In 2004 I was hired to help edit the book What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam and educator who is spearheading plans to construct a Muslim cultural center—not a mosque—two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center.
As an editor, I am paid to get inside the heads of authors. And Imam Feisal was generous in letting me get inside his. We spoke at length numerous times on the phone as we clarified the book’s message. What I found inside him bears no resemblance to the hateful images perpetuated by fearful people spreading messages of suspicion about a religion, and a project, they have not bothered to get to know.
What I experienced in working with Imam Feisal was unfailing graciousness. The person I learned to know has a deeply compassionate heart focused on one thing only: fostering more open dialogue and understanding between Muslims and people of the Western world. He is single-minded in this focus. His nonprofit Cordoba Initiative promotes interfaith dialogue.
The central message of his book is that the values that lie at the heart of Islam—equality and social justice—are the same values guiding the history of the United States. For years Imam Feisal has been saying loud and clear,
Our peoples are committed to the same values!
Which is why the anger and hate-baiting over the proposed cultural center are so profoundly disturbing.
And, let’s be clear: What is proposed is in fact a cultural center, not a mosque. Imam Feisal talks about the difference in this news conference.
It will be a cultural center because Imam Feisal is an educator. He believes that cultural exchange can help heal wounds between people tempted to see each other as enemies. It’s a trust in education deeply ingrained by his spiritual tradition of Sufism.
Back in the 1700s, in the face of a declining Ottoman Empire, two alternatives presented themselves to Muslim reformers. One was a legalistic return to the roots. This was the path chosen by al-Wahhab on the Arabian peninsula—purging Islam of anything not found at its beginning. Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History says,
Wahhabism is the form of Islam that is still practised today in Saudi Arabia, a puritan religion based on a strictly literal interpretation of scripture and early Islamic tradition. (135)
And because Saudi Arabia controls Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as vast oil fields, the Wahhabi form of Islam holds tremendous sway throughout the Muslim world.
The other path was chosen by a Sufi reformer, Ibn Idris. This was the path of education. Improve society by teaching people to love God better—which in practice meant teaching people how to think for themselves by developing their own spirituality more deeply. Not too surprising that Ibn Idris sharply criticized al-Wahhabi for his legalistic tendencies.
In other words, Sufis are usually on the opposite side of the issues from fundamentalists. Which is why it is crazy to label Imam Feisal an extremist—crazy not just because to all who know him Imam Feisal is a progressive, deeply thoughtful scholar and teacher, but also because in the history of Muslim politics, Imam Feisal’s community has often been harassed, sometimes even banished, by fundamentalists.
How strange it is to see someone I deeply respect become such an object of controversy, even hate, in the American media!
I am proud to have contributed in even a small way to Imam Feisal’s work toward interfaith understanding. And I’m deeply disappointed by the depth of opposition to this center, which shows just how much more of it there is to be done.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SUFISM:
- The journal Sufism, an Inquiry
- The many works of Sayyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University
- Sufi music and my band fave, Ghazal
FOR MORE INFO ON IMAM FEISAL