Farinia Fianto | ICIP | October, 09 2013

ICIP met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who was invited by the US embassy to hold a number of lectures in Jakarta, in a meeting that was a very casual, small, and yet intimate. The meeting was a low key and the Imam, who was the center of the meeting attendees, was surprisingly a very humble and yet charismatic figure. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf introduced himself as the founder and CEO of the Cordoba Initiative, the Imam of the al-Farah mosque since 1983 and the visionary behind Cordoba House, the interfaith religious and community center close to the site of the former World Trade Center. He often asked by the US government to speak on Islam in order to bridge between Muslim and non Muslim in the US as well as between US and the Muslim world. He resides in New York, one of the largest cities in the US. The discussion was attended by inter religious figures comprising Muslims from different organizations including ICIP and Christians from religious institutions. The discussion mainly talked on Islam in US and its comparison with Islam in Indonesia and also the relation between Islam and other religions in US. He spoke on his experiences dealing with fundamentalism within Muslim and non Muslim communities in US. He argued that it was extremism that was a common enemy that available in any religions not only Islam. Post 9 11, many pointed out their fingers on Islam as a religion that justified terrorism and violence in the West particularly in the US. He and other Muslim figures were hand in hand until now clarifying what ‘jihad’ truly meant, disseminated moderate Islam and certainly it was not a piece of cake job. Indeed he established Cordoba Initiative, a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations. Imam Feisal has written three books on Islam and ICIP was lucky to have one of his books entitled Moving the Mountain, Beyond Ground Zero to A New Vision of Islam in America.

The book mainly talks on Islam based on his perspective as an American Muslim who was born from immigrant Egyptian parents originally that has been living in multi cultural lives (he was born in Kuwait, grew up in Great Britain, Malaysia, Egypt and then finally moved to the United States since 1965 when he was 17 years old) that has influenced and colored his life. In the introduction chapter he focused on his early experience on being new American as a Muslim that he found was a culture shock despite grown up listening to Elvis and the Beatles and watching American movies while he was in Malaysia. At initial being a Muslim in the US had pushed him to decide whether, and to what extent, to be a Muslim. Feeling dazzled on American freedom that made him feel the misery of being someone without an identity, he eventually was able to consciously and deliberately choose the religion by using that very individual freedom for which American culture is so rightly celebrated.


Furthermore he emphasized the story on how he and his wife Daisy Khan conduct the works to focus on being role models for future generations and help immigrant Muslims in the US to become American Muslims on one hand so that they are still seen by global fellow Muslims as part of global Muslim community or ummah and on another hand being Muslim Americans so that they are seen by their fellow Americans as loyal Americans true to what it means to be an American. Together they founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) in 1997 intended to accelerate the process of shaping an American Islamic identity and to help anchor this identity in a spiritually authentic tradition and intellectually rigorous classical and orthodox understanding of Islam. Moreover he shares his point of view on question whether sharia can be amended or not. He elaborates stories on how sharia has been amended as written in numerous cases but still states that the Qur’an and Hadith need no revision.

He strongly emphasizes the importance of mutual education among the different religious believers in America on each other’s religions and cultures. Later on he reveals on motives behind the establishment of the Cordoba Initiative which was founded by a number of religious key figures from different religions, inspired by the three hundred years period (from the eighth to the eleventh centuries) of the Cordoba caliphate now in Spain during which Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in what was then the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society at that time. He highly hopes the institution will revive the tradition of pluralistic societies living side by side in harmony where numerous religious and non religious communities live together in the new promise land called America.

Moreover he discusses sharia in America, an issue that also becomes a hot topic everywhere in Muslim countries including Indonesia. In his book, sharia according to him Muslim legal scholars collectively agree that the overarching objective of Islamic law, its meta-objective, is to help realize the best interests of human being in this life and the next. Scholars elaborated this fundamental purpose into six “objective of the Sharia,” or in Arabic known as maqasid al-shariah namely the rights to life, religion, mind (sound judgment, intellect, and well being), property, family (marriage and progeny) and dignity. Later on he stresses out the importance of multi interpretation in Islamic legal interpretation of jurisdiction in determining fatwas, according to him there is more than one way to be correct as he refers to famously four schools of legal interpretation namely, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi and Maliki. He criticizes those who believe that the interpretation they grew up with is the only one that correct and labels those who are different as infidels. He states that Muslims should have built mutual respect if they disagree on opinions.

In this book, he talks on the relationship between Islam and other faiths, an issue that is never out of date since the Prophet era until today. He later on describes his early experiences in the US connecting for the first time with other religious societies particularly the Jews. As eight tenth years old teenager who had been embarrassed by the military defeat and angry at the Jewish celebration of Israel’s victory and the pain of many Egyptian killed, Imam Feisal certainly felt deeply uncomfortable in his early encounter with the Jews in New York. However his father had showed him the eagerness to hold an open dialogue with the Jews despite the current war between Israeli and Arab countries including Egypt where he originally came from. The war had polarized Jewish-Muslim relations, and then what really needed was to reach out to each other. His father had successfully convinced him that political disagreements between the faith communities should not trump the faith relationship, which must run deeper. This came from the exemplary behavior of Caliph Umar. He elaborates despite of nasty political conflict between the nascent Muslim community and Jewish tribes in Medina during the war with Mecca some fifteen years earlier, soon after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637 he invited Jews to take up residence in the holy city; this was the first time they had been allowed in Jerusalem since being banished by Romans for five hundred years. His invitation enabled them to fulfill their age-old aspiration “Next year in Jerusalem!” A corollary example was that of the great scholar and rabbi Moses Maimonides, who left his hometown of Cordoba because of persecution from the extremist Almohade dynasty. He took refuge in Morocco and later in Egypt, where he was welcomed, showing that he did not view political conflict with some Muslims as meaning he should regard all Muslims as enemies. Thanks to his parents for encouraging him to mingle with other non Muslim communities in particular with Jews, Imam Feisal is able to experience living in inclusive ways and now he pursues what his father had taught him on being Muslim inclusive. It has helped him getting broader multi faith networks and has helping him to explain to others on what Islam and Muslim truly like.

