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:
- 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
- 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.