“In the past 10 years, we have listened to Muslim talking heads tell us what Islam is not. It is not terrorism; it is not suicide bombers or the Taliban or the Wahhabis or oppressing women. We have lost the moral compass of what the tradition is and what it will be by God’s grace,” said Omid Safi at the 2 p.m. lecture Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. His topic was “The Path of Extreme Love in Persian Islam.”
“I want to talk about love,” he said. “I know, I know. Islam is love; it’s a cliché. But the heart of the Islamic mystical tradition is extreme love. I want to explore what that aspect of Islam had to offer to today’s world.”
Safi is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I come at this with my eyes open,” he said. “We experience the ugly and the beautiful mingled, the light and dark together, and I don’t want to be Pollyannaish. My goal is to show that just as there are radical extremists (for violence) there is also a powerful tradition of radical love. That tradition wed to justice might be the most pertinent understanding of Islam today.
“I am a good Muslim boy -- my mama will vouch for that -- and I have never touched a Playboy magazine, except one, and I only read the article. That one was the interview with Martin Luther King, and it has been a guiding force in my life.”
The Playboy interviewer asked King if it was true that he was an extremist. King, according to Safi, replied that he was disturbed when he first heard that, but then he looked at the true meaning of the word. King said he would like to be an extremist in light of Jesus, led by the spirit of love.
“Love is the only force dispensed or received in the extreme that is without any harm to the giver or the receiver,” Safi said. “I am not speaking of love as mush, not sentimentality, not Valentine’s Day cards and flowers and candy. Extreme love is strong and demanding. It is redemptive and transformative; it is a fire that cooks the soul, and we are no longer what we were before.
“This is not a marginal tradition in Islam. There are poets and saints who have Scripture-like status. You can end an argument by citing one of their poems or telling an anecdote from the right saint.”
A few years ago, Safi began to read sermons from Baghdad written more than 1,000 years ago.
“I did it because I can, but it blew my mind,” he said. “The No. 1 religious trope was a radical, far-out love-based understanding of Satan.
“Muslims are not devil worshippers. The mystics were convinced that if they looked at Satan through love, that which is base will be made lofty.”
Safi said that one of the first stories in the Quran is about Adam, Eve, Satan and God. God commanded all the angels to bow down before his new deputies, and they did, except Satan. Satan said he was better than that, and God cursed him and exiled him from heaven.
“This was not just because of evil, but it has something to do with love,” Safi said. “The only one Satan really loved was God. Satan told God he would rather be cursed than love another. This is really a love tragedy. It is a poetic and not a theological question. How far will you go for the sake of love?
“If you know the Quran, you know that the chapters in it, except one, begin, ‘In the name of God, full of compassion, full of mercy.’ … We say it before exams, before we eat, before we lecture. I have four kids, and the oldest is 18. Nothing impresses him, especially Scripture. I asked him, ‘Did you know that all the books in the Quran except one begin with ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful?’ His response? ‘Boring!’ I felt I had failed, so I took him into my library where I keep what my kids call the ‘squiggly books’ (written in Arabic and other languages).”
Safi asked his son if he knew that the root word for compassion and mercy is womb.
“It is as if the entire cosmos is God’s womb, and all of us are contained in it like unborn children inside God,” Safi said. “My son pronounced that ‘kinda cool,’ and I had a major victory.”
Safi said the $64 billion question is, “What are we here to do?”
“I was a hidden treasure, and I yearned to be known,” he said. “I created you so that you could know me. Creation is a mirror to know God. Creation is not exile; it is a necessary part of God’s plan. You are not an accident or a mistake. I know my life has meaning -- it is to know God so that I can be a means for God’s qualities to be reflected back on the world. I work with college kids, and for some of them, the only time someone tells them they are beautiful is when they ask them to spread their legs. They are not convinced of their cosmic significance.”
He asserted that every prophet has a paradigmatic moment.
“For Siddhartha, it was sitting under the tree until he reached enlightenment and became the Buddha,” Safi said. “For Jesus, it was the crucifixion and resurrection. For Muhammad, it was his heavenly ascension until he saw God face to face. It was an experience more blissful than anything that could be put into words. God asked Muhammad, ‘Will you choose to stay or go?’ and Muhammad replied, ‘My people.’ Radical love is the willingness to forgo one’s own bliss for others.
“This is the same debate as eros and agape. There is loving kindness that comes from the Arabic word for bubbles. When you put a pot on the stove, it warms, and bubbles form on the bottom. They rise and then pop. In humans, we see someone, and the bubbles form in our heart and then our face and we give them a glance, a touch, a smile. But this is not extreme love.
