A Spark of Freedom in the Muslim World
Presenter: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
The spark of freedom is spreading throughout the Muslim world. History proves that democracy yields greater peace and prosperity and safeguards the rights of all religious/ethnic minorities and women. We must help institutions that will buttress democracy and serve as a remedy to deficiencies created by dictatorial regimes.
PETER MORALES: Good morning again. We're deeply honored to have Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf with us today. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a dedicated and eloquent spokesperson for Islam and a leading advocate for interfaith understanding. His wisdom and skills as an arbiter of Islam have been particularly important since 9/11. We're equally happy to welcome his wife Daisy Khan, who is accompanying him on this trip. She's also renowned in her own right—
PETER MORALES: —as a leading spokesperson and activist promoting a greater understanding of Islam in the West. Both Imam Feisal and Ms. Khan were the main forces behind the Park51 Community Center, originally called Cordoba House, a proposed complex housing a Muslim community center and multi-faith worship space near Ground Zero in New York City. Imam Feisal has been an outspoken advocate for the center, winning the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the process. Foreign Policy Magazine named both Imam Feisal and Michael Bloomberg as two of the top 100 global thinkers of 2010. Imam Feisal has a long career as a Muslim leader and as an advocate for Islam. In 1997, he founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement along with Ms. Kahn, who continues to serve there as Executive Director. He's also a trustee of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and is a Vice Chair of the Board of the Interfaith Center of New York.
He's founder of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent multi-faith project dedicated to improving, understanding, and building trust among people of all cultures and faith traditions. The name Cordoba was chosen because Cordoba, Spain was a place where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together peacefully under Muslim rule in the eighth through the 15th centuries. The Imam is the author of four books, including What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America, and has given speeches and talks around the world. He's been a recipient of numerous awards, such as the Annual Alliance Peace builder award and the annual James Parks Morton Interfaith Center of New York Award, which he won with his wife Ms. Kahn. In May 2011, he was named by Time Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people. We are proud to welcome him to our General Assembly. Imam?
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Peter. My dear brothers and sisters, it is indeed a pleasure for me to be here. And I'd like to greet you by the Islamic greeting of peace, may God's peace be upon you. It is customary for Muslims to begin a lecture, or anything, by invoking the name of God, the Creator of the heavens and the Earth, and all that is between them. A God is not only a Creator who created the world, but a God who made a covenantal agreement with humankind and taught humankind through many prophets and messengers upon whom we are also accustomed to invoking God's blessings—beginning with Adam, continuing with Noah, for God is the God of all of these prophets and messengers, including Abraham, the god of Ishmael and Isaac, the god of Aaron and Moses, the god of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, who Muslims believe to be the best of women, the God of John the baptist, and the God of Muhammad. May God's peace and blessings be upon all of these noble prophets and messengers.
It is a particular pleasure for me to be here among Unitarians because, as I've often mentioned to Christian audiences, a lot of the problems that exist between our faith communities is because of the names that we give ourselves. And if it were possible to conceive of Muslims as Unitarians with an Arabic liturgy—
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: —imagine how different our relationships would be between Christians and Muslims. And in fact, I learned yesterday that even the first Unitarians were accused of being secret Muslims or secret Jews because they did not believe in the trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
But these common bonds really underline a much more important point. And that is that we as human beings, as creatures of a common God, are bound by a set of principles that bond us together. And I can think of nothing that is more important than the commandments that God gave through Moses. And when Jesus was asked what is the most important commandments, he answered "to love the Lord, thy God, with all of your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul, and all of your strength." And the second commandment, which Jesus said is like unto the first, co-equal with the first, is "to love thy neighbor as thyself."
And then he adds in the following statement, which most, even Christians, do not remember—Jesus says, "upon these two commandments hang all of the law and all of the prophets." In fact, in my discussions and lectures on Islamic law, I point out how Muslim doctors of law developed Islamic law from these two commandments. The commandment of loving God giving us the mandate or the responsibility to do that. And the laws pertaining to that, which in Islamic law is called the laws of worship, or [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. And the laws pertaining to the second commandment, called by Muslim scholars muamalet, or laws dealing with worldly affairs, which then developed into the laws of personal status, criminal law, business contract law, laws pertaining to treatment of animals, laws pertaining to protection of the environment, and later on developing into what we call laws of good governance, or laws of nations, or what we today call international law.
