Seeking common ground for faith

By GARY STERN
gstern@thejournalnews.com
THE JOURNAL NEWS

(Original publication: June 3, 2005)

The very idea of what constitutes an Islamic society has become so convoluted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf hopes to devise a quirky, almost subversive way of measuring true commitment to Sharia, or Islamic law.

He wants to develop a Sharia Compliance Index of Nations.

He’s working with Muslim scholars to create a list of criteria for an Islamic society. Does a given nation, for instance, have an independent judiciary and programs for those in need? Does it treat women well? How about minorities?

“This index will de-link the notion of Islamic society from a demographic definition to one based on principles of governance,” Rauf, 56, said yesterday in Yonkers, where he addressed an interfaith gathering convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association.

Such an index could find that a few self-defined Islamic nations do not exactly come up to code. It’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking for which Rauf has become known.

“Our religious teachings are against the notion of a class society,” he said. “The idea that we are all equal is a fundamental teaching.”

Rauf is one of the most recognized Islamic leaders in the U.S., known as much for his ability to draw links between the three Abrahamic faiths as for his explanations of the changes in the Muslim world. He is the leader of Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque located 12 blocks from Ground Zero, and is the founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the first U.S. group focused on strengthening ties between Muslims and non-Muslims in his adopted country.

He is involved in so many interfaith activities that he can’t help dropping the names of leading rabbis and priests to whom he has talked. While answering questions at the Nyauta Indian restaurant, he showed an understanding of Jewish and Catholic history and even some knowledge of the latest research on the psychology of spiritually.

In other words, he’s the kind of Muslim leader to whom America’s interfaith veterans can relate.

“He gave us some real points of departure, different ways to think about Islam,” said Rabbi Amiel Wohl, who cofounded the Interreligious Council of New Rochelle in 1975. “We see the genuflecting, but he explains that Islam has principles that can speak to our time.”

Scholars talk about what Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common, but Rauf has a way of driving it home. All three religions, he said, are grounded in the same two commandments: that people must love God and treat thy neighbor as thyself.

Islam can even condense the two into one commandment, he said: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

Rauf, a native of Kuwait, said that American Muslims are trying to craft an American identity that is true to the faith. It’s a process that takes three generations, he said.

But no one should doubt, he said, that Muslims feel at home in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are God-given rights.

“Because the rights are given to us by the creator, they can only be revoked by God,” he said.

These days, Rauf is leading the Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith effort to improve relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. He’s starting to bring together young Muslim leaders, ages 25 to 42, to talk about the future of the American Muslim community. And he’s involved in a dialogue with Muslim and Jewish leaders.

“He really believes it in his heart,” said the Rev. Stephen Holton of St. Paul on the Hill Episcopal Church in Ossining. “It’s not some far-out vision for the future. Interfaith understanding is a reality. You just have to make it that way.”

Zena Mikdadi of Dobbs Ferry, president of the American Muslim Women’s Association, which is primarily a Westchester group said Rauf has set out an ambitious agenda for American Muslims.

“He believes that this is our work,” she said. “We have to reach out to the general public, which was not interested about us before, and we also have a duty to reach out to the rest of the world. We’ll start at home, in Westchester.”