An American and a Muslim: Reading Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf writes in his 2004 book, What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America that in his post 9-11 experience, “portraying Islam and Muslims as moderate is a low priority.” The man behind the so-called “ground zero mosque” could not have known how prescient this observation would turn out to be in the waning summer months of 2010. Though pilloried these days as a jihadist sympathizer or a radical, more than anything else his book reveals a man dedicated to fitting the Muslim square peg into an American round hole – an at times awkward task that Rauf often caries out quite effectively.

Rauf advances a simplified version of both Islam and of America that make them complementary. He argues that the United States is more “shari’ah compliant” than many Muslim-majority countries, not least because freedom of religion is guaranteed. Despite the western media’s flattening of shari’ah to not much more than an alarm, Abdul-Rauf brings to the concept evidence of classical training and attitudes.

For Rauf, like halakha in the Jewish tradition, shari’ah is a way of life that is protected by Constitutional guarantees, themselves a manifestation of what he sees as the goals of shari’ah. In the end, Rauf argues that there is a version of American Islam that is totally compatible with current understandings of foundational American mythologies, and he had dedicated himself to articulating that vision.

Within this scheme, then, to denounce shari’ah would would be to denounce the Constitution.

The book is strongest when Rauf movingly conveys the richness and gentility of the Prophet’s example for millions of Muslims; and it is also here where Rauf takes up conversation with the mutability of the Islamic tradition, demonstrating how it can be all things to all people.

However, despite frequent nods to “social justice,” there is an elitism at play, perhaps most blatantly conveyed in its description of sufis, the spiritual movement to which Rauf belongs. Those who have worked through the tunnels of life’s travails to find wisdom on the other side may well take issue with the notion that it is only initiated sufis who may partake of one of life’s great mercies. Tone-deaf statements like this one are found intermittently throughout the book, and are perhaps its major weakness. And it’s this narrative that contributes to the impression that Abdul-Rauf is attempting to set himself up as a “good Muslim,” in contrast to other Muslims. While it may not be intentional on his part, it is presented as such by his supporters.

Rauf’s discussion of the roots of violence, on the other hand, strikes a different, more sophisticated tone, and makes up one of the strongest sections of the book. He identifies the causes of violence as the “loss of an asset, a thing of really high value such as an idea”—or the loss of something material, like an inheritance. The other major cause of violence revolves around issues of power, such as who gets to make decisions.

These insights may seem obvious, but when combined with a discussion of trenchant issues, like suicide bombing, they become both theologically interesting and politically important. After rehearsing the strict Islamic legal prohibition against suicide and providing a respectable summary of Durkheim’s classic study of the causes of suicide, Rauf comes to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that, “any long-term solution to the problem of suicide bombing must address the pain and hopelessness felt by many in Muslim societies and ameliorating the pain requires that we examine the social issues that contribute to it.”

Only the Orwellian fog we Americans are currently wading through—with midterm elections appearing faintly in the din—could transform such a perfectly rational insight into conclusive evidence of anti-Americanism. In other words, as Hussein Rashid points out here on RD, Abdul-Rauf is not really being attacked because of his religious beliefs, but because of his American liberal beliefs. Of course, for those who read his book, perhaps there is no difference

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