So we see how much of what we might consider to be even secular thinking has been informed by our principles of what God demands of us. And in my lectures on trying to show the similarity of Islamic thought with even American thinking, I point out that Muslim scholars have also stated that all of God's laws, what we call the sharia, or Islamic law, has the overriding purpose of protecting human best interests in this life and in the next life. And Muslim scholars unpack that into the protection and furtherance of six fundamental objectives of the law—to protect and advance and develop and enhance human life, human dignity, or what you call liberty. The pursuit of property, the pursuit of a happy family life and all that it entails of emotional and sexual and physical intimacy and gratification. The development of our intellectual pursuits, because man is, after all, a rational animal, and we are defined by our capacity to think. And to protect our freedoms of beliefs, what we would call the right to practice the religion of our own choosing.
This is why our American Declaration, which declares in its opening lines, that "we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights"—in other words, we believe that these rights were given to us by God, and that among these inalienable rights are life, liberty, and property. And property was then edited and changed to pursuit of happiness. And what do we do to pursue our happiness when we have life and liberty? We pursue property, we pursue family, we pursue our intellectual pursuits, and we want to practice the religion of our truest conscience.
So we can see here how Islamic essential viewpoint, how the constructs of Islamic jurisprudence and legal thought, is expressed very, very effectively and well in the American Declaration of Independence—a declaration that if you continue to read, talks about the wrongs that were done by the English King, and why the American Revolution occurred, to establish these freedoms and to express the rights of a people, rights that were deemed to have come from God.
It is these rights, ladies and gentlemen—or brothers and sisters, today—that are being expressed in the Arab world. What we call this spark of freedom that people are looking for is something that has been a common yearning in humankind from the very beginning. The desire for a government that—in the words of a famous American President, Abraham Lincoln—is "of the people, by the people," and most importantly, "for the people." A government that serves the people, that serves its constituents. Not a government that regards the assets of a nation as belonging to the elite, and regarding the masses as there to serve the elite.
This is what we mean in America by democracy. A government that serves the people, that upholds justice, that helps provide safety nets for the poor, that gives people their rights, that protects their rights, protects their freedoms. It is this kind of governance that people seek in the Arab and Muslim world today. Which is why when we speak of American principles and we speak of Islamic principles, we should not see them as being opposite, but we should see them as being commensurate with each other.
It is my personal belief that when you visit the Supreme Court building, and you see on the frieze among the figures that are indicated there Moses and Muhammad, to me it's no accident. There's no accident that Thomas Jefferson read the Koran and has a copy of the Koran, which was the very copy that Congressman Keith Ellison pledged his Oath of Office, when he took office as the first Muslim member of Congress, representing the state of Minnesota. It is no accident to me that the concepts mentioned in our Declaration of Independence express values that are perhaps not religious language in the parochial sense of religious language, but expresses truths that any believer in God would feel, yes, this is our set of principles and our set of beliefs.
This is why I also say that it is important that America has an important role to play. America has played a very important role in shaping the shape of the world in the 20th century, from the inventions that America created. We were—America, that is—a very big part of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of the inventions were invented here—the motor car, the telephone. All of the technology that the world uses today, the vast majority of it came out of the genius of America.
But America also has played a very important role in creating a legacy for the principles of democracy. The French Revolution was inspired and influenced by the American Revolution. And the concept of a government that serves the people, that protects the rights of the people, is perhaps the most important legacy that America has given to the world. Even the British monarchy had to see the handwriting on the wall, and they formed a different kind of a society. They didn't eliminate the monarchy. They created a constitutional monarchy. They kept the notion of lords, but they created a bi-cameral Parliament, like what we have in our Congress between the Congress and the Senate. But there they had the House of Lords and the House of Commons, so they were able to maintain the role of the noble class, but gives the common class some kind of equity in power.
