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What’s Right with Islam:
A New Vision for Muslims and the West

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West
Sheikh Feisal Abdul Rauf
(HarperCollins e-books, 2009)

Sheikh Feisal Abdul Rauf’s book is both very important and seriously flawed. This review will examine both its merits and its flaws, the latter not to detract from the book’s positive message but to carry it further. In some ironic ways, Sheikh Rauf’s mistakes are examples of the main point he is trying to make, and they actually lend support to his thesis: if we truly wish to heal the wounds created by our differences, we need to understand what life looks like through the eyes of the other.

Sheikh Rauf is concerned about the extremist image of Islam for many in the United States. He wants to correct this, by showing that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, carries forward the “Abrahamic ethic.” This ethic consists of two commandments, the same two most basic commandments in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament: love God with all one’s being, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. This is what the Abrahamic faiths have in common. In fact, Muhammad did not intend to establish a new religion but to reinstate “the primordial religion of God,” Abrahamic monotheism, and make it accessible to all humanity.

True Islam therefore stands for religious pluralism and tolerance. As the Qur’an says (2:256), “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” Sheikh Rauf (p. 37) finds these Qur’anic verses emphasizing the unity of the three Abrahamic faiths: “Those who have believed - and the Jews, the Christians, the Sabaeans, those who believe in God, the Last Day [of Judgment] and do good works - stand to be rewarded by God. No fear or grief shall befall them” (2:62), and “Do not argue with the People of the Book except in the best way… and say [to them]: We believe in that which was revealed to us as well as that which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is One and the same. We all submit to Him” (29:46). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common core, and disputes between them should be considered family squabbles.

War for the sake of religious coercion is therefore forbidden in Islam. Sheikh Rauf points out that numerous verses in the Qur’an forbid aggression except in self-defense. And if an enemy sues for peace, one must respond in kind. Sheikh Rauf even encourages non-Muslims to use these verses in conversation with Muslims.

He also emphasizes that Islam cannot be used as a rationale for terrorism. The Qur’an (4:29) specifically forbids suicide, as does the Hadith (unfortunately Sheikh Rauf’s method of citation from the latter is imprecise). However, in several places the Hadith also glorifies martyrdom in jihad. Some jurists have used those passages to justify suicide terrorism, but Sheikh Rauf believes that the prohibition against suicide is absolute. “The truth is that killing innocent people is always wrong - and no argument or excuse, no matter how deeply believed, can ever make it right” (p. 155).

Sheikh Rauf is at his best when he suggests ways of reading the Qur’an that are universalistic and inclusive. I found this to be his most inspiring passage:

When we interpret Quranic occurrences of the word Islam to mean “a religious system” instead of “a personal act,” the meaning can become highly sectarian and explosive. Quran 3:85 reads: “Whoever seeks other than self-surrender (Islam) as religion, it shall not be accepted from him.” If what is meant here is that God will not accept an act of religiousness that is done without submission to God, any pious Jew or Christian would agree. But if interpreted, as many erroneously do today, “Whoever seeks anything other than the religious system of Islam, it shall not be accepted of him,” the verse has sectarian implications that contradict the unambiguous meaning of Quranic verses such as 2:62 and 5:69: “Surely those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with God; they shall not fear, nor shall they grieve.” Defining Islam as a religious system rather than a universal act of submission is dangerous and has fed Islamic triumphalism and fueled modern Islamic militancy and sectarian violence (p. 114).

He has a point. Arabic, like other Semitic languages, has no capital letters. What we translate as “Muslim” may be literally rendered as “one who submits,” rather than an adherent of a specific religious system.

Sheikh Rauf calls for the formation of a Muslim identity that is specifically American: “The crucial need of our day is to find ways to accelerate the process whereby American Muslims will be able to establish their Islamic identity not apart from or in spite of their American identity, but precisely in and through it” (p. 221). He notes that Jews and Christians have done this in their respective traditions, and calls upon Muslims to do so as well. He believes that American and Muslim values have much in common, and specifically that Muslim communities can benefit from an American-style democratic capitalism. He hopes that the US will encourage such a development in the Muslim world.

In her book Threading My Prayer Rug Sabeeha Rehman also calls for the evolution of an American Muslim identity. She believes this will come with the next generation, who will have roots in both their Islamic faith and in American democratic ideals, and so will be well positioned to aid their coming together:

Our children are reshaping Islam in an American context. These are the Muslims of tomorrow. Get to know them. That was the moment when I saw the emergence of an American Muslim identity. I saw our children reshaping Islam in an American setting, one that was Islamic in its values and American in its ethos.

