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Imam's Write Path to Understanding

By Charles W. Bell

He was the very picture of a modern American executive, surrounded in his 21st-floor suite by all kinds of contemporary corporate gadgetry, ending a cell-phone call with the flourish of a CEO.

"Why doesn't my secretary call your secretary and arrange lunch?"

That out of the way, Feisal Abdul Rauf resumed his conversation with a visitor.

"Really, I just wear one hat," he said. "I am an imam."

Rauf, 56, is spiritual leader of the Masjid al-Farah, a mosque he has led for 21 years, and chief executive of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA Society), a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing together Muslims and non-Muslims through arts and culture.

But he also is a tireless traveler and speaker, and this week, he began promoting his newest book, "What's Right With Islam" - the title framed not as a question but a statement. "In one way, it took about six months to write," Rauf said. "In another, I've been writing it all my life."

Although the title tweaks a book published earlier this year, "What's Wrong with Islam," in which author Irshad Manji takes a critical look at the current practice of her faith, Rauf says his work is not intended as an answer.

Rauf's book instead deals extensively with the similarities among Christians, Jews and Muslims - for one thing, Abraham is considered the father of each faith and Jerusalem is sacred to each. But, at the heart of the book is what Rauf calls the critical challenge and dilemma of the day.

"How do we heal the relationship between the Muslim world and the West?" he says. "As an American and an imam, I feel compelled to attempt an answer."

Understanding and tolerance is the easy answer, but getting there is a bit more complex.

"First, we must clear away the misunderstandings," Rauf said. "And I mean on both sides."

It's a message that dominates his weekly sermons at al-Farah mosque, on the lower West Side a few blocks north of the World Trade Center site. It is also at the core of his frequent addresses at venues as varied as Protestant churches and business forums. (He left Thursday for another, a regional conference in Jordan, sponsored by the World Economic Forum, an association of corporate CEOs.)

His mosque, next to a restaurant on West Broadway, is associated with Sufism, the mystic sect that teaches unity with God through meditation and ecstatic experience. When he founded al-Farah, in 1983, at the request of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak, a major Sufi figure, about 40 people attended Friday services. Today, attendance is about 350. When he is out of the city, as he often is, an associate imam leads the weekly prayer service.

Among worshipers, Rauf said, are about 40 women, who sit separately from men. One is Daisy Khan, his wife. They met at the mosque, where she went to worship, and were married eight years ago.

In most of his sermons, delivered from the top steps of a staircase-like pulpit, Rauf strikes many of the same notes that he does in his appearances before non-Muslim audiences, with a slightly different twist.

"Muslims," he told the congregation last week, "undergo many of the same experiences as earlier Catholics and Jews, with discrimination, suspicion, hatred. Like them, to succeed, we must build a society where we are both good Muslims and good Americans.

"Above all, do not curse the gods of those who do not worship your god."

Rauf is the latest in a long line of family religious leaders, but he did not start out with the goal of becoming an imam (the title means prayer leader and sermon-giver). His father was director of a religious institute in Kuwait, where Rauf was born, and in England and Malaysia, where his father later worked. The Raufs moved to the United States in 1965, when Feisal was 17. At the time, he was interested in science. He majored in physics at Columbia University and did postgraduate work at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J.

Along the way, he taught remedial reading in Harlem until he was laid off during the city's fiscal crisis in the mid-'70s, and sold industrial filters for a New Jersey company. He gave up the corporate world in 1983, when he was appointed to oversee the al-Farah mosque.

"I am a pro bono imam," Rauf said. "That is, I'm not paid. Fortunately, I have other sources of income."

He became a U.S. citizen in 1980, and some people, hearing that, ask him what it is about America that he most admires. "The freedom," he said.

Originally published on May 15, 2004
Charles W. (Bill) Bell writes about religion and the spiritual side of New York every Saturday.

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