article

08.19.10

My Meetings With the Man Behind the Mosque

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the controversial Islamic center Park51, represents a liberal version of Islam, says biographer Brad Gooch, who shares his memories of a friendship with him going back a decade.

Over the last decade, I occasionally experienced the trompe l’oeil kick of watching a familiar face (and voice) on TV. “I know that guy,” I’d think, catching Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on Sunday morning talk shows. The tickle of recognition began to turn to shock, though, about a month ago, when Rauf, as imam of the proposed Cordoba House (also called the “ground zero mosque”), morphed from talking head to the hot topic itself. As the story popped from a page 3 item on a Community Board 1 meeting in The New York Times to the cover of the New York Post to the cover of Time, from Bloomberg’s comments to Obama’s (three times, and counting), Feisal Rauf is suddenly a household name. For once, everyone was debating about something I knew firsthand. But I have been having trouble connecting their dots with the dots I know.

His weekly prayer group was a Noah’s ark (the Koran has Noah, too), including the grandson of a Syrian president; a Jewish librarian; a Roman Catholic Latina; an African-American radio commentator.

I first met Feisal Rauf in the spring of 2000, while working on my book Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America. I wished to write a chapter on Islam in New York City, and a friend took me to a lecture Feisal was giving on his new book, Islam: A Sacred Law, subtitled What Every Muslim Should Know About Shariah. (I learned that night what many screaming heads have not yet—there are different schools of Islamic law, as there are denominations in Christianity, and Feisal is part of an extremely liberal one.) The event was in the basement of a (since vanished) Sufi bookstore on West Broadway. Next door was the Masjid Al-Farah, where I began to attend his Friday talks. This jewel of a mosque was founded in the mid-'80s and is still a commitment of Shaykha Fariha, whose given name is Philippa de Menil, a daughter of the wealthy Houston family of art patrons. I interviewed Feisal at a nearby café. Eventually, he invited me to attend a meditation group in Sufism—the mystical branch of Islam—he led Friday nights at the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife Daisy Khan. I frequented the group over four months.

Full coverage of the ground zero mosque

Asra Q. Nomani: The Money Behind the Mosque
I needed a sympathetic guide to the cosmopolitan, and complex, world of Muslims in New York City. Central Casting couldn’t have done better than Feisal Rauf. I felt some bond because, born in 1948, he was only four years older, and we were both Columbia grads. He talked a language I understood. “Reading a translation of the Koran is like reading a translation of one of Puccini’s operas, in English, without the music,” he said. (Ding! went a bell in my head.) When asked about homosexuality, while admitting a majority of Muslims would agree with a tirade I recently heard, he argued the issue was behavior “apart from the question of sexual orientation.” I met his father, since deceased—an elegant Cambridge-educated gentleman and grammarian, who started the first Islamic Center in New York City in 1965. His weekly prayer group was a Noah’s ark (the Koran has Noah, too), including the grandson of a Syrian president; a Jewish librarian; a Roman Catholic Latina; an African-American radio commentator.

The book on which I was doing all the gumshoe reporting, Godtalk, is now a time capsule. Yet the chapter that keeps being smash-cut with living history is its last, forcing me at least twice to rethink Feisal Rauf and his American Muslims. Between the book’s writing and publication, in 2002, came the 9/11 attacks. I did a bit of updating of the manuscript, but mostly the group I knew had been jolted beyond recognition. One of its foreign-born members was recruited to work in media outreach to the Middle East by the State Department. I heard the FBI had tapped Feisal for help in its intelligence operations. A few of the younger American-born Muslims in the prayer circle were shying away, feeling queasy about identifying with their religion.