These are the kinds of models that are being discussed today as we speak in various parts of the Arab world, as we explore how to evolve those societies from dictatorships to democracies. In some, a republic may emerge. In some, a constitutional monarchy may emerge. So as we see what is happening in Egypt, the likelihood is a republic. As we see what is happening in Morocco today, and in Jordan, we see the likelihood of an evolution towards a constitutional monarchy.
But it is these experiences of peoples in other parts of the world to inspire models of governance that seek to address the common needs that every human being wants—what we called in America "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" issues. What is it that sparked this whole revolution was the desire of a Tunisian graduate who could not even feed himself. And he was trying to sell fruits on the street. And he was rejected because he didn't have a license to do so. And out of despair, a person who has tried so hard, invested in educating himself, could not even feed himself. This is the frustration, and this is the condemnation of a society or of a rule or of a governance that is unable to feed those people, and yet its leaders live in unparalleled and unrivaled luxury and wealth.
And therefore we, as Americans, and we, as American Muslims, and we, as American Unitarians, who believe in the oneness of God and oneness of humanity, have a particular mandate and a responsibility. The responsibility to express the love towards our fellow human being, as loving for them what we love for ourselves. The prophet Muhammad said, in his own way, none of you is a believer, none of you is a real believer until you love for your brother what you love for yourself. Now, I grappled with this in my younger days when I would be very jealous if my brother got something and I didn't, or somebody said, you know, your brother is more handsome than you are. We do feel these pangs of envy or of jealousy. And these are among the spiritual diseases, as sophists say, diseases of the heart that we have to grapple with in our own individual spiritual journey.
But then at a collective and societal level, we certainly have an obligation to help each other build and develop and prosper. And one of the things that I noticed when I came to this country, at the age of 17 in 1965—so you know how old I am now—is how Americans really were very generous, not only of themselves in helping others, but in even teaching others how to prosper. All these books of how to become a millionaire, or how to become prosperous in real estate or in mass marketing or whatever—but there are many, many self-help books available in America. There's a culture in America of helping other people prosper.
And this is something that is so wonderful about America. America has helped the world prosper, not only in terms of our buying power and how we represent a lot of the buying power of the world. But we have taught the world and educated the world. And the whole world wants to adopt these principles that we have here. They might not want to be American in every respect that we are. But they want to take these principles and adapt them in their own countries. So the Japanese have adapted aspects of American democracy principles of governance. They have adopted American principles of mass marketing, of production. They have adopted American principles of capitalism. And we see this happening even in the ex-socialist and communist countries, whether it be Russia or China. They have adopted American systems of capitalism in order to make their countries prosper and their societies prosper.
And this is what the Arab world wants and demands. And I am hopeful that we shall, God willing, be able to address that need which they have, and to help those countries prosper. There's a lot of capacity in that part of the world. There's a lot of youth. In fact, the vast majority of that population is under the age of 35 or 40. Perhaps 80% of the population is under 35 or 40 in that part of the world. They're young. They're bright. They want to have a better education. And it's no accident that the poster child for the revolution in Egypt was the head of Google. And that shows in a secondary way the influence of America upon much of the world, where you had people saying thank you to Facebook in Tahrir Square.
So we have a responsibility and we have a mandate here which I'm hopeful we will fulfill. We have ourselves initiated a project to visit Egypt and to share experiences on how democracies work. I know that from my discussions with people like Bill Schultz and others here from the Unitarian Universalist group, we were discussing projects where we can work together. We have also discussed with other faith communities and their leaders. Also with people in think tanks in the state department, where there's great interest to ensure that what happens in that part of the world happens in a positive way, and not in a way that creates enormous stresses in those societies.
But between the youth and the intelligence and the energy that exists in the Arab world, the capital of wealth that exists in the Arab world, the Arab world is also one of the greatest concentrations of energy—not only oil energy, but if you create solar energy, they have a lot of sun in that part of the world too. So that combination of raw man power, human power, and capacity in terms of wealth, combined with the American creative genius, I'm hopeful will bring about a better future. And those of us who are here today look forward to playing our role in bringing life to this spark in a way that will bring about what we call life, liberty, and the ability of those people to pursue their happiness. We pray for their happiness and their fulfillment and for their merging their worldly material happiness with their spiritual happiness and achieving the ultimate of success in this world and the next, and in achieving the approval of our Creator, whom we love and hope that he loves us in return.
