Islam: The Spiritual Matrix
by Mehmet DEDE
Originally Published on www.lightmillennium.org
"There needs to be a more nuanced understanding and education of Islam," believes Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has been a key figure in the American-Islam teaching through his books, lectures and sermons at the Masjid al-Farah in New York . He is also founder of the ASMA Society, a not-for-profit and non-political organization dedicated to fostering greater awareness about Islamic heritage in the US . We met up with him after a usual jum'a (Friday) prayer to talk about the role of Muslims in American society, the spiritual aspects of the Qur'an and the interplay between Islam and Sufism.
-Bismillah Irrahman Irrahim
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
It is a sunny spring afternoon in lower Manhattan 's TriBeCa district, known for its Downtown-style high ceiling lofts, beautiful cafes and restaurants. This neighborhood is also home to the Masjid al-Farah, a small-sized mosque that serves as a spiritual enlightenment center for Muslims. You might be surprised to see that the masjid is located next to a tavern and resides on the same block as a liquor store. Right across the street is the posh TriBeCa Grand Hotel and various bars/lounges that make up the trendy street of West Broadway. This is where every Friday, a large number of people come together to pray to Allah and get drunk in his love, though not by consuming alcohol. As the imam (the one who leads the prayer) of the Masjid al-Farah, Imam Feisal delivers his Friday sermons here. When the words "We begin, my dear Muslim brothers and sisters, by entering into a state of worship of Allah" echoes through the speakers, the believers leave behind life's mundane realities and pray to Allah to answer their supplications.
Imam Feisal was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. He lived in England for five years before moving to Malaysia where he spent the next ten years and finished high school. He arrived in the US to study physics at Columbia University in New York and later received a master's degree in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey . For a couple of years, he taught Mathematics in a High-school and worked as vice president of a company that sold industrial filtration equipment. He is the author of "Islam: A Search For Meaning," in which he defines Islam as God's universal religion, and "Islam: A Sacred Law," where he summarizes the philosophy of Islamic law, common to the Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Imam Feisal teaches Islam and Sufism at St. Bartholomew's Church and at the New York Seminary. He lectures at synagogues, churches and mosques and on radio/TV in the US and abroad.
In order to comprehensively promote Islamic art and culture, Imam Feisal founded the ASMA (American Society for Muslim Advancement) in 1997. As a not-for-profit, non-political, educational and cultural organization, ASMA is dedicated to fostering greater awareness about the Islamic heritage in the United States . It presents the finest aspects of Islamic culture and arts through art exhibitions, special events, popular and scholarly publications, educational programs, lectures, symposia, films, and workshops.
"People want the spiritual dimensions of a religion, not the colloquial."
Imam Feisal's way of preaching is quite unique, to say the least. He has a powerful presence, excellent communication skills and a natural charisma that emanates peacefulness. The things he says don't sound spacey, neither are they diluted with compelling beliefs. One day he may quote from the sports section of the New York Times, another day use the gravitational force to draw a comparison. His natural force of attraction exceeds that of physics laws. Yet, his empirical phrases and stripped down examples are drawn from our everyday life experiences, so much that people can relate to them easily, no matter how sophisticated and complex the subject matter might be. Once he told a story about a broker who committed suicide when the stock market crashed in Asia . He was explaining that the broker had identified himself with his stocks and money so much that when he lost them he had nothing to live for. "If your identity is grounded in something that's forever lasting you will not lose your sight in the world," Imam Feisal added.
Imam Feisal's creative and thoughtful analogies are supported by distilled words he pulls from his carefully chosen vocabulary. Not that he makes up words, it's more the context in which he uses them. He talks about the "self-consistency" of the Qur'an, and how we need to "uproot" some of our ways of thinking and do more "thought experiments." With words he constructs a field of semantics that is immune to callous beliefs no longer applicable. By proxy, he becomes the guide, teacher and father.
The cultural blend and diversity of the congregation at the masjid is nothing less than striking. One look and you will see a pair of rollerblades parked in the foyer, you can spot people wearing Triple 5 Soul or Mark Echo branded clothes. One guy sports a jersey of Zidane, a famous French soccer player. Sufis mingle with North African, and -Middle Eastern men lined up in front of African-American and South Asian women. It is estimated that there are 8-12 million Muslims living in the US ; one third are African-American, one third are from the Indian subcontinent and the rest is a mixture of Arabs, Europeans, and converts. The people at the masjid certainly reflect that cross-section of the Muslim world.
