What’s Right With Islam

In a discussion with Melvin McLeod, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf says the true spirit of Islam is one of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.

Melvin McLeod
1 July 2004
Photo by Daniel Burka.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf says the true spirit of Islam is one of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.

Never before has understanding among people of different faiths been more important—and no breach is more urgent to heal than that between the Islamic world and the West. To better understand the principles of Islam, I spoke to Feisal Abdul Rauf, the author of What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. He is a prominent teacher of Islam and Sufism, and Imam of New York’s Masjid al-Farah mosque, located just twelve blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. He is an advocate for interfaith dialogue and pluralism within the Muslim world, and is considered a leading thinker on the challenges of integrating Islam into contemporary society. He says the principles and history of Islam are not only consistent with democracy but demand it, and argues that the rift between the West and the Muslim world is political and not fundamentally a clash of religions.

—Melvin McLeod

Your book that has just come out is called What’s Right With Islam? So the obvious first question is: What’s right with Islam?

Islam is the latest iteration of what I call the “Abrahamic Ethic,” which is the common denominator of all the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the Muslim point of view, this ethic is the common denominator of all revealed religions.

Muslims believe that God sent prophets from the very beginning. These prophets were sent to all of humankind and the message was the same: that all human beings are equal and that all human beings are free before God—free to accept God, to respect God and to worship God the way they want. This is the essential theme of Islam and the other Abrahamic traditions, and it is embodied in the two major commandments, which are to love God and love human beings, and to treat human beings the way you would want to be treated. Islam is the latest iteration of that message, one that is liturgically effective and profound, and also sociologically meaningful, because it includes the idea of a good society and how that society should run.

One interesting way to look at religions, or different strains within religions, is whether they encourage a posture of doubt and openness, or a position of certainty and solidity. One could argue that the open position is represented at one end of the spectrum by contemplatives and the solid position at the other end by fundamentalists. Where does Islam stand on this spectrum?

In the Islamic mystical tradition there is a recognition of what are called “the veils that cover our perception.” Therefore, in the Islamic mystical tradition, the objective is to obtain certainty.  At the same time, there is an admission in the Islamic mystical tradition that the quality of knowing with which we operate in the world is different than the kind of knowing that is required to comprehend or to realize God. You could say that we perceive the world with the eye of the intellect, or the eye of the emotive self, but that’s not the eye that perceives divine reality. Divine reality is perceived by a spiritual eye. It is said that the intellect can lead you to the door of the divine palace, but it cannot enter with you. One of the images used is that the soul rides upon the intellect and emotions, but if you want to enter the presence of the king, who is the representative of God, you have to get off the horse of your intellect, so to speak, or the horse of emotion, and go alone into the presence of the divine.

A similar way to look at religions is by the degree to which their deity is anthropomorphized, or personified. Again, the contemplatives and fundamentalists generally stand at opposite ends on this question.

In Islam we have two terms: Tanzih and Tashbih. Tanzih means that God is beyond any similarity to anything. God is the ultimate unknown, the ultimate unknowable, the great beyond, which we can’t comprehend. That is the primary definition of God.

However, having said that, we do need to know something about God. So God is identified by descriptive names or attributes. These could be called the adjectives of God, descriptive names like the compassionate, the merciful, the almighty, the powerful, the all-seeing. God does not have eyes, but he sees. God does not have ears, but he hears. The Koran even speaks of God’s hand and God’s face. These descriptions are used, but it is unanimously thought that they do not in any way describe an anthropomorphic view of God, but rather a theomorphic view of man. It is that which is being described.

Is God a being?


Isn’t that concept?

No, it’s the other way around. The concepts are not real; the being is real. The being is more real than the concept. I don’t know about Buddhism, but if you look at the language we use in Christianity and Judaism and go back a few centuries, the concepts, by themselves, did not exist. People didn’t use such concepts. The Koran never used the words Christianity or Judaism. It’s just Jews and Christians, and even then it doesn’t use the word Christians; it uses the word Nazarenes. It talks about people, beings. Concepts themselves don’t act.

I believe the conceptualization of frameworks is a Greek rational thing. The Semitic mind never speaks in those terms. The Semitic mind speaks in terms of beings, beings that embody good and evil. So you have Satan, for example. In other words, it is the being that embodies something, that is the origin of something. Concepts don’t exist independent of being.

So being is the primary story.

It is the primary story. In Western language concepts are primary. Whereas in the Semitic language, in the Koranic language, being is primary.

