Omid Safi is an Iranian-American Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. He has an incredible academic, social justice, and forward-thinking background. Omid Safi has been instrumental in the progressive Muslim movement, and is a social justice advocate. He has amassed large audiences on social media platforms through using his voice to spread spiritual awareness, to engage, and to love.
Omid Safi served as the Director of Duke Islamic Studies Center from July 2014 to June 2019 and was a columnist for On Being. Dr. Safi specializes in Islamic mysticism (Sufism), contemporary Islamic thought and medieval Islamic history. He has served on the board of the Pluralism project at Harvard University and served as the co-chair of the steering committee for the Study of Islam and the Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion.
We talk to Omid all things Sufism, spirituality and social justice.
Can you tell us about your background and journey to becoming the Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center?
It’s only in retrospect that each of our stories appear remarkable. The life I’ve lived is the live I’ve known, and to me it’s beautiful, filled wonder, and also struggles. I am grateful that I have been loved at every turn, even the heartaches. I was born in the USA, but then moved to Iran as my family was trying to give something back to our ancestral homeland. I lived in Iran during the 1979 Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, which has come to shape a lot of my own views on the horrors of war and militarism. We migrated back to the USA in 1985, where I had to learn English and as already an American citizen become familiar with an American culture that was alien to me.
Like many Muslim immigrants, I was pre-medicine in college, and got accepted into medical school. But towards the end of my college years I had started to immerse myself in the study of Sufism, Islamic philosophy, and poetry. So I did the unthinkable, and turned down medical school to pursue a PhD in Islamic studies. At that time there were very few people Muslim immigrant backgrounds in our field, but I had a combination of hope and naivete in pursuing this dream. Upon finishing the dissertation, I spent 7 years at Colgate which taught me how to teach, and instilled in my heart a deep love for the baraka of communal learning. After that, I spent 8 years at UNC, which was a beautiful experience for getting to serve students of different backgrounds. In 2014, I was recruited to return to Duke to head the Islamic Studies Center, which I did for five years. It was a challenging but also rewarding experience to learn about the nuances of leading a program in a Western university context, Alhamdulilah for it all.
You found a love for Sufi poetry, why did you develop such a strong connection?
Clearly, the love for poetry is a gift I owe to my parents. My parents raised us with a deep love for poetry, in particular Hafez, Sa‘di, and Mawlana [Rumi]. My father perfumes every conversation with a line of poetry the way that so many of our ancestors have done for a millennium. Coming from the heart of my parents, poetry was never just about rhyme and meter, but a whole aesthetic, a way of being in the world that was filled with grace, subtlety, humor, joy, freshness, and above all, love. Had it not been for poetry, I don’t know that I would have pursued to grow in my practice of Islam, or that of Islamic studies.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
Always Mawlana Rumi. Always. He is and has been a beacon of life, Alhamdulilah. At different times Hafez, Sa‘di, Attar, Nezami, Sohrab Sepehri, etc. While not poets per se, some who speak out of this aesthetic tradition such as Ahmad Ghazali, ‘Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani, Kharaqani, etc.
Love and Justice are so tied together in the Islamic Tradition. Do you think this is something we need to be more conscious of?
I do. I get concerned when I see people who are drawn to love and aesthetics sometimes not speak out much on justice issues, and folks who are drawn to justice downplay the love tradition, poetic traditions, the whole ihsan tradition as “fluff” that they cannot afford. Even beyond linking them together, I am reminded of how love is the Divine current, and when it moves outward we recognize it as justice, and when it moves inward we see it as tenderness. If you love the folk, how can you bear to be silent when you see folks suffering?
You teach online courses on spirituality, can you tell us more about what these entail and the intention and purpose?
Some time ago, I started to be concerned that so many people outside of a university context where thirsting to have access to teachings that are spiritually and intellectually nourishing, but did not know where to go. So my wife Corina and I put together some of these courses in a format that is video-based and self-paced, so friends from any background and location can sign up for them insha’allah. Our first course was a step by step journey through “The Heart of Rumi’s Poetry.” We followed that up with a course on the teachings of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Our most recent course is on the “Heart of the Qur’an.” Insha’allah the next courses will be on the Sufi path, as well as the blessed Prophet Muhammad. Some friends have also enjoyed joining monthly live gatherings that we have, called “Chai, Love, and Prayer,” which are a chance to have a sense of community, fellowship, and spiritual practice.
I don’t know of anything that is more rewarding than to share teachings with people, and see their lives grow deeper, richer, and more filled with a sense of beauty, purpose, and spirit. Alhamdulilah.
You also lead spiritual tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, and other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. How do these experiences help to revive a spiritual awakening?
There is something about the very process of undertaking a journey that puts us in a different frame of habit, of mind, and experience. This openness can itself be an opening towards experiences life and spirit in a more fresh fashion. When you combine that with experiences in sacred places that have such a deep and rich history of spirituality, such as Morocco or Turkey, it can be a life transformative experience. I know it is for me, and Alhamdulilah has been for the over 1,000 friends who have joined us from over 20 countries over the last two decades. That collective seeking in an intimate context, on-site lectures, evening discussions, and discovering old friends for the first time, is part of what keeps me coming back! We would love to welcome any of the readers of Bayt al-Fann to our Illuminated Tours.
Do you think the arts have the capacity to strengthen spirituality?