Those who have not been to the Masjid al-Farah may find it unusual that there is no curtain separating the male section from the female in the worship area. If you think that this masjid is very much liberal and progressive in the way it embraces Islam, wait until you hear the Imam talk.
"Read, in the name of your Lord, who created."
- Qur'an [96:1]
- Imam Feisal, you have been an imam for around 20 years. Does it run in the family?
- My father was director of the Islamic Center in New York and in Washington , DC . My grandfather was an imam in our village in Egypt and I come from a line of people who are known to be very deeply spiritual and religious. One of my ancestors is a Sufi Sheikh.
- How did you get involved with the Masjid Al-Farah in New York ?
- I was appointed by Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak of the Khalwati Jarrahi Order in Turkey to be the imam and hatib of Masjid al-Farah in 1983. I was invited to attend a couple of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak's dhikr sessions (this is where the group repeats the Names of Allah, the confession of faith, and chants Qur'anic verses and hymns glorifying Allah). He used to visit the US twice a year, once in April, and once around October for about six weeks and he'd be traveling around the country. I met him in April of 1983 and when he came back in October I had a message from one if his interpreters saying that Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak wants to meet me. [When I met him], he said "I'd like you to become the imam of this mosque."
- And you accepted it.
- It's not something you can reject.
- The congregation attending your juma'a prayers is very eclectic. Do you know them, where they come from?
- Most of the Muslims in America are immigrants, second generation [Muslims] or students who came here from all over the world. What defines the people who come to my mosque is that their concern is more [aligned] to the spiritual aspect of things. They want the spiritual dimensions of a religion, not the colloquial.
The people who come here for jum'a [prayer] come from within the New York tri-state area. Of course, the majority work around here, but a number of them come from Uptown, Brooklyn or New Jersey , specifically to participate in the Friday prayer here and to hear my sermon.
-In your book "Islam: A Search For Meaning" you mention that "This work is not the work of a professional Islamic scholar, but that of a Muslim layman." Why did you avoid the scholarly path?
- You can be a professor of music and not be a musician. You can be very knowledgeable about religion, but not be a deeply spiritual person. I've known a lot of people who are very scholarly, whose ethics are poor. And there are people who are not that much knowledgeable in Islamic scholarship but who are highly ethical and deeply spiritual beings. So you recognize this difference, just like the analogy that I mentioned: people who are talented musically and can compose and play music very beautifully, but are not necessarily professors of music. Of course you could study religion, but if the study does not involve your religiosity and spirituality, it becomes like a donkey with books on its back: You have the knowledge in your head, but it does not affect your behavior.
Think about the Olympics, [in] some of the sports you don't have to be a professional player, you are an amateur. It doesn't mean you're bad, you can get a gold medal. What does the idea of professional mean in the sports field? If you are a pro, you do it for a living. You can be a professional or an amateur. It doesn't mean you're any less good or any less scholarly.
- You emphasize the different states of consciousness we keep switching back and forth. What happens to our level of perception and existence at such times?
- The human being is defined by the quality of its consciousness. When you are awake you are in a certain state of consciousness, when you are asleep in a different state of consciousness. If you consume alcohol you are in a reduced state of consciousness. If you take certain drugs they heighten your state of consciousness. The spiritual part involves trying to evoke a particular quality of your consciousness. For us, going back and forth to the sleep and wake state is a constant reminder to pay attention to our state of consciousness, like a hint from God. Your created state is what you wake into everyday. Before you're born, after you're dead, you go back to that state which resembles the sleep state. In the Qur'an it says that God takes the souls every night when they sleep and returns them when they wake up. Those that he decrees death he holds on to, those that he doesn't decree death he returns. So, by linking our experiences with what the creator tells us, we gain some insights into the human condition.
Sometimes you can get important insights during your state of sleep, this is what we call our dreams. This is why in the Sufi and spiritual path, attention is paid to your dreams. It is one of the ways [through] which you can receive communication from the creator. The ability to interpret your dreams is a very important thing. Spiritual teachers, and Muzaffer Ozak was one of them, teach us that not all of our dreams are equal; some are false, some are true. Most of the true dreams are not literal, what you see in the dreams is not what it means. It is symbolic and needs to be interpreted. This is another skill and there are books that teach us these things. If you read Ibn Seerins' "Dictionary of Dreams" you will see how rich it is. Interpreting dreams is an art as well as a science.
