Making Moderate Islam

Sufism, Service, and the "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy

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Rosemary Corbett
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503600812.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service and “The Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy, Rosemary R. Corbett demonstrates how Muslim-Americans, particularly in New York City, “continue to live with the burden of proving their moderation—often to audiences already determined not to listen” (202). To illustrate her point, Corbett focuses her attention on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s published books, the community of Sufi dervishes led by him in New York City, and the organizations Rauf founded with his wife Daisy Khan: The American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), The Cordoba Initiative (later titled The Cordoba Movement), The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), and the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT). Using these organizations, and his writings as vehicles of charitable service and proof of their moderation, Rauf and his followers made a plea to the wider American public to accept Cordoba House (later renamed Park51), a worship space pejoratively dubbed as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Corbett delves deeply into the debate around the representation of and engagement with Islam and Muslim communities in America, probing the reader to question who speaks for who, when, and why? 

Corbett begins by tracing the intellectual history around service, assimilation, and protestant “theologies of work and wealth” (9) in America and its use by previously marginalized groups—for example the Catholic and Jewish communities—in claiming belonging to the American collective. She traces the vein of Rauf’s thought as he draws upon his father’s—the Al-Azhar trained Imam Abdul Rauf—religious thought, the works of liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Will Herberg, as well as conservative pundits Michael Novak and Newt Gingrich, to invite Western Muslims to join an expanded Judeo-Christian ethic (re-named by Rauf as the “Abrahamic ethic”), and embrace “democratic capitalism” (22) as a way to create a culturally and economically sanctioned moderate American Islam. To this end, Rauf urges a return to the essentials of Sufism as well as a revision of Sharia law to create what Corbett describes as a free market ideology of Islam in which accumulating material wealth is not at odds with the Sufi ethic of charitable benevolence towards community (32-34). Throughout the book, Corbett shows how Rauf’s rise as a high-profile Imam in America is linked with his tacit approval from government and policy elites in the West looking to deploy neoliberal ideologies of wealth accumulation tied to the retrenchment of the welfare state.

Corbett does a thorough job of highlighting the problematic nature of Rauf’s call for the development of an “American Islam” as it overlooks the often ignored “American Islam” which began with the arrival of the first African Muslim slaves in America. Rauf’s argument also obscures the history of racial tensions in America, which shows that assimilation is not necessarily a function of economic integration as assumed. This is perhaps the book’s strongest point as Corbett traces the development of the African-American Muslim community’s strong service ethic and involvement in the civil rights movement, and explains the obstacles it has faced when attempting to integrate into the larger American body politic. In tracing the history of African-American Islam, Corbett spotlights the racial tensions, class differences, and cultural expectations within the larger American Muslim community. For many African-American Muslim leaders, an embrace of the neoliberal conception of individual rights and wealth accumulation is at odds with the civil rights mandates of many African-American Muslim organizations. Instead, many African-American Muslim communities draw upon the traditional Islamic ethic of redistributive justice to advocate for the plight of racialized and vulnerable minorities left behind by the excesses of capitalism. Corbett’s key argument regarding American Muslim communities is that each group has to respond to the “demand that they prove their moderation by acting as liaisons between the US government and Muslim communities in other locations” (11), and also by having “their practices and traditions considered the most authentically Islamic, least subversive ... the least ‘militant’ and the least socialist” (46). 

Making Moderate Islam also contributes to the growing literature on the history of modern Sufism in the West as well as in America, mapping out histories, genealogies, connections, linkages, and breaks within this small and nebulous world. Corbett traces the current perceptions of Sufism in the West firmly within a colonial history that has traditionally regarded Sufism as the more amenable and workable form of Islam. For Corbett, this perception explains the oversized political and financial support Rauf and Khan are able to generate for their various organizations by government and policy leaders. At the same time, Corbett notes that within the community of dervishes that Rauf leads, there is a diversity of opinions on what service, charity, and moderation mean. Corbett’s inclusion of the gendered dynamics of modern Sufi practice in chapter 6, such as the roles of Rauf’s female dervishes as well as the unique community led by the female Sheikh Fariha, is particularly noteworthy, as is Corbett’s focus on the endeavours led by Rauf’s wife, Khan. Khan’s example provides an interesting view of Sufism as a vehicle to to change the perception and practice of women’s rights within Islam. Corbett’s personal discussions with Sufi women are refreshing and a welcome break from stereotypical views of Muslim women, showcasing a diversity of thoughts and opinions on the promises and pitfalls of Sufi practice and liberal feminism. 

By the time Corbett reaches her chapter on mosque development, the reader is well-informed to understand what went wrong with the highly controversial and publicized backlash to the “Ground Zero Mosque.” In addition to explaining the negative media attention and belligerent public debate about the validity of a mosque, Corbett discusses the internal dynamics of the increasingly divergent visions for a prayer space that existed between the developer Sharif El-Gamal and Rauf and Khan. In response to intense public pressure, Khan and Rauf changed their plans and instead aimed to create a community center space designed to serve people of all faiths and activities, while many of the dervishes and local Muslims hoped for a dedicated prayer space that gives Muslims a visible presence in Manhattan. The question of representation is ever present here as Corbett notes that, in light of the national controversy, some Muslims feel that they have been forced “to defend in principle a center that does not seem designed to represent or serve them” (191). 

Making Moderate Islam is a highly readable, engaging, and important contribution to the ongoing scholarship of Islam in America. Corbett is to be commended in using the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy as an example of the limits to calls for religious toleration and moderation. The book is also a fascinating introduction to modern American Sufi practice in its various forms. Ultimately the reader is left to consider what it means to be a person of faith in America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Salma Ahmad has a Masters of Environmental Studies in Urban and Regional Planning from York University in Toronto, Canada, specializing in land use planning disputes regarding Mosque development in Ontario, Canada.

Date of Review: 
July 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rosemary R. Corbett is visiting professor at the Bard Prison Initiative.

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