A bridge builder between America and Islam
The imam of a N.Y.C. mosque offers an encouraging vision
By Jane Lampman
America's future is bound up with the Muslim world. Is that as grim a
prospect as it appears today? The imam of a New York City mosque (located 12
blocks from the World Trade Center) insists that it doesn't have to be so.
With a foot - and an extensive history - in both worlds, Imam Feisal Abdul
Rauf offers an encouraging vision and an ambitious blueprint for getting
past the stereotypes and paralyzing myths. This is an invigorating glimpse
into the heart and mind of a wise Muslim seeking the higher ground, and a
moving example of the impact of the American experience.
"What's Right With Islam" could easily be subtitled "And What's Right
With America." An American Muslim who was born in Kuwait and has a degree
from Columbia University, Rauf has a grasp of US history, values, and civil
religion that would put many native-born citizens to shame.
With this illuminating analysis, he aims to demonstrate to East and West
alike the congruence between American values and Islamic ideals. In fact, he
describes the US as "substantively an 'Islamic' country, by which I mean a
country whose systems remarkably embody the principles that Islamic law
requires of a government."
A clear sign, he says, is the way practicing Muslims from across the
globe line up for visas to come to the US. Rauf himself came here as a
teenager, after living in Egypt, Malaysia, and England.
An eloquent answer to the frequent call for moderate Muslims to speak
out, his book reflects a deep love for his faith and American values, but it
also issues a forceful call for America to live up to its values in the most
serious test it has faced in a generation.
Through an elucidation of core Islamic teachings and a cogent review of
US and Islamic histories, he argues that the current conflict is not really
about religion, but, as in most conflicts, about power and economic assets.
"Muslims around the world believe in the principles that undergird American
governance and want it for themselves," Rauf says. But the problem is that
"America has historically acted in a way that gives the strong impression
that [it] seeks to deprive Muslims of their inalienable rights."
One example he gives is the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically
elected government of Iran in 1953 and installment of the autocratic shah in
its place, which set the stage for subsequent US-Iranian distrust.
His lucid book comes at an opportune time, as surveys show that the
estrangement between Muslims and the West is greater than ever. American
Muslims, he says, are in a position to help change that by articulating the
congruence of values and helping educate both sides. But the imam warns
that, when comparing faiths, it's important not to compare the ideals of one
with the practice of another, but to compare ideals with ideals and practice
While emphasizing that immigrant Muslims are still grappling with the
integration of their two identities, he sees them following a process like
the one American Jews and Catholics passed through in earlier eras, which
eventually had a global impact on the nature of those faiths.
In Rauf's view, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share the common roots
of "Abrahamic ethics" in the two great commandments - loving God and loving
one's neighbors - which he sees as underlying the values articulated in the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
In Islam, the second commandment takes practical form in the Koran's
demand to pursue a just and good society. The Koranic injunction makes this
as much a religious responsibility for Muslims as prayer to God, while to
Americans, it's seen more as a secular task. This helps explain, he says,
the different way Muslims see the separation of church and state.
Muslims believe that human society should be organized to acknowledge God
as the supreme ruler, but Rauf shows how this has not kept pluralism from
flourishing during significant periods of Muslim history. This can be seen
as compatible with the view of the majority of Americans, who, according to
polls, want to retain "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and to bring
religion more into public life.
In fact, in seeking the good society, Rauf sees "the unfinished business"
of America and of the Muslim world as two sides of the same coin. "The
unfinished business of the United States is religious," he writes. "It is
the question of how to express a religious impulse more fully while doing it
within the guidelines set forth in the Constitution."
The unfinished business of the Muslim world is "how to introduce
democratic capitalism, while doing it 'constitutionally,' that is, within
the guidelines set forth in Muslim law."
Western societies have become prosperous over recent centuries, he says,
because they changed two practices once considered sins in all three
faiths: charging interest for moneylending (banking) and eliminating the
obligation to fully repay debts (limited liability corporation).
Muslim societies have fallen behind economically because the Koran
forbids interest as usury, which has precluded development of robust
institutions of banking, capital markets, and stock exchanges. Significant
progress in the economic realm may be a more crucial priority for the Muslim
world to start with than full implementation of democracy, Rauf says.
Rauf's discussion of Abrahamic ethics may startle some readers accustomed
to thinking in terms of Judeo-Christian ethics, but by spurring fresh
thinking on the interplay of values, his book is just as beneficial for
domestic as international purposes.
**Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.
Source: Christian Science Monitor
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Author: Jane Lampman, Publication: Christian Science
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Lampman introduces Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York Imam who looks to
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