Politics & Policy

The Two Faces of Feisal Rauf

What’s wrong with What’s Right With Islam.

This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.

The problems with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s book What’s Right with Islam begin with the title. As Andrew McCarthy noted on National Review Online, the book, whose full title is now What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, was previously called What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America; before that, it was published in Malaysia as A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America post-9/11. In one edition published by HarperCollins, the copyright page told us that the “edition was made possible through a joint effort of The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and the office of Interfaith and Community Alliance of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Funding for this project was provided by IIIT.” The HarperCollins edition no longer contains this telling information, and with reason. McCarthy reveals that both ISNA and IIIT have promoted Hamas, and were demonstrated “by the Justice Department [to be] unindicted co-conspirators in a crucial terrorism-financing case involving the channeling of tens of millions of dollars to Hamas through an outfit called the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. For the last 15 years, Hamas has been a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law.”

Dawa is the invitation, addressed to men by God and the prophets, to believe in the true religion, Islam. The term can mean propaganda, but more specifically, it refers to Islamic missionary work, which is not limited to efforts to convert individuals but includes efforts to convert entire societies and establish Islamic states. Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, predicts that Islam will “conquer America” and “conquer Europe” through Dawa.

In the book’s chatty and ostentatiously friendly preface, Rauf tells us that he is an American and a Muslim, and proud to be both. Then comes this sentence: “September 11, a day that will live in infamy for having provoked the United States into a war, confused and frightened many non-Muslim Americans about Islam.” Note that in this description of why 9/11 will “live in infamy,” there is not a word about Islamic terrorists killing 2,976 people. We saw earlier how Rauf characterized 9/11 as “a crime that happened”; now it is a provocation.

It is not unusual for Rauf to dismiss or ignore the victims of 9/11. During a lecture he gave in Australia in 2005, Rauf said, “We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims. You may remember that the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was secretary of state and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it.”

In his preface and introduction, Rauf presents a picture of Islam that is historically almost totally false, and doctrinally so watered down as to be hardly recognizable as Islam. Like President Obama in his Cairo speech — not surprising, since Rauf claims the speech was drawn from his writings — Rauf pegs the number of Muslims in the United States at between 5 and 7 million. This is a common Muslim tactic: to overstate their numbers, like the frog in the fable who puffed himself up. The real number, according to the Pew Research Center, is something like 2.5 million. That is less than 1 percent of the population.

Many devout Muslims are aware of the abysmal lack of scientific achievements of the Islamic world in the last thousand years — but they commonly have recourse to the ingenious notion that the Koran anticipated all the Western scientific discoveries of the last thousand years; thus one can find electricity, quantum mechanics, relativity, and embryology in it. Rauf does something similar with the Islamic world’s lack of American values, claiming that “America is substantively an ‘Islamic’ country, by which I mean a country whose systems remarkably embody the principles that Islamic law requires of a government.” For gullible multiculturalists and Western liberals, the thought that the U.S. Constitution is sharia compliant is most reassuring — “Ah! There is no real clash of civilizations after all. Rauf is a true moderate who wants to get along.” And for an Islamic triumphalist, it is a way to infiltrate Western institutions and eventually destroy them from within.

And of course, Rauf’s claim is complete nonsense. Sharia is totally incompatible with the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Women are inferior under Islamic law — their testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man; their movement is strictly restricted; they cannot marry non-Muslims. Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries also have inferior status under Islamic law; they may not testify against a Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, following a tradition of Muhammad, who said that “two religions cannot exist in the country of Arabia,” non-Muslims are forbidden to practice their religion, build houses of worship, possess religious texts, etc. Non-believers or atheists in Muslim countries do not have “the right to life”; all the major law schools, whether Sunni or Shia, agree that they are to be killed. (Muslim doctors of law generally divide sins into great sins and little sins. Of the 17 great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, adultery, etc.) Slavery is recognized as legitimate in the Koran. Muslim men are allowed to cohabit with any of their female slaves, and they are allowed to take possession even of married female slaves. One does not have the right to change one’s religion if one is born into a Muslim family; here is how the great commentator Baydawi sees the matter: “Whosoever turns back from his belief, openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever you find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard.” And here are the punishments in store for transgressors against the Holy Law: amputation, flogging, crucifixion, and stoning to death.

