Once and Future Islam

A Sufi imam challenges moderate Muslims to fashion a new, American faith.

Many observers in both the Muslim world and the West say the real battle underway now isn’t a clash of civilizations but rather a struggle for the soul of Islam that pits the vast majority of moderate Muslims against their militant co-religionists. Of course only Muslims can decide what their faith is going to look like in the future, but it is equally true that the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, has a lot riding on the outcome. It is vital to U.S. security interests that Muslim moderates rout their opponents, and Americans need to do whatever they can to help that happen. In What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, Feisal Abdul Rauf explains how both the American government and private citizens, non-Muslim and Muslim, can take the initiative.

“It is time,” writes Abdul Rauf, “for an American Islam that will translate into the Islamic vernacular, for the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, the best of the American dream.” As Americans helped shape and reconfigure the beliefs and practices of Christianity and Judaism around the world, Abdul Rauf argues that the future of Islam as a moderate, tolerant, and progressive faith rests with American Muslims.

What’s Right With Islam is an important and often intellectually exciting book that describes Islam as an extension of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The three monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—constitute “the Abrahamic tradition,” whose core principle is in the second commandment: “To love our neighbors,” Abdul Rauf writes, “our fellow human beings, regardless of race, religion, or cultural background, as we love ourselves.” Hence, there are no essential differences between the three monotheisms. Indeed, Abdul Rauf writes, “the Quran confirms the truths revealed in all the scriptures.”

This is an important position for a Muslim leader to take, one moreover that is very different from the idea of Islam held by some Muslims, including influential Western figures. For instance, the Swiss Islamist thinker Tariq Ramadan, recently called to account in France for his allegedly anti-Semitic statements, does not believe that Islam is a continuation of the message laid out in the Torah and the New Testament. Rather, he writes that the Quran “corrects the messages that came before it.” This kind of thinking, Abdul Rauf rightly notes, “has fed Islamic triumphalism and fueled modern Islamic militancy and sectarian violence.”

Of course, various Christian institutions, especially the Catholic Church, long held Judaism in the same contempt with which Muslims like Ramadan regard the two earlier monotheistic revelations. The idea of a Judeo-Christian heritage is American-made, and not an eternal verity of Western civilization; it was forged by a society comprising many cultures that had to coexist. The uproar over The Passion of the Christ indicates how fragile that idea still is.

Raised in Kuwait, and educated in Egypt, England, and Malaysia, Abdul Rauf, who came to the United States in 1965, is a natural born pluralist. He is imam at a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center that is fairly well-known for its open-door, open-arms attitude. Some of the mosque’s visitors are just curious about Islam, or more particularly about Sufism, a sect that’s tolerant of other ideas and creeds.

Influenced by Greek and Hindu philosophy and Christianity, Sufism is usually referred to as Islamic mysticism, but up until the beginning of the last century, it was also essentially mainstream, or popular, Islam, a hodgepodge of beliefs and practices that places great emphasis on mediators, or auliya’, who intercede with God on behalf of righteous petitioners.

Throughout Muslim history, Sufism drew the ire of fundamentalist clerics who thought the sect’s inclusion of saints and mediators had turned Islam into polytheism. As Natana J. DeLong-Bas explains in an interesting forthcoming book, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, the reform-minded 18th-century scholar Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab believed that Muslims needed to get back to the basics: There are no mediators in Islam, no saints; there is God and Muhammad is His prophet and nothing more.

The 19th-century Muslim reform movement that first took hold in Egypt also criticized Sufism as un-Islamic. Furthermore, reformers argued that praying to saints and leaving offerings at shrines had made Muslims fatalistic and superstitious; it was no wonder the Muslim world lagged so far behind the technologically superior West. Of course, one of the awful paradoxes of Muslim history is that the rational and socially activist fundamentals of Islam that those Muslim reformers promoted led eventually to the jihadist movement.

In other words, contrary to the beliefs of many Western commentators, the Muslim world has had plenty of Martin Luthers; the problem is that so far none of their reformations resulted in anything looking like the E.U. And yet the once-disdained and inclusive creed of Sufism might just redeem the ironic narrative of Muslim reform—at least if Abdul Rauf has his way.

Sufis are known for their inner-directed orientation and disregard for worldly affairs. What’s Right With Islam is necessarily a political testament as well as a personal one, but I wish that in treating the Israeli-Palestinian issue Abdul Rauf had been less beholden to Muslim world clichés. For instance, he states that the 1948 creation of Israel “began a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who until then throughout most of their history had experienced a deeply intimate kinship with each other.” While it’s true that Jews fared relatively well in the Muslim world, compared to how they did in European Christendom, both the Ottoman empire and local Arab populations typically treated Jews as second-class citizens. Muslim anti-Semitism predates the founding of a Jewish state by at least a millennium.

Moreover, he sees the Israeli-Palestinian issue as “a metaphor for much of what is wrong between the Muslim world and the West.” Therefore he believes that “eliminating suicide bombing will require that we address its underlying causes,” which means re-evaluating U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Palestinians.

If U.S. foreign policy were really the number one cause of anti-American terrorism, then there would be suicide bombers from those regions of the world most consistently screwed by American adventurism, like Latin America. But there is no Boricua Jihad, or Aztec Resistance Movement; the archbishop of Santiago does not call for unrelenting war against all Americans; there are no young boys in Ponce and East Harlem collecting the trading cards of glorious martyrs. Unlike the Muslim world, Latinos have not nourished a culture—encompassing religious institutions, primary schools, the mainstream press and government officials—that incites anti-American terrorism and praises the agents of it. An American Muslim leader who is serious about making an impact on American politics owes it to his various audiences to know where Washington’s at fault and where it isn’t.

This brings up the most interesting problem with What’s Right With Islam. Who is this book’s audience? Abdul Rauf recommends it to a variety of American readerships, from policymakers to feminists, but after Sept. 11 Americans have been so oversaturated with the message that Islam is a religion of peace that conscientious readers of the national op-ed pages arguably know more about moderate Islam than the Al Azhar students who gather Fridays in Cairo to call for jihad against Americans.

A potential audience, Abdul Rauf writes, “may be a young American Muslim woman or man confused between the picture of Islam … projected in the American media by Osama Bin Laden and that practiced by your sweet grandmother.” Of course it’s essential that, like all Americans, American Muslims engage the “Abrahamic tradition,” instead of triumphalist politics. However, it seems to me that by and large American Muslims aren’t all that confused. There are notable exceptions, but typically Muslim immigrants have come here to partake of the same liberties and opportunities that every ethnic and religious group has sought in America. Indeed, it’s worthwhile noting that for many Muslims, their coming to the United States also meant fleeing places where there’s an awful lot that is not right with Islam.

Sooner rather than later, Abdul Rauf needs to be talking to the Muslim world abroad, where it’s at least equally important, but much more difficult to promote the Abrahamic tradition. And the competition is stiff: Several Arab satellite TV stations, like Iqra and al-Manar, are devoted to beating the drums of jihad against Jews and Americans. Maybe the American-owned Arab satellite Al Hurra network should give a regular show to Abdul Rauf and other members of his multifaith Cordoba Initiative—priests, deacons, rabbis—to advance a message of peace, cooperation, and mutual understanding. It’s time for an American Muslim leader to translate the best of the American dream to the Muslim world. After all, Islam has had plenty of Martin Luthers, the next Muslim reformer needs to be a Martin Luther King.