About a year ago, I revived my acquaintance with Feisal. I went to meet with him at the offices of his Cordoba Initiative, near Riverside Church on Morningside Heights, supported in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. I was about to sign a contract to write a biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet associated with tolerance; I knew Rumi was Feisal’s “main man” and wanted his thoughts. (Rumi famously wrote “I am not Christian, Jew, Pagan, Muslim/I am not East or West.”) “Did we bring you to Rumi, or did Rumi bring you to us?” joked Feisal. I subsequently ran into his wife Daisy, the night of the Community Board hearings. “I was struck by just how much grief and pain they are in,” she said of the victims’ families. “No one has really been paying attention to them.” Feisal has since disappeared—under the radar. Ramadan has begun, and he is no doubt fasting 14 hours from sunrise to sunset. Hopefully fasting is granting him clarity on some roiling issues that are surely not giving the rest of us any peace.

Who is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? When I first met him when he was giving weekly Friday talks as an imam of a small mosque in Tribeca. Here is an excerpt about my experience with him in 2000.

Rauf was a young man in his early thirties with a more traditional Muslim pedigree. Born into a family of seyyed, descendents of Muhammad, Rauf’s father was Dr. Muhammad Abdul Rauf, born in 1917 in Egypt, a graduate of al-Azhar University with an M.A. from Cambridge and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of London. He was in charge of the Islamic Center of New York City (1965–1970) while negotiations were under way for the purchase of the land for the 96th Street mosque, and between 1970 and 1980 he served as director of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. Among several more specialized books, he wrote Islam: Creed and Worship, a basic Islamic catechism in English. As he was helping devise the early circuitry for disseminating Islam in America, his son, Feisal, who’d been born in Kuwait in 1948 and grew up in England, Malaysia, and the United States, earned an undergraduate degree at Columbia University and attended Stevens Institute in New Jersey, where he studied physics in the doctoral program.

For almost 20 years since, Feisal Rauf has been giving the Friday sermons at the Masjid al-Farah. In those weekly talks, his poise and, of course, sweetness are blatantly Sufi, yet there is no hint of a bohemian soft sell. On Friday, June 9, 2000, for instance, he read most of his khutba from a sheaf of white typed pages where he’d carefully prepared the bulk of his remarks, as might be expected from someone whose expertise was Islamic jurisprudence. He looked very gentlemanly, with white hair and a clipped white beard, his brown eyes clear and calm, speaking English with a British inflection, and dressed in a white cotton tunic. He addressed the usual gathering of about 150 men and women on his topic. “Degrees of Divine Sound,” the women separated at the rear by an ankle-high string run across the long, narrow prayer hall. Given an unofficial two-party system in Sufism between the “sober” Sufis, who observe rules and etiquette in their relations with God, and their “drunken” cousins, who prefer open, swooning union, Rauf definitely seemed on the “sober” side. Yet there was nothing dry or authoritarian in his style. You would never imagine for a moment you were listening to a fire- and-brimstone orthodox Muslim exhortation. “We begin, my dear brothers and sisters, by entering into a state of submission before the presence and the throne of Almighty Allah,” he said, holding on to the cherry wood rail of the mihrab and putting space around his words so that he seemed like someone who’d suddenly dropped down an atmosphere underwater. “We do this by emptying our hearts of all the distractions, from all the emotional issues which grip us. Empty your minds of all thoughts after a week of work, of issues and debates with other people. Leave that behind you with your shoes. And enter into a space that is sacred.”

Following his talk, we walked across West Broadway to the Franklin Station Cafe, a clean, white triangular restaurant billing itself as a French and Malaysian bistro, which he frequents as a reminder of his years spent in Malaysia, where his father taught before moving to America. Having removed his white tunic, he was now dressed in civilian clothes—a button-down Brooks Brothers-style striped shirt and tan pants. He did carry with him a Moroccan cane several centuries old tipped with beaten copper that had been given him recently by a Moroccan sheikh. He filled me in on some of the details of his adult life: taught remedial math in the New York City public school system following graduation; manages real estate as a “bread-and-butter” business; lives in North Bergen, New Jersey, with his wife, Daisy Khan, the Kashmiri niece of Faroque Khan who designs office space for a publishing company; and is president of the American Sufi Muslim Association, a member of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of New York, and of the Interfaith Center of New York, and lectures at the New York Seminary, an institute for training interfaith ministers.

