Burdens of a Generation, Chapter 25, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

This Conference tells the story of memory. In it, memory is constructed and retained. Allah calls us to the remembrance and so why is it that we forget? And why is it that this Conference exists in a perpetual state of oblivion?


This Conference comes alive in my unfettered dreams. Intoxicated by the power of memory, I am liberated in a dream. Yet, I am fully awake, attentive and entirely at peace. Does this Conference emanate from my consciousness or does it flow within me and, hence, shape my consciousness? In those strange bewildered moments, dreams lapse unto reality and just for a few, wonderful seconds I can truly see.


The memories of childhood and adolescence rarely visit my dreams. But when they do, such honored and cherished guests are they. Yesterday, adorned by his dignity he visited me. This beautiful smile that for so long I loved, re-emerged from the midst of book covers, papers, and dust. Delighted by his presence, for a moment the Conference paused in his honor.


In my dream, Dr. Hassan Hathout sat on that same old chair, to the left of the room, in his apartment in Kuwait. I, full of a poetical energy that has now faded away, sat shuffling pages of cryptic verses. When I woke up, I was full of such joy and longing. Back in those days, I would take a deep breath before calling him, back in those days I would count the hours before visiting him, back in those days I was truly alive.


I got out of bed and strolled to my den with a heart weighed with so many memories. At moments of panic, I used to remember his ever so serene smile and it would comfort me. At moments of doubt, his praise was authentic certification of my worth. At moments of vanity, casually mentioning that my family and I were among his guests brought me instant prestige.


I smiled as I remembered the countless, tortuous hours in which I subjected him and his family to my poetry. I would visit accompanied with pages full of words. Out of his kindness, he would listen attentively and praise generously. Now, years later, when I re-read my own poetry I realize how kind and generous he was. His poetry, on the other hand, and use of language, was nothing short of majestic. Whenever he would appear on television, he would insist on speaking classical Arabic. The Arabic teachers in my school would gather to listen to the program and try to catch him committing a grammatical error. They never did catch him. When I left to the United States, my father, saddened by my departure, went to visit him. Dr. Hassan comforted my father by telling him “a good bow throws an arrow far away and never retrieves it.” Through the years of separation and to this very day, this statement calms and comforts my father and inspires me.


In one of my visits I told him that at Yale I pray in the library, and that I put a sign on my back that reads, “Muslim at prayer.” He laughed and laughed. Years later he talked about a friend of his that prays with a sign on his back. He called me a friend! He is such a generous and kind man.


My father would tell me that Hassan Hathout was a companion of Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949), and I would never tire of seeking out the stories. Hassan Hathout would speak of al-Banna with such love and adoration; he would speak of a relationship not guided by politics or law but by a basic sense of human decency. In fact, in every interaction with Hassan Hathout and in every conversation, God and God’s religion were not about technical laws, arguments, or disputations, but about a basic decency and fundamental morality. Hassan Hathout became a living embodiment of an Islam that is ever so tolerant, forgiving, loving, and most of all, humane.


As I thought about the dream and strained to recall the details, I noticed a recent issue of the Minaret lying on my desk. “Fighting Cancer With Faith" was the title of his article. The article was a wonderful statement of faith and gratitude, but as I read his acknowledgment of his wife for forty-six years, I cried. Dr. Hassan always chided me for my inclinations towards the tragic and melancholy, but this was different. Here, there was no tragedy or sadness. I recalled God’s verse: “There are men among the faithful who have been true to their covenant with God. Some of them fulfilled their vows and some still wait and stand firm” (33:23). I felt happy for him and prayed that Allah would give me the strength to follow in his footsteps.


I realized through the years of struggle and endurance how much he has been an inspiration to me and so many others. But I also realized that now the burden is on me and my generation. Can we discharge the covenant and inspire those who follow us? Do we possess a similar fundamental sense of decency and morality? Part of this decency and morality is that we turn to those who taught and inspired us, to those who permitted us the privilege of finding much that is decent in life, and to those who became the symbolic representation of living human beauty, and say thank you. Thank you.