Imam Feisal Rauf’s Vision For An American Muslim Identity

By Ilgin Beygo Yorulmaz

There’s a Qur’anic scripture on one of the walls in Imam Feisal Rauf’s office, showing Arabic letters stylized in the shape of a long boat on a blue background of Turkish marbled paper. 

Like a captain trying to navigate his boat in troubled waters, Imam Feisal, the 69-year-old founder of the Cordoba House in New York City, has been advocating for a contemporary, pluralistic and spiritual American Muslim identity for over four decades.

Photo: Rennio Maifredi for TIME

In 2010, the Imam, an eloquent preacher and a native of Kashmir, India, created a furor when he and his wife Daisy Khan proposed to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan near the site of September 11 terrorist attacks. It was planned to function as a community center such as the JCC or YMCA. Yet after strong objections by opponents who labeled the project the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the project was dropped.

I asked Imam Feisal, who was one of TIME Magazine’s “Most Influential 100 People in the World” in 2011, whether America’s attitudes towards Muslims have gradually become worse; and what he thought of the somewhat troubled relationship between President Trump’s America and Islam today.

“The idea that the relationship between Islam and America is static, or that it moves only in one direction is not true. The reality is more complex,” he said. “It’s like the stock market; it goes up and down… I believe if you average it out, in the long term [the relationship] has always been getting better.”

This article is based on comments from Imam Feisal on challenges facing American Muslims.

Q: What do you make of the current situation of Muslims in America?

After President Trump’s executive order there has been such an outpouring of support. The attorneys general and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) have come to fight this battle with us. It has made many Muslims feel that we have strong friends in America, who regard Muslims as part of America.  Nothing happens without struggle. This particular time we are in, many people feel a challenge — the Muslims and the people who disagree with this policy. But the extent of disagreement and pushback against Trump’s policy is also an opportunity for us to cooperate with people to develop stronger partnerships with people of other faiths and religions to bring positive change. Look at the rabbis who demonstrated against the ban [and got arrested.] On Saturday last week, when the ban was announced, I was talking at a church on 71st street. We will keep highlighting the work we’re doing.

Q: What kind of work do you find most pressing today?

One of the things that we need to do here in America is to formulate what I call an “American Islam.” I don’t mean that there is a different Islam.

Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt, Eastern Roman Empire, which is today’s Turkey, Persia, India, and translated itself into the local context — in music, architecture, laws… If you look at the mosques in China, for example, they look Chinese. You’ll see that they have pointed roofs. Whatever was not against Qur’an, or sunnah, became accepted.   

We need to translate our faith and culture to American language, culture, law, and create an “American Muslim identity” in terms of our laws, the way we dress, and other things.

Part of the reason why there is a legitimate complaint against Muslims is that we want to behave here like we want to behave back home. And people look at us and say “You’re not part of us, you are different, you are foreign.”

Here at Cordoba House, we are training imams who are culturally integrated into the American life and can deal with the issues of it. We are also working on fıkh — the theory of law and an understanding of Islamic law that is suitable for American Muslims in keeping with our jurisprudence, but also applicable here in America so that it’s legal here.

The war is not just between America and Islam, or between Americans and Muslims. The war is actually between the moderates and the extremists of all religions. So me must cooperate with like minded Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, who believe in a space for everybody. We have to fight extremists in all the spaces, [even if they are] extremist Christians or extremist Muslims.

Q: What happens to diversity when everyone gets integrated in American society?

We have diversity [in Islam] on an ummah (community) basis. We have Muslims in Senegal, Egypt, Iran, Turkey.  Yet, we have our diverse cultures and it’s perfectly acceptable. If that happens, then people will accept Islam as an American religion, not an Arab religion. It happened [in Muslim countries], because people saw Islam as their own religion, like Pakistanis saw it as a Pakistani religion. If you say “No, I have to dress like an Arab, or like a Pakistani to be a good Muslim in America,” then Islam will look alien.  As long as long as you exhibit the ethics of Islam, it should be fine.

Q: What needs to be done to rebuild the trust between the American public and Islam?

When people know people, it makes a difference. Most people who have a negative opinion about Islam don’t know Muslims. Like most people in [Muslim countries] who hate America haven’t been to America. They don’t read American [publications] or see the diversity in America. They think all the Americans are just interested in is throwing bombs on the Afghans. But that’s not true; many Americans are against the policies of this country.    

Q: And what about the possibility of America’s Middle East policy to change?

Anything is possible, but we have to engage. The nature of the American government is that it is subject to various forces and American policies are subject to change. And it’s not about an individual. There are interests who lobby for causes. Whoever is capable of exerting the right kind of pressure on certain policies, those policies will dominate. This is what is different about America compared to other countries where an authoritarian figure implements his own opinion as to what the policy should be.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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