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Aasim I. Padela Headshot

Imam in the Middle, But Is He in the Center?

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As the Park51 community center and mosque project near Ground Zero is painted as an issue of the rights and future of the American Muslim community, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been challenged to demonstrate that he is a moderate voice for Islam. By portraying the mosque issue as one of American Muslim rights the community is forced to align itself with an Imam who may not represent our true center.

I first met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in 2002 at his NYC apartment where a group of young Muslim professionals had gathered for a study circle. After the events of 9/11 many Muslims in NYC were struggling to find their place within American society. Imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan filled the void and continue to create venues for Muslims to meet and discuss their faith without prejudice. This work is exemplified by the projects undertaken through their American Society of Muslim Advancement (formerly the American Sufi Muslim Association), the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow Project (MLT), the Cordoba Initiative, the Listening to Islam documentary, and the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, amongst others. I, along with many other Muslims, have been privileged to be part of some of these programs.

The inclusive spirit however has its shortcomings as well. At the first MLT gathering in 2004,we contemplated Islam's stance on homosexuality, the status of women in the legal code, and what it meant to be a progressive or modern American Muslim. While important, and soul-searching, questions were raised there was little offered to guide the perplexed and Imam Feisal does not necessarily bear the "Islamic" credentials to successfully engage those within the faith: he is not an Islamic scholar.

This point was exemplified in 2005. As the War on Terror in full-swing, Imam Feisal became more an international figure. His book What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West was published, and his interfaith work began to be supported the US State Department. In the televised Doha Debates, it was Imam Feisal arguing that the War on Terror was not a War on Islam, while Mustafa Ceric, the grand Mufti of Bosnia, argued the opposite. The apparent discrepancy in stature might have been lost for the non-Muslim audience, but not for its Muslim one. On one side an Imam from a small mosque in New York City, and on the other a grand Mufti who represented an entire nation.

The Doha debate demonstrates a critical failing in championing Imam Feisal as a voice to speak to the Muslim world. The Imam, unlike his father, and his opponent at the Doha Debates, is not a formally trained Islamic cleric, nor is he a university-trained Islamic studies expert. Thus, both within the Muslim world and in the American Muslim context, one struggles to properly assess Imam Feisal's place.

In 2007, the RAND Corporation issued a report entitled "Building Moderate Muslim Networks". The policy paper urges the United States government to ally itself with moderate Muslims. RAND argued that capable partners would found within "Sufis." Since Imam Feisal's trips to the Middle East are at times sponsored by the State Department, as noted by a recent NY Times article, it seems that RAND was heard. However, Imam Feisal may be on the fringe of the American Muslim fold in several important ways. Firstly, most American Muslims do not consider themselves Sufis, and if they do the belong to those Sufi orders which are backed by Islamic seminaries across the globe and tied closely to the Sunni Islamic schools of law. These orders such as the Naqshabandi, Chisti, Shadhili, Ba-Alawi, and Muhammadiyya are organizational giants with histories dating back hundreds of years. Imam Feisal's Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi order is less than a few decades old and does not allay itself with an Islamic legal tradition. If the idea is to have the Imam spur change his limited traction within the Muslim tradition posed an obstacle.

Imam Feisal's greatest strength is his ability to engage people from other religious traditions and foster interfaith collaboration. One of the aims of his work is to foster Abrahamic ethics with Christian and Jewish groups. While the Imam's accomplishments in this arena are many, it is curious to note that he is not on the roster of mainstream Muslim interfaith programs. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), arguably the largest civic organization representing American Muslims, is heavily involved in interfaith dialogue. Yet, Imam Feisal is rarely seen at their events and is not part of the initiatives through ISNA's Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances. Similarly, Imam Feisal is not part of many university-based interfaith initiatives either. Nazareth College recently inaugurated the Center for Interfaith Study and Dialogue and tabbed Muhammad Shafiq, a former Imam and author of Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims, as its director. Imam Feisal is conspicuously absent from this group as well. Imam Feisal's absence is in part due to the perception that he is not representative of the Muslim middle. As organizations attempt to foster dialogue between the center groups within each religious group he may be perceived as a little removed.

As the Park51 project near Ground Zero has become painted as an issue of religious freedom, American Muslims are confronted with championing the cause of a man who may not accurately represent them. While Imam Feisal is in the middle of the debate, he may not necessarily be at the center of the Muslim tradition.

Dr. Padela is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar and Islamic bioethics researcher at the University of Michigan, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding, and a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in the UK. His opinions here are his own and do not reflect those of his sponsoring organizations.