Jeffersonian Islam: Feisel Abdul Rauf, the Mosque Near Ground Zero, and the Book He Wrote Six Years Ago

Feisel Abdul Rauf is the imam (preacher) at the center of the ground zero mosque controversy, and so I thought it would be interesting to read the book that he wrote six years prior to the controversy: What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (Harper 2004).  I’m about 75 pages in and there are a number of surprising (and, I think, hopeful) things in the book.

Karen Armstrong wrote the Forward, and in that Forward she draws a parallel between Catholics in 18th century America and Muslim Americans today:

At the time of the War of Independence against Britain, only 1 percent of the colonists were Catholic. Catholics were a hated and despised minority: they were thought to be in league with Antichrist, ruled by a tyrannical pope, and indelibly opposed to freedom and democracy. Nobody would have dreamed that a Catholic would one day become the president of the United States.

Karen Armstrong then notes that, over time, American Catholics played a critical role in the Catholic Church’s liberalization (as in Vatican II), and she suggests that this role may fall to Muslim Americans with regard to Islam:

American Muslims could exert a similar influence on the Islamic world and prove that it is indeed possible to live according to the ideals of the Quran in the United States.

In the first chapter, Abdul Rauf echoes Karen Armstrong’s optimism, arguing that Islam boils down to the exact same formula that is at the core of Judaism and Christianity (and that he sees as also underlying the spirit of America itself):

  • love God; and
  • love your neighbor as yourself.

By Abdul Rauf’s telling, Islam is a revivalist religion ever looking to get people to remember these two commandments and to focus on what it means to live them out in a good society. And guess which country Abdul Rauf believes fulfills, in its political model, the Quranic ideal of a good society? That’s right. America. Not Iran. Not Saudi Arabia. America. From Abdul Rauf’s vantage, what’s right about Islam (attempting to live these two great commandments) is also what’s right about America (making a space where people can actually try to live them). In other words, these two commandments, asserts Abdul Rauf, are not just the whole of the law, but the genius of America. I would sum up Abdul Rauf’s argument this way:

  1. to love and follow God means that you must have freedom of conscience and the ability to make choices. In America you can follow the Abrahamic God, or serve other gods, or serve no gods at all. In other words, Jeffersonian freedom makes genuine love of God a living option for each individual; and
  2. to love your neighbor as yourself means, in social terms, that justice, freedom of enterprise, pluralism, and individual human dignity are the ideals behind the law.

Abdul Rauf then unambiguously endorses the separation of church and state and, like Karen Armstrong, suggests that the role of Muslim Americans in relation to Islam is akin to that of American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in relation to their religions (pg. 8-9):

America has had a profound impact on global religion. American Protestantism created a healthy separation between church and state and bequethed its ideas of pluralism to European Protestantism. American Catholicism influenced global Catholicism, helping bring about Vatican II and its very American ideas about pluralism and church-state separation. American Judaism by and large reconfigured world Jewry. It is time for an American Islam that will translate into the Islamic vernacular, for the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, the best of the American dream, namely its pursuit of the second commandment through the benefits of democratic capitalism.

In other words, Abdul Rauf sees Muslim Americans as possessing a historic role: to translate Anglo-French Enlightenment principles (which, again, he sees as ultimately grounded in the spirit of the two great religious commandments) into terms that believers in the Quran can identify with. His model is Cordoba, which he describes this way (pg. 2):

For many centuries, Islam inspired a civilization that was particularly tolerant and pluralistic. From 800 to 1200 CE, for example, the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain amid a rich flowering of art, culture, philosophy, and science. Many Jewish and Christian artists and intellectuals emigrated to Cordoba during this period to escape the more oppressive regimes that reigned over Europe’s Dark and Middle Ages. Great Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides were free to create their historic works within the pluralistic culture of Islam.

In other words, Rauf looks to Cordoba, not for a model of Islamic imperialism, but for a model of pluralism and intellectual flourishing; a place like, well, New York City:

We strive for a “New Cordoba,” 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. In this good society all religious voices are welcome and given maximum freedom, and no religion (or even atheism) is allowed to inhibit any other. Toward this dream we aspire.

Now this could be read in a sinister fashion, as an imam leaving the door open for the practice of Sharia law among Muslims in the United States. And Abdul Rauf may mean to leave this door open. But, on balance, his is a voice for real pluralism: an Islam that traces its energies, not to Tehran, but to Cordoba—and the Jeffersonian American model exemplified by New York City, Rauf’s home.

And did you catch his mention of atheism above?

