August 20, 2010


The Man Behind the Mosque: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the controversial Islamic center Park51, represents a liberal version of Islam, says biographer Brad Gooch, who shares his memories of a friendship with him going back a decade—and his wealthy patron. (Brad Gooch, 8/20/10, Daily Beast)

I first met Feisal Rauf in the spring of 2000, while working on my book Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America. I wished to write a chapter on Islam in New York City, and a friend took me to a lecture Feisal was giving on his new book, Islam: A Sacred Law, subtitled What Every Muslim Should Know About Shariah. (I learned that night what many screaming heads have not yet—there are different schools of Islamic law, as there are denominations in Christianity, and Feisal is part of an extremely liberal one.) The event was in the basement of a (since vanished) Sufi bookstore on West Broadway. Next door was the Masjid Al-Farah, where I began to attend his Friday talks. This jewel of a mosque was founded in the mid-'80s and is still a commitment of Shaykha Fariha, whose given name is Philippa de Menil, a daughter of the wealthy Houston family of art patrons. I interviewed Feisal at a nearby café. Eventually, he invited me to attend a meditation group in Sufism—the mystical branch of Islam—he led Friday nights at the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife Daisy Khan. I frequented the group over four months.

I needed a sympathetic guide to the cosmopolitan, and complex, world of Muslims in New York City. Central Casting couldn’t have done better than Feisal Rauf. I felt some bond because, born in 1948, he was only four years older, and we were both Columbia grads. He talked a language I understood. “Reading a translation of the Koran is like reading a translation of one of Puccini’s operas, in English, without the music,” he said. (Ding! went a bell in my head.) When asked about homosexuality, while admitting a majority of Muslims would agree with a tirade I recently heard, he argued the issue was behavior “apart from the question of sexual orientation.” I met his father, since deceased—an elegant Cambridge-educated gentleman and grammarian, who started the first Islamic Center in New York City in 1965. His weekly prayer group was a Noah’s ark (the Koran has Noah, too), including the grandson of a Syrian president; a Jewish librarian; a Roman Catholic Latina; an African-American radio commentator.

The book on which I was doing all the gumshoe reporting, Godtalk, is now a time capsule. Yet the chapter that keeps being smash-cut with living history is its last, forcing me at least twice to rethink Feisal Rauf and his American Muslims. Between the book’s writing and publication, in 2002, came the 9/11 attacks. I did a bit of updating of the manuscript, but mostly the group I knew had been jolted beyond recognition. One of its foreign-born members was recruited to work in media outreach to the Middle East by the State Department. I heard the FBI had tapped Feisal for help in its intelligence operations. A few of the younger American-born Muslims in the prayer circle were shying away, feeling queasy about identifying with their religion.

About a year ago, I revived my acquaintance with Feisal. I went to meet with him at the offices of his Cordoba Initiative, near Riverside Church on Morningside Heights, supported in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. I was about to sign a contract to write a biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet associated with tolerance; I knew Rumi was Feisal’s “main man” and wanted his thoughts. (Rumi famously wrote “I am not Christian, Jew, Pagan, Muslim/I am not East or West.”) “Did we bring you to Rumi, or did Rumi bring you to us?” joked Feisal. I subsequently ran into his wife Daisy, the night of the Community Board hearings. “I was struck by just how much grief and pain they are in,” she said of the victims’ families. “No one has really been paying attention to them.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 20, 2010 6:09 AM
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