And if personification is the fundamental truth of the universe, that makes story rather than philosophy the way to understand it.


Although interreligious dialogue is quite popular, there hasn’t been a lot of comparison of Buddhism and Islam, to my knowledge. How do you think the two relate?

The prophets mentioned in the Koran are almost all Biblical names, but the Koran is explicit that God sent prophets to every society. God does not mention the Buddha or Chuang Tzu in the Koran, but there is no doubt in my mind that God must have sent prophets to India and China, and therefore those traditions, to the extent that they exhibit aspects of what God revealed, are authentic.

Muslims believe that Mohammed was the final prophet who came with a message that summarized all the messages. Therefore, Mohammed does not have one unique signature, but his message embodies the signatures of all the prophets. Some prophets came with specific signatures: Moses’ was the law, Jesus emphasized the spirit. That is not to say that Jesus ignored the law, but the emphasis was on the spirit, which was the signature of his message. Joseph’s signature was dream interpretation. David was a warrior-king. Solomon was a judge.

If we were to say that the Buddha was an authentic prophet, then his message was the message of the path, the way, and the way is part of Islam as well. So in Islam we have the law, we have the spirit, we have the way. Every prophet had a particular signature, and the message of Islam was the final message that summarized all the messages.

It strikes me that there may be an injustice in the way Islam is currently being judged in the West. Isn’t it possible that the kind of aggressive religiosity that Muslims are being criticized for is really an inherent problem of monotheism, and not of Islam per se?

I believe that the notion that there is only one right way, and that anything else is wrong, is not part of the monotheistic tradition. It is in fact a distortion and a gross violation of the Abrahamic ethic, which is the monotheistic ethic. The monotheistic ethic is about human freedom, and the liberty to accept or reject God. I believe the notion that there is only one correct way has to do with certain tendencies in human nature to want to force upon people a particular way of believing. I believe this tendency was more European in origin than it was non-European.

So the real violation of the monotheistic ethic is not allowing people the freedom to choose or not to choose. By trying to force people to believe, you’re trying to do, in effect, what even God can’t do.

Which is what God specifically states. God states in the Koran that had he willed, he could have made everybody a believer. But God has allowed people to express their religiosity in different ways. That’s a fundamental, God-given right, and the Koran expresses that freedom explicitly. If you look at the history of Islam, when Muslims conquered all of North Africa and other regions, they didn’t force Islam upon other people. Otherwise you wouldn’t have any branches of Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism in India, had Muslim belief required Muslims to enforce faith upon others. This, to me, was something that came out of the European experience. That’s why the Founding Fathers of this country separated church and state, meaning that the powers of the state should not be utilized to force belief upon any group of people.

So you see this as a problem primarily of Christianity.

No, of European Christianity. We have Arab Christians who have been Christians since the time of Jesus Christ. I was in Damascus just a couple of weeks ago and I would estimate that at least a quarter of the population is Christian—Arab Christian. There are many Middle Eastern Christian communities, and yes, they may have felt that theirs is the only right way. But everybody feels that their way is the right way. Where the line is drawn is believing your way is the only right way, and therefore that gives you the right to enforce your beliefs on another.

In all religions, there is disagreement over what constitutes the “real” religion. Well, that’s not “real Islam,” they’ll say, or that’s not “real Christianity.” And each side in the debate finds ample evidence in the texts and teachings to support their definition. So with liberal and fundamentalist Muslims both saying they represent the “true” Islam, on what basis can we decide who’s right?

The scholars of Islam say that there are certain things on which there is unanimous agreement. There is unanimous agreement on what the fundamental articles of faith are, and what the liturgy and acts of worship are. There is no difference of opinion on that. There are differences of opinion in secondary aspects of worship and in the field of Islamic lore and jurisprudence, but Islamic scholars agree that differences of opinion in those areas are not inconsistent with being a Muslim.

The area that I think you are talking about is the intersection of religion and politics. I think that’s what it really is about. If I were to look with the hindsight of history at the Inquisition in Spain, I would ask, how is what was done consistent with the views of Jesus Christ? I would venture to say that most Christians today, if not almost all of them, would say that what was done was not real Christianity. But it was done in the name of Christianity. Things can be done in the name even of Buddhism, such as in Sri Lanka and by the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan. The same kind of logic is used by all people who believe that they have a right to alter the status quo. These are areas where we are not talking about religion itself but political power and social engineering.

