Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Shariah, and Democracy

BlogHer Original Post

This is the second of three posts attempting to separate fact from spin in the controversy over the proposal to build Park 51, an Islamic cultural center near the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. My first post focused on the factual assertions surrounding both the nature of project and the grounds for debate. This post will focus on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man at the center of the storm.

I started this post wondering: how did this man go from being considered an exemplar of moderate Islam commissioned by the Bush and Obama administrations as a good will ambassador to Muslim nations, to being painted as a stalking horse for Hamas, Iran and global jihad with a stealth plan to impose Islamic law on the United States? While I found answers to those questions, I became more interested in understanding his ideas, and their implications for engagement between Muslims and Western societies.

Still, the answers that I found to my initial question fall into three categories. First, there is the mission that Rauf has set for himself: that of being a broker between Muslim nations and the West. That's a tall order that requires sending messages that are calibrated to resonate with each side without giving the impression of pandering to one side or the other. It's especially difficult at a time when substantial numbers of people on both sides believe that the other side is bent on destroying them. In this post, I want to explore those messages, particularly as they pertain to the ways he proposes that Muslims and the West come to a shared understanding on the proper relationship between religious institutions and government.

Second, it reflects the state of the debate in Western nations over the nature of the terrorist threat. The public position taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations is that Al Qaeda and its allies preach and act out a perverted version of Islam that is as much a threat to peaceful Muslims as it is to the US. Therefore, the US can best counter this threat through military and diplomatic alliances with moderate Muslim leaders. However, there are those who argue that Islamist terror is not a perversion of Islam, but a logical outgrowth of it. These people have gained increased visibility in conservative media circles and think tanks, as well as in the right-wing blogosphere. In part they have gained traction because of the actions of a small number radicalized American Muslims, such as the trigger-man in the Fort Hood massacre and the would-be Times Square bomber. I plan to focus on that debate in a subsequent post.

Pedestrians argue with sign holding supporters and opposers who stand outside the site of the proposed Muslim Community Center and Mosque two blocks from Ground Zero at 51 Park Place in New York on August 25, 2010.  UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

Third, it reflects a media culture that, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "State of the News Media" reports have documented over the last several years, privileges assertion over verification and ideologically-driven echo chambers over the public square. It's a media culture in which simple narratives win over nuanced argument or complex debate, and credibility isn't necessarily based on traditional notions such as expertise and evidence. It's also a culture in which news organizations are functioning as political actors in complex and contradictory ways. As this New York Times blog post reports, a Fox News pundit who recently insinuated that Rauf was being funded by a man who financed terrorists was actually referring to Prince Alwalweed bin Talal, the second largest stockholder in News Corporation, Fox News' parent company. John Stewart skewered Fox over this contradiction to hilarious effect on the Daily Show this past week.

To be sure, there are those who are using this moment for political gain and as a ratings grab as well. However, these underlying conditions give them a megaphone they likely wouldn't have had 10 or 20 years ago. However, that too is a subject for another post.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 9: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is greeted by Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed bin Talal at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Media Summit, on March 09, 2010 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Featuring a unique combination of high profile public sessions, the summit brings together top-tier global media players and their counterparts from fast growing markets. (Photo by Karl Jeffs/Getty Images)

A brief biography


According to multiple press accounts, Feisal Abdul Rauf was born to an Egyptian family in Kuwait in 1948 and spent much of his childhood in Malaysia. His family is descended from the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, according to this article by Brad Gooch in the Daily Beast. His father, Muhammad Abdul Rauf, was a Sunni Muslim with a Ph. D. in philosophy who taught in Egypt, England, Malaysia and the US, reportedly with financial support from the Egyptian government. Feisal Rauf came to the US with his family in 1965. He earned two degrees in physics: a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a Master's from the Stevens Institute of Technology, In adulthood, Rauf became an adherent of Sufi Islam, considered a more liberal, ecstatic form of the faith.

