| Islam: The Spiritual Matrix, Page
"Islamic law is not an understanding in black and white."
is a bookstore down the road from Masjid al-Farah called
Sufi Books. After operating as a bookstore for many years
it has been converted into a reading room today. With its
detailed and varied books on Islam, Sufism, mysticism and
other religions, Sufi Books stands as a beacon of spiritual
is where Imam Feisal's weekly sessions are held on topics
such as spiritual guidance, Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence.
The difference between his Friday sermons and these classes
is that these classes require an advanced understanding
of Islam. "This class is not about religion. The
subject matter is to share and learn the 'architecture
of Islamic thought,' how to think Islamicly," he
Feisal with his class at one of his sessions at Sufi Books."
2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale)
overall diversity in Imam Feisal's Friday sermons is well
represented here with inquisitive students ranging from
lawyers to educators, marketers and Wall Street brokers.
Aged between 25 and 35, all except a few are American
with parents or relatives hailing from the Middle East,
South Asia, or Africa. You can also find white Caucasian
Americans in the mix and even non-Muslims who are in search
of spiritual guidance. "Our goal is not to judge
people, but to transform them," clarifies Imam Feisal.
discussions and lectures offer a different view on Islam
and spirituality. "Islamic law is not an understanding
in black and white, there needs to be a nuanced understanding
of it," believes Imam Feisal. For example, Imam Feisal
was raised in a Western education system. When he finished
high school, he knew three ways to solve the Pythagoras
theorem, could quote from from memory lines Shakespeares
Macbeth, but did not know the difference between a hadith and a sunnah, he complains. (Hadith is any report by someone on anything
that the Prophet said or did, whereas sunnah is what the
Prophet personally said or did). He complains that not
adequate attention is given to Islamic education, and
that therefore our questions seem complex. "We are
trying to fit a square into a circular whole," he
says half jokingly.
teach our high school students things that we were not
known a mere century ago in the fields of science, but
we do not teach them the basics of Islamic law which were
formulated over a thousand years ago.
goes on to explain that a difference in Islamic practices
arose among Muslim countries in part because those countries
already had cultural customs before they became Islamized.
Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak puts it accurately: "A river
passes through many countries and each claims it for its
own. But there is only one river." Interpretations
of the Qur'an are as varied as the cultures, influenced
and shaped up by their histories and societies, but there
is only one Qur'an.
one class, Imam Feisal let the class ask all the burning
and subdued questions they had. Questions about tattoos,
alcohol, and pre-marital sex were raised. The crux of
the problem today is that Muslims born and/or raised in
Western societies (and the class gathers a fine sample
of them) want to apply Islamic practices into their daily
lives, but struggle against some clear-cut rulings."We're
too much focused on the mechanics and not the context,"
says Imam Feisal emphatically. The bottom line is that
if we can understand why and in which context those rulings
and hadiths were made, we can better understand how to
apply them into our daily lives in a society that bears
little resemblance to the one Islam originated from. "Modern
attributes are different today from those a thousand years
ago," adds Imam Feisal. The more you listen to him,
the more you realize that his thoughts are smarter and
more subtle than they might first appear.
Feisal's cognitive explanations and interpretations trigger
a need in all to probe Islam and its teachings. It's as
if in his classes and delivery everything makes sense.
Always underlying God's omniscience and omnipotence, he
gradually builds a psychological state, where our minds,
hearts and creed intersect.
year you began a series of classes on Islam that cover
a wide area of topics from spiritualism to shari'ah (Islamic law). Do you feel like you're learning too while
Even more, because life is a constant journey and you
have to learn not only more, but more nuanced things.