- Speaking of interpreting, you always note that Arabic words have multiple meanings in the way they are used in the Qur'an. Do you think someone can get the whole message of the Qur'an by reading the English translation?
- Arabic is one of the few languages and the only one I know of that has remained unchanged for 15 centuries. If you look at English for example, the English of the 16th century of Shakespeare is already hard to understand-, if you go [further back], modern English speaking people cannot even understand it. [In] three-four centuries many languages have changed so substantially that they are hard to understand. What happened to the Arabic language is that over more than 15 centuries, words have developed colors and shapes of meaning. This is true even in English or many languages; you have coloration. That's why we like French or Italian, because a word is not just a carrier of meaning. The word also has music to it. When Dean Martin says "That's Amore" it has a certain soul. For those of us who are musically inclined, opera for example, you cannot translate a Puccini opera in Italian into English. You can get some meaning of the Qur'an in English, but you cannot get the whole experience.
"Islamic law is not an understanding in black and white."
There is a bookstore down the road from Masjid al-Farah called Sufi Books. After operating as a bookstore for many years it has been converted into a reading room today. With its detailed and varied books on Islam, Sufism, mysticism and other religions, Sufi Books stands as a beacon of spiritual light.
This is where Imam Feisal's weekly sessions are held on topics such as spiritual guidance, Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. The difference between his Friday sermons and these classes is that these classes require an advanced understanding of Islam. "This class is not about religion. The subject matter is to share and learn the 'architecture of Islamic thought,' how to think Islamicly," he summarizes.
The overall diversity in Imam Feisal's Friday sermons is well represented here with inquisitive students ranging from lawyers to educators, marketers and Wall Street brokers. Aged between 25 and 35, all except a few are American with parents or relatives hailing from the Middle East , South Asia , or Africa . You can also find white Caucasian Americans in the mix and even non-Muslims who are in search of spiritual guidance. "Our goal is not to judge people, but to transform them," clarifies Imam Feisal.
Lengthy discussions and lectures offer a different view on Islam and spirituality. "Islamic law is not an understanding in black and white, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of it," believes Imam Feisal. For example, Imam Feisal was raised in a Western education system. When he finished high school, he knew three ways to solve the Pythagoras' theorem, could quote from from memory lines Shakespeare's Macbeth, but did not know the difference between a hadith and a sunnah, he complains. (Hadith is any report by someone on anything that the Prophet said or did, whereas sunnah is what the Prophet personally said or did). He complains that not adequate attention is given to Islamic education, and that therefore our questions seem complex. "We are trying to fit a square into a circular whole," he says half jokingly. We teach our high school students things that we were not known a mere century ago in the fields of science, but we do not teach them the basics of Islamic law which were formulated over a thousand years ago.
He goes on to explain that a difference in Islamic practices arose among Muslim countries in part because those countries already had cultural customs before they became Islamized. Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak puts it accurately: "A river passes through many countries and each claims it for its own. But there is only one river." Interpretations of the Qur'an are as varied as the cultures, influenced and shaped up by their histories and societies, but there is only one Qur'an.
During one class, Imam Feisal let the class ask all the burning and subdued questions they had. Questions about tattoos, alcohol, and pre-marital sex were raised. The crux of the problem today is that Muslims born and/or raised in Western societies (and the class gathers a fine sample of them) want to apply Islamic practices into their daily lives, but struggle against some clear-cut rulings."We're too much focused on the mechanics and not the context," says Imam Feisal emphatically. The bottom line is that if we can understand why and in which context those rulings and hadiths were made, we can better understand how to apply them into our daily lives in a society that bears little resemblance to the one Islam originated from. "Modern attributes are different today from those a thousand years ago," adds Imam Feisal. The more you listen to him, the more you realize that his thoughts are smarter and more subtle than they might first appear.
Imam Feisal's cognitive explanations and interpretations trigger a need in all to probe Islam and its teachings. It's as if in his classes and delivery everything makes sense. Always underlying God's omniscience and omnipotence, he gradually builds a psychological state, where our minds, hearts and creed intersect.
- This year you began a series of classes on Islam that cover a wide area of topics from spiritualism to shari'ah (Islamic law). Do you feel like you're learning too while you're teaching?