In 1965, the elder Rauf bought land on 96th Street in Manhattan, allegedly with funds from 46 Muslim nations, and built the Islamic Cultural Center. According to the Malaysian National News Service's 2004 obituary for him, Rauf moved to Washington, DC and served as director of an Islamic center there from 1970 to 1980. Feisal Rauf is identified as a trustee for the center, which includes a mosque, library, school, museum, lecture hall and housing for its imams. Feisal Rauf sits on the center's board of trustees.

Rauf became the Imam of the Masjid Al Farah in lower Manhattan in 1990. In 1997, he established the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). (This was initially the American Muslim Sufi Association; at least one controversial Muslim critic says the change reflects Rauf's outsized ego and ambition.) In an open letter on the site, Feisal argues that American Muslims are uniquely positioned to lead constructive dialog between the US because they understand both the aspirations and the pain of both sides. His writings, most notably the 2004 book, What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. The foreword by noted theologian Karen Armstrong recalls that Muslim intellectuals once regarded Western-style democracy as fully compatible with Muslim ideals. Interestingly, she says, these Muslim admirers talked about seeing "Islam without Muslims" in Europe and "Muslims without Islam" in some ostensibly Muslim countries.

Rauf's book argues that Muslims were on a path toward creating their own version of this kind of modern nation state, but took a wrong turn several centuries ago, leading to the persistence of practices and attitudes from the feudal era. That wrong turn, he argues was dictated by politics, not theology, and delayed Islam's evolution from pre-modernism to modernism. Colonialism exacerbated the problem, so that since independence, Muslims have been trying to figure out how to live out a modern version of their faith in both religious and civil society. It ends with a fatwa, or clerical decree, authorizing Muslum service personnel to take up arms against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

400217 01: (FILE PHOTO) This undated photo shows Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal newspaper reporter kidnapped by Islamic militants in Karachi, Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal announced February 21, 2002 that Pearl has been confirmed dead, presumably murdered by his abductors. (Photo by Getty Images)

In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, PBS Frontline turned to Rauf for an explanation of the basic tenets of the faith for its documentary, Muslims. At a 2003 memorial service at Manhattan's B'nai Jershurun synagogue for Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who had been kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani terrorists the year before, Rauf addressed Pearl's father, Judea:

"We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl. And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different. It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values."


Rauf's message to the Muslim world


Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin' argues that Rauf's 2005 edition of his 2004 book, retitled, What's Right With Islam is What's Right With America undermines the anti-Western narrative of hardline Muslims by emphasizing the commonalities between America's pluralistic democracy and Muslim ideals. He describes the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as rooted in the same "Abrahamic" ideals at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to Gitlin, "[H]e wants to Americanize the Muslim world in the way that counts — by promoting our political institutions." For what it's worth, the What's Right With Islam books is published by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch. In what is described as an effort to help Muslim nations define what it means to run an Islamic state, Rauf launched the Shariah Index Project through the Cordoba Initiative, his current vehicle for promoting interfaith understanding. While the word "Shariah" conjures up horrific images of women being stoned and men having their hands chopped off for petty thievery, Rauf contends that the essential requirements of Shariah law have to do with social justice, and the barbaric practices that we read about are a result of the arrested development of those specific cultures. The project had brought together Islamic legal scholars in an effort to work out a modern Islamic version of the western concept of separation of church and state. Based on those standards, they say they will produce a book gauging the "State of the Islamic World" in cooperation with the Gallup polling organization.


Rauf's writings advance the notion that a government can be Shariah compliant without being theocratic or even nominally Muslim. It will be interesting to see whether this Shariah index reflects that understanding.

Rauf also shares his vision of Westernized Islam in his goodwill tours on behalf of the US State Department. He is currently on such a tour. (The undated photo at right is from the State Department archives, showing Rauf and his wife and business partner, Daisy Khan, at a Foreign Press Center panel on "Reframing Perceptions on Islam and Muslims.") An August 25 article in the New York Times about a lecture Rauf gave in Bahrain offers a snapshot of the challenge he has taken on:

By Persian Gulf standards, Bahrain is a freewheeling place, an island nation home to small Jewish and Christian minorities, where women need not cover their hair and people frequently marry across sect and nationality. Even here, though, Mr. Abdul Rauf’s call for a flexible, multicultural Islam has evoked some perplexity. “It does sound strange,” said Khalifa Jowder, a brother of the majlis host, who spent six years as a student in Maine and Texas. “He is a progressive imam, and his message about catering Islam to fit with the mentality of the West might not be acceptable to some Muslims here.”

