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Imam Rauf: Mosque planner has been mostly silent during noisy debate

The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the Manhattan site of the September 11 attacks says he hopes to draw attention during his trip in the Middle East to the common challenges to battle radical religious beliefs.

"And we have to be cognizant that we also have a constitutional right. We have the Muslim community around the nation that we have to be concerned about, and we have to worry about the extremists as well, because they are seizing this moment."

Rabbi Leonard Schoolman, who hired Rauf in the late 1990s to teach about Islam at the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, and who is a strong supporter of the imam, called the project "amateur hour" and more of a publicity strategy than a reality, meant to promote the couple's interfaith work. Even with 50 media requests coming in per day, a part-time employee of the developer who owns the property has been the sole source of information in recent days, which he was sending out in occasionally snarky messages on Twitter.

"I don't think either of them has the capacity or resources or anything else to pull this off," said Schoolman, who accompanied Rauf to a meeting with civic officials earlier in the 2000s to support the project at another location, farther uptown.

"I don't think he has a constituency in the Muslim community," said Schoolman, who has been to Masjid al Farah, the TriBeCa mosque at which Rauf has led services since 1983. "I think he's pretty much of a loner."

Schoolman still calls him an inspiring speaker and "builder of bridges." Those views are echoed by bigger figures in the interfaith world, like William Vendley, whose group Religions for Peace advises the White House on religion and foreign policy.

Vendley, who has known Rauf for 15 years through interfaith events, and others described the imam's view of Islam as a religion in transition. "He offers the thesis that Islam will reinvent itself in America," he said.

Khan, who has been speaking for her husband in recent weeks, said Rauf sees the United States as "the most sharia-compliant state" because it upholds what Rauf believes is the proper interpretation of the Koran's emphases on protection of life, freedom of religion, one's property, family, dignity.

Like father, like son

Rauf is the grandson and son of imams. His father, Muhammad Abdul Rauf, was born in Egypt and ran the Islamic Cultural Center on East 96th Street in Manhattan and the Islamic Center of Washington on Massachusetts Avenue -- both early important institutions for Muslim immigrants that are run by representatives of Muslim countries. Feisal Rauf was educated in England, Egypt and Malaysia before moving as a teenager to the United States, where he got degrees in physics from Columbia University and the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

As is not uncommon for Muslim American imams, Rauf has no formal religious education, and initially he explored other careers. According to a Web site he runs, he taught remedial reading in Harlem until he was laid off during the city's fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, then sold industrial filters for a New Jersey company before taking the job overseeing the mosque at 225 W. Broadway in 1983.

The mosque is primarily open for Friday prayers and Thursday night group chanting, called zikrs. In recent years its small prayer space has become so crowded the mosque had to hold four Friday prayer sessions.

"It's hard to find imams in this country who can connect spiritually but are grounded in the experience of American Muslims," said Mariam Cather, who lives in Brooklyn and was married last year by Rauf. "You can hear a pin drop when he speaks because everyone wants to hear what he says. He can enthrall a crowd."

Rauf and his wife keep a busy, important schedule, speaking around the world to promote religious pluralism and gender equality. In 1997 they launched the American Sufi Muslim Association, the name of which was changed to the broader American Society for Muslim Advancement to reflect their larger goals, Schoolman said.

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