Imam Abdul Rauf's Critics Don't Understand Islam

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf speaks on Aug. 20 at a mosque in Bahrain, one stop on a State Department-sponsored tour of the Arab world intended to spotlight religious tolerance in the United States. Hasan Jamali / AP

For some observers, the controversy over a planned Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan is pretty simple: either it's a matter of religious freedom or it's not; either it's insensitive and offensive to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero or it isn't.

But there's been a rousing secondary debate over what kind of Islam Park51 would teach, centering specifically on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the center's sponsoring organization, the Cordoba Initiative. This past weekend, both The New York Times and The Washington Post profiled Abdul Rauf, searching for some key anecdote, some quote from a friend or associate that might illuminate the truth about whether he's a jihadist in disguise or a relentlessly conciliatory dove.

It's worth reading both profiles; they'll tell you something about a controversial and fascinating figure. But they won't give you a definitive answer about Abdul Rauf's ideology. That's because the American press—like the American public—simply doesn't have the tools to effectively assess Islam, even nine years into the war on terror.

That's pretty obvious simply from the way he's identified. Almost without fail, he's referred to as "Rauf" in every kind of outlet: left and right, mainstream and alternative (and this one too, unfortunately). Even Andy McCarthy, the self-appointed Islam expert at National Review, does it.

If McCarthy's so knowledgeable about Islam, he should know that calling Abdul Rauf "Rauf" is a bit like calling McCarthy "Carthy." The common word "Adbul" is Arabic for "servant of," and is part of a common formulation for Muslim names the world over—all of which draw on the 99 names of God, a series of epithets that describe the characteristics of the Almighty. So Adbul Rahman (alternatively spelled Abd al-Rahman) means servant of the merciful, Abdullah means servant of God, Abdul Aziz means servant of the Almighty, and so on.

Sure, that's just semantics, but it's evidence of the general unawareness of the religion. A more substantive example is the hubbub over Abdul Rauf's Sufism. Dovish writers, pundits, and intellectuals have told Western audiences for a decade or longer that Sufism is, for lack of a better term, "good Islam"—peaceable, nonthreatening, nonviolent, flexible, and popular with Joe Muslim (or Ahmad Muslim, if you will). The latest example: William Dalrymple's Aug. 16 Times op-ed. And yet we have mosque bashers like Victor Davis Hanson and Lee Smith, a veteran Middle East hand who ought to know better, snidely calling Abdul Rauf a "self-described Sufi." It's a curious formulation: if I call Pope Benedict a "self-described Roman Catholic," does that mean he's really a crypto-Methodist? Or if I call Jonathan Sacks a "self-described Orthodox rabbi," does it mean he's secretly a Reform Jew, wearing the yarmulke to be tricky?

Perhaps part of the blame lies with well-intentioned columns like Dalrymple's. Lamenting the inability of Westerners to distinguish between strains of Islam, he writes, "[Abdul Rauf's] slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination. For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam." Well, that might be true, but depicting Sufism as a kind of hippie Islam isn't the whole story.

Smith smartly pointed out last week that Sharia isn't nearly as simple as Westerners think or Islamists suggest, and Sufism is similarly, as Dalrymple says, pluralistic. It encompasses both Sunnis and Shiites, arranged in chains or orders of teachers and disciples, which often trace themselves back to the earliest leaders of Islam after Muhammad's death. While each order's views are different, Sufism is generally described as the mystical wing of Islam, and Sufis (or "dervishes," as they're commonly known in the West) tend to focus particularly on achieving closeness to—and ultimately oneness with—God. The pluralism that Dalrymple cites can lead to strange juxtapositions. For example, the Deobandis, a South Asian sect of Islam, are tied to historical Sufi lines—but also to the Taliban. Yet reacting to the reductive description of Sufism as hippie Islam, and unable to make an educated judgment themselves, people like (Mc)Carthy and Hanson use Sufi as shorthand for moderate, then knock it down.

It's far more meaningful to examine the substance of Abdul Rauf's beliefs, which, thankfully, some commentators have done. McCarthy isn't one of them; it's not surprising, given the quality of scholarship in his recent book alleging a grand plot between Democrats and radical Islamists. In an Aug. 24 piece, McCarthy continues his attack on Abdul Rauf with an article focusing ... entirely on Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a cleric whom Abdul Rauf has (quite credibly) called "the most well-known legal authority in the whole Muslim world today."

Luckily, others have actually looked at what Abdul Rauf says. Todd Gitlin, for one, offers some informative examples of real moderation, while Christoper Hitchens provides a truly concerning statement Abdul Rauf made about the need for the U.S. to recognize the legitimacy of Iran's Vilayet-e-Faqih system, a system in which Islamic scholars, who traditionally were a counterbalance to the state, both determine laws and govern in accordance with them. Though Hitchens is a zealot of anti-zealotry, he's also intellectually honest, astutely noting that the system is "extremely controversial within Shiite Islam."

These examples of informed commentary, however, remain outliers. When assessing the verdicts offered by uninformed commentators, it might be best to keep in mind the Arabic expression "Wa Allah a'alam"—it is God who knows best. Because the pundit class surely does not.