Ms. Rehman calls for the assertion of a moderate Islam to counter the conservatives who have pushed Islam to an extreme, and who have become the face of the only Islam that Americans know. Both she and Sheikh Rauf point out that while Americans demand to hear moderate Islamic voices especially when terrorist incidents occur, they don’t pay attention to those voices. Even worse are the attempts to delegitimize them. Fox News, for example, has portrayed Sheikh Rauf in a horrible, demagogic manner, twisting his words to cast him as a radical rather than a bridge builder. As a result, in the minds of most Americans, Islamic extremism becomes synonymous with Islam itself. This is bad not only for the Muslim community; it is bad for America. It creates unnecessary division in our society, and especially with the Trump administration it has cost us the services of many loyal Muslim armed services workers whose expertise we badly need. We are making the mistake of those European nations who failed to assimilate their Muslim populations, with many Muslims feeling alienated from mainstream society.

Ms. Rehman notes that an effective response to Islamic extremism can come only from within Islam itself:

We have to use Islam to unjustify the killing. It’s the only weapon that will work. Fighting them with a secular argument is not going to cut it. Nothing stirs passions as fervently as religion; nothing is as potent as religion; and nothing will move you or stop you as well as religious conviction. Harness that sentiment. Use religion as the basis for condemning the murders, for fostering tolerance, and for building harmony. Use the Qur’anic text to take away from the extremists what they took away from us.

In contrast to the more conservative and extreme forms of Islam, Ms. Rehman uses the term “Inclusive Islam” to denote the moderate form that must take its place in the world and in the public mind. I find this term helpful and will use it here and in future discussions.

The development of a systematic Inclusive Islam by Muslim theologians and imams who have the training to accomplish it would be of great benefit to the world. And this brings us to what may be the biggest shortcoming of Sheikh Rauf’s book. By his call for moderation in religion he takes a great step forward, but instead of proceeding all the way he steps back into defensiveness and a tendency to blame the West for problems in the Muslim world, thus engaging in a number of historical inaccuracies. Had he continued moving forward, towards a thorough delineation of an Inclusive Islam, he might have authored a real breakthrough.

The Need to Practice Empathy

Before looking at this in greater detail, let’s consider another vitally important point that Sheikh Rauf emphasizes. In order for people to understand each other, they must be willing to experience history from the other’s point of view. Each one must ask, “How did this event impact the person on the other side?” This of course requires tremendous effort: we are all predisposed to view reality from the perspective of the group with which we identify. But it is a necessary task. And so the non-Muslim must be willing to “walk the proverbial mile in Muslim moccasins” (p. 165). Only Muslim voices can give us this information, so Sheikh Rauf fills in some valuable background for those who may not be familiar with the history.

The Islamic movement began as a great success. Muhammad unified the Arabian Peninsula and after his death, under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphs, an Arabic Islamic empire was established extending from Spain through North Africa and the Middle East up to the Indian subcontinent. It lasted about 600 years, then began to disintegrate under assaults from Turks, Christian Crusaders, and Mongols. The Ottoman Turks controlled the Muslim world from the end of the thirteenth century until the end of World War I, Arabs now playing a subordinate role.

Regarding Muslim distrust of the West, Sheikh Rauf mentions how Western powers divided the remnants of the dead Ottoman Empire after World War I, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement and League of Nations mandate system. This was done without regard for the welfare or cultural realities of the people living in those territories. Another action whose consequences still reverberate was the conspiracy by the US and Great Britain to overthrow Iran’s Mossadegh in 1953, mainly because he nationalized the oil industry. This was an evil act, resulting in the Shah’s repressive regime. In this historical context the Iranian reaction is not difficult to understand, and so the West bears much - though not total - responsibility for the extremist anti-Western regime that now controls Iran.

It is a challenge to Westerners to ask themselves what it would have been like to live in the Muslim world during those times, to see foreign powers determining your destiny, deciding who will govern you and control your life. More recently, many of Iraq’s people certainly did not feel themselves liberated as American bombs plunged their country into anarchy. If we want to understand people who have grievances against us, we need to know how the world feels to them. The era from the end of World War I until the present has been especially difficult for Muslims, coinciding with the decline of Muslim empire (including the end of the Caliphate) and the ascent of Western power.

But the need to practice this level of empathy goes both ways, and in this regard Sheikh Rauf’s presentation is one-sided. He tends to portray Muslims as passive victims of the exploitation of others, playing no significant role in their own destiny. Here are a few examples:

  1. He explains Islamic fundamentalism as a defensive reaction to Muslims’ being attacked by others: “When a group feels under attack, then, in order to ensure its survival, a certain amount of aggression in its name is bound to evolve. I believe that this defensive instinct is what leads to the rise of all religious fundamentalist movements, and it certainly has been the case with Islam” (p. 123).

  2. He mentions (pp. 7-8) the following factors responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism: the ascent of Western capitalism, European colonialism, modern secularism, and Western support for undemocratic regimes. Thus he attributes Islamic fundamentalism exclusively to external factors, making no mention of how elements within Islamic tradition going back to Islam’s earliest sources were used to encourage exclusivist attitudes that over time found expression in religious intolerance.

  3. He says American discomfort with the oil cartel is purely America’s responsibility: “Describing an oil supplier as ‘holding America hostage’ to oil is a strange way indeed of describing an appetite America has for a product belonging to someone else. To Muslim ears, this sounds like accusing McDonald’s of holding us hostage to our appetites for hamburgers” (p. 164). This is a false and trivializing analogy - nobody needs a Big Mac. A better comparison would be to a hypothetical North American food cartel that would artificially control prices and supply to the Muslim world.

  4. In an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes (September 30, 2001) Sheikh Rauf called the United States an “accessory” to the 9/11 terrorist attack, adding that “in the most direct sense Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.” It is true that the US supported the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in their fight against Russia. It is also fair for Sheikh Rauf to challenge Americans to imagine why some people in the world might feel sympathy with an attack on a powerful symbol of Western capitalism. But calling bin Laden an American creation is an exaggeration that shifts all responsibility for Islamic terrorism onto the United States. Sheikh Rauf did not do himself a favor with this statement.

Sheikh Rauf also seems almost nostalgic over the loss of the Caliphate, presenting it purely as a tragedy inflicted on a suffering Muslim population:

Ataturk was a Turkish general, a military hero. In 1924 he terminated the Ottoman Caliphate, which was based in Istanbul. The trauma of this event is still felt by many in the Muslim community. This was what Osama bin Laden meant in one of his tapes when he referred to an affront “eighty years ago,” a reference that puzzled most Americans (p. 170).

To fathom what Ataturk did in eliminating the caliphate, imagine if Mussolini had terminated the papacy and made the Vatican a museum. How would you feel if you were a Catholic? (p. 171)

So for Sheikh Rauf, Ataturk appears to be a villain. He does not discuss the other side of this story: the excesses of the Ottoman Empire that led to this development. The empire, which became known as the “Sick Man of Europe,” had been decaying for many years until it finally ended shortly after World War I. It did not treat its non-Muslim subjects kindly, reaching a horrible climax with the Armenian Genocide just before the empire’s end. The reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s termination of the Caliphate was part of his program to modernize Turkey, save it from the ruins of the shattered empire, and make it a republic that could survive and compete in the new world order. Had it not been for Ataturk, Turkey might well have suffered the fate of the territories that were carved up by Western powers under the mandate system. As for the Caliphate, today those wishing to restore it are associated with the extreme forms of Islam that Sheikh Rauf opposes.

Relationships with Jews

Sheikh Rauf’s limited perspective is perhaps most apparent in his treatment of Jews, regarding both the complex history of Muslim-Jewish relations and the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is evident from the beginning of his book:

For many centuries, Islam inspired a civilization that was particularly tolerant and pluralistic. From 800 to 1200 CE, for example, the Córdoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain amid a rich flowering of art, culture, philosophy, and science. Many Jewish and Christian artists and intellectuals emigrated to Córdoba during this period to escape the more oppressive regimes that reigned over Europe’s Dark and Middle Ages. Great Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides were free to create their historic works within the pluralistic culture of Islam (p. 2).

While the Córdoba Caliphate did represent the high point of early Muslim rule, this statement as it stands is a serious misrepresentation of history. Since the notion of a tolerant and totally benign “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain is so common, it calls for additional comment.

Ironically, the notion of an idealized, utopian “Golden Age” for Jews under Muslim Spain goes back to early Jewish historians, beginning with Heinrich Graetz. They overpraised Muslim rule to emphasize by comparison the far more brutal treatment of Jews in Christian Europe. Later on Muslims and others used this utopian picture of a Muslim “Golden Age” against the Jews, specifically to delegitimize the existence of Israel. The idea was that Jews have no need for a state of their own because Muslims treat them so nicely in their own countries - a view completely falsified by the experience of Jews in Arab lands. So other Jewish historians, looking for a corrective, went to the opposite extreme and proposed a countermyth: that persecutions in Muslim Spain were constant and comparable to, or even possibly worse than, those in Christian Europe. The truth lies somewhere between these extremes. It is important to note, however, that using Christian Europe’s treatment of Jews as a basis for comparison to Muslim Spain is setting a very low bar. It would be like saying American blacks lived a very good life under Jim Crow because at least no one was confining them in internment camps and gassing them to death, as was done to others elsewhere. Yet this is often the kind of justification used for idealizing Jewish life in Muslim Spain: it was so good because it could have been much worse, considering what Christians were doing to Jews in Europe.

Today the most reputable scholars grant that life for Jews in Moorish Spain, while certainly better than in Christian Europe, was by no means a utopian existence of pluralistic tolerance. The notion of equality of religious groups, or of minority ethnic groups within the dominant culture, did not exist. Life for Jews was at best difficult, and at worst life-threatening. Today scholars believe that while outbrreaks of violence against Jews were rare, at times they did occur. Significant anti-Jewish riots took place in Córdoba in 1011 and in Grenada in 1066, in which 4,000 Jews lost their lives. In general throughout this period Jews lived in a state of inferiority. (Examples of recent, balanced scholarship are The Jews of Islam by Bernard Lewis and Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages by Mark Cohen.)

The idyllic picture Sheikh Rauf portrays of the life of Maimonides in this region bears little resemblance to the reality. When Maimonides was 13 years old Spain was conquered by the Almohads, a fanatic Berber dynasty that imposed a strict form of Islam especially targeting Jews. We have writings from Maimonides complaining bitterly about the degradation and persecution that Jews experienced at the hands of Muslims. The Almohads forced Jews to choose between conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Maimonides eventually chose exile and fled the country.

Even before the Almohads there was nothing close to utopia in Spain. Life for Jews under the previous dynasty, the Almoravids, was also very difficult. The Almoravids were especially brutal towards the Christian population (the Mozarabs), massacring and expelling many of them. During the entire period of Muslim control of Spain, Christians and Jews were treated as dhimmi, literally “protected minorities” but in practice meaning second-class status. They were subject to numerous restrictions and humiliations; for example, they could not build new houses of worship or restore old ones, they had to pay a special tax (called the jizya; see Qur’an 9:29) that could be onerous, and they had to approach all Muslims with an attitude of submission. They also had to wear a distinctive garment, visibly setting them apart from Muslims. These provisions are all codified in sharia law, and penalties for violating them could be severe. (In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council adopted the special garment requirement to Jews living in Christian countries; later on this inspired the infamous “yellow star” that Nazis imposed on Jewish populations.)

Another important area in which both history and present reality are more complex than Sheikh Rauf allows is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He does try to be even-handed on this topic, but he does not quite succeed.

The creation of a religious nation-state that has contributed to a painful global conflict was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948…. The creation of Israel, and the manner of its creation, began a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who until then throughout most of their history had experienced a deeply intimate kinship with each other…. Because of the conflict, Sephardic Jews became unfortunately victimized in many Muslim societies (p. 169).

The idea that Arab anti-Semitism started with and was caused by the creation of the State of Israel is very common, but as we have already seen, it is a misrepresentation of history. Jews faced discrimination and even persecution in Muslim lands long before the State of Israel was even conceived. If there is any doubt, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Andrew Bostom provides very extensive documentation from primary sources dating back to the founding of Islam, chronicling negative attitudes and practices of Muslims toward Jews. The literature on this topic is vast. One would have to sweep all of that aside to believe that Muslim anti-Semitism did not exist before modern Israel.

While the Israeli/Palestinian conflict did not create Muslim anti-Semitism, it has certainly been an exacerbating factor. Anti-Semitism has become an obsession in many parts of the Muslim world, where Jewish sovereignty over territory in which Jews once lived as dhimmi under Muslim rule is felt as a great humiliation, a religious affront, and a painful reminder of lost Arab greatness. This was no doubt a major element in Arab unwillingness to accept the existence of Israel since its creation. Today there is plenty of blame to be shared by both sides, as Israel no longer seems genuinely interested in ending the occupation (it did try to negotiate a withdrawal right after the Six-Day War but was rebuffed). Nevertheless, the fact remains that had the Palestinian side accepted the 1947 United Nations partition plan, Palestinians today would have their own state, and a much larger one than they can now hope to get on the West Bank. Arab anti-Semitism is not the result of the present impasse; it is one of the causes.

This brings us to consider more closely the role of religion. Sheikh Rauf tends to play down the influence of religion in conflict and terrorism, emphasizing economic factors instead: ”The origins of so-called Islamic violence lie not in religion but in the politics and economics of the Muslim world” (p. 151); “The roots of terrorism lie not in theology but in human psychology and in the hatred born of violent conflict over politics, or power, and economic assets such as land” (p. 155; see also p. 119). Undoubtedly one can find many underlying causes in such conflicts, but religion is certainly one of them. If we fail to give it its proper place, we will be unable to find an effective response.

Muhammad was in conflict with the Jews of his time, largely because they refused to accept him as one of their prophets. Muhammad saw himself as carrying forward the Jewish monotheistic tradition, so considered their rejection a betrayal. The clash between Muhammad and the Jews began as a religious disagreement, but became political as it escalated into war between the Muslim and Jewish communities. It finds expression in the Qur’an in the form of many vitriolic anti-Jewish passages. Muslim preachers, taking these passages as applicable to every generation, used them throughout the history of Islam to defame and excoriate Jews, even quoting the Qur’an (5:60) to call Jews “descendants of apes and pigs.” These anti-Jewish sentiments exist not only in the Qur’an; they are greatly elaborated in the Hadith (recorded sayings of Muhammad) and Sira (earliest authorized biographies of Muhammad).

Sheikh Rauf takes exactly the wrong approach to these passages: “Indeed, family disputes can be of the worst kind, but let us bear in mind that there is no criticism that the Quran has addressed to either Jews or Christians that Jews and Christians have not addressed to themselves or their tradition (p. 37).” The great innovation of the Hebrew Bible is its willingness to record and preserve uncompromising self-criticism - no other nation had done such a thing. One very common and significant anti-Semitic trend throughout the centuries has been to use this Jewish self-criticism against Jews themselves: the argument takes the form that Jews must be evil because even their own prophets voice God’s disapproval of them. It is one thing for the Jewish prophets to call their own people stubborn and rebellious, in order to reform them. It is quite another for non-Jews to turn this language against Jews in order to condemn them. Sheikh Rauf shows an inability to tell the difference, and consequently an unfortunate lack of sensitivity.

Religion and Tribalism

We now need to broaden the context of these developments, to consider the role of religion as a catalyst in either uniting or dividing people. Conflicts inevitably arise in human history because human beings are tribal. We find our identity in groups, with a resulting incentive to marginalize and even dehumanize other groups. From the perspective of prophetic Judaism (Leviticus 19:34, Isaiah 56:7) and authentic Christianity (Luke 10:36-37, Galatians 3:28-29), the purpose of religion is to overcome this tribal instinct and bring us all together as one humanity under one God. There are also passages in the Qur’an (4:36, 5:69) that lend support to this universalistic vision. This is what Sheikh Rauf calls the “Abrahamic ethic.”

However, just as all three Abrahamic faiths strive to promote overcoming the forces that separate us, there are powerful strains within each one of them that reinforce and intensify divisive tribalism. The critical question is, which of these two sides of religion will prevail, the tribal or the transcendent?

Returning to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, so far it has been the tribal side, on both sides. Sheikh Rauf feels that the United States has not done enough to work towards a solution. But it has tried. Under Clinton, in 2000 the Camp David process was showing real promise, until Arafat broke it off and started the Second Intifada. George W. Bush’s Roadmap plan was very reasonable, but was violated by both sides and became an object of ridicule. If the peace broker wants a solution more than the parties do, it will never work.