You argue that not just its teachings but its history show that Islam is a tolerant and pluralistic religion, which of course is far from how it is viewed by most Westerners.

Tolerance and pluralism are inherent values in Islam and have a history from the very earliest of days. When the Muslims conquered Palestine and Egypt, those who were responsible were companions of the prophet—no one today would claim that they did not understand the letter as well as the spirit of Islam and Islamic law. They made it very clear that their conquest was for economic reasons mainly, and they ensured that the rights of the other religious groups were protected. In fact, when Jerusalem was conquered in 638 C.E., only six years after the prophet’s death, it was Caliph Omar who invited the Jews to come back to Jerusalem. The Muslims even enhanced pluralism once they conquered lands that had been ruled by others.

You have called a project for religious dialogue you are working on “The Cordoba Initiative.” That name was taken from another flowering of Muslim tolerance and learning.

Cordoba was the Caliphate in Spain, which was at its height from about 900 to 1200 c.e. It was a time and a society where Christians and Muslims and Jews lived very harmoniously. It was a period when there was an emphasis on knowledge. There were libraries and intellectual exchange. Muslims had developed knowledge from all over the known world, and their knowledge was conveyed to Europe through Spain. It was a time when the notion of pluralism was at a peak.

If that represents Islam’s true heritage, to what do you attribute the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the twentieth century?

I believe fundamentalism is always a reaction. I don’t think fundamentalism is ever an action. In every faith tradition, fundamentalism is an attempt to go back to the purity of the faith. Fundamentalism in the last century is a reaction to what I see as a militant secularism.

In the West?

All over the world. The fundamentalists have a sense that society has gone wrong in some way, and that the values of the faith have been under attack. They have been under attack by Western militant secularism, which is the strongest force that has seeped into many parts of the world.

Over the last century, there was a general mockery of religion. This kind of anti-religious sentiment became pervasive, even in the Muslim world. I remember in the 1960’s when here in the U.S., and even in Egypt, religious figures were made fun of in movies and plays. They were not objects of respect and veneration; they became objects of mockery. Religion became passé—it was viewed as a crutch for the weak, its ethic considered regressive. And that led to the reaction of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists were the people who were defending religion against these attacks.

In the Middle East, there were also aggressive programs of modernization or secularization.

This was not something which people themselves adopted but something imposed on them by militantly secular leaders. It’s like what Ataturk did in Turkey. A century ago Turkey was the capital of the Muslim world. When Osama Bin Laden talked about something that happened 80 years ago, Westerners asked what he meant. He was talking about the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924. That would be like Mussolini eliminating the Vatican. Yes, Catholicism could still continue, but the psychological trauma would be profound. It would be as if Mussolini had imposed Islamic, Middle Eastern clothing upon all Italians instead of having fashion from Milan—imagine how Italians would feel? And changing the Latin script to Arabic. People would say Mussolini is pro-Arab. Well, that’s what Ataturk did: he changed the Turkish script from Arabic to Roman, he forced people to wear Western clothing, he locked up the Sufi orders, he forced the call to prayer to be made in Turkish rather than in Arabic.

Many people saw in these actions an attempt to break up the Muslim world into Western-style nationalisms. You see, during the time of the Ottoman empire, the Muslims—whether they spoke Persian or Arabic or Turkish—felt they were part of a larger Muslim world, a Holy Muslim Empire, so to speak. This attempt to culturally separate the Turks from the Arabs was seen in much of the Muslim world as an attempt to divide it.

Is Islamic fundamentalism then a reaction to modernity, as some people have argued?

Modernity is just another way of saying the current here-and-now. In every period of religious history, the challenge of modernity has existed. In every day and age, the perennial challenge of all religion is: What are the eternal principles of our religion, and how do we restate them in the current here-and-now, which has changed from the time of our grandfathers? And how do we bequeath the eternal essence of our faith to our children and our grandchildren? That is the perennial formula for what we have called, in the twentieth century, the challenge of modernity.

What role has Western, and particularly U.S., policy played in the rise of fundamentalism?

It is very, very significant. I believe that a century ago there was a desire in much of the Muslim world—in Egypt, for instance, which was one of the leading countries of the Arab world—to develop institutions of democracy. There were many Muslims thinkers who were proud of their Islamic heritage but who also knew there were things that needed to be changed in their societies. They saw many good things in the West and there was a movement to introduce democracy into countries like Egypt. However, what happened was that authoritative regimes took over, in particular military regimes. When Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952, he outlawed all political parties and basically established one-man rule. He even pushed away the religious voice from participating. Taking away people’s voice only feeds their militancy, and then they become extreme.

