Bahai News - Networking His Way to New 'Customers' December 15, 2001

RELIGION

Networking His Way to New 'Customers'

* Islamic leader Yahia Abdul-Rahman takes an unconventional approach as he crafts ties to other Southland religious, ethnic groups.

By TERESA WATANABE, TIMES RELIGION WRITER

There's something different about Egyptian-born Muslim leader Yahia Abdul-Rahman.

Local African American Muslim activist Najee Ali noticed it when he heard Abdul-Rahman's Friday sermon a few years ago. Ali said his jaw dropped when he heard Abdul-Rahman publicly encouraging inter-ethnic marriages--breaking what Ali called a long-standing community taboo.

Shia Muslim leader Moustafa Al-Qawzini noticed it too. Al-Qawzini has long battled to get his sect's minority school of Islamic thought acknowledged in Southern California. But since Abdul-Rahman took over as head of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California last year, Al-Qawzini says, Abdul-Rahman has frequently invited Shia Muslims to speak, and has driven miles to attend their events--even if only to pop in for five minutes.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, has also sensed something intriguing about the Muslim leader. Since Abdul-Rahman invited him to attend an all-faith prayer rally after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Reuben says, the two have shared several conversations that have not once degenerated into political tensions.

"We talk about the things that unite us, not the things that divide us," Reuben said. "It's one of Dr. Rahman's strengths that he is not on a political crusade. He is on an ethical and spiritual crusade to take the values of his tradition and communicate those to people, and I think he is effective because of that."

Abdul-Rahman, 57, an effusive and elegant man impeccably dressed in a blue suit and white pocket scarf, explains his motivations simply. "I want people to know we're all brothers and sisters, and we're all serving God," he says.

Islamic Council Raises Its Profile

With his inclusive vision, legendary energy and enormous network of friends--he has more than 5,000 names and numbers in his U.S. database--Abdul-Rahman has made a striking splash as chairman of the Islamic council. The consultative group, which represents half a million Southland Muslims in 67 Islamic centers, had been a relatively low-key player on the region's religious scene.

No longer. On the day of the terrorist attacks, Abdul-Rahman started organizing what turned out to be the most diverse religious gathering in the region, with Christians and Jews, Muslims and Mormons, Buddhists and Bahais and Hindus praying along with Pasadena city officials.

This week, Abdul-Rahman organized the Islamic council's first all-faith iftar to break the Ramadan fast. The event featured speakers representing several faiths and the full ideological spectrum of Muslims. Political dignitaries also turned out, including state Sen. Jack Scott, Assemblywoman Carol Liu, Rep. Adam Schiff and Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. Rabbi Gilbert Kollin lit a candle to commemorate the first night of Hanukkah and, before dinner, Abdul-Rahman invited everyone to join Muslims in their sunset supplications, telling the crowd that "God accepts all prayers."

"He wants to bring everyone into the same bottle and shake it up," says his close friend Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which Abdul-Rahman helped found as a pioneer in developing an American Islamic identity. By forging broad ties, Hathout added, "instead of talking about each other, we talk with each other."

Abdul-Rahman brings both global travel experiences and business management skills to his 25 years of Islamic work. A Cairo native who immigrated here in 1968, he earned master's and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin and, in 1976, an advanced degree in international management and finance from the University of Texas.

His passion for education is shared by his family. His wife, Magda, holds a doctoral degree in environmental engineering and is working on rocket systems for Raytheon Corp. Both daughters, Maie and Marwa, were high school valedictorians who attended Yale and Stanford.

Abdul-Rahman's love of travel was inspired by a visit to Germany as a teenager and intensified during a long career in international business. He roamed the world hammering out oil deals for Arco.

He also helped found the Industrial Bank of Kuwait and, in 1987, helped hatch the Pasadena-based American Finance House in his dining room to develop financing methods within Islamic rules against accruing interest. He is a top executive at a major investment firm.

The extensive travel has shaped his commitment to diversity. He can be irrepressible in his interfaith work. How, for instance, does he make contacts with Hindus and Sikhs? "Every time I see a person with a turban and beard, I go up and ask who is their highest authority," Abdul-Rahman says. "I'm collecting numbers."

His travels have also convinced him that intermarriage--not preaching--spread Islam around the globe. Now he publicly encourages mixed marriages. He recently started a support group in his home for such couples--including his daughter Maie and her husband, Rick St. John, a Los Angeles attorney and Muslim convert.

Sees Education as the Key

Abdul-Rahman's Islamic work is conspicuously shaped by his business mind. Making room for a variety of Islamic viewpoints, he says, "will attract more customers" to the faith. At the Islamic council, he aims to "improve the efficiency and professionalism" of Islamic centers. Under his leadership, the council has found a permanent office in Walnut, developed better bylaws and is putting the finishing touches on a Web site that he hopes will eventually connect Islamic centers, schools and business nationwide.

The council has also begun to offer groundbreaking training seminars for imams. At one earlier this year, religious leaders discussed how to add relevance and pizazz to their Friday sermons, which have been known to focus on such mundane issues as brushing one's teeth. Another is scheduled to teach imams how to use the Internet.

Other ideas bubble out of him nonstop: Measures to help Muslims live as minorities here, including more sophisticated study of the dominant Christian faith. More humanitarian work for Americans at large. Basketball tournaments to attract youths to the mosques. A program to develop dynamic, American-born Muslim leaders by encouraging Islamic religious training for both girls and boys.

One of his biggest dreams, he says, is to open a U.S. office of the Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, the world's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning. Education is key, Abdul-Rahman says, to reclaiming Islam from "half-educated fanatics."

Few Muslims seem to doubt that Abdul-Rahman will achieve his goals. This is a man who came to America with just $17 in his pocket. He starts his telephone calls at 5 a.m., knowing that devout Muslims are up that early for prayer. He often starts conversations praising the beauty of your children, and wields such persuasive charm that "even if you don't want to go to his events, you go," says Al-Qawzini.

"My motto in life," Abdul-Rahman says, "is to start with the possible to achieve the impossible. Many people start with the impossible and fall flat on their face."


©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times

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