That’s not a mistake. On page 33 Abdul Rauf does something you don’t often see American Christians do: overtly embrace secular humanists as part of the good society:

No Christian can claim to be following the precedent of Christ unless he or she accepts the presence of other intelligent, compassionate, educated people who are deeply spiritual Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists. The same applies to decent, upright secular humanists. If a Muslim cannot find comfort in a world in which others are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and agnostic, that person cannot claim to be following the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Mohammad. 

And at the conclusion of chapter 1, Abdul Rauf writes this:

An American media that continues to equate Muslims with anti-Americanism, terrorism, and a lifestyle that contradicts America’s deepest values does America a great disservice. So does a Muslim world media that continues to equate America with values that are fundamentally opposed to Islam.

So, in the first 75 pages of his book, Abdul Rauf is making an interesting case, and it’s a shame that he’s getting the Fox News defamation treatment right now. He has important things to say and an interesting perspective. He’s obviously trying to tug his religion in the direction of Thomas Jefferson (and away from Osama Bin Laden). 

We should let him.

One way to help him is to build the mosque near ground zero. That’s what Thomas Jefferson would do.

thomas jefferson

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Jeffersonian Islam: Feisel Abdul Rauf, the Mosque Near Ground Zero, and the Book He Wrote Six Years Ago

  1. aplatonicus says:

    First of all the notion of “Jeffersonian Islam” is nonsensical. Jefferson rewrote the New Testament, removing everything that he considered to be “nonsense.” If someone comes along who is ready to remove all the “nonsense” from the Quran, then we can talk.

    And second of all, any nation, back in the 18th century, not already afflicted by Christianity would have been well advised to keep the Catholic Church (and all other Christian Churches) the hell out of their country. In fact, that is pretty good advice today as well. And the same goes for Islam.

    • santitafarella says:


      You disrespect your own intellectual tradition—the Enlightenment—by making dialogue stop until people get on your page.

      Dialogue is the salvation of the world. That’s part of the hope of secular humanism: people who can talk with one another and recognize in each other more commonalities than differences. You are making one’s religious declarations too crucial to the beginning of a discussion.

      I agree that Jeffersonian Islam sounds silly (as does Jeffersonian Catholicism). But every law abiding and peaceful American Muslim and Catholic comes to terms with American pluralism. Such terms cannot be oxymorons because people live them every day.


  2. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    “American Catholics played a critical role in the Catholic Church’s liberalization”

    You quote/endorse Karen Armstrong’s hoped-for parallels between USA’s past influence on Catholics and future influence on Muslims. I wouldn’t have thought this was reassuring.

    Liberalization?? As someone who drifted from catholicism to agnosticism 50 years ago (graduating to atheism recently), I’m hardly up-to-date on catholic doctrine. However, as far as I know, ‘articles of faith’ such as transubstantiation, the assumption, and infallibility remain defining beliefs of catholics (including, therefore, of American catholics) – 200 years after Jefferson. The parallel I see is that simalarly ludicrous beliefs in fatwa, jihad and 72 virgins will be alive and well amongst muslims in 2210.

    People who can be persuaded to believe absurdities ……..!

    – Colin

    • santitafarella says:


      The point is that Catholics like John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy somehow managed to square the circle between their ethnic and religious heritage (Irish Catholicism) and Jeffersonian ideals. It is simply bigotry to imagine that Muslims are inherently incapable of similar liberal moves.


  3. concerned christian says:

    I know that you are trying very hard to see the good side of Islam, but what’s missing in the picture is that if this is truly what Imam Abdul Rauf is trying to accomplish, he will not have a large followers in the Islamic world. Because most of the Muslim Imams believe that Islam governs all aspects of life. So the Qur’an and Hadith if you are a Sunni, or the Qur’an and Mullahs edicts if you are a Shiites spell out all the rules, the Sharia, that should govern every Islamic country. Any way to cure you from these Pollyannaish dreams, I post this link which summarizes Sayyid Qutb philosophy which believe me is much more popular in the Islamic World than Abdul Rauf books. BTW I have to check to see if any of Abdul Rauf books were translated to Arabic. Any way here’s Qutb’s link please read them before you change your Bar to a Mosque!

    • santitafarella says:


      I agree that Abdul Rauf is not representative of Islam in Muslim majority countries. I think, however, that if Rauf is representative of Islam in the United States, then we have the fulcrum on which to change global Islam over time. Old school Islam has to change: history is not going to let it drag along in the Middle Ages as if the Enlightenment never happened. Global technology is moving so fast that Islam cannot afford to remain backward. Islamic countries, without their oil, would be total economic and technological basket cases, and everybody knows it. It is exactly American Muslims like Rauf who represent the future of Islam. He has to. We cannot afford for him not to.

