Cordoba Initiative founder leading weeklong series at Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA – “Ya lateef.” “La ilaha illa.” “Allah.”

The three phrases resonated through Chautauqua Institution’s Hall of Philosophy 129 times each Tuesday morning, as dozens of people joined in during a Muslim Devotional Hour. The chanting was part of an Islamic prayer – known as “vicar” – led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chairman of The Cordoba Initiative. Following several moments of silence, the session was over.

“Women do vicar by themselves, and men do vicar by themselves,” Rauf said. “When women do vicar with men, they feel very, very uncomfortable, because vicar is not just a question of vicar. Vicar also is a purification. Doing vicar is like taking a shower. It’s nice to take a shower, but it’s also all the goop that you are washing away.”

Rauf is leading the sessions all week as a part of Chautauqua’s week eight theme, which is “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?” Its Interfaith Lecture Series, of which Rauf is a part, is entitled “Turkey: Crossroads of Many Faiths.” His series explores Sufism – the spiritual component of Islam – and the 13th-century Sufi mystic and theologian Rumi.

In 1997, Rauf co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which was the first Muslim organization committed to building bridges between Muslims and the American public, doing so by elevating the discourse on Islam through educational outreach, interfaith collaboration, culture and arts.

The Cordoba Initiative is a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations, which was founded by Rauf in 2004.

“I just dreamt of this idea, back in 2002,” Rauf said. “After 9/11, I was urged by many friends of mine to do something to bridge Muslim and west relations, or American and Islam relations.”

Rauf was born to Egyptian parents, and educated in Egypt, England and Malaysia. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Columbia University in New York and a Master of Science in Plasma Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

“Being a physicist by background, I said, ‘OK, but before we do that, I have to figure out sort of what we are going to do,'” Rauf said. “So, I looked at what I call the ‘problem areas,’ and I divided them into four buckets of problems.”

The problems Rauf saw were political, theological, social and perceptional. He said the media lends to perceptional problems.

“The media tends to sustain an image of the other side that tends to fuel the perceptions that each side has,” Rauf said. “So, that required media perception work.”

One of the most difficult problems to overcome, Rauf said, was the political problem, especially with United States troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“These are things that you don’t have to be a separate religion to be upset about,” Rauf said. “Wars over issues of power, of economics, have created conflicts between people independently of religious conflicts itself. The political conflicts tend to exacerbate conflicts.”


Since 2002, Rauf has shared his ideas at Chautauqua Institution.

“I feel that Chautauqua presents the most developed and influenced form of interfaith dialog, interfaith relationship building and interfaith cooperation and education, understanding,” Rauf said. “Over the century, the Chautauqua mission has broadened to include Catholics, to include the Jewish faith. Now, it’s introduced Muslims as well, as part of its interfaith relations.”

Although it has been a lot of work to get The Cordoba Initiative off the ground, Rauf said it has been very rewarding. He said over the years, the initiative has helped to introduce many insights as to how each side operates. Additionally, he said there have been many challenges.

The biggest challenge, Rauf said, is the subject matter itself, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world.

“We have identified the areas which have contributed to the conflict,” he said. “We recognize this is not a short journey. It is a journey which involves the education of a new generation of immigrants from western countries to this country. Much of our journey parallels the journey of previous religious communities that came from Europe to America that wanted to integrate themselves into American faith.”

After his series at Chautauqua Institution is over, Rauf said he will spend more time focusing on the three major projects of The Cordoba Initiative: The fight against extremism, which it defines as the struggle between moderates and extremists of all faiths; Cordoba House, which seeks to create a space that will reverse the spiral of mistrust and misunderstanding that fuels extremism on all sides; and working on an American-Muslim identity.

Rauf will be speaking through Friday in the Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua Institution from 8-9 a.m. Access to the grounds for the lecture requires a commuter gate pass.

For more information about The Cordoba Initiative, visit Visit for more on Chautauqua programs.