On Friday morning, my family and I celebrated Eid by attending a brief service in Westchester. The service was not in a mosque, but rather in a hotel. Men and women were sitting in the same room, side by side, though in two groups. Plain white sheets covered the floor and everyone was reading off crib sheets with phonetic transliterations of Arabic words. Many were glancing at their neighbors to figure out exactly when to sit, stand or bow. Though Eid marks the end of a month of fasting, several of us–all of my family, for sure–do not keep all the fasts. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen any of the women in a hijab.
Welcome to a Feisal Rauf congregation.
Rauf has been our family’s imam for many years, so many that we couldn’t agree on the car ride home just how long it has been. However many years ago it was, he decided to start performing holiday services outside his main Tribeca mosque for New York’s large population of liberal and essentially secular Muslims. People like myself, whose families had perhaps set foot in a real mosque less than five times in ten years. His goal, to be sure, was to bring us back into the fold, and for some of us, he succeeded. I went through a phase in high school and into college, for example, where I prayed frequently and kept all the Ramadan fasts, and Rauf’s super-liberal version of Islam had much to do with that.
But what is more interesting is that when I gave up my religious practice five years ago, Rauf’s teachings did not lose their appeal, or their spiritual value. I still attend and I am still, consistently, moved by what he has to say. That is because he is a true pluralist. He is not someone who sees the differences between various faith traditions and says, “We disagree, but I tolerate your views,” but a someone who says “I find my own spiritual gratification IN the richness of our differences.”
The way he put it on Friday was particularly striking. Like many moderate theologians, he began by putting forward the argument that the real conflict is not between Islam and the West, or indeed between moderates and extremists inside Islam. But he took this premise in a direction that I’ve never seen another leader of an organized faith go.