In short, Islam and the United States Constitution represent totally different political theories. Under the latter, sovereignty lies with the will of the people; under the former, it lies with God. The U.S. Constitution emphasizes the rights of the individual, which no mythical or mystical collective goal or will can justifiably deny, whereas collectivity has a special sanctity attached to it under Islam.

Muslim countries and scholars have long recognized this incompatibility, and have accordingly issued their own human-rights schemes, such as the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1990 by 45 foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights of 1981, whose Islamic character is evident from the start (there are frequent quotes from the Koran and Hadith, and in the formulation of rights there are frequent references to Islamic concepts and principles).

Rauf is also misleading, and much of the time untruthful, when discussing suicide. The Koran is rather ambiguous; some Muslim scholars have taken Sura verses 27 through 31 to be a prohibition against suicide. But Hamas spokesmen, for example, do not use the term “suicide bomber,” but martyr (shahid), since those who blow themselves up fighting Israel and the U.S. die in the noblest of all causes, jihad — which is an incumbent religious duty, established in the Koran and in the Traditions as a divine institution, and enjoined for the purpose of advancing Islam. While suicide is forbidden, martyrdom is everywhere praised, welcomed, and urged. Here are some quotes from the respected Hadith collection of Imam Muslim: “By the Being in Whose Hand is my life, I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah; then I should be brought back to life and be killed again in His way”; “The Prophet said, ‘Nobody who enters Paradise will ever like to return to this world even if he were offered everything, except the martyr who will desire to return to this world and be killed ten times for the sake of the great honour that has been bestowed upon him.’”


The tactic of using two different discourses — one for a Western audience and quite a different one exclusively for a Muslim audience — is apparent when one examines and contrasts Rauf’s earlier book, Islam, A Sacred Law: What Every Muslim Should Know about Shariah, published in 2000, with What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, published in 2004.

In his earlier book, explaining sharia to a Muslim audience, Rauf unequivocally defines jihad as “fighting a just war” and as “the effort applied in waging a war,” and a mujahid as “a warrior, or fighter” — in other words, jihad is used in a military sense, and only in a military sense. Yet in the later work, Rauf introduces the doctrinally suspect notions of “greater and lesser jihad,” which, as Prof. Reuven Firestone explains in his study Jihad, is nowhere to be found in the canonical collections of Hadith. Also in the later book, Rauf defines jihad as essentially “defensive,” but he knows perfectly well that Muslims include in their definition of a “defensive” war one waged against those who oppose the struggle to spread Islam.

Rauf also tries to enroll the Christian notion of a “just war” into his apologetics, likening it to jihad. But Ibn Khaldun explained the uniquely Islamic institution of jihad thus: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and the [obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. . . . The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense. . . . Islam is under obligation to gain power over nations.”

While, in his later work, Rauf gushes about “our common Abrahamic faith,” and about the U.S. Constitution’s being “Sharia compliant,” in the earlier work, he states (rather than argues) that Islam and sharia are far superior to Judaism and Christianity, and also to any man-made laws such as those in the U.S. Constitution. He accuses both Judaism and Christianity of having “eviscerated the spiritual dimension from Sacred Law.” Islam is, says Rauf, repeating Sura 3 verse 110, “the best religion on earth.”

Rauf also makes a clear distinction between the principles guiding a Muslim judge and those guiding a Western one: “The Muslim judge explicitly((SPACE))‘reports to God.’ The judge who sits in a Western court is only explicitly responsible to the Constitution, the interpretations of a civil law and its rules.” Hence by its very nature, Islam cannot abide by a separation of religion and state, and is diametrically opposed to the political principles enshrined in the Constitution. Rauf, as a Muslim steeped in Islamic theology, cannot possibly relegate religion entirely to the personal; he must forever strive to introduce sharia as a guiding political principle in the public sphere, and eventually replace all man-made laws with God-given ones. In this sense, for Rauf, there cannot be a “moderate Muslim,” since all true Muslims by definition must demand to live under God-given laws, embodied in sharia. Rauf himself notes the totalitarian nature of Islam: “The Shari’ah thus covers every field of law — public and private, national and international — together with enormous amounts of material that Westerners would not regard as law at all, because the basis of the Shari’ah is the worship of, and obedience to, God through good works and moral behavior.”