Historically in our civilizations, crafts (for arts and crafts were often bracketed together as fann), were practiced and transmitted under a model of transmission, initiation, mentorship, and on and on. I do sometimes worry that too much of our artistic process is in solitude, with artists and aesthetes working in a solitary context. I hope that we can recover that model of generous support, fellowship, mentorship, amplifying each other’s works, and on and on. If we do so, and when we do so, yes absolutely I think it can edify and strengthen us spiritually as well insha’Allah.
What inspired you to be involved in social justice work, and look at the world from a loving lens?
It’s where the lived experience of my own life and the teachings come together. I was a child when I saw idealistic young folks lead a revolution, only to see many of them kill in an unwanted war. As a teenager, I prayed in an African-American mosque in Jacksonville, Florida, where the humility of faith lit up not just souls but also a neighborhood. It is linking together the work of love and justice that I see as being enjoined in the Qur’an (inna Allah ya’muru bi ‘l-adl wa ‘l-ihsan), and ultimately offer us the hope of transforming the human community for the better.
How do you explain to people the importance of social justice, intersectionality, and acceptance?
As the blessed Prophet says, we are ultimately not member of this tribe or that tribe, but that of the human tribe, the Banu Adam. We are bound up together, and what affects one directly affects us all indirectly. As the poet Sa‘di says, if we are unaffected by the suffering of others, we are unworthy of the name human.
With such political uncertainty and the recent revelations around systemic racism, how can we approach anti-racism as a spiritual practice?
It is linked in two distinct ways: to begin with, to start by centering the lives, dignity, and sanctity of the poor and the marginalized. I was recently reading how for ancient Sufis, their treatment of the poor—which included themselves, since so many were materially poor—was that of sanctification, seeing each one as a temple, a sanctuary. To that extent, it is not even about “white fragility” which ends up too often re-centering whiteness, but the lives, the poems, the songs, the imagination of the marginalized at the very center.
And linked to that, admittedly this is something that is always a work in progress for me, is the recognition that genuine liberation begins with the poor and the marginalized, but it is never a zero sum game. Part of our goal is that whether we are speaking of white folk in America, the rich, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, or Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, we also want the unjust to be free from their own injustice. In order for the marginalized to be free, we do not need to destroy the privileged, but to dismantle the systems of oppression and build out of it a new garden. There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory, as Edward Said used to say (echoing Aimé Césaire).
Do you think the arts have the capacity to create social change?
Not only does it have the capacity, it already has! Look at two examples: In the revolution I spoke of above in Iran, the young people came up with a whole set of revolutionary songs, such as “bo-ye gol-e yaasaman” [“The scent of Jasmine is coming!”]… and others. In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King would start every rally with song and music. Even material that today has lost a lot of its revolutionary significance, like “Kumbaya”, was often song when black and white activists were holed up together, surrounded by hostile white mobs.
Can the arts be a catalyst to help us build more equity and stronger communities?
Beauty is nourishment for the soul. Yes, the arts, whether song, poem, architecture, novels, performances, dance, etc. provide nourishment for our souls. We do not need any more speeches of people telling us what we already know: that we are human, precious, sacred, and worthy. We need and deserve arts that nourish the soul, teachings that honor the body and the spirit, interpretations that feed the intellect. A community without arts is malnourished in the soul level.
You are among the most frequently sought out speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, BBC, and other international media. What are your thoughts on the portrayal of Islam in the media and what image do you hope to present?
The purpose of media, at least corporate media, is not to tell the “truth” in any objective sense. It is to sensationalize. Conflict sells. Beauty does not, unless it is commodified. That’s why in so much of modern culture acts of love, service, devotion, and tenderness are relegated to a private realm, and “philanthropy”—read as $$$—can be celebrated. So I don’t actually have an expectation that the media is going to do work of vulnerable communities. It’s one reason that I believe we have to earn out our platforms, one reason I support Bayt al-Fann and other similar initiatives.
It’s challenging to speak with nuance, but in short here is my hope: we need to have truth-telling who speak out of commitment for truth, for dignity of all starting with the vulnerable.
How can Muslims create the conditions for more freedom of expression, and would this allow for more honest conversations about identity?
My answer here is perhaps a little bit counter-intuitive. In this world, we cannot avoid identity, identity politics, and identity discussion. Those discussions have to be honest and inclusive. We deserve to have conversations that hold up a mirror to the community, so that who is talking and the conversation itself looks like our community. At the same time, I also hope that we don’t simply collapse Islam and Muslims to “identity” issues, and always keep one eye on the spiritual and aesthetic aspirations that made us Muslims in the first place. This is admittedly a subtle challenge.
What are your thoughts on the future of Islamic art and culture?
Art is always born out of atrocity. Rumi lived in an age of Mongol onslaught, and so many of the powerful aesthetic, literary, and spiritual transformations in the Islamic tradition came when we as a people were confronted with powerful political and intellectual challenges. I hope we continue to be rooted and grounded in the best part of our traditions, and yet have a heart open as the widest sky. Musicians often lead the way in this, collaborating, sampling, borrowing, improving, improvising. We have so much to learn from artists, not only for their output, but even the very mechanism of confronting change and uncertainty. Fear is such a cheap motivation. May we be grounded and rooted, and reaching heavenwards, insha’allah.
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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.