Safi counters politicized portrayal of Islam with message of beauty, love



When Omid Safi talks about justice in American Islam, the word he hopes audiences will think of is love.

“In the Quran, God commands the faithful to link together love and justice — something that has been also recognized in the American civil rights movement,” Safi said. “All we mean by justice is love when it moves into the public arena. In other words, our concern for social justice is motivated by nothing short of a passionate love for the well-being of our fellow human beings, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, nationality or wealth.”

Safi will elaborate on this idea at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy in a lecture titled “Love and Justice in a World of Suffering: An American Muslim Perspective towards Healing and Liberation.”

Safi serves as the director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center and chair of the Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. He said his own take on Islam has been informed by the emphasis on love and beauty found in the poetry and music of the Sufis, or Muslim mystics.

“For Sufis — and indeed for many Muslims — God is beautiful and loves beauty,” Safi said. “I was raised Muslim, and am deeply grateful for that grounding.

“What made me want to study it [academically] was reading the words of the mystics, and realizing that the world of beauty and love they talked about was not reflected in the world that I saw around me. So I have dedicated my life to bringing out these lesser-known aspects [of Islam].”

Despite this work, Safi said the general public’s lack of understanding of Islam prevents Muslims from being able to share the positive and beautiful elements of their faith. Instead, they, like other groups, must deal with the politicization of their religion.

“The answers we offer can only be as subtle as the questions we are asked,” Safi said. “And since we keep having to answer the same questions over and over and over again, there is not much of an opportunity to deal with the realms of love and beauty.

“Almost everything about Muslims is politicized, including our very existence. But I would also say that black bodies are politicized, being poor is politicized. That our beings are immersed in a network of politics does not bother me. It is the fact that some human lives are seen as a ‘problem’ that is.”

Safi has also taken part in the Harvard Pluralism Project, which studies the increasing plurality of the American population.

He said he understands pluralism to go beyond mere acceptance of the groups that can be seen as “problematic” to embracing their presence.

“Simply put, I see pluralism as something more than tolerance,” he said. “Tolerance is ‘how much of other people can we put up with.’ Pluralism goes far beyond that. It is the recognition that God transcends any one path that we can use to get there, and the plurality of paths, approaches, practices, and traditions is a virtue.

“It is not simply about can we tolerate one another, it is can we affirm the plurality of traditions, paths and communities.”