Thursday, February 28, 2013

Imam Speaks to Rhodes College Audience About "A New Vision of Islam in America"

Imam Speaks to Rhodes College Audience About "A New Vision of Islam in America"
By:  Michael G. Lander

Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf gives lecture at Rhodes College in
Memphis on "A New Vision of Islam in America"

A recognized, and self-professed moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., best known for his efforts to build a place of multi-faith dialogue, commonly referred to by some as the "Ground Zero mosque," spoke before an audience of about 250 on Monday, Feb 26, at Rhodes College in Memphis. 

Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf
was invited by the Rhodes College Muslim Students Association to give a lecture, entitled "A New Image of Islam."  It was part of a Rhodes College "Communities in Conversation" that is hosted by the school to encourage dialogue and discussions on issues that affect people on a local, national, regional, and global level.

Rauf is an American Sufi Imam, author, and activist who said that he wants to improve the communication between Muslims and those who come from different walks of faith.  He is the author of "What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America," and "Moving the Mountain:  Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America."  He also has written two children's books:  Quran for Children and Ahadith for Children

Throughout the hour and a half-long event, Rauf answered questions from audience members and shared details of his early life and about his own spiritual journey.  He had spoken earlier in the day at Calvary Episcopal Church.

Rauf said that he was born to Egyptian parents in Kuwait in 1948 and that he and his father emigrated to the U.S. in the 1960's, living in New York City.  It is there that he later served as the Imam of the Masjid al-Farah mosque from 1983 to 2009. 

Rauf said that he spent part of his early life in a quest for God and for the purpose and meaning of life.  After looking into his own heart, he claimed to have found God and experienced God's presence within himself.  From this, he said that he later felt led to a life of inter-faith dialogue and building a coalition of moderate voices from across the divide of all faiths.

Rauf fielded about a dozen questions that were asked of him, explaining, among other things, the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and how Jesus, according to the Quran, is perceived as a great prophet in the Islamic faith.  When it comes to gender equality, Rauf said that there is still some unfinished business left to do with this in some Muslim societies.

Rauf also discussed the shared values of the Muslim faith and America's founding documents in recognizing the equality and equal value of all human beings.  This, along with a belief in a creator, inalienable rights, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are all ideals, he said, that Muslims have historically embraced.  He also pointed out that it was the Muslim nation of Morocco that first recognized the U.S. after it declared its independence.

When asked about how Muslims have been treated since 9-11, Rauf described it as being much like a football game, going back and forth.  Despite some setbacks, however, he said that he is optimistic and that the acceptance of Muslims in the country has increased.  He said that the negative experiences Muslims have had thus far have not been like what other groups have encountered in the past.  In the end, he said, America has demonstrated a unique capacity to bring in and accept people from different religions and multi-cultural backgrounds.
Rauf believes that America has a vested interest in maintaining a relationship with the Muslim world since they make up 23 to 24 percent of the world's population.  He also pointed to military, business, and oil interests that America has in the Muslim part of the world.

While he sees that things have improved for Muslims in America, Rauf does feel that the attacks against moderate Muslims have come from all sides within the denomination itself.  "The real battlefront is from the extremists on both sides," Rauf said.  He believes that the moderates are actually the majority and that the extremists are only a very small faction.

One of the biggest misconceptions that Rauf currently sees, among non-Muslims, is that Muslims are all perceived to be terrorists or that they are trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else.  He said that he would like to dispel that myth.

In trying to explain why his message does not always get out, Rauf blames the media.  "The media loves to cover controversy, not a message of peace, love and harmony.  That's not news," he said.

During all of the controversy of what was referred to as the "Ground Zero mosque," Rauf said that he received a lot of support from around the world.  The experience and the support that he received, he said, actually strengthened both his resolve and his faith.  As for the mosque, (known as the Cordoba House), he said that it is a place for people of different faiths to come together.  More than anything, Rauf believes that the building of this center raised America's stock in the world.   

"This couldn't happen in Malaysia, for instance, without blood on the pavement," he said. 

The name Cordoba House was meant to invoke the 8th through 11th century city of Cordoba, Spain, which was a model of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  The 13-story Islamic community center will be located in lower Manhattan and will be open to the general public to promote interfaith dialogue.

The Cordoba House has not been without controversy and neither has two non-profits that were founded by Rauf.  The Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement,  intended to educate the public about Islam and to combat anti-Islam sentiment have been at the center of a lawsuit in which Rauf has been accused of embezzlement.  Due, in part, to these allegations, he was reportedly removed as the Cordoba House chief religious leader in January 2011.

Rauf concluded his lecture by saying that "We can all live as one under God."  He added that we are all God's creatures and that we are all ambassadors on earth and are here to fulfill God's purpose.

One of those in attendance at Rauf's lecture was Sameer Warraich.  Warraich works in the president's office at Rhodes College.  Warraich said that, prior to the lecture, the college had received about 20 emails expressing disappointment with the college over bringing someone who they perceived as a controversial figure to the campus.  After the lecture, the feedback that he said that he received from those in attendance was positive.

"When I talked to some of the non-Muslim students.... some of them wished that the world had more people like him, especially today, when communities all over the world are going through such a dynamic shift in religious and cultural paradigms," Warraich said.

Warraich views the Imam as representing a progressive view of Islam that has been able to change the manner in which people think about spirituality, religion, and cross-cultural dialogue.

"I also believe that Imam Feisal has a very critical role to play in the U.S. today, and his plan to build an inter-faith worship center is a move in the right direction," Warraich said.


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