My dear brothers and sisters, thank you so much for being patient with me, for being so kind and generous to me and my dear wife Daisy, and for embracing us as one of your own. We indeed feel a sense of deep kinship, deepest kinship, and in fact we believe that if you take away the labels of our faith, we all belong to one. Thank you, and God bless you.
PETER MORALES: The Imam has graciously agreed to answer questions. And so if you'd like to pose one, in what during plenary is the procedural mic, of you would come and ask that, we have a bit of time for that. Yes.
AUDIENCE: OK, thank you. As you look at our culture here in the US and also the Arab world, what are the most misconceptions from America and also from these cultures of the Middle East?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: The biggest misconception that people have on both sides is that the other side is against them. The Americans think that Muslims hate America. And Muslims think, in the Muslim world, that America is out to destroy Islam. That, to me, is the most dangerous misconception. And when I tell American audiences that Muslims really love America, they admire America, they want to be like America, Americans say they can't quite believe it, when you see what you hear in the media. The same thing when I'm in the Muslim world and say, Americans actually want to love Muslims. They say, what? They can't believe it. But that's the truth of the matter.
Unfortunately, the perceptions on each side have been shaped by education and by the media, most of all. And the media highlights negative events. So what happens is that you have some Ayatollah in Iran saying, death to America. That becomes the headline. And then you have some American talk show host, or some American colonel, who says this Islam is a bad religion. We're in Iraq to destroy Islam. That becomes the banner headline in the Muslim world. And then you get this vicious cycle of one thing feeding another. And then you get to the point where you have, then, acts of terrorism against American interests. And this thing just gets worse until you have a Florida Evangelical Pastor burning the Koran. That becomes a headline. And people's perceptions are shaped by that.
That is why I say that the real battlefront is not between America and Islam or Muslims, or between Muslims and Christians, but between the moderates, the 99.99%—whatever percentage—of moderates who believe in the same set of principles. Whether they are moderates who are Muslims, Christians, atheists, secularists, Americans, Egyptians, all of these moderates together. And yes, there are moderate Iranians. there are moderate Americans. There are moderate Republicans who believe in the same sort of principles against the extremists of every kind, who have hijacked the discourse and who are more attractive to the media than we moderates are. So—
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: So what we need is a coalition of those moderates who are able to combat the voices of the extremists. That's where our work is cut out for us. Thank you.
CHRIS ANTAL: HI, I have a question. I'd like to just first introduce myself. I'm Chris Antal. I'm one of four Unitarian Universalist Ministers currently serving as army chaplains. And—
CHRIS ANTAL: Thank you. And all of us, we wear the cross on our uniform because of our Christian heritage. And I recently had the opportunity to choose my chaplain assistant. And I chose a Muslim. He's American and he's a Muslim. And chaplain assistants are the bodyguards for the chaplain. So I trust him with my life. And I want to say that just so you understand where I'm coming from.
As I listened to your comments about the role of America shaping the world, our legacy, principles of democracy, your use the term revolution, I thought about my Japanese wife and my visit to Hiroshima and the two years I lived in Korea and my visit to the DMZ and what I learned about the Korean war. And what I'm wondering is where does the military play a role in this freedom? And what is our responsibility as the most powerful nation militarily towards the spread of this freedom in the Muslim world?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: That's a great question. Thank you, sir.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: I was invited by the president of Indonesia last November to visit and give the presidential lecture. And in reading about him—he's an ex-general. He was a general in the Indonesian military. And when the tsunami occurred in Indonesia, the demand of the [? town ?] was so much that they didn't have the ability to fix it. So they called upon other military units from Australia, from Malaysia, from other countries, because they had the logistical capabilities to bring in ships and planes to help the poor.
And I remember when I was reading that, I remembered the prediction by Isaiah where he talks about a time in the future when nations will not go to war against other nations and will not learn war anymore. And I thought this was a wonderful example of how the military services were being used for call it peace making, call it nation building, called it addressing of calamities. And I saw in that a glimpse of how the modern military can and need and should be used.