We talked about the reputed magic of the Koran, the magic of sound he hinted at in his sermon, yet that is often missed in flat translation. “Reading a translation of the Koran is like reading a translation of one of Puccini’s operas, in English, without the music,” he said, over a mango salad and a dish of spicy salmon with cold noodles. “The Arabs used to pride themselves on their complex poetry. It was the only art form a nomadic people could develop and carry with them, so they developed it to the highest possible degree. Yet when the Koran came along it blew the minds of the people of the time. It was as if you had lovely oil paintings and then Monet and Picasso come along and produce something not along these rules but even better. But if you don’t have an artistic sensibility, you can’t appreciate what they’ve done. There are pre-Islamic poems that continue to exist. They’re very desert, very nomadic. You can smell the air of the desert. But the Koran has an entirely different odor, a different smell.”

Relying on lots of qualifications and hypothetical examples and quotations from hadith, Rauf also talked of contemporary social issues. As Sufis often do, he seemed flexible and liberal, especially up against the cliché of Islam as preaching a simple “Boy Scout” moral code. When I mentioned the discussion of homosexuality I’d had with Ghazi Khankan, he said, “If you ask me what the majority of Muslims believe, I would say they believe exactly what Ghazi told you. As in the Old Testament, homosexuality is referred to in the Koran in the story of Lot. But the primary crime that the people of Lot committed was rejection of God and his prophet Lot. All Muslims assert that God is most merciful, most compassionate. That’s the attribute that opens every chapter of the Koran. Some Muslims therefore believe that for God to create you with a desire then punish you for seeking to fulfill it is inconsistent with an all-merciful and all-compassionate Creator. But Islam condemns promiscuity and adultery, and flaunting one’s sexuality, apart from the question of sexual orientation. We therefore need to be clear on what the nature of the sin is.”

By the time we’d finished our coffees and a light rain was beginning to fall in Tribeca, he revealed that he was now himself a sheikh of a Sufi group, which met on Friday nights for dinner and dhikr at an apartment he and his wife keep on the Upper West Side. When I asked how this came about, he told of a series of encounters that packed some of the spiritual thrill of G. I. Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, a classic account of meetings with mystics and saints in the Middle East and Central Asia at the turn of the last century: “Eleven years after Sheikh Muzaffer’s death, I was invited to go to a sacred music festival in Fez, Morocco. Before I left, Heiner, Philippa’s husband at the time, who’s very perceptive, said, ‘Now don’t go and take hands with another sheikh there.’ This was in 1996. After one of the shows, a lady comes up to me and says, ‘Are you a Sufi?’ Well, no one ever said that to me in my life. It was like someone coming up to you at a Woodstock festival or in Central Park and asking, ‘Are you a Sufi?’ We became friends.”

Rauf invited me to attend his circle, which I did over four months during the summer of 2000. If the Islamic Center of Long Island and the WARIS Center showcase the possibility of an American Islam, stripped of djallabahs and of some misogynistic attitudes as well, Rauf’s Sufi group does the same for Sufism, avoiding both Masonic Lodge-style esotericism and hippie feel-good syncretism. Certainly the location is as normal for New York City as a scene in a Woody Allen film: a 10th-floor apartment in a doorman building a block from Broadway on West 85th Street. One evening the Latino doorman remarked to Daisy Khan, “You have very interesting people visiting you every week, very well dressed.” The arrivals prompting his observation were a Sufi from Africa with a retinue of four men, all dressed in full African regalia, with tall spherical hats. Usually, however, the 30 or 40 gathered blend quite well with the rest of the New York Times-carrying, bike-riding tenants crowded in the slow elevator at the end of a busy work week. 

An excerpt from Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America, copyright © 2002 by Brad Gooch, published by Knopf.

Brad Gooch is a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His latest book is Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor