The Spiritual Matrix
"There needs to be a more nuanced understanding and
education of Islam,"
believes Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has been a key figure
in the American-Islam teaching through his
books, lectures and sermons at the Masjid al-Farah
in New York. He is also founder of the ASMA Society,
a not-for-profit and non-political organization dedicated
to fostering greater awareness about Islamic
heritage in the US. We met up with him after
a usual jum'a (Friday) prayer to talk about the role
of Muslims in American society, the spiritual aspects
of the Qur'an and the interplay between Islam
Feisal delivering his Friday sermon at the Masjid al-Farah"
(photo/edit: © 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid"
In the name of Allah,
Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
It is a sunny spring afternoon in lower Manhattan's TriBeCa
district, known for its Downtown-style high ceiling lofts,
beautiful cafes and restaurants. This neighborhood is
also home to the Masjid al-Farah, a small-sized mosque
that serves as a spiritual enlightenment center
You might be surprised to see that the masjid is located
next to a tavern and resides on the same block as a liquor
store. Right across the street is the posh TriBeCa Grand
Hotel and various bars/lounges that make up the trendy
street of West Broadway. This is where every Friday, a
large number of people come together to pray to Allah
and get drunk in his love, though not by consuming alcohol.
As the imam (the one who leads the prayer) of the
Masjid al-Farah, Imam Feisal delivers his Friday sermons
here. When the words "We begin, my dear Muslim brothers
and sisters, by entering into a state of worship of Allah"
echoes through the speakers, the believers leave behind
life's mundane realities and pray to Allah to answer their
Feisal was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. He lived
in England for five years before moving to Malaysia where
he spent the next ten years and finished high school.
He arrived in the US to study physics at Columbia University
in New York and later received a master's degree in plasma
physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
For a couple of years, he taught Mathematics in a High-school
and worked as vice president of a company that sold industrial
He is the author of "Islam: A Search For Meaning,"
in which he defines Islam as God's universal religion,
and "Islam: A Sacred Law," where he summarizes
the philosophy of Islamic law, common to the Islamic schools
of jurisprudence. Imam Feisal teaches Islam and Sufism
at St. Bartholomew's Church and at the New York Seminary.
He lectures at synagogues, churches and mosques and on
radio/TV in the US and abroad.
order to comprehensively promote Islamic art and culture,
Imam Feisal founded the ASMA (American Sufi Muslim Association)
in 1997. As a not-for-profit, non-political, educational
and cultural organization, ASMA is dedicated to fostering
greater awareness about the Islamic heritage in the United
States. It presents the finest aspects of Islamic culture
and arts through art exhibitions, special events, popular
and scholarly publications, educational programs, lectures,
symposia, films, and workshops.
is a need to develop an American-Islamic identity"
believes Imam Feisal.
(photo: © 2002 Frank "Abdul-Majid" Vriale)
want the spiritual dimensions of a religion, not the colloquial."
Imam Feisal's way of preaching is quite
unique, to say the least. He has a powerful presence,
excellent communication skills and a natural charisma
that emanates peacefulness. The things he says don't sound
spacey, neither are they diluted with compelling beliefs.
One day he may quote from the sports section of the New
York Times, another day use the gravitational force to
draw a comparison. His natural force of attraction exceeds
that of physics laws. Yet, his empirical phrases and stripped
down examples are drawn from our everyday life experiences,
so much that people can relate to them easily, no matter
how sophisticated and complex the subject matter might
be. Once he told a story about a broker who committed
suicide when the stock market crashed in Asia. He was
explaining that the broker had identified himself with
his stocks and money so much that when he lost them he
had nothing to live for. "If your identity is grounded
in something that's forever lasting you will not lose
your sight in the world," Imam
Feisal's creative and thoughtful analogies are supported
by distilled words he pulls from his carefully chosen
vocabulary. Not that he makes up words, it's more the
context in which he uses them. He talks about the "self-consistency"
of the Qur'an, and how we need to "uproot" some
of our ways of thinking and do more "thought experiments."
With words he constructs a field of semantics that is
immune to callous beliefs no longer applicable. By proxy,
he becomes the guide, teacher and father.
cultural blend and diversity of the congregation at the
masjid is nothing less than striking. One look and you
will see a pair of rollerblades parked in the foyer, you
can spot people wearing Triple 5 Soul or Mark Echo branded
clothes. One guy sports a jersey of Zidane, a famous French
soccer player. Sufis mingle with North African, and -Middle
Eastern men lined up in front of African-American and
South Asian women. It is estimated that there are 8-12
million Muslims living in the US; one third are African-American,
one third are from the Indian subcontinent and the rest
is a mixture of Arabs, Europeans, and converts. The people
at the masjid certainly reflect that cross-section of
the Muslim world.
who have not been to the Masjid al-Farah may find it unusual
that there is no curtain separating the male section from
the female in the worship area. If you think that this
masjid is very much liberal and progressive in the way
it embraces Islam, wait until you hear the Imam talk.
"Read, in the name of your Lord, who created."
Imam Feisal, you have been an imam for around 20 years.
Does it run in the family?
father was director of the Islamic Center in New York and
in Washington, DC. My grandfather was an imam in our village
in Egypt and I come from a line of people who are known
to be very deeply spiritual and religious. One of my ancestors
is a Sufi Sheikh.
How did you get involved with the Masjid Al-Farah in New
- I was appointed by Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak
of the Khalwati Jarrahi Order in Turkey to be the imam and
hatib of Masjid al-Farah in 1983. I was invited to
attend a couple of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak's dhikr sessions (this is where the group repeats the Names of Allah, the confession
of faith, and chants Qur'anic verses and hymns glorifying
Allah). He used to visit the US twice a year, once in April,
and once around October for about six weeks and he'd be
traveling around the country. I met him in April of 1983
and when he came back in October I had a message from one
if his interpreters saying that Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak wants
to meet me. [When I met him], he said "I'd like you
to become the imam of this mosque."
you accepted it.
not something you can reject.
congregation attending your juma'a prayers is very eclectic.
Do you know them, where they come from?
of the Muslims in America are immigrants, second generation
[Muslims] or students who came here from all over the world.
What defines the people who come to my mosque is that their
concern is more [aligned] to the spiritual aspect of things.
They want the spiritual dimensions of a religion, not the
The people who come here for jum'a [prayer] come from within
the New York tri-state area. Of course, the majority work
around here, but a number of them come from Uptown, Brooklyn
or New Jersey, specifically to participate in the Friday
prayer here and to hear my sermon.
your book "Islam: A Search For Meaning" you
mention that "This work is not the work of a professional
Islamic scholar, but that of a Muslim layman." Why
did you avoid the scholarly path?
can be a professor of music and not be a musician. You
can be very knowledgeable about religion, but not be a
deeply spiritual person. I've known a lot of people who
are very scholarly, whose ethics are poor. And there are
people who are not that much knowledgeable in Islamic
scholarship but who are highly ethical and deeply spiritual
beings. So you recognize this difference, just like the
analogy that I mentioned: people who are talented musically
and can compose and play music very beautifully, but are
not necessarily professors of music. Of course you could
study religion, but if the study does not involve your
religiosity and spirituality, it becomes like a donkey
with books on its back: You have the knowledge in your
head, but it does not affect your behavior.
Think about the Olympics, [in] some of the sports you don't have
to be a professional player, you are an amateur. It doesn't
mean you're bad, you can get a gold medal. What does the
idea of professional mean in the sports field? If you
are a pro, you do it for a living. You can be a professional
or an amateur. It doesn't mean you're any less good or
any less scholarly.
emphasize the different states of consciousness we keep
switching back and forth. What happens to our level of
perception and existence at such times?
human being is defined by the quality of its consciousness.
When you are awake you are in a certain state of consciousness,
when you are asleep in a different state of consciousness.
If you consume alcohol you are in a reduced state of consciousness.
If you take certain drugs they heighten your state of
consciousness. The spiritual part involves trying to evoke
a particular quality of your consciousness. For us, going
back and forth to the sleep and wake state is a constant
reminder to pay attention to our state of consciousness,
like a hint from God. Your created state is what you wake
into everyday. Before you're born, after you're dead,
you go back to that state which resembles the sleep state.
In the Qur'an it says that God takes the souls every night
when they sleep and returns them when they wake up. Those
that he decrees death he holds on to, those that he doesn't
decree death he returns. So, by linking our experiences
with what the creator tells us, we gain some insights
into the human condition.
Sometimes you can get important insights during your state of sleep,
this is what we call our dreams. This is why in the Sufi
and spiritual path, attention is paid to your dreams.
It is one of the ways [through] which you can receive
communication from the creator. The ability to interpret
your dreams is a very important thing. Spiritual teachers,
and Muzaffer Ozak was one of them, teach us that not all
of our dreams are equal; some are false, some are true.
Most of the true dreams are not literal, what you see
in the dreams is not what it means. It is symbolic and
needs to be interpreted. This is another skill and there
are books that teach us these things. If you read
Ibn Seerins' "Dictionary of Dreams"
you will see how rich it is. Interpreting dreams is an art as well
as a science.
Speaking of interpreting, you always note that Arabic
words have multiple meanings in the way they are used
in the Qur'an. Do you think someone can get the whole
message of the Qur'an by reading the English translation?
is one of the few languages and the only one I know of
that has remained unchanged for 15 centuries. If you look
at English for example, the English of the 16th
century of Shakespeare is already hard to understand-,
if you go [further back], modern English speaking people
cannot even understand it. [In] three-four centuries many
languages have changed so substantially that they are
hard to understand. What happened to the Arabic language
is that over more than 15 centuries, words have developed
colors and shapes of meaning. This is true even in English
or many languages; you have coloration. That's why we
like French or Italian, because a word is not just a carrier
of meaning. The word also has music to it. When Dean Martin
says "That's Amore" it has a certain soul. For
those of us who are musically inclined, opera for example,
you cannot translate a Puccini opera in Italian into English.
You can get some meaning of the Qur'an in English, but
you cannot get the whole experience.
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