Religion contributes to the stalemate, on both sides. Today neither side seems truly serious about negotiating an agreement. Dehumanization of Jews and incitement against them using references from Islamic sources including the Qur’an has been rampant in the Palestinian community for years. Hamas, a religious extremist organization that controls Gaza, included in its charter a hadith quoting Muhammad calling on Muslims to fight and kill Jews, and it continues firing rockets at Jewish population centers. On the Israeli side, a powerful faction of settlers drawing their ideology from biblical promises of the entire land of Palestine to the Jewish people has been strongly influential. There are half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, many with deep religious and emotional connections to where they live. It is difficult to imagine them willingly evacuating to make room for a Palestinian state, or agreeing to become subjects of such a state should a two-state solution ever become reality. As a result Israel may lose its democratic character as it heads toward becoming one state with a Jewish population controlling a disenfranchised Palestinian population equal in size, or perhaps even larger.

Christianity has also not played a constructive role in this conflict. For the most part, Christian churches have contributed to the polarization by championing one side and demonizing the other. Christian Zionists support the extreme right in Israel because the occupation fits their theological agenda, and many liberal Christian churches condemn Israel while completely ignoring obstructionism on the Palestinian side. Both of these extremes do nothing but add oil to the flames. This conflict cannot be resolved if it is not understood, and it cannot be understood without recognizing how both sides have contributed to the status quo. Any organization that recognizes merit on one side only and fault on one side only is just pitting one side against another and contributing to the perpetuation of the conflict.

Religion is problematic when co-opted and used to support the human tribal instinct. Religion is salvific when it calls us beyond that instinct. Too often we do not heed that call, using religion to define divinely favored “in groups” with special claims on God’s favor. When religion continues dividing humanity between insiders and outsiders it supports the very separatist tendencies it was meant to overcome. Jews who believe that only they have the Covenant, Christians who believe that only they are saved, and Muslims who believe that only they are saved, all need to be very careful. A God who favors only one group cannot be the same God to whom the others pray, and this clearly contradicts Abrahamic monotheism. We cannot have three different and contradictory Gods all claiming to be the God of Abraham. Any faith that calls itself “Abrahamic” needs a theology of true monotheism, of one God caring for one humanity without partiality.

Therefore each of the three Abrahamic faiths needs a movement towards recognizing all human beings as equal objects of divine love. Progressive Judaism has been moving in that direction, forming ties with Christian and Muslim groups. Progressive churches have done the same. And a moderate, “inclusive” Islam is also trying to emerge. It needs support, and it needs attention. Moderate Muslims are right when they say that people don’t listen to them and then ask “Where are the moderate voices?”

Working with Scripture

People have strong opinions about Islam. No book more than the Qur’an has been subjected to so much intensely passionate rhetoric, both praising it and damning it, by people who never picked it up and read it. As one does make one’s way through the Qur’an it becomes clear that one can find support for both intolerant, conservative Islam and inclusive, compassionate Islam, depending on what one chooses to emphasize and how one interprets it. Non-Muslims must recognize the right of Muslims to make those decisions and interpret their own scriptures, just as Jews must decide how to confront the genocidal passages in Numbers or in Joshua, and Christians must decide how to confront anti-Semitism (and it does exist) in parts of the New Testament. There is no authentic religion without challenge, and it is hypocritical for Jews and Christians to demand that Muslims face their challenges without our being willing to deal with our own.

It is possible to make the Qur’an look bad by picking certain passages out of context to suggest that Islam must be a religion of aggression against the nonbeliever. But it is possible to do the same thing with the Bible. Both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament contain verses that make them sound brutal if considered in isolation. And as we have noted, the Qur’an also contains many uplifting, inclusive statements. Ironically, and not to Islam’s benefit, many Islamic preachers have done exactly what non-Muslims are warned not to do: they have lifted Qur’anic passages out of context and used them in a condemnatory way, especially in reference to Jews. But Christians do something similar: conservative evangelicals have no shortage of proof-texts purporting to demonstrate their own intolerant brand of Christianity.

Therefore what is needed, in every religion, are humane, compassionate voices spelling out in detail the tenets of their faith and principles of scriptural interpretation that support the “Abrahamic ethic,” the love of God and one’s fellow human being. This may require reworking traditional theological approaches in each faith, and members of each faith must be ready to meet the challenge. And here may lie the most serious failing of Sheikh Rauf’s book.

