Saturday, October 19, 2013

My Encounter with the Imam of the "Ground Zero Mosque"

In May of 2011 I went to St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle to hear Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf speak at a conference entitled Confronting Islamophobia. At the time, Rauf was the Imam of the much maligned “Ground Zero Mosque” (more accurately named Masjid al-Farah) in New York City and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

The host for the evening, a Jewish man named Phillip Ginsberg (who is a board member of the Interfaith Coalition for Human Rights), opened with prayer and then introduced Rauf as a close friend. The Imam himself was a distinguished older gentleman; well-dressed, thoughtful and soft-spoken. He gave a prepared speech lasting about 30 minutes and then spent another hour answering questions from the audience. I was impressed that, even when confronted with ignorant and accusatory questions (“How can you call Islam a religion of peace?”) he maintained an air of calm patience, earnest humility and intellectual prowess.

In his prepared speech, Rauf emphasized the commonalities shared by the three Abrahamic faiths. He began by praising the opening invocation given by his Jewish friend. Rauf then expressed his belief that all were gathered in that place that evening in the name of the One God: “The God of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Aaron, Jesus, Mary and Mohammed.” In saying this, he deftly set the theme for his presentation.

Rauf spoke of the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He then focused on the shared values and principles in the areas of theology and jurisprudence among the three faiths. He outlined similarities between the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the statutes of Sharia law which mandate protection and respect of life, dignity, property, intellect, family and religion (including religious liberty and freedom of conscience). He pointed out that the Golden Rule is central to all three Abrahamic faiths.

Rauf expressed his belief that these are commonalities upon which dialogue and peaceful coexistence can be built. He closed his speech by quoting and concurring with Isaiah’s vision of a time when nations will no longer practice war. Together—-he pointed out—-Jews, Christians and Muslims comprise over half of the world’s population and share much in common in the way of God-inspired compassion, caring and spirituality. Together, these three faiths can dramatically impact the world for peace, justice and prosperity.

After answering a few questions, it was pointed out by the Jewish host that it was time for the Muslims to engage in their evening prayer. The audience was asked to sit quietly or step outside while this occurred. The Muslims in the audience gathered in rows behind the church’s dais in preparation. Ginsberg took Rauf by surprise (it appeared) when he asked him to give the adhan, the call to prayer. A holy hush came upon all as Rauf’s beautiful chant reverberated through the cathedral. I, and the three other Quakers with me, had a powerful sense of the Divine presence and we knew that this man was worshipping in spirit and in truth, and that God was honored. We sat silently in our pew, worshipping in the manner of Friends, as the Muslims stood and then knelt and then bowed repeatedly in prayer within an Episcopal Cathedral.

After the prayer time, Rauf took the podium again to answer more questions. I was particularly struck when, in response to a question which I cannot recall, Rauf gave what we Christians would call his testimony. He described how he was raised as a Sufi, a mystically-oriented branch of Islam, but did not have an experience of God until he was 14 years old. The encounter happened quite unexpectedly; while riding on a bus. He said that for a moment, “the boundaries of my ego—the boundaries of myself, dissolved. I felt a oneness with the universe and the enormous compassion and love of God.” This was an experience, Rauf explained, which continues to anchor him. Having had a very similar experience myself, I knew exactly what he meant. This is religion, he said, which is “from the inside out, not the outside in.” These are words which could have been spoken by George Fox or Ignatius of Loyola or many other holy persons throughout history.

During the Q&A session, one member of the audience identified himself as a Quaker and then proceeded to launch into a litany of accusations against Islam. My Quaker companions and I were mortified. Rauf appeared unperturbed and responded to the diatribe patiently and gently.

At the conclusion of the evening, it was announced that Imam Rauf would be seated at a table to meet people and sign books (there was an ad hoc bookstore set up at the rear of the cathedral). I felt compelled to apologize to him on behalf of Quakers for the rude questioner. I bought a copy of his latest book and took the last place in line. When I finally came to the table where he sat, we chatted for a moment. I apologized for the behavior of the rude self-identified Quaker and said something to the effect of “We’re mostly not like that.” “Oh, I know,” he smiled, “I have many Quaker friends. In fact, I was just at the Friends Meeting in Washington, D.C.”

In analyzing what made this event so impactful for me, it was the combination of story and experience. Imam Rauf gave a compelling narrative of how Judaism, Christianity and Islam could not only coexist peacefully but work together to bring peace and healing to the nations. This is a man who "walks his talk." He has the credentials of a long history of interfaith dialogue and action (including representing the U.S. to Islamic nations for the State Department). But the real impact for me was when Rauf told his own personal story of encountering the presence of God and being transformed by that encounter. His description was akin to those from every religion who have experienced the Divine (regardless of what name they use). But what impacted me the most was the experience of seeing the man worship and feeling the presence of God—the same presence that I know from my own worship—descend upon us all. After hearing and experiencing that, how could I hold to the notion that those who practice a faith other than mine are shut out from God?


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