I have found in reading the analysis of—I forgot the name of the general now, who wrote the analysis of Afghanistan—that we have not been winning the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan. I found that the people who are from the military, military generals whom I've had the opportunity to meet, have a very nuanced understanding of the realities that they deal with. They are very reticent about going to war. They know the limits of war. They understand the costs of war, not only upon soldiers but upon those countries that they go into. And I'm hopeful that the influence of generals—as we see with Colin Powell, General Petraeus, the other generals who are working today—will help inform not only our political leaders, but also the general public on what needs to be done in terms of how America conducts its policies across the world.
I do a lot of international travel, and no Western leader wants to be at war against a faith that has over 20% of the world's population. It's a mind—concept. This is why both Bush and Obama have been saying this is not a war against Islam. And no Muslim political leader wants to have a war against the United States. There are interests that are very important to both sides. The United States, we have bases—many Americans don't know that—we have a base in Bahrain and a base in Qatar, two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf. In Turkey. We have military bases in many countries of the Muslim world. We have geopolitical interests. We have economic interests with each other. And the notion that we're at war against each other is just a false concept.
Another thing which I also remind people—never in human history am I aware of a situation where a political regime fought against religion and won. The mighty Roman empire tried to destroy Christianity. Within three centuries plus, Rome became the Capital of the Roman Catholic faith, and which has thrived for 1,800 years. The Nazis tried to destroy Judaism by creating the worst genocide in history. The Jewish state of Israel was created on the still-warm embers of the third Reich. The Soviet Union tried to destroy religion entirely. Communism now is a footnote in history, and all religion is coming back very strongly and powerfully in the ex-Soviet republics. And no religious war—the Crusades didn't result in the destruction of Islam or Christianity. So the notion of religious wars, the notion of a war against a religion, is just a bad idea.
CHRIS ANTAL: Amen.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: And that's why I'm surprised when Newt Gingrich claims to be a historian. Thank you, sir.
DON RICHTER: Thank you, Imam, for your generosity and Daisy's. My name is Don Richter. I'm a member of Arlington Street Church in Boston, fortunately near Harvard, where I took a course in Islam and learned how ignorant I was, how ignorant our President and members of Congress are—what is Sufi, what is Sunni, what is Shia, what does it mean that the Koran is the embodiment of the entire religion, unlike Christianity where Jesus Christ was the embodiment of the religion, or the Bible is a tool to reach to Christ? So it's very important to learn some of the fundamentals. What does Jihad mean? What is a madrasah? I'm asking whether there's a website or other source—your book, of course. But—
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Yes, please read my book. It's a great source for that. And I could use the money.
DON RICHTER: --is there a blog? Is there a website? Is there a Facebook presence? Where can we get more information?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Well, I'm sure there are many. And you can approach our website and certainly read my book as you just mentioned. And thank you for your comments. The truth is most people don't understand their religion, let alone another religion.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: And most of the problems we have today, even within our own community, comes from people who do not understand their religion. In fact, the greatest tragedy that has befallen the Muslim world today is that we have many young people who are very passionate about their faith, but whose passion is not equally balanced by a deep enough understanding of their faith. And therefore their misunderstandings rule them. And this, I think, is the problem that we have today. So we need to educate ourselves and to educate others on their own faiths. It is in my interest that a Christian is the best possible Christian, that a Jew is the best possible Jew, and that it is in their interest that I am also the best possible Muslim. Because if we adhere to the deep principles of our faith, which is to love God and love one another, then all the conflicts would disappear. And what Jesus said, or what Rabbi Hillel said to define the Torah standing on one leg, what is offensive to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Go and apply this. The problem is we are not applying it. If we apply that principle then there will be no conflict. This is nothing new, and yet we keep forgetting that. This is where really it all starts with.
