Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf shows us another side of Islam from what we usually see in the news. In 2009 Abdul Rauf tried to build an Islamic community center called Cordoba House (since renamed Park51) two blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Hatemongers viciously maligned him. But anyone who watched his 2009 Ted talk would have known that he’s about as far from a terrorist as anyone can get, regardless of his being a Muslim. For he represents not extremist Islam, but rather Sufi Islam. And Sufism is the version of Islam most people in the West like best.
In fact, some of what Abdul Rauf says in his talk will resonate with Christians because his message is that we must lose our ego—in Christian terms, “deny ourselves”—to find our compassion and move in sync with God. He claims that Muslims count Jesus “the greatest prophet and messenger who came to emphasize the spiritual path.” But by that, he means the ascetic path. Rauf also quotes Muhammad* as saying that “Whoever has seen me has seen God.” His point is not that Muhammad* was divine in the sense that Christians believe Jesus is divine, but only that he perfectly manifested God’s will. Abdel Rauf speaks of striving against self-centeredness as the highest form of jihad and he likens the different religions to three men asking for the same grapes by using the word for grapes in three different languages. This is Sufism at its best.
Despite its strong appeal in the West, however, Sufis represent only one stream of Muslim spirituality. And while we may appreciate much of what Abdul Rauf says, like all Sufis, he reads the Qur’an through the lens of much later hadith, or traditions, the earliest of which dates to some two centuries after Muhammad.* The quotation—“Whoever has seen me has seen God”—reflects nothing at all in the Qur’an. As a matter of fact, the qur’anic worldview leaves no room whatsoever for any human to liken himself to God—that being one form of the Qur’an’s cardinal sin of “polytheism” (shirk). The quotation comes only in the hadith, which borrow many things from other Middle Eastern religions and philosophies. Quite clearly, that hadith borrowed Jesus’ words in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” only changing its final word to “God.”
Likewise, Abdel Rauf’s claim that Muhammad* considered physical warfare in God’s name inferior to spiritual warfare—individually warring against our own egos—is contrary to qur’anic teaching. The sole hadith upon which his claim rests originated after the six great Muslim collections of hadith were produced in the 9th century. Nevertheless, the Sufis insist on reading the Qur’an through the lens of hadith like this one, regardless of its provenance, since it enables them to present a much softer—in fact, a more Christian—faith than the Qur’an allows. In many respects Sufism also borders on pantheism, though the Qur’an isn’t even remotely pantheistic.
If I were to become a Muslim, I’d identify with some stream of Sufism because Sufis are peace loving and compassion-centered. And in an age when Muslim extremists give Islam a very bad name, Sufism represents a version of Islam that most non-Muslims will appreciate. That being so, it’s natural that some people want to stamp Sufism as “true Islam,” while condemning other versions as distortions of Islam. But what gives non-Muslims the right to decide what is true and false Islam? We should probably begin with the question, What makes any given kind of Islam true or false? It surely doesn’t depend on which version we find friendliest or easiest to live with. Why should what suits us best constitute something as “true Islam”? That would be ridiculous. Yet that’s what most of our politicians seem to think.
I believe outsiders should accept as Muslim anyone who calls herself Muslim. Thus, Sufis are certainly entitled to call themselves Muslims. But to say that they represent “true Islam”—while members of the “Islamic State,” for example, represent “false Islam”—is something else entirely. For us to judge what is true Islam, we would need to go back to Islam’s origins and look very closely at the earliest evidence we have for Islam, that being the Qur’an. And in many respects, Sufis like Imam Abdul Rauf—their charm and appeal notwithstanding—are actually much farther from the Qur’an than many other Muslims.
I said earlier that Sufism is the version of Islam most people in the West are attracted to. Some Americans, however, are determined to make all Muslims terrorists and refuse to consider Sufism Muslim. Frankly, I find their approach malicious. All Muslims are not alike, any more than all Christians are alike or all Jews—or all atheists, for that matter. There are many Muslims in the world who exhibit the sort of grace we find in Abdul Rauf. But on the other hand, accepting that Sufis are genuine Muslims cannot in and of itself be taken to mean that they represent “true Islam.”
*Peace Be Upon His Descendants. Out of regard for my Muslim readers, I follow each mention of their prophet’s name with this prayer for peace.
 I’m talking only about the imam himself, not the project’s funding sources. And along with President Obama, I reject the wisdom of this location.