Rauf' message to America

There are two major areas of controversy surrounding Rauf's views of the West, and the US in particular. The first has to do with his view of Shariah, or Islamic law, and its compatibility with Western jurisprudence. The second has to do with his views on the history of US policy in the Middle East, and the degree to which those policies might have contributed to the problem of Islamic terrorism and especially, the attacks on 9/11. Some have also suggested that Rauf has ties to the militant Muslim Brotherhood and other groups associated with terrorism. This New York Times article fact-checks this and other related assertions, so I won't deal with them here. I will get into the 9/11 comments in the next post. For now, I want to conclude with a discussion of Shariah.

If Rauf's view of progressive Islam and US religious freedom is a hard sell in some Muslim countries, his vision of the ways in which Islamic law can be harmonized with American law and ethics might be even tougher. In an April, 2009 piece for the Huffington Post, Feisal contended that we have the wrong idea about Shariah:

The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law - that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty. What Muslims want is to ensure that their secular laws are not in conflict with the Quran or the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad ... Rather than fear Shariah law, we should understand what it actually is. Then we can encourage Muslim countries to make the changes that achieve the essence of fairness and justice that are at the root of Islam.

He makes a similar point in this 2004 appearance on C-SPAN'a Booktv program:

In his book, Rauf says, "For America to score even higher on the 'Islamic' or 'Shariah Compliance Scale,' America would have to do two things: invite the voices of all religions to join the dialog in shaping the nation's practical life, and allow religious communities more leeway to judge among themselves according to their own laws" (p. 86).

Understandably, this leads to all kinds of questions about what he means, not only for his vision of how the law should operate in Muslim nations, but also for how Muslims relate to US law. In What's Right With Islam he advances a suggestion that will likely enrage some and alarm others -- that there might be some room for the use of Islamic courts or panels for the resolution of some kinds of disputes.

Rauf might be talking about allowing for Islamic panels and other types of judicial structures that Muslims can voluntarily use to mediate or arbitrate civil disputes, with Islamic law being subordinate to the nation's laws. Sheila Musaji of The American Muslim elaborates:

As an American Muslim I would be opposed to any suggestion that Sharia replace our American legal system for American Muslims or any other Americans, and I would be the first to fight any such possibility. However, the inclusion of Sharia arbitration or alternative dispute resolution that might be utilized by Muslims who so choose after signing a binding arbitration agreement (signed by both parties in a dispute), or that might file an amicus brief with the court is not an alarming new idea. In fact, it is an existing option for religious communities. Any decision rendered by a tribunal or a panel of mediators is subject to appeal to the courts and must be consistent with American law and our Constitution.

As examples, she cites cases in which divorces have been mediated using Jewish law and Catholic law. Given these precedents, she concludes,

All in all, it would seem that faith based arbitration is an existing part of our legal system, and that considering sharia as somehow less acceptable than halakha [Jewish law] (or than Canon Law) has no basis in anything other than prejudice and stereotyping.

In conclusion

My goal in this post has been to explore what is known about Rauf's life and thought. While the focus on Rauf is currently related to the dispute over the Park51 project, his project has wider significance. While his vision of Shariah might be both confusing and disquieting to many, it's clear that honest brokers are necessary to advance understanding between Muslims and Western nations. This strikes me as being particularly important for Western-born Muslims sorting out their place in secular democracies. What is the basis on which they come to terms with their faith and their citizenship? At some point, whether or not one trusts this particular messenger, Rauf's message has to be explored and addressed.

Photo credits:

Photo of Rauf at the World Economic Forum courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

Photo of Rauf and his wife and business partner, Daisy Khan, at a Foreign Press Center panel courtesy of the US Department of State.


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.