I wish that there was an [Islamic] education that was
as developed as my secular education. When I went to
high school in the early 60's, the teaching tools were
more than what my father had. We had science labs, he
didn't. Today, high school kids have what I didn't have:
computer labs. There is always an evolutionary development
in teaching methods and how sophisticated you teach.
we have a similar evolutionary education process in Islamic
teaching as well?
is my complaint. When we studied, let's say chemistry
in high school, we studied Pascal's law, Boyle's law,
the periodic table etc. You go back 300 years and these
were not known. Now, Islamic law was discovered, written
and developed over a thousand years ago. But it's not
taught in a way that is simple enough for high school
kids. Today, for example, high school students will learn
how to do a Lorenz contraction, something from Relativistic
Physics, but they cannot read Einsteins original
papers and understand them. High school books take certain
ideas from Einsteins papers and describe them in
a simple form; this is what effective teaching is all
about. You dont make a high school student a qualified
bridge building engineer by throwing him right away in
all the complex engineering studies. We can take the principles
of Islamic jurisprudence, its vocabulary for example,
and begin teaching some of the basics at the high school
level so that a generation of Muslims develop a nuanced
understanding. Because of this we have a problem in the
Muslim world today. Many people think they are qualified
in interpreting Islamic law, but they are not.
dont even understand the basic concepts.
have been particularly successful and effective with non-Muslims
in turning them to discover and assimilate the spiritual
aspect of the Qur'an and its teachings. How do you communicate
to them that makes them pay attention?
is the biggest problem that humanity has. The source of
all human problems lies in miscommunication and the unwillingness
to understand. The difficulty is that language is more
than just the words you use in say the English language.
Everyone has their inner language. If you, as a man, don't
understand the language of women you will not be able
to communicate to a woman. It's not the language you speak,
it's the way people interpret and understand what you
say, the way people hear what you say. So, to be a communicator
you have to know how people emotionally and intellectually
respond to what you say and find the right means of expression
so that what you say does not arouse their animosity,
but their understanding and their admiration and love.
When you do that people acquire this understanding and
they feel drawn, because it's something they're seeking.
The fact that I was raised from a very early childhood in Western
societies gave me an intuitive feel for the way people
living in these societies think and emotionally respond
to various stimuli. Having also been raised in the other
part of the world, I have an inside view from both directions.
Through this inside understanding you are able to bridge
are your goals as ASMA Society and how far have you advanced
in achieving them?
goals are many. It is to create the voice that speaks
on the issues of the day pertaining to the faith of Islam,
not only as a religion but as a spiritual practice in
modern times. There are many issues that intersect that
primary vision. Among them are issues of identity, because
many of us grew up in traditional societies where the
boundary between religion and culture was not finely drawn.
We come from societies which had ancient civilizations;
Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, India, Anatolia. When our ancestors
became Muslims, those aspects of their culture which did
not violate Islamic theology, principles or ethics continued.
So if a person today travels in the Muslim world he will
see this blend, a kind of "religious cultural blend."
What has happened is that people from all over the world
have immigrated to the US and they have re-created their
centers around their ethnic identity. In many cases their
practices are cultural, not necessarily religious. This
has created another fragmentation with the second generation,
those who were born and grew up in this country and are
culturally American. They would like to engage in the
practice of their faith, but they feel culturally alien
from the culture of their parents. Thus, there is a need
to develop what I call "an American-Islamic identity,"
an Islam that is orthodox in its religion, in its theology,
in its practice, but culturally American and Western.
To create the setting that such an objective can reach,
this is one of our goals.
American-Islamic identity Imam Feisal mentions is a notion
he firmly believes needs to be addressed. In a recent
interview he said that "Those who are born and raised
here [in America] feel they are Americans. We have to
define ourselves as Americans. It is anticipated that
Islam will restate itself within the language constructs,
within the social constructs, within the political constructs
of American society." It is a challenging and progressive
concept that involves political and social openness and
that at first sight may seem to be at odds with Islam's
image as a strict, authoritarian, and anti-Western religion.
Feisal was brought on as consultant for the TV documentary
project Muslims that emerged from the minds of
the creators of FRONTLINE. Muslims is a special
two-hour film examining the different faces of Islam's
worldwide resurgence and the fundamental tenets of the
faith, centering around the question "What does it
mean to be a Muslim today?" Along with perspectives
of leading scholars of Islam, the film crew drew on experiences
of people in Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey, and
the United States. The underlying theme was how Muslims
struggled to define Islam's influence on their lives and
Muslims premiered during the TV Documentary Festival
at the Museum of Television & Radio in May (Check
local PBS listings for air dates on TV). Imam Feisal faced
thorny questions from a fervent audience after the screening.
When someone asked "Islam is one, Muslims are many.