NICK CABLE: Thank you, Imam. My name's Nick Cable and I've been involved with the interfaith movement for many years now, working with Eebo Patel in Chicago. And I just wanted to thank you again for speaking. And also I just had a question. Unitarian Universalist Congregations long for interfaith engagement. And I think some do it very well, and others are limited in their resources or what routes they take. And so in many cases, there's a clergy member in a church that is the sole face of their interfaith wing. They might do an interfaith pride parade or do some other kind of events. But with working in the interfaith youth movement, it seems like there's such an excitement of young people getting involved and in working with people. There's just less of a barrier, more of a longing. So I'm wondering how can we bring the excitement of the interfaith youth movement to local congregations, figuring out ways to bridge gaps between perhaps an illiteracy to getting to places where we can have effective dialogue and social action work?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Great question. I think that the way to do it is to sit down with each other and identify particular arenas of work which are of importance to people. I have identified the major sources of conflicts between our faith communities—between, say, America and the Muslim world—as coming from a number of problems. The political problems, the social problems, and some areas of theological interpretation, primarily, and how the media perceives that. So to that extent, we can create projects in each of these.
So let's say if you're [? drawing ?] seeds of peace in Israel and Palestine, to create peace in that area. Or how to bring peace to Iraq. Or how to develop democracy. How could you combine with other Muslim youth to visit Egypt or visit all of these countries, to help them and to bring them up to speed on how they can improve the discourse in their respective countries? Or let's say how to integrate Muslims into this society, which is in the social area. Or studying issues of theology for those who are theologically inclined and to love to read scriptures. So there are various arenas like that. But developing particular projects, both of study and of work, in terms of how to apply it, would be the arenas that I would recommend you to work on. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: As-salamu alaykum [Peace and blessings be upon you].
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Wa alaykuma salamu—which means peace to you.
AUDIENCE: Last night there was a mention about women are not allowed to be Imams. Is that a Koranic prescription or is that cultural?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: It is cultural, although the prophet did, in one event, give permission to a woman to be an Imam and to lead her community and her home in prayer. But the cultural norms are really very powerful in most societies, even within Christian societies as recently as 50 or 100 years ago. And what we're seeing today in the vast Muslim world is that as women get empowered, as women get educated—and by the way, if you go to the gulf countries, or in Iran, two thirds of the University population is women. And as the countries get more prosperous and as women receive their shares of inheritance from their fathers and parents—that's like what happened here in America when America prospered. And the women who inherited wealth were the ones who started the women's colleges. They were the ones who were on the forefront of the women's suffrage movement.
So we see these things happening today in the Muslim world. And with another half a generation to a generation at most, we will see women's rights continuing to improve. And we ourselves have a number of projects, which I'm sure you've heard Daisy last night talk about some of them, in which we are promoting women's education in matters of Islamic law particularly. Because as more women become justices or judges or experts in Islamic law, then they can articulate the case and prosecute the case for better women's rights. Thank you for your question.
AUDIENCE: As-salamu alaykum.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Wa alaykuma salamu.
AUDIENCE: I guess my comment is more a challenge to Unitarian Universalists. I'm the consulting minister at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Glen Allen, Virginia.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Move closer to the microphone.
AUDIENCE: OK, thank you. And we decided a year and a half ago to share our building with a small growing Mosque. And it has enriched us, because we can talk about interfaith work, and we can talk about doing work in the external community, but as we build friendships and have the dance of learning about our cultures and our faith traditions, it enriches us all. So I would encourage our congregations to be proactive in reaching out and perhaps finding other Mosques that would like to share buildings with our congregations.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Great. We should do that in New York, actually. Come to think of it.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: It's true, a wonderful idea. In fact, there's a verse in the Koran, a famous verse in the 49th chapter, in which Got says, we created you from one male and one female. All humankind. We created you from one male and one female. And we fashioned you into tribes and clans so you get to know one another. The best of you, in God's eyes, are the most pious of you.
But the idea that getting to know one another is part of the—it's almost like a kind of a Koranic imperative for us, which is probably why we don't do it. When God prohibits us from something, it's because we want to do it. We enjoy doing it. And when God commands us to do things, we tend to be very lethargic about doing. But I believe that the comment to get to know one another is a very important one. Because it makes the point that divine intent is about this variety. We believe in the Koran, that the Koran states that God sent messengers to every community to teach God's message in different languages, with different liturgies. This is part of the divine plan. So for us to get to learn about other faith traditions, to learn about other faith communities, to learn other languages, enriches us.
