December 15, 2001
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
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
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
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
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,"
"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