How do you justify the different categorizations of Islam
such as radical, militant and as such?" everybody
turned to Imam Feisal. "We have to understand the
terminology," he said confidently. "We take
everything literally and many people are imprisoned in
the fashion of ideas." With exqusite and astute words
pertinent to Imam Feisal he continued: "We need to
understand the Qur'an in its context keeping in mind the
time and political relationships. We need to understand
the Arabic language and rhetoric, how it was interpreted
by the Prophet and his companions." When Imam Feisal
talks he throws his hands in the air, divides up space,
and clutches his fingers. With a beautiful bright smile
on his face he drew a large circle in the air and concluded:
"When you don't have this in your radar screen
you are going to arrive at wrong conclusions."
creators of "Muslims" with Imam Feisal at the
panel following the screening.
(photo: © 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale)
"Sufism without Islam is like a candle burning in the open
without a lantern."
- Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak
is the interplay between Islam and Sufism?
experience of religion, at the deepest level, is a search
to understand the primary meaning of what it means to be
human. The religious search answers that quest by saying
that the answer to this question lies in the knowledge of
God. In developing the relationship between you, as a creature
of the creator, and the creator as your Lord. When we learn
to practice our religion in a sociological setting of a
family or of a country, we learn to practice religion in
a very external way - from the outside in. We're taken to
church, mosque, synagogue and brought up in that, so we
just acquire that. Religion primarily deals with the deepest
part of your inner self. In the experience of Muslims, even
generations after the Prophet, they practice their religion
from the outside in, but without having the inner enlightenment
and longing. So within the Islamic tradition, those who
focus on that inner development, which is what the prophet
and his companions did, were later called the Sufis.
[During] the time of the Prophet, the Prophet and his companions
called themselves mu'minun (believers). The Qur'an even tells the Prophet to tell the Bedouin
Arabs who have accepted his faith and said "We have
iman (faith), we have become believers"
to tell them "No, you're not believers." Tell
them they're Muslims because iman (faith) has not entered
Now, it's not politically easy to have a situation where
you say "We are mu'minun the faithful, and you are
not, you are just Muslims," because this statement
is a value statement. So the labels changed. Those who practiced
the faith were considered Muslim, because they practiced
the outward display of faith. Those who really were committed
and had this inner enlightenment called themselves by different,
politically correct and safe names.
People don't know exactly where the word Sufi comes from.
Some say it's from the word "soof" meaning wool
because the prophet wore wool. Some say it comes from the
Greek word "sophia" or wisdom. (Philosophia means
the love of wisdom) The names tasawwuf and Sufism were neutral words, it was
later they became emotionally loaded.
mention that "the prophet's theme was that the perfected
believer is one who is involved in life, not avoiding
it." What is the route that Sufis follow to achieve
this delicate balance?
is about developing your spiritual self, it's about trying
to become a perfected human being, to become a beloved
of God, to become as possible one with Allah. There's
a hadith in which Allah says, not Qur'an it's a hadith,
"My servant does not approach me by anything which
is dearer to me than that which I have obliged him."
It means that to get closer to God, avoid the things which
God told you to avoid, and do the things God told you
to do. The hadith continues: "Then my servant continues
to approach me by doing nafilah (supererogatory) acts, more than what I have obliged him to do
of good things: More prayers, more fasting, more charity,
until I love my servant. When I love my servant, I become
the eye by which he sees, the ear by which he hears, I
become the hand by which he grasps, I become the foot
by which he walks," and in another version of the
hadith, "I become the heart by which he understands."
When Allah loves you, you will feel protected and empowered.
You will see little miracles beginning to happen in your
life, like invisible forces around you arranging your
affairs for you. When you reach that stage you are a weli-ullah, a friend of Allah who protects you.
leave him with perpetual thoughts circling around my head,
gradually picking up pace in a deluge of memories, turning
faster and faster like the whirling dervishes, dancing
and circling until they have diffused deep within me,
where I return to my reclusive soul that gratifies my
essence, and I inhale the divine breath I originated from,
searching for the place where my beginning, my end and
my existence resides.
Unto your Lord is the return."
- Quran [96:8]
ASMA SOCIETY Web Site:
PBS / Muslims index:
© 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale
Mehmet DEDE, Islam: The Spiritual Matrix, New York, June
Page -II -