Thursday, October 7, 2010

Imam Rauf, "What's Right with Islam ..."

INTRODUCTION. The purpose of The Main Event is to identify activists in the conflict over reason versus mysticism: Who are they; what are their key ideas; and how do they disseminate their ideas? This post begins a brief, exploratory look at one advocate of mysticism, Feisal Abdul Rauf.

APPROACH. The approach here is to move from effects to causes. First, I am examining one of Feisal Abdul Rauf's books, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, New York, Harper Collins, 2005, 314 pages. The main purpose of Rauf's book is not to directly promote his form of mysticism, but to promote the conclusions he has reached about a current problem, the conflict between the USA and Islam. However, his conclusions are shaped by the fundamental principles of his worldview, Islam, which is mystical in its historical and philosophical origins. Also, as we will see in a later post, Rauf is a Sufi, a person who supports sufism, which is a formal attempt to be closer to God through spiritual and ascetic exercises. (Sufism is optional for Muslims, just as becoming a monk or nun is optional for Catholics.)

AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST. Born in 1948 in Kuwait, Rauf moved with his Egyptian father (a Sunni Islamic scholar) to New York City in the 1960s. There his father helped create the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which was the first mosque designed and built as a mosque in New York City. The project -- gathering the funds, designing the building, and completing construction -- was a twenty-five year task ending in 1991, a sign of the elder Rauf's long-term dedication. Meanwhile the younger Rauf had graduated from Columbia University (BA, physics) and, c. 1970, obtained a masters degree in plasma physics from Stevens University.[1]

Feisal Abdul Rauf turned from studying nature to advancing his religion. He became the imam (spiritual leader of a local Muslim community) of Masjid al-Farah in New York City in 1983 and has apparently continued in that position for twenty-seven years.[2] (In Arabic, masjid means a "place [ma-] of prostrations"; the classical Arabic term masjid evolved into the Egyptian-Arabic term masgid, French mosquée; and English "mosque.")[3]

During these years, Rauf earned an income in the fields of teaching, sales, and real estate.[4] The first two fields provided an opportunity to practice the skills he needed for his core purpose in life: "selling" the principles of his worldview and its applications. Other actions by Rauf that directly or indirectly disseminated his ideas included founding the American Sufi Muslim Association (1997), dedicated to improving relations between U. S. Muslims and U. S. society. The ASMA changed its name (but not its initials) to American Society for Muslim Advancement. Rauf also became a member of the World Economic Council of 100 Leaders, a group dedicated to encouraging dialogue between Islamic countries and the West.[5]

In 2003, Rauf founded the Cordoba Initiative, an organization connecting the West and the world's Muslims. The CI has offices in Malaysia and New York. In 2009, Rauf announced plans--made by Park51, a nonprofit corporation--to finance and erect Park51, a building which will house an apartment for Rauf and a "nonsectarian community, cultural, and interfaith spiritual center" including a prayer room (for up to 2000 Muslims).[6] Why did Rauf name his original project the Cordoba Initiative? The southern Spanish city of Cordoba was the capital of a supposedly tolerant, "ecumenical" Islamic state c. 800-1200 CE.[7] That sort of society--a tolerant, ecumenical one--is one of Rauf's goals, as shown in his book.

THE BOOK. In What's Right with Islam, Rauf's purpose apparently is the same as his core purpose in life. "We strive for a 'New Cordoba'," says the author, "a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims and all other faith traditions will live together in peace, enjoying a renewed vision of what the good society can look like." (p. 9) To create that shining city of the future, the author and his followers must solve a problem of the present time: bridging the chasm between Muslim countries and the West.

The structure of the book follows naturally from Rauf's work to solve the problem. In Ch. 1, "Common Roots," the author stresses the shared ground of the West and Islam. By "West" he means Judeo-Christian culture emanating from Europe, and by "Islam" he means mostly the culture of the Muslim-majority countries colonized by Europeans in the 1800s and 1900s. The common root of the two cultures, Rauf holds, is the "Abrahamic tradition," which is the tradition of monotheism flowing through Abraham to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (pp. 12-15) That tradition includes two fundamental commandments. First is the "vertical" commandment for all individuals to worship God. Second, and following from the first, is the "horizontal" commandment to love all other individuals. (pp. 18-19)

Rauf next closely examines "What's Right with Islam" (Ch. 2) and "What's Right with America" (Ch. 3). Rauf is thus following a familiar pattern for mediators and reconcilers: First agree on the good in each side. In Ch. 4, "Where the Devil Got in the Details," the author identifies and explains the errors both sides have made. However, because he is writing to Westerners, the author focuses mostly on concepts misunderstood in the West, he says. An example is "jihad." (pp. 135-138) In Ch. 5, the longest in the book, Rauf more deeply explores the past. "Our history shapes how we continue to act, and thus our future." An example contrast is between the prophet Jesus, whose life ended in political and personal failure, and the prophet Muhammad, whose life ended in political and personal success, Rauf says. (p. 175)

In Ch. 6, "A New Vision for Muslims and the West," the imam offers his plan. Everyone needs to make changes. He assigns tasks to Americans in general and to U. S. Christians, Jews, and Muslims in particular. For example, the U. S. needs to act "as the Great Conciliator" (p. 281) and stop supporting authoritarian Muslim regimes; and Muslim theologians must correct their misinterpretations of the Qur'an and other holy scripture. An example is Muslim theologians' inference that all charging of interest ("usury") is immoral even if a business is borrowing in order to expand, thus creating greater profits and more jobs. Christians and Jews, Rauf says, have abandoned that interpretation of their holy scripture and have gained prosperity a a result; Muslims have not reinterpreted scripture and have lost the economic competition because of it. Rauf thus supports "democratic capitalism," by which he means the welfare state. (pp. 3-4 and 208-210)

The Conclusion, "On Pursuing Happiness," makes the point that trying to bridge the gap between the West and Islam can succeed if we have "faith in the basic goodness of humanity and trust in the power of sincerity and dialogue to overcome differences with our fellow human beings." Both faith and trust are an application of the Abrahamic tradition, Rauf says. (p. 282)

Thus, in 300 pages the author bolts together principles of Islam, principles of other religions, facts of religious history, and analyses of current problems between the West and the Muslim world. The result, he hopes, will be a bridge that allows the U. S. and Muslim countries to see that both will gain from emphasizing common principles and working together to correct mistaken views of the other.

(Next: the mystical elements in Rauf's book and the mystical nature of Sufism.)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For his youth and education: Untitled introductory and "Early Life" sections of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, on Sept. 11, 2010. [2] For Rauf as imam: The untitled introductory section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [3] For the etymology of "mosque," see: Cyril Glasse, "Mosque," The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st ed.) [4] For Rauf's income: "Career" section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [5] For founding ASMA and joining WEC: "Career" section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [6] For Cordoba House: "Career" and "Cordoba House and Park51" sections of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [7] For a contrary view, see Andrew G. Bostom, "The Cordoba House and the Myth of Cordoban 'Ecumenism'," at

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