- Constantly. Even more, because life is a constant journey and you have to learn not only more, but more nuanced things. I wish that there was an [Islamic] education that was as developed as my secular education. When I went to high school in the early 60's, the teaching tools were more than what my father had. We had science labs, he didn't. Today, high school kids have what I didn't have: computer labs. There is always an evolutionary development in teaching methods and how sophisticated you teach.
- Do we have a similar evolutionary education process in Islamic teaching as well?
-That is my complaint. When we studied, let's say chemistry in high school, we studied Pascal's law, Boyle's law, the periodic table etc. You go back 300 years and these were not known. Now, Islamic law was discovered, written and developed over a thousand years ago. But it's not taught in a way that is simple enough for high school kids. Today, for example, high school students will learn how to do a Lorenz contraction, something from Relativistic Physics, but they cannot read Einstein's original papers and understand them. High school books take certain ideas from Einstein's papers and describe them in a simple form; this is what effective teaching is all about. You don't make a high school student a qualified bridge building engineer by throwing him right away in all the complex engineering studies. We can take the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, its vocabulary for example, and begin teaching some of the basics at the high school level so that a generation of Muslims develop a nuanced understanding. Because of this we have a problem in the Muslim world today. Many people think they are qualified in interpreting Islamic law, but they are not. They don't even understand the basic concepts.
- You have been particularly successful and effective with non-Muslims in turning them to discover and assimilate the spiritual aspect of the Qur'an and its teachings. How do you communicate to them that makes them pay attention?
-Language is the biggest problem that humanity has. The source of all human problems lies in miscommunication and the unwillingness to understand. The difficulty is that language is more than just the words you use in say the English language. Everyone has their inner language. If you, as a man, don't understand the language of women you will not be able to communicate to a woman. It's not the language you speak, it's the way people interpret and understand what you say, the way people hear what you say. So, to be a communicator you have to know how people emotionally and intellectually respond to what you say and find the right means of expression so that what you say does not arouse their animosity, but their understanding and their admiration and love. When you do that people acquire this understanding and they feel drawn, because it's something they're seeking. The fact that I was raised from a very early childhood in Western societies gave me an intuitive feel for the way people living in these societies think and emotionally respond to various stimuli. Having also been raised in the other part of the world, I have an inside view from both directions. Through this inside understanding you are able to bridge more effectively.
-What are your goals as ASMA Society and how far have you advanced in achieving them?
-Our goals are many. It is to create the voice that speaks on the issues of the day pertaining to the faith of Islam, not only as a religion but as a spiritual practice in modern times. There are many issues that intersect that primary vision. Among them are issues of identity, because many of us grew up in traditional societies where the boundary between religion and culture was not finely drawn. We come from societies which had ancient civilizations; Egypt , Mesopotamia , Iran , India , Anatolia . When our ancestors became Muslims, those aspects of their culture which did not violate Islamic theology, principles or ethics continued. So if a person today travels in the Muslim world he will see this blend, a kind of "religious cultural blend." What has happened is that people from all over the world have immigrated to the US and they have re-created their centers around their ethnic identity. In many cases their practices are cultural, not necessarily religious. This has created another fragmentation with the second generation, those who were born and grew up in this country and are culturally American. They would like to engage in the practice of their faith, but they feel culturally alien from the culture of their parents. Thus, there is a need to develop what I call "an American-Islamic identity," an Islam that is orthodox in its religion, in its theology, in its practice, but culturally American and Western. To create the setting that such an objective can reach, this is one of our goals.
The American-Islamic identity Imam Feisal mentions is a notion he firmly believes needs to be addressed. In a recent interview he said that "Those who are born and raised here [in America ] feel they are Americans. We have to define ourselves as Americans. It is anticipated that Islam will restate itself within the language constructs, within the social constructs, within the political constructs of American society." It is a challenging and progressive concept that involves political and social openness and that at first sight may seem to be at odds with Islam's image as a strict, authoritarian, and anti-Western religion.
Imam Feisal was brought on as consultant for the TV documentary project Muslims that emerged from the minds of the creators of FRONTLINE. Muslims is a special two-hour film examining the different faces of Islam's worldwide resurgence and the fundamental tenets of the faith, centering around the question "What does it mean to be a Muslim today?" Along with perspectives of leading scholars of Islam, the film crew drew on experiences of people in Iran , Nigeria , Egypt , Malaysia , Turkey , and the United States . The underlying theme was how Muslims struggled to define Islam's influence on their lives and societies.
