HE is an American of Egyptian origin, one of the world’s leading
intellectuals on Islam, gives inspiring sermons even to non-Muslims and leads the largest
mosque in New York City not far from Ground Zero.
But when I met him while he was in Kuala Lumpur for a short visit
earlier this week (he was also one of the speakers at the Perdana Global Peace Forum
last week), Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf asked for pisang goreng.
He also had a craving for budu (traditional Kelantanese fish sauce
that sometimes smells stronger than belacan).
In fact, just after my interview with him at the home of Maybank
Group vice-president Wan Norhiyati Ibrahim in Bangsar a few days ago, Feisal helped
himself to a generous serving of the pulut in durian gravy we were treated to at high-tea.
And he wore a very satisfied look after he downed a glass of teh tarik
at the end of it all.
There’s not a drop of Malaysian blood in Feisal but large traces of
Malaysia must have remained in his system from yesteryear.
Feisal’s early childhood was spent in Kuala Lumpur when, as a
six year-old boy, he accompanied his father on a secondment from Cairo’s Al-Azhar
University to head the Islamic College in Klang from 1955 to 1964.
Feisal’s first taste of school was in Malaysia and he was one of
the bright students at the Victoria Institution.
"That was when I started to love many things Malaysian, from
cempedak to pisang goreng to sambal belacan to budu, to everything," he said with a
Unfortunately, due mainly to lack of practice, Feisal has lost
much of his ability to string grammatically correct sentences in Malay.
But he still remembered many expressions he had learnt in school
in Malaysia. And his Malay accent was flawless when he rattled off proverbs like kaki
ayam and katak di bawah tempurung.
He said in New York there was a time during the 70s when he mixed
a lot with the Indonesian community there.
"They would meet once or twice a month at an Indonesian restaurant
there and I used to join them to eat gado gado and wonderful curries.
"It was the closest thing Malaysian to me then although unconsciously
it also led to my Malay accent becoming more Indonesian after a while.
"I have very vivid memories because I grew up in Malaysia. And I feel
deeply, deeply Malay culturally.
"I remember the days of Tunku Abdul Rahman and I saw history being
made with the proclamation of Merdeka, the formation of Malaysia and the communist
Apart from being the imam at the Al-Farah mosque in Manhattan, Feisal
is the founder and chief executive officer of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
Through his commitment to building bridges between Muslims and
Westerners, particularly after 9/11, he mooted the much-talked-about Cordoba Initiative,
an inter-religious blueprint for improving relations between America and the Muslim world,
and also pursuing peace in the Middle East.
Surely, I suggested to him, it could not have been easy living in
New York, let alone doing all these things considering the tinderbox situation in the
city during that period.
But Feisal seemed so passionate about what he does. So I asked him
where exactly he was on 9/11.
"I was not in New York. I was in Denver (about 2,800km away)
attending the wedding of my daughter, Amira, on Sept 10.
"After the wedding on Sept 11, she and her husband were flying
to their honeymoon when the flight had to turn back.
"My wife and I were on our way back to New York and on our way
to the Denver airport, someone said ‘don’t even think about going to the airport’.
"So we stayed in Denver for a couple more days until we decided
to drive all the way back to New York in a rented car."
And how did he feel about the whole thing?
"I was in shock. Total shock. Couldn’t believe something that
you saw in comic books was actually happening."
Feisal said he couldn’t get to the Al-Farah mosque for two
weeks because the whole area had been cordoned off. But he was glad that everyone
"There were remote cases of violence against Muslims but the
vast majority of non-Muslims whom we came into contact with were well-wishers.
"Even young girls came knocking on their Muslim neighbours’ doors
asking whether they could help do the groceries for them if they were too scared to
"This was news that didn’t get reported because I suppose good
news doesn’t sell newspapers."
But he said he could sense the anger and hurt that lay underneath.
Even three months after the attacks, the feelings, in his own words, were very "raw"
and could be seen from the body language and expression.
"That’s why I became very engaged with American society. I spoke
and gave lectures to anybody and everybody - churches, synagogues, Jewish institutions,
"By being there and taking their anger and explaining that yes,
this is not justified in Islam, people who came in angry, calmed down by the end of
the hour and then I would open the floor to questions.
"The questions tended to get braver and braver, asking me what I
thought of women, about the role of the church and the state, etc. But I engaged
them and never dismissed them."
Feisal is also passionate about his interfaith work and efforts at
bringing about an Islamic renaissance.
Contrary to what some Muslims think, it is not wrong to engage
with non-Muslims on matters of faith.
"The Prophet himself used to say that we should treat other people
well and that there is no compulsion in religion.
"People also have to remember history. Especially what Sayidina
Omar did in engaging with the Jews in Jerusalem."