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ISLAM: The Spiritual Matrix

by Mehmet DEDE

"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.

"Imam Feisal delivering his Friday sermon at the Masjid al-Farah"
(photo/edit: © 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale)

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 Sufi Muslim Association) 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.

"There is a need to develop an American-Islamic identity"
believes Imam
Feisal. (photo: © 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale)

"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.

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