From 1947 until 1989, U.S. foreign policy was a function of the Cold War calculus. They encouraged regimes that would support them against the Communists, even if they denied their people human rights. The United States did that in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Philippines and in Egypt, at least after Nasser.

I believe what is really fueling fundamentalism, if you go deep enough, is the fact that many of these societies don’t have democratic governance. What democratic governance means is a complex of things. First is the right of the population to have a voice in the affairs of the state. I believe that the thing people really want more than anything else is a voice in shaping their destiny. The whole idea of democracy is participation in the decision-making process. I believe that if there were democracy in Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden would be using his funds to run for political office as a way to implement his ideas on how Saudi society should run. The reason why he is against America is not because of the way that Americans live in America. It is because, in his mind, America is what is keeping this House of Saud standing. Without American support, he believes the House of Saud would fall. It’s all about power. At the end of the day, my conviction is that it is all about power.

You’re saying that you don’t believe that religious motives are really at the root of it?

No, they’re not. And the reason why is that you can solve the conflict by getting rid of the other issues. The whole idea of democratic government is that it allows certain stresses to surface and be addressed in a society. So if you did that, and then if you created a peace between Palestine and Israel—if you did a few particular things—the whole complexion would change and religion would no longer be an issue.

What does democracy look like in an Islamic society; what is the Islamic democracy you’ve argued for?

It would not be very different from Western examples of democracy. By democracy I mean the right of people to participate in governance—in selecting who their leaders are—and to do this at regular times. Whether it is a parliamentary system or an American-style system, it is something that would have to be consistent with Islamic principles. I argue in my book that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are quite compliant with Islamic law, compliant with Sharia. I can argue from very firm grounds that what we have here in the United States scores very high in the Islamic scheme of things, which is why Muslims are comfortable living in the West. In fact, they prefer to live under Western systems of governance because what they have in the Muslim world is not really Islamic. Islamic government is not Islamic because the people who are running it are practicing the liturgy of Islam. It has to do with social good, with justice, with the rule of law.

Is there a separation of church and state in Islamic democracy? If an Islamic democracy is founded on Islamic law, as determined by clerics, isn’t it still a theocracy, just a more moderate one?

I think part of the problem here lies in language. Most of Islamic law is not Koranic law. The bulk of what people regard as Islamic law are laws that were developed beyond the Koran and the Hadith, the teachings of the prophet. Any laws that do not violate a Koranic injunction and further social well-being are de facto Islamic.

If one were to look at the Declaration of Independence and the rights embodied there, one can think of them as a religion. These beliefs are fundamental. The fundamental principles of a society define its religion, not in the liturgical sense of religion but in the sense of the laws by which that society will govern itself. To a Muslim, that is part of what he considers religion. Religion is not just the first commandment. It is the second commandment as well: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” And that’s where the Western worldview and the Islamic worldview differ. The Western worldview defines religion as only the vertical dimension of the cross, not the horizontal dimension. The Western view includes the liturgy, what you do in terms of your acts of worship, your relationship to God. The Islamic worldview of religion also includes the social dimension. Any law intended to further the social welfare is an Islamic value, a religious value.

In the West, when we talk about separation of church and state, we mean something very specific. What we mean is not that society has no values. The Bill of Rights is a specific set of values: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The rights enshrined there are the underlying values of the society, which Muslims view as religious. We regard these values as religious. In the West, the separation of church and state means that the state will not coerce any of its citizens into going to a particular kind of church or a particular kind of religion. And that, by the way, is an Islamic value.

To close, do you think that we can avoid this global struggle—war, I’m afraid, is not too strong a word—that seems to be developing between the West and the Muslim world?

Yes, we can.


It depends upon how quickly the U.S. leadership wants to change it. It can be changed; it can be turned in a heartbeat. But it has to be approached like another Manhattan Project, with the active support of the United States leadership at the very highest level.

What are the specific elements?

The specific elements are, number one: the U.S. has to very firmly implement a peace plan between Israel and Palestine. Number two: it has to position itself as a supporter for democratic evolution of the Muslim world. It has to participate with the Muslim world in generating Islamic forms of government in an evolutionary fashion. And number three: the American leadership has to articulate its vision regarding the Muslim world and express it by speaking directly to Muslims.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.