From the years when a small circle of Muslim emigres gathered in rented storefronts to times of mosque expansions and interfaith advocacy over the last decades, Al-Haaj Ghazi Y. Khankan was a champion for Islam and its followers on Long Island.
A trailblazer who helped to establish many of the region's Muslim institutions, Khankan died Thursday, a few days after suffering a stroke. The Long Beach resident was 77.
Although he was at times criticized for his advocacy, those who were close to him described him as a man of peace.
"When the history of Muslims is written on Long Island, we will remember him as one of the pioneers," said Faroque A. Khan, board member at the Westbury center. "He was a stalwart who put Muslims on the agenda and took some heat for that."
A native of Syria, Khankan came to the U.S. in 1954 at 19. He embraced advocacy in the region, becoming involved in founding groups in New York City and on Long Island.
He was also involved in interfaith outreach.
The Rev. Bob Splittgerber, of St. John's Lutheran Church by the Sea in Long Beach, remembered praying with him. "He had a passion for Allah, for Islam, for his fellow brothers and sisters and also for bringing understanding of his faith to others," Splittgerber said.
Khankan had been criticized for questioning Islamic involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but he responded by professing his love for the U.S.
"I am so American I was even born on the Fourth of July," he said. "I have six grandchildren and two children and they are proud to be American Muslims and this is a country I love, and that's why we are all here."
Son-in-law Wassim Matraji said he was "a very generous person" who didn't force his faith on others and enjoyed watching nature documentaries with his grandchildren.
He is survived by Tania, his wife of more than 40 years; a daughter, Dahlia, of North Andover, Mass.; a son, Yahya, of Island Park; and six grandchildren.
A service will be at 1 p.m. Friday at the Westbury mosque. Burial follows in Linden, N.J.