam and saying, ‘This is a scourge we have to take out because this is not Islam," Sharon said.
Despite the controversy, Hathout ended up winning the John Allen Buggs award from the county commission, after some members abstained or didn't show up for the vote.
Scores of people stood in line Sunday to offer condolences to Hathout's family. They included interfaith leaders Revs. Ed Bacon of All Saints Church in Pasadena and Louis Chase of Magnolia Park United Methodist Church.
Aside from his work with other religious leaders, Hathout tried to strengthen bonds among American Muslims. Siddiq Saafir, a former imam at the Masjid Ibaadillah of South LA, said Hathout was the first local Muslim leader to reach out to LA's growing African-American Islamic community during the 1980s.
"He really embraced us like no Muslim has ever embraced us," Saafir said. "He had no racism. He accepted you for who you were and he respected all humanity."