In Islam: A Sacred Law, Rauf gives a positive account of Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of a particularly virulent form of Islam. For Rauf, Abd al-Wahhab is a reformer, a rationalist, and a “rejuvenator of the Hanbali school” who simply wanted to “return to the religious spirit of the forefathers who, for the basic principles of their religion, referred to the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah of the Prophet, and who fought against the blind imitation that ‘had killed among the Islamic people serious thought and the spirit of independence and had extinguished the flame of activity.’ He was a bitter antagonist of those who held to the excuse ‘we found our fathers so doing’ without subjecting such a heritage to the dictates of reason. Commentaries, texts, opinions and whims containing any of these elements were repudiated.”

But in What’s Right with Islam, Rauf changes his tune. He brands Abd al- Wahhab a racist and someone who denigrates reason, and talks of the “excesses” of Wahhabism. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Islam was scrutinized as never before, and many blamed the attacks on the Twin Towers, and more generally the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, on Wahhabism. Rauf could no longer get away with any whitewashing of Abd al-Wahhab, and he adjusted his discourse accordingly: “From Abd al-Wahhab’s point of view, most of the Muslim intellectuals — like Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was a ‘Westerner’ from al-Andalus (Spain) — were foreign, not only geographically but also intellectually and psychologically. Abd al-Wahhab wanted to adhere to the tradition of his pious predecessors, not to traditions of ‘foreigners’ beyond the Arabian peninsula. We might colloquially say that Abd al-Wahhab yearned for an Arab Islam, not a Turkish, Persian, or Indian Islam, for wasn’t the Qur’an after all an Arabic Qur’an?”

Rauf concludes that “Wahhabism resulted in a selective interpretation of Islam that tried to filter out most of what it viewed as introduced by foreign elements, especially philosophical rationalism, spirituality, and foreign cultural elements.” In the earlier book, Abd al-Wahhab is described as subjecting the Islamic heritage to the dictates of reason, and in the later work as filtering out philosophical rationalism.


A Western liberal could easily pull reassuring “moderate Muslim” material from Rauf’s What’s Right with Islam, but this material does not harmonize well with his distasteful comments about September 11, his support for Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy, his reluctance to call Hamas a terrorist organization, and so on.

When in the Islamic world, or in front of an Islamic audience, Rauf is eager to prove his Muslim credentials and pride in Islam — to present himself as a serious Muslim scholar with a firm grasp of Islamic theology, the Koran, Hadith, and sharia. This is necessary to drum up financial support for his real-estate venture in Lower Manhattan. To then argue that the United States Constitution is sharia compliant is a brilliant tactic that allows him to have it both ways — the Western liberals breathe a sigh of relief, while the Islamic triumphalists see a way to infiltrate the United States.

Rauf and his fellow Islamists, having learned from similar ploys at the United Nations by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, then hope to implement elements of sharia in the West. No need for alarm, Rauf reassures Westerners, “we are not trying to replace universal standards, we’re complementing them.” Simultaneously, he advises Muslims to obey Western laws — for now. Rauf is preying upon the unthinking, pathological niceness of the Western multiculturalist.

Rauf is a Muslim, and his major premises are Islamic, and therefore his conclusions by inexorable logic must also be Islamic: “It is He Who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, to make it superior over all religions even though the idolaters hate it.”

— Ibn Warraq is an independent scholar and the author of five books on Islam and Koranic criticism — Why I Am Not a Muslim(1995); The Origins of the Koran(1998); What the Koran Really Says(2002);  Virgins? What Virgins? And Other Essays(2010); and the forthcoming Which Koran? This is part two of a two-part series.


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