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Omid Safi, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice”

Simran Jeet Singh: I’m excited to introduce our guest for today, Omid Safi, he’s a dear friend and a mentor. Dr. Safi teaches online courses on spirituality through Illuminated Courses. He makes spiritual tourists every year to Turkey, Morocco and other countries. And these trips are open to everyone from every country. He’s a professor […]

Simran Jeet Singh:

I’m excited to introduce our guest for today, Omid Safi, he’s a dear friend and a mentor. Dr. Safi teaches online courses on spirituality through Illuminated Courses. He makes spiritual tourists every year to Turkey, Morocco and other countries. And these trips are open to everyone from every country.

He’s a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He specializes in the study of Islamic mysticism and contemporary Islam, and he frequently writes on liberationist traditions of Dr. King, Malcolm X, and he’s committed to traditions that link together love and justice. He’s written many books, including Progressive Muslims, which is the first of his books that I have read, that’s a book on justice, gender and pluralism. He — Cambridge Companion to American Islam, Politics of Knowledge in Pre-modern Islam, Memories of Mohammed, which I highly recommend and I use it in my courses. His most recent book is called Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition.

Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religion news.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.

How are you? How’s everything?

Omid Safi:

Alhamdulillah. I’m grateful to be alive, grateful to be sharing this conversation with you and with the friends here. I, I feel like we’re living in an age where one is constantly having to qualify things with some kind of a caveat, like, you know, considering everything or, but I, you know, I’m not one for small talk and pleasantries.

I just finished teaching a course this past week on the legacies, the intertwined legacies, of brother Martin, brother Malcolm, and Rabbi Heschel. And I was reminded of the bold and audacious statement that brother Martin made the very last night before he was shot and killed in Memphis where he started his talk, talking to sanitation workers on strike, reminiscing about the fact that if God had given him a choice of having lived in any period in human history he would have loved to have seen the face of Jesus, but he wouldn’t have wanted to stay there. He would have wanted to see the Greek philosophers, but wouldn’t have wanted to stay. Would have loved to seen the Renaissance, wouldn’t have wanted to stay there, would have