In addition Imam Feisal also highlights how Islam acknowledges women rights as he wrote on the chapter entitled the Modern American Muslim Woman. In this chapter he even suggests that the Prophet himself was a truly feminist in a sense that bringing equality and liberation for women which at that time women were not seen and heard in the society. The Prophet determined that women could no longer be disinherited and women were entitled rights of property and inheritance rights. However regarding polygamy one of controversial issues on women in Islam, he argues that at that time there had been no limit for a man to marry women as many as he wanted, but the Qur’an and the Prophet has established a limit to the number of wives a man could have. Indeed he understands that today only a few will argue that polygamy represents a form of women liberation and many believe that polygamy represents a form of women oppression. However in the context of the Prophet’s own times, he and the Qur’an made what can only be considered revolutionary changes in the status of women. He asserts that it is our duty in advocating for women rights as he refers to retires chief justice of Malaysia Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamed argues that it is mandatory for contemporary societies to enact laws that strive to improve the on-the-ground reality beyond what the Prophet Muhammad may have achieved in his society during his life time that is including advancing women rights (p. 112). Furthermore he strongly hopes that Muslim women in particular American Muslim women will step further into the limelight, transforming the images non-Muslims have of Muslim women around the world. The more forcefully they speak in mixed company, the more they will eliminate the stereotypes of Muslim women as powerless, quiet, controlled and repressed appendages to men. In fact Imam Feisal suggests that there are numerous Muslim women who actually have move forward proving that they too can actively engage and involve in public domain and in fact have strong influence in state and public decision making such as Muslim women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Kosovo, Senegal, Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh that put Muslim women in top positions such as prime ministers and presidents, while on contrary the US never has a female as the president.

He also shares his opinion on veil, an issue that also is controversial since quite many who see it as a symbol of repression instead of religious identity and modesty. According to him the key, in the Qur’an, is that God urges modesty in dress in terms of physical exposure, personal adornment, and behavior with respect from the opposite sex, indeed he refers to the rabbis of Talmud often stressed the virtue of modesty in attire as well. He did not specify his personal opinion here but tries to elaborate the reasons and motives of women cover and uncover their body parts. From culture to culture and era to era women cover and uncover different parts of their bodies to many different reasons, ranging from what they understand to be a religious requirement to an interest in asserting their identity at different stages of their lives.

However regarding to mixed marriage, he has a quite interesting point of view and approach when it comes to Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man. Many tend to forbid this kind of marriage while Imam Feisal has opposite way. Based his experiences as the imam in New York for quite long time, he understands the people in love, particularly young people, are to seeking out a justice of the peace for a civil ceremony that probably will break their parents’ hearts. He often hears how young-different-religion couples may tell the story of rigid imam who, instead of trying to keep them connected to the faith, casually dismissed them as religious rule breakers. Therefore he chooses and promotes now to accept the mixed couple with terms and conditions that firstly the non-Muslim husband-to-be has to agree that the woman can practice her religion freely, including being able to pray, keep the fast of Ramadan, perform hajj and not to be forced to drink alcohol or eat non halal food. Secondly he has to believe in God and believe that Muhammad was a prophet of God, even if not necessarily the prophet he follows. (Muslims believe as a matter of faith in Moses and Jesus as prophets and therefore deeply respect them, so this is about reciprocity). He should not have to follow the Prophet’s religious practice; he is not converting in Islam, after all. This kind of alternative as a matter of fact he saw it coming from an instructive precedent of some importance on this subject from the Prophet’s own life. The Prophet’s eldest daughter, Zainab, had married her cousin before Muhammad became the Prophet. When Muhammad did become the Prophet, Zainab accepted Islam but not her husband. In spite of pressures from his family to divorce Zainab, they stayed married, as he deeply loved his wife Zainab as well as his parents in law, Khadijah and Muhammad. In fact by learning the story Imam Feisal suggests that the true task in life is to engage others in positively transformative manners, rather than deny their reality or personhood. This is exactly, according to him, what Martin Luther King Jr. mean by the transforming power of God’s love.

Despite the book focuses on Islam and Muslim in America, still the book offers numerous lessons to learn for Muslims anywhere. In context of plurality and diversity, both the US and Indonesia have something in common as countries that comprising by multi faith, races, tribes and cultures. Through his book, Imam Feisal suggests that Islam is compatible with the American values who regard equality and inclusiveness as the foundation of the nation. In Indonesia, Pancasila through the Bhineka Tunggal Ika offers similar notion that Indonesian diversity and plurality are the basic foundation of the nation. Interestingly although Muslims in Indonesia are majority and Muslims in the US are minority, still face similar issues in particular strive to uphold justice and struggle to promote truly meaning of jihad, a term that today is wrongly misinterpreted due to extremist violent action.

The book alone has been praised by numerous high profile figures such as Queen Noor Al Hussein of Jordan, Rabbi Marc Schneier and Russell Simmons of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, Michael Moore an American filmmaker, Karen Armstrong and Arianna Huffington a media mogul. In short, they appreciate Imam Feisal contribution in writing his mind and life journey on being American Muslim as well as reintroduce Islam in the US as a religion of spirituality, compassion and mercy rather than of parochial, judgmental, narrow, self-righteous, and violent. By reading this book comprehensively, it is understandable why those high profile figures would praise and appreciate of what Imam Feisal been doing and in term of moving the mountain is no longer a mission impossible even for the rest of us.