“The Arabic word for extreme love is the same as ivy. Ivy grows and wraps itself around a tree and sucks the life force out and then moves on. I know this is not sounding good. You say, ‘I don’t want to die,’ but what dies? Not the you that is divine — just the illusion of you, the ego self. Your bounded fleshly self has to be shattered so the real you can come out. Love forces you to transcend the attachment to self.”
Safi said that in a child’s world, the rule is, what is yours is mine; what is mine is mine; what I think about is mine, and so forth.
“In rising above the level of a 2-year-old, we get the level of law -- what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” he said. “If we just lived at this level, we would have the solution to a ton of problems. Sharia law is at this level. The next level is hospitality -- what is yours is yours and what is mine is yours. At this level, I am more concerned about your well-being than mine. (The poet) Rumi says there is a level above that. Forget yours and mine and let you and I live as if we never heard of you and I. This is reciprocal love, and it has got be (reciprocal); otherwise it is just stupid. There is no keeping track.
“This is what the mystics aspire to. God’s love is revealed to us in our signs (Scriptures) on our horizons (the natural cosmos) and on the inside of the soul where we recognize humanity as God’s greatest theophany. We need to engage each person like Scripture. Human interactions are a means to get to God, and with patient, everyday love, we scrub away the toilet of our souls.”
He spoke about changing his daughter’s diapers, and how love for her overcame his aversion to runny poop.
“Love is greater than any aversion,” he said. “Anger, fear and hate change us, but love transforms us, and we become more beautiful and divine. My own little observation about the state of the world is that we have created a mess and a half. A lot of people have love and the right intentions, but they have abandoned engagement with politics and social causes.
“Then we see people with power but no love. Love and power are disconnected. Martin Luther King said that love without power is anemic and sentimental. And power without love is reckless and abusive. I am calling us to be concerned for all God’s children and to pursue ways to transform the world.”
He continued, “There has been a lot of talk about jihad. If you listened to bin Laden, and I am glad he is dead, it is clear what he meant. He said, ‘Kill them, kill them all,’ and by that he meant the U.S. and Israel, what he called the Crusader Zionist conspiracy. That is not a model I would support. Islam is not a pacifist religion, and both Christianity and Islam have a theory of just war that does not include flying planes into buildings full of civilians. That is not Islamically kosher.
“Then there is another kind of jihad. Muhammad and his followers were returning from a battle. He told them that they had just returned from a lesser jihad and were ready to resume the greater jihad. They asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?’ I think his followers serve the same purpose as Jesus’ in these stories. The Prophet said, ‘The demons of your own ego are a greater threat than war.’ In today’s world, that is apologetic, defensive and, to be theologically precise, weak-ass.
“We need a love jihad; we need to struggle to transform ourselves and to be connected to the well-being of our fellow beings. That one out of five people live on one dollar a day is morally repugnant. It is an economic and political issue, but it is also a moral and religious issue. God will ask us, ‘What did you do for my children?’”
He concluded, “Another world is possible. We are not bound to live as we are living now. Fear is pervasive; we can do better with love that is transformative, redemptive and the love of God extended to all. We can begin with everyone here today.”
Omid Safi is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he specializes in Islamic mysticism
(Sufism), contemporary Islamic thought, and medieval Islamic history.
He was formerly professor of Islamic Studies at Colgate University.
Born in the U.S., his familial roots are in Iran, and he speaks fluent
Persian. Having witnessed the Iranian revolution and the horrors of the
Iran-Iraq war personally, he is deeply committed to exploring
possibilities of nonviolent struggle within the Islamic tradition.
Chair for the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of
Religion from 2002-2009, he has also served on the board of the
Pluralism project at Harvard University. Recognized as a leader of the
progressive Muslim debate, Professor Safi was one of the co-founders of
the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU-NA). His book, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, contains a diverse collection of essays by and about Muslims committed to social justice and gender equality.
Omid Safi is also the author of The Politics of Knowledge in Pre-modern Islam,
a study of the historical and spiritual context of classical Islam. In
2009 he published a new biography of the Prophet Muhammad. This work, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters,
has been called a groundbreaking biography of the Prophet for Muslims
and non-Muslims alike, and is being translated to a number of languages.
He holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees in Islamic Studies from Duke
University. He is among the most in-demand public Muslim
intellectuals, and has appeared in the NY Times, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, and