Studying another language does not make me lose my language. It makes me appreciate my language even more. When I studied other religions, I began to appreciate my own religion more and appreciate the other religions as well and to appreciate the commonness between our faith traditions. So learning about other communities, I think, is an actual imperative that we should really not only urge ourselves to do, but urge other communities to do as well. And I welcome that. Thank you.
LILYAN STRASSMAN: Thank you, Imam and Daisy Khan for your authenticity. I'm Lilyam Strassman from the Shelter Rock Unitarian Congregation in New York. And I want to know what is step number one for us to help you get your center.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Money.
AUDIENCE: [APPLAUSE] [LAUGHTER]
LEONARD PELLETTIERI: Shalom.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Salamu.
LEONARD PELLETTIERI: My name is Leonard Pellettieri. I was baptized Catholic in New York a long, long time ago, but most of my life I've been a Unitarian. And incidentally, we are not Christian. Unitarian Universalists are not part of the Christian denomination. But that's not really terribly important. That's just a label, where you put us. What I really want to tell you is that you may have already answered my question two questions back. This coming Christmas, to honor my wife's 80th birthday, she is taking eight of us—seven of us and herself—to Egypt to study, to learn, to expand our minds. And I'm pleased that we're doing this. And I wonder if you have any more specific suggestions as to how we might help ourselves and Egypt. Of course, just going there means we will need to spend a lot of money there. And they need that money.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: That's true.
LEONARD PELLETTIERI: And I think they're very hungry for tourists right now. And in case anyone in the audience thinks that it's a very dangerous place to be right now, I don't think it is. I don't think we really need great courage to go there. But if you could lead us there, where would you take us? What would you want to show us?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Ooh. There's too much to see in Egypt. Egypt, in fact, has museums which focus on different eras of its history, from the pre-Islamic Pharaonic history, to the history of the time of the Greeks, to the times of the Romans, to the time of the Arabs, to the times of the modern West. So we have so many layers of history. The time of the Ottomans. I think trying to see a cross section of that is something that you would want to see. Egypt was the crossroads of many of these empires. So we such a mix culturally, ethnically, genetically. We are Greeks, we are Romans, we are North Africans. We are all of that. And Egypt is certainly one of the most ancient cradles of civilization.
But I would like you to get to know the Egyptians. The Egyptians are basically a very salt of the earth kind of people. And they were not very theoretically minded but very practically minded. They may not have developed Pythagoras' theorem, but they certainly applied it, in terms of areas, and so forth, and farmlands. They somehow applied a lot of their knowledge to the building of pyramids into very, very precise degrees of accuracy. Enjoy it. Get to know the Egyptians. And build strong friendships. Because those friendships will be the basis for what comes in the future.
And I remember many years ago accompanying a person—I was then around 20 years old—who was an Egyptian Muslim looking for his Egyptian Jewish friend whom he grew up with, who left Egypt and was somewhere in America. We found him in Kansas City, and we spent about a week or so with him. And I remember one day driving the car. And I saw these Egyptians who were Jewish but they were Egyptians. They spoke Egyptian, they cooked Egyptian. And one moment his wife just screamed out [? wahido ?], which is a very Egyptian expression. It means say he is one, call him one. To which we say, Allahu ahad, or God is one. So it was almost like to me in this group of Unitarians the notion of calling him one, I think, is a common cry that we have as those who believe in the oneness of God. I just wanted to share that with you. Thank you.
DAVID RENO: Imam, I'm David Reno. And I certainly hope that the Muslim world and the American world continue their relationship. Because after all, there is a great influence. I was the gentleman who wrote to then representative-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the Congress, with a modest proposal that when he go to the Congress, he borrow the Koran used by Thomas Jefferson and take the oath of office on it.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Oh, wonderful. So you are responsible for that.
DAVID RENO: Guilty as charged.