Muslims premiered during the TV Documentary Festival at the Museum of Television & Radio in May (Check local PBS listings for air dates on TV). Imam Feisal faced thorny questions from a fervent audience after the screening. When someone asked "Islam is one, Muslims are many. How do you justify the different categorizations of Islam such as radical, militant and as such?" everybody turned to Imam Feisal. "We have to understand the terminology," he said confidently. "We take everything literally and many people are imprisoned in the fashion of ideas." With exqusite and astute words pertinent to Imam Feisal he continued: "We need to understand the Qur'an in its context keeping in mind the time and political relationships. We need to understand the Arabic language and rhetoric, how it was interpreted by the Prophet and his companions." When Imam Feisal talks he throws his hands in the air, divides up space, and clutches his fingers. With a beautiful bright smile on his face he drew a large circle in the air and concluded: "When you don't have this in your radar screen you are going to arrive at wrong conclusions."
"Sufism without Islam is like a candle burning in the open without a lantern."
- Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak
- What is the interplay between Islam and Sufism?
- Human experience of religion, at the deepest level, is a search to understand the primary meaning of what it means to be human. The religious search answers that quest by saying that the answer to this question lies in the knowledge of God. In developing the relationship between you, as a creature of the creator, and the creator as your Lord. When we learn to practice our religion in a sociological setting of a family or of a country, we learn to practice religion in a very external way - from the outside in. We're taken to church, mosque, synagogue and brought up in that, so we just acquire that. Religion primarily deals with the deepest part of your inner self. In the experience of Muslims, even generations after the Prophet, they practice their religion from the outside in, but without having the inner enlightenment and longing. So within the Islamic tradition, those who focus on that inner development, which is what the prophet and his companions did, were later called the Sufis.
[During] the time of the Prophet, the Prophet and his companions called themselves mu'minun (believers). The Qur'an even tells the Prophet to tell the Bedouin Arabs who have accepted his faith and said "We have iman (faith), we have become believers" to tell them "No, you're not believers." Tell them they're Muslims because iman (faith) has not entered their hearts.
Now, it's not politically easy to have a situation where you say "We are mu'minun the faithful, and you are not, you are just Muslims," because this statement is a value statement. So the labels changed. Those who practiced the faith were considered Muslim, because they practiced the outward display of faith. Those who really were committed and had this inner enlightenment called themselves by different, politically correct and safe names.
People don't know exactly where the word Sufi comes from. Some say it's from the word "soof" meaning wool because the prophet wore wool. Some say it comes from the Greek word "sophia" or wisdom. (Philosophia means the love of wisdom) The names tasawwuf and Sufism were neutral words, it was later they became emotionally loaded.
- You mention that "the prophet's theme was that the perfected believer is one who is involved in life, not avoiding it." What is the route that Sufis follow to achieve this delicate balance?
- Sufism is about developing your spiritual self, it's about trying to become a perfected human being, to become a beloved of God, to become as possible one with Allah. There's a hadith in which Allah says, not Qur'an it's a hadith, "My servant does not approach me by anything which is dearer to me than that which I have obliged him." It means that to get closer to God, avoid the things which God told you to avoid, and do the things God told you to do. The hadith continues: "Then my servant continues to approach me by doing nafilah (supererogatory) acts, more than what I have obliged him to do of good things: More prayers, more fasting, more charity, until I love my servant. When I love my servant, I become the eye by which he sees, the ear by which he hears, I become the hand by which he grasps, I become the foot by which he walks," and in another version of the hadith, "I become the heart by which he understands." When Allah loves you, you will feel protected and empowered. You will see little miracles beginning to happen in your life, like invisible forces around you arranging your affairs for you. When you reach that stage you are a weli-ullah, a friend of Allah who protects you.
I leave him with perpetual thoughts circling around my head, gradually picking up pace in a deluge of memories, turning faster and faster like the whirling dervishes, dancing and circling until they have diffused deep within me, where I return to my reclusive soul that gratifies my essence, and I inhale the divine breath I originated from, searching for the place where my beginning, my end and my existence resides.
"Surely! Unto your Lord is the return."
- Quran [96:8]
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