The Ideals We Share

The Ideals We Share
America was built on diversity. The same is true of Islam.By Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan
July 30, 2007 issue - It's strange that the United States and the Muslim world so often seem to be in conflict. The more you know about America's basic ideals and those of classical Islam, the more similarities you see. For one thing, both the country and the religion were founded on the principle that individual freedom is a God-given, inalienable right. For another, they share a central belief in the strength that comes from embracing diversity.

The resemblance dates back to their beginnings. The Muslim world grew in much the same way America would, a thousand years later. As Islam spread from its birthplace in Western Arabia, its community of followers—the umma—expanded into an increasingly diverse collection of cultures, peoples and nations. Muslim rulers made a practice of welcoming and protecting people of all faiths—a tradition begun earlier but set in stone less than 10 years after the Prophet Muhammad's death, when Caliph Umar captured Jerusalem in 638 and invited 70 Jewish families to come and live there, after centuries of repeated expulsions by non-Muslims.

America's Muslims are uniquely blessed. They embody the diversity championed by both their own religious history and their country's heritage—a cross section of the global Muslim community. It's a permanent version of what we see transiently during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the full range of our faith's variety: West Africans and East Asians, Sunnis and Shiites, the wealthy and the underprivileged. And together we are facing a historic opportunity to re-establish the classical Islamic value of cultural respect. Just as Muslims have produced Persian, Indonesian and North African expressions of Islam over the centuries, we Muslims in the United States are now forging our own American expression of Islam. In the same way that America's liberty, diversity and open environment gave rise to new developments in other world religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, this country can catalyze a renaissance in Islamic thinking and interpretation. The Prophet Muhammad himself predicted that Islam would one day be revived from the west.

Before this happens, American Muslims need to face up to some tough challenges. First, we need to establish credibility by making clear our concerns over U.S. foreign policy and its impact on Muslims around the world. A growing perception of the United States as hostile to the Muslim world—and of the Muslim world as hostile to the United States—has hobbled the effectiveness of American Muslims as mediators between Islam and the West. And yet those mutual suspicions have made communication between them more crucial than ever. And there's another challenge, closer to home. We need to build our institutions, empower women and youth, strengthen our identity as American Muslims and create leaders for the generations to come. We need to identify the fundamental principles of our faith and apply them no matter how circumstances may change. "Raise your children for times different from your own," said Imam Ali, the prophet's cousin.

This means we must examine the past as we move toward the future. A worldwide Islamic renewal will succeed only if it maintains continuity with our history and promotes diversity in many forms. As the prophet said, "Differences of opinion in my community are a blessing." This is classical Islam, embracing freedom of interpretation within its basic creed and appreciating the diversity of all peoples and nations. Only when the world's Muslims—perhaps inspired by their American brothers and sisters—rediscover the value of pluralism will the umma truly fulfill the prophet's prediction of a western Islamic revival.

Abdul Rauf is the author of "What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America" and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, a multifaith, multinational organization whose mission is to bridge the West-Muslim world divide. Khan, his wife, is executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

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