DAVID RENO: And I suggested if any congressman objected, have one of his staff read Jefferson's writings on religious liberties, since the person probably couldn't read. But that's another story. I would also like to suggest on November 11 that a group of Unitarians come to the famous center and read aloud George Washington's letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation that said America will give to bigotry no assistance, et cetera, et cetera. He wrote it for the Hebrew congregation, and I think it is perfectly valid today. We should remember our American heritage, especially since the name America, as I understand it, comes from Amerigo Vespucci, which is an Italianization of Amir.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you so much, David.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: As-salamu alaykum.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Wa alaykuma salamu.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: My name is Abhi Janamanchi.
KRISTEN HARPER: I'm Kristen Harper.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: We have the same question. That's why we decided to come up together.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: This is the first time that's happened to me.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: In this form.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Imam, Islam is a religion that is deeply committed to social justice. A faith that, to me, embodies the rich diversity of the human race. To me, Islam is the most diverse religion culturally in the world. Part of the reason, as I have studied this faith I've learned, is that you take the commandment of working together seriously. Working across barriers of culture and race. As Unitarian Universalists, we struggle in that effort. And especially for those of us who are people of color, we sometimes find that to be a very difficult challenge, being a part of this predominantly Euro-American faith. What is it that Islam does right that enables you to celebrate the rich diversity of humanity that we Unitarian Universalists can learn from?
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you very much.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Well, I'm reminded here of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. When I came to this country, the name Islam was associated, then, with the black Muslim movement, which was a civil rights movement for the African-Americans and people of color in this country, specifically. So it was, for me, interesting to see how my religion was portrayed and looked at from the angle of a civil rights movement. But in reading Malcolm X's autobiography, when he went, then, for pilgrimage to Mecca, he saw Muslims of all colors. Whites, blacks, and all colors in between. And that is something which I grew up with in Egypt.
When you go to Egypt, you will see Egyptians who are negroid in their racial features and Egyptians who are very European in their features, blond and blue eyed. The prophet taught that. And he said that there is no preference. God does not prefer an Arab over a non-Arab. The best of you are those who are most pious. And piety is what counts.
I think that every community struggles with this issue. I can't say Muslims are perfect in that at all. I mean, I know that in many of our communities, there is still prejudice between maybe one tribe over another, one race over another. And we still have to battle against these divisive natures which human beings seem to have. But certainly within the vast majority of the Muslim world, color has not been so much an issue. But we certainly do have conditions which need to be fixed.
And by sharing experiences, by seeing what Muslims have done right which Americans can adopt, by seeing what Americans have done right which people in the Muslim world can adopt, is the kind of discourse we need to have with each other. And not to say, oh, you're a bad Christian because of this. And you're a bad Muslim because of that. But rather to say Christianity tells you to love another, and you to remind me that Islam teaches you to be merciful and compassionate to each other, to not judge each other based upon the color of your skin, but by the content of your character, as Martin Luther King said. And to exhibit the highest principles of our faith tradition.
I think this is what we human beings need to do. The Koran teaches us to remind, because human beings need to be reminded of our own values and to speak to people in terms of their own values. So it is helpful when you speak to Christians, say, well, this is what Jesus Christ said. When you speak to Muslims, say, this is what the Koran and the prophet said. This is how we are able to transform people and to help them come up to the highest principles of what they're really all about. But I thank you for your question. And I pray for a time when—I'm a person of color too. And—
ABHI JANAMANCHI: And we celebrate that.
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: We do.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: [? Shukria. ?]
IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you so much.
PETER MORALES: Please rise, in body or spirit, and thank the Imam for his wonderful sharing with us.
PETER MORALES: I was particularly intrigued with the Imam's description of the Muslim world as Unitarians with Arabic liturgy. And as someone who's been passionate about the growth of our movement, I would like to announce that we have grown by several hundred million members today. I will rest easier tonight in that knowledge. And for those of you who would like more information, I'm also pleased to announce that Imam and Daisy will have a book signing upstairs by the General Assembly registration area immediately after this session. So I invite you to go there. Once more, thank you. Thank you so much.
A Spark of Freedom in the Muslim World is General Assembly 2011 event number 3004.
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Last updated on Friday, May 3, 2013.
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