He makes a promising start. He criticizes Islamic extremism and proposes just the bare beginning of an alternative. But then he becomes defensive, portraying the Muslim world as a victim of history, suggesting that the West must now solve its problems, and glossing over very important issues that inevitably arise when considering Islam’s historical role. He misrepresents Muslims’ treatment of others as benign as long as Muslims were in power, with good relations between Muslims and Jews until Israel’s creation spoiled it. This is a bad starting point for any kind of reconciliation, which to be successful must proceed from the truth.

So instead of developing thoroughly what he barely started, he backtracks. He mentions the sharia (or Shariah, traditional Islamic law) often, but his treatment is neither critical nor convincing. He calls America a “Shariah-compliant state” and insists that American values are Shariah values. But sharia law contains many harsh and repressive measures that could never be accepted by a modern liberal democracy. Sheikh Rauf does not even mention this, let alone how to deal with it. Once again he fails to recognize difficult realities for which his topic practically demands consideration. He criticizes the separation of religion and state but fails to offer convincing reassurances that breaking that barrier would not lead to abuses. Another important area to which one could have expected greater attention is the role of Sufism (Islam’s mystical tradition) within Islam. This has been a matter of controversy. Islamic traditionalists (Salafis) generally do not accept Sufism’s legitimacy. Sheikh Rauf is a Sufi imam, and it would be instructive to hear his views of the relationship between Sufism and the rest of the Muslim world, especially in light of conflicting claims as to what exactly is the “real” Islam.


Despite this book’s flaws Sheikh Rauf has started a very important conversation. It needs to be carried further. The world, non-Muslim and Muslim, needs to know that there is a tolerant, inclusive Islam. Sheikh Rauf is right in stressing the two great commandments of the “Abrahamic ethic” as the foundation of Abrahamic faith. This needs to become a unifying principle bringing all faiths together, not in complete agreement, which is neither necessary nor expected, but in harmonious and interactive coexistence.

So where do we go from here? It is up to qualified, educated Muslims to take what Sheikh Rauf started and really develop it. One possible direction might be to define principles of Qur’anic exegesis, such as:

The history of “jihad” is interesting. We often hear Muslims speak of military conflict as the “lesser jihad,” in contrast to the “greater jihad,” which is inner struggle. A critic of Islam might point out that “jihad” originally meant violent war. That is the only way the term is used in the most respected and trusted collections of Hadith (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim). The notion of a “greater” or spiritual jihad originates in another, obscure and not well-attested collection of ahadith that some scholars consider a forgery, so it is likely that Muhammad never mentioned it. Such criticism might be true, but it would be unfair. It would be similar to confronting Jews and saying that their Talmud is wrong to interpret “an eye for an eye” as monetary compensation when clearly that was not the original meaning. Religions are living things; they change and grow as our understanding of God grows. Only the fundamentalist strains within any religion want to freeze it in time, ignoring present realities not known when original texts were written. We need to trust that the divine inspiration underneath those texts will inform us of the proper ways to interpret them in our own age. Therefore, instead of throwing isolated proof-texts at Muslims to show that Islam is bad, non-Muslims need to respect the right of Muslims to interpret their own texts and to inform us of what those texts mean to them.

The anti-Jewish verses in the Qur’an might also be approached differently. When they are studied, it could be in the context of gratitude towards the Jewish people for recording their own sins and their consequences so that others can learn from them - and not that Jews are inherently more sinful than anyone else. This challenge is not unique to the Qur’an. Christians too have to wrestle with how to approach the anti-Jewish sections of the Gospel of John, or 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, the first recorded instance of the accusation that the Jews killed Christ.

Of course what I write here has limited value, since it is not my place as a non-Muslim to say how Muslims should approach their texts. But I would hope to see either Sheikh Rauf or other qualified individuals of similar persuasion carry the discussion forward and address these issues. Only Muslims can teach non-Muslims what Islam really means and what it stands for.

Finally, if Sheikh Rauf has not always been successful in grasping the experiences of non-Muslims under Muslim dominance, it is just further support for his thesis that we must learn to practice deeper levels of empathy. Nothing is harder than seeing ourselves through the eyes of people who feel we have aggrieved them. For that reason it is a valuable spiritual exercise.

In conclusion I must extend my grateful support to those who are working to educate the public about Inclusive Islam. People need to know that just as there are many voices within Judaism and Christianity, so are there many voices within Islam. The moderate voices are out there, are trying to speak, and deserve to be heard. It is essential for the well-being of the entire world that we listen to them.

September 2018