      The three million or so Muslim Americans are the most important community of Muslims in the world. Where they evolve, the rest will follow. You, as a Christian, ought to be befriending them, protecting them, and standing in solidarity with them. This is not a time for suspicion and alienation. Their integration in the United States is crucially important, not just for America’s future, but the world’s. They have to become as rich and comfy and accepted here as Catholics and Jews. But what the right is doing in this country is conflating American Muslims with, say, Saudi Muslims. As usual, the right distinctions are not being made.

      By the way, did you know that a Saudi is, after Rupert Murdoch, the second largest stakeholder in Fox News’s parent company? If Islam is incapable of international integration, how can a Muslim be a key owner of a right-wing American media asset and not be under a fatwa?

      Could Bill Gates be a large stakeholder in Al Jazira without coming under withering criticism by Americans?

      There’s something wrong with your Manichean narrative. It’s far too simple.


  4. concerned christian says:

    Yes there is hope that Muslims in America will help transforming Islam, for their sake, if not for the sake of humanity. However if anything comes out from our honest discussion, at least hopefully we will have a better understanding of who are the Muslims in America. Muslims in America represent various points of view, and here’s my classification, from the least fanatic to the most
    1. There are those like Wafaa Sultan and Nonie Darwish who rejected Islam completely because what it represents.
    2. There are those like Tarek Fatah who is a Muslim trying to move Islam towards a more open and tolerant religion.
    3. There are Apologetics like Abdul Rauf and many Muslims in Obama’s White House who are more interested in projecting a positive image of Islam to non-Muslims than to transforming there own people.
    4. There are those like CAIR who are more interested in gaining political and social advantages for Muslims than in transforming and enlightening their people.
    5. There are the radicals who are trying to live their lives as if they are still in the seventh century. Imitating Muhammad in every aspect of their lives.Unfortunately Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam preached in many American Mosques come under this group.
    6. And then there are the lunatics who worship violence, some of them are Westerners who converted to Islam to justify their lunacy.
    In the back ground is the teachings of Islam which included a concept that one verse in the Quran may abrogate another verse. In Arabic this is called “Alnasekh wa’al Mansoukh” This allow one group to tell you that Islam respect all other religions while another group telling you that all non-believers should be killed and both groups honestly are using the Quran as their source.
    So as you can tell the difference between a main line Christians, Evangelical Christians, Mormons and so forth you need to understand where your Muslim friends fit in this grand scheme.
    I have more to say about the Saudi’s Prince but I will leave to another time.

    • santitafarella says:


      Notice that 4 of your 6 categories are completely tolerable within a Jeffersonian pluralistic framework.

      As to whether or not Muslims are taught that it is okay to skew the truth to outsiders, or share it in only partial fashion, I suppose that all religions engage in this sort of narcissistic split: the face worn before nonbelievers.

      You have locked on to the notion that violence is ever poised in Islam, and is central to it, no matter how much some Muslims might protest that this is not the case.

      Thinking historically, however, I’d note that Islam is a very, very old religion, and has had a learning curve on how to deal with outsiders: Islam evolved right in the center of East and West, interacting with Jews, pagans, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. They’ve worked out schemes (like all religions) for when to be naughty and nice with others. And if Islam has a hair trigger on violence in the Quran it’s because it evolved its niche in a violent and volatile part of the world. Islam just has to figure out how it will now adjust to the intellectual consequences of the Western Enlightenment and modernism.

      I spoke recently with a colleague friend who is married to a Syrian. Neither of them are practicing Muslims, but she has travelled in the Middle East a good deal and she tells me that her experience is that the average Muslim is trying to come to terms with modernism in ways akin to the average American Christian. Rap music, for example, is popular in the Middle East. Does international urban pop culture give energy to Islamic fundamentalism or weaken it? I suppose it’s both. We live in interesting and complicated times.


