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Fathi Osman dies at 82; voice for modernism in Islam

Osman wrote 'Concepts of the Quran,' an English commentary that organizes the text by topic and includes his interpretations of the Koran's major teachings.

September 15, 2010|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Fathi Osman founded the Los Angeles-based Institute for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.
Fathi Osman founded the Los Angeles-based Institute for the Study of Islam… (Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation )

Fathi Osman, an Egyptian American expert on Islam who was a forceful voice for modernism in the Muslim faith, died Saturday at his home in Montrose. He was 82.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Ghada Osman, a professor of Arabic studies at San Diego State University.

Osman wrote more than 25 books in Arabic and English, including "Concepts of the Quran" (1996), a unique English-language commentary on the Koran that presents the challengingly subtle and discursive text in a format organized by topic.

Published with the help of the Islamic Center of Southern California, it includes Osman's interpretations of the Koran's major teachings, such as its controversial — and, in Osman's view, widely misunderstood — pronouncements on the role of women.

Osman, who was educated at Cairo University and Princeton University, "believed Islam is a dynamic and flexible religion able to engage modernity and the issues of human rights and women's issues," Dafer M. Dakhil, co-founding director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at USC, said in an interview Monday.

He called Osman's book on the Koran a milestone in Islamic scholarship that has made the central text of the Muslim religion more accessible to English speakers.

With moderate views on issues such as human rights, religious pluralism and gender rights, Osman was "a major pioneer in Islamic reform in the 20th century, who had an impact in Muslim countries from Egypt to Malaysia and in Europe and America," said professor John L. Esposito, who teaches religion at Georgetown University and directs its Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Osman's nearly 1,000-page work on the Koran sought to make it more accessible to Westerners. Considered the word of God as revealed by Allah to the prophet Muhammad, the Koran is made up of 114 chapters, called suras, which skip from topic to topic with no narrative or chronological order. Adding to its difficulty is the alternation between first and third person and the highly poetic language, which baffles even native Arabic speakers.

In "Concepts of the Quran," Osman presents the Koran according to broad topic areas, including divine law, human rights, economic justice, the family, worship and angels. His commentary sought to counter misconceptions about Islam, such as the popular belief that the Koran advocates the superiority of men.

"There's a sura that speaks of the men being in charge of women," he told the Washington Post in 1998. "Critics often seize upon that. But if read in the context of the full Koran, it becomes clear that what is meant is not in the sense of superiority, but rather in the sense of responsibility.... Men have a greater responsibility to women than women to men because a woman with children or who is pregnant cannot earn a living as easily as can a man."

Osman was born March 17, 1928, in Minya, Egypt. He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Cairo University in 1948, a law degree from Alexandria University in 1960, a master's in history from Cairo University in 1962, and a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton in 1976.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a resident scholar at the Islamic Center of Southern California. He also founded the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the Los Angeles-based Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation and was a senior scholar at USC's Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

In addition to his daughter, Osman is survived by his wife, Aida Abdel-Rahman Osman, a retired educator.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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