Dr.Fathi Osman: A Revolutionary Thinker
Updated: Sep 2
A prominent Muslim thinker born in Egypt in 1928 was buried in Southern California on September 11, 2010, leaving a void that is impossible to fill by his contemporaries. Dr. Fathi Osman bid farewell to our mortal world around Fajr time in his home in Montrose, California, on Saturday, September 11. The author of more than 50 books in Arabic and English left behind his wife and daughter, a vast Islamic library and an unprecedented legacy that will long be remembered by those who came in contact with him.
He was my mentor, guide, teacher, and almost like a father. I sat at his feet for nearly 30 years to learn the Quran, history, hadith, contemporary Islamic thoughts, intellectual trends, and etiquette to acquire and respect knowledge. I cannot recall a single day when he was not in my prayers. What an irony that I could not make to his funeral even though I drove from Las Vegas to Los Angeles as soon as I heard the news from Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi.
When Dr. Siddiqi called me, it was 11:30 in the morning. I was heading to the Federal Court House building to participate in a Peace Rally that Muslims of the state had organized in collaboration with interfaith leaders. I had the choice to leave instantly to attend the funeral at 3 PM or to do what would have pleased my teacher. I decided to follow the teacher in standing for peace and human dignity. I announced the information to those attending the peace rally and offered the funeral prayers with interfaith leaders.
I met Dr. Fathi Osman in 1981 when I moved to London from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to join the newly launched Arabia, the Islamic World Review, a monthly English language magazine dedicated to Islamic issues. He was the chief editor, and I was just a junior journalist. It was the first international Islamic magazine with its correspondents and writers from all over the world, including Hussain Haqqani, the former ambassador of Pakistan in Washington, Alija Izetbegovic, the deceased President of independent Bosnia, Dr. Muhammad Asad, the translator of the Quran, late Dr. Mumtaz Ahmed, once the head of International Iqbal institute of Learning and Dialogue in Islamabad and Anwar Ibrahim, the one-time deputy prime minister of Malaysia. Arabia had a circulation in almost 120 countries of the world. It is perhaps the only Muslim magazine that got banned in at least 38 Muslim countries for speaking the truth.
In the next 30 years, we would cross our paths several times even though Arabia was closed down in 1987. He invited me to join the Minaret magazine in Los Angeles in 1989, and in 2008 we both spent some six months in Pakistan on different occasions working on a project that focused on emerging Islamic thoughts in the world. We traveled together in England, Scotland and Wales, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia during these years. During these years, I worked with him on several of his books.
I still cherish the copies of his autographed books, including the Concepts of the Quran, a unique book in Quranic literature that classifies different verses of the Quran by topic.
Dr. Fathi Osman was a pioneer Muslim thinker in many branches of Islamic thoughts. His last days' primary focus was to highlight the distinction between the permanent and temporary in the divine message. He passionately elaborated and explained the Quranic concepts of human dignity, peace, pluralism, democracy, freedom of expression, gender equality, interfaith cooperation, and social change in an authentic manner collaborated with the Quran and sunnah of the Prophet. He is a modernist with a deep respect for traditionalism and a traditionalist with forward-looking, progressive thinking.
He is the first Muslim thinker who advocated a jurisprudence dedicated to Muslim minorities in the last three centuries. He believed that Muslims have lagged in making full use of modern social sciences methodology, which created an intellectual gap between Islamic ideas and ideals and current concepts such as democracy, pluralism, and human dignity.
Dr. Osman was a hafiz (one who memorizes the Quran) and well versed in the hadith literature, Islamic history, Islamic law, and Muslim intellectual trends. He taught in universities in different parts of the world, including Algeria, Morroco, England, the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. His students include journalists, professors, social activists, politicians, and rulers. For the last 15 years, he worked with the Omar bin Khattab Academy in Los Angeles, and before that, he was with the Islamic Center of Southern California. In his early academic career, he was an assistant editor of a magazine edited by Syed Qutb, a prominent commentator of the Quran.
Dr. Osman was a pious man who never missed a single prayer, even in his days of serious illness. He was always ready to share his knowledge regardless of his health conditions. While in India in 1983, Osman would address three or four meetings a day to people ranging from young college students to Islamic movement workers in places far off from big cities. He spent some two weeks on the Indian side of Kashmir during that visit and never objected to traveling to small villages even if he had to walk for miles.
He was always cheerful, always optimistic, and patient in all kinds of adversities. In the thirty years I spent with him, I never found him talking ill about anyone, including even those who hurt him. I remember an incident where what was owed to him by someone was not given. It was a large amount of money that was due to him. Yet he never said a single word about the person who had deceived him. His character was exemplary. I never found him angry or upset.
But he was concerned about the quality of Muslim leadership. He thought that a leader ought to be a sincere and honest thinker besides being an activist. Leadership, he would always say, demands certain specific characteristics with knowledge and sincerity at the top. By learning, he did not mean only the religious, but modern social and scientific as well.
He was always careful not to listen to those who would criticize others. I distinctly remember that he never encouraged me to say a negative word against others, even those he knew were hurting him. Instead, he would always advise me to remember that ultimate justice would come on the day of judgment. Therefore, he advised me to respect my adversaries and be kind to those who hurt me.
Seek the guidance of Allah with patience and prayer was his motto. His simplicity, sincerity, and commitment to Islam resembled that of many companions of the Prophet. I never found him saying anything that resembled expediency or diplomacy. He was a straightforward man. He would always speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. He was still respectful to others, even to those officers who would detain him at the airport for hours and question him for his ideas.
He led a simple life. In a small apartment, he lived the last 20 years of his experience. Even at the age of 82, he would spend hours studying new books and thesis. Perhaps there is not a social science subject that is not present in his library. In his house, you would only find books and magazines, and manuscripts. The furniture that he bought in 1990 is still there, and the chair that he would always sit to study is still there but empty. His wife Aida Osman, an educationist by profession, and daughter Ghada Osman, a scholar of early Arabic literature, were involved in all his intellectual endeavors. Ghada has completed a book on the life and accomplishment of his father.
It is a harsh reality of our culture that unless a scholar belongs to a particular school of thought or a specific political or ideological group, they are not recognized and acknowledged for their intellectual work in his lifetime. Partisan prejudices have become so rampant in our work style that independent scholarship has no merit regardless of its value. People usually promote "their" scholars, "their" writers, and "their" leaders as if Islam is a business enterprise. Even though Dr. Osman's work on contemporary Islamic issues is a masterpiece, most Muslim intellectuals in America have not yet heard of it.
For instance, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the world-famous translator of the Quran in English, died and was buried as anonymous in London. He lived in London amidst Muslims for several years as almost a stranger. Finally, he was recognized by a priest in a London hospital who informed the Pakistan high commissioner of the plight of this noble scholar of Islam. However, two generations later, he became the most widely read translator of the Quran. Dr. Hameedullah Siddigi left the world quietly, and now the Muslim community has begun to recognize his scholarship.
What Dr. Osman taught and wrote would also one day be recognized by the generations to come, and then those of his age or our generation would say, how come we failed to see his scholarship in our time.
Dr. Osman is a scholar whose work would benefit those who are working on reconstructing Islamic thoughts in the word of Muhammad Iqbal. Through his writings, Dr. Fathi Osman has undoubtedly ignited the spark necessary for the renaissance of Muslims. He would live in the social changes that Muslims would go through this century, not only in America but worldwide. May Allah rest his soul in peace and inspire us to respect the legacy he has left behind.