  5. concerned christian says:

    I agree with your analysis, I don’t fault Abdul Rauf for trying to cast Islam in a positive image or CAIR for pushing for political and social gains for Muslims. My complain is when liberals in the West rush to use arguments by Abdul Rauf or CAIR as a “Gospel truth”. What I am looking for is that liberals take these informations with a grain of salt and check other sources before accepting it as facts.
    As for your colleague’s impression about Syria. First, Syria is ruled by an Alawites which is a heretic sect in Islam. In fact Bashar el Assad’ father had an all out war with Muslim brotherhood because they killed some of his elite officers so he end up destroying a city, Aleppo, and killing more than a 100,000 of its inhabitants.
    Second, like in Christianity, there are Muslims who are not devoted to their religion and many of them live and act like any nonreligious Westerner. I did not include this group in my list because I focused only on those who take their religion seriously in a positive or negative way.
    As for the Saudi’s prince, he like many others in the Royal Saudi’s family are not devout Muslims. They can get away with things that no Saudi will dare to do. Alcoholic Drinks which are forbidden in Islam are common in the Royal Family. This prince own many things which are not Islamic “Kosher” so in addition to owning 9% of parent company of Fox, he owns shares in every major corporation in America not to mention the major Arabic record company, while some Muslim believe that singing is sin! Instead of writing more, I will give you a link to him because it’s quite fascinating.

  6. santitafarella says:


    Abdul Rauf, being at the center of the mosque controversy, is getting my attention, but I’m also reading an openly anti-Enlightenment traditionalist Muslim scholar who teaches (ironically) at George Washington University. His name is Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his book is “The Heart of Islam” (Harper 2002). I’m more than 100 pages in, and I’ll post a bit about it soon. It is supposedly the clearest academic introduction to traditional Islam for Westerners. He writes very, very well, and his views are dead center in the mainstream of Islam (he’s neither a modernist, as Rauf arguably is, nor is he a fundamentalist in the Wahabi sense).

    The book is sobering on many counts because he is so unapologetically anti-modernist and dismissive of secularism and the value of the Enlightenment. But his book is also a reminder that Islam is an old religion with some track record in knowing how to play nice with others. It is not an alien space ship from another planet. It has a lot in common with Judaism and Christianity (both good and bad), and it’s not monolithic. And that means that there’s plenty of room for hope and evolution, especially in an age like our own.

    And let’s pretend that most Muslims in America were to practice their religion in conservative traditionalist terms (that is, in the fashion outlined in Nasr’s book, not as Salafi-jihadi sympathetic fundamentalists). Never mind that Muslim Americans tend not to be this conservative. Could they, nevertheless, be good Americans? I’d have to think about it some more, but on balance I’d say probably. Traditionalist Islam seems to have an element of live and let live universalism about it (at least toward outsiders). It might prove peculiar and insular, but not necessarily intrusive on the lifestyle of other Americans. And Islamic traditionalism has some grounding in common sense and pragmatism (most old religions do—it’s one reason that they’ve lasted).

    But what say you about this?


    • concerned christian says:

      I am relieved that you are also looking to the other side of the coin, because I was worried about you! But seriously, The problem lies in one observation you said ” It has a lot in common with Judaism and Christianity (both good and bad)” Islam took from Judaism the idea that their religion regulate every aspect of their life, so Islam is a religion and a state combined. Then Islam took from Christianity the desire to convert the world to their belief. The end result is a religion that regulates every aspect of the life of its followers and also seek to spread its teachings by all means to the whole world. With the Saudi’s money and the overpopulation of the Islamic world that goal of converting the world into Islam became a possibility. The Saudis involvement is quite interesting. The Royal family make up for their promiscuous life style which does not fit into their ancestors’ Wahhabis tradition, by funding Madrassas in the Muslim world and what appears to be modern schools and state of the art Mosques in the West. That was actually one of my first reaction to GZ Mosque, “where more than a 100 Million dollar will come from?” That was also one of the greatest ironies “15 Saudis on a demolition team bringing down WTC, followed by Saudi’s money to build a Mosque in the neighborhood!”

  7. Mortal says:

    “Love God and neighbor as oneself.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it were true of all supporters of the Ground Zero mosque!

    Imagine if a group of wealthy Christians managed to purchase some land adjoining the beautiful Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to the 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men massacred there in Bosnia in 1995.

    Further imagine that these Christian business people proposed to build a massive cathedral to Christianity literally o’er-shadowing the cemetery.

    Most Christians, I would imagine, would be repulsed at the proposal which would doubtless be perceived by the Islamic world as a disrespectful, unloving act of hubris, never mind how innocent and pure the motives might be.

    Would to God or Allah that it were true that Islam at its core is all about loving Allah and one’s neighbor. I’m afraid I haven’t seen this wonderfully respectful feature of Islam on display in the recent Ground Zero mosque controversy.

    Respectfully yours,
    this mortal coil

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