Merlene Davis: Remembering the impact of Mohamed Nasser

Mohamed Nasser
Mohamed Nasser Photo submitted

Mohamed Nasser of Nicholasville, co-founder of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue group, died Friday morning from complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was buried Friday afternoon in keeping with Islamic beliefs.

Though the burial was swift, nothing about the man will be forgotten at the same speed.

"He was one of the most welcoming, one of the most gracious men that I have ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with," said Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel on Ashland Avenue. "There was never a time when he didn't greet me with kisses on both cheeks and never a time when we didn't exchange blessings for each of our families. He and I shared the soulful vision of one God who loved everybody."

I interviewed Nasser, who was 72, in August 2011 about a feature film the dialogue group was sponsoring as part of its monthly meetings. His need to bring folks together despite or because of their differences was evident in his words and the tone of his voice. The inter-religious dialogue group was one of several he had tried to form in Lexington over the years.

He "was most essentially a person driven by an urgent sense of responsibility to improve the plight of humanity, without regard for the resources at his disposal for the undertaking," said Shaheid Rasheed, an imam at Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah on Russell Cave Road. "For Mohamed, every human being has been entrusted to be a caretaker of God's creation. And he took that trust very seriously.

"His efforts to establish interfaith dialogue were as much an attempt to engage human hearts as it was to engage human brains," Rasheed added.

Nasser was born in Zanzibar, which was then an independent island, but is now a part of Tanzania. He was the third generation of a family from India to be born there, said his widow, Munira Nasser.

He studied engineering in England, landed a job with General Electric in 1969 and moved to Lynchburg, Va. While there, he earned his master's degree with the intention of returning to Africa to teach, she said. Instead, he was hired by IBM and came to Lexington.

Theirs was a semi-arranged marriage, said Munira Nasser, who was also born in Zanzibar but living in Pakistan by then. She took her vows in Pakistan and he spoke his in Lexington.

"He missed his own wedding," she said. "He had just started work with IBM and didn't have enough days to come over."

When she arrived in Lexington, they had a civil ceremony conducted by then Fayette County Judge Robert F. Stephens. The couple has two daughters, Nawaal and Samiha, who are both medical doctors.

"He was very curious," Munira said, "and that curiosity got him in trouble sometimes. He reached out to everyone. Nothing stopped him, not religion, not race. He believed there are good human beings on this Earth."

Over the last 10 years, Nasser believed he was in the wrong profession, she said. He thought he should have been a philosopher or professor.

Sue Bonner, who has known the family for nearly 40 years and is the godmother to both daughters, called Nasser a sage who was inspirational.

"He always acknowledged your point of view, even when disagreeing with you eloquently in any discussion," she said. His kindness and brilliance were paramount, she said.

Carolyn Holmes, chairwoman of the dialogue group's steering committee, said that was the genius of Nasser.

"It was more than an intellectual issue; it was emotional," she said. "He felt so strongly that in religious differences like cultural differences there is no right or wrong."

Rasheed said Nasser wanted people to understand there are moral issues imbedded in political conflicts that we are neglecting or overlooking.

"So his last instruction to us, after much reading and searching, was simply, 'We have to learn to think more with our hearts instead of our brains.' "

If we do that, if we will follow his example, Nasser will never be forgotten.

"This world doesn't have enough kind souls," Kline said, "and we just lost one of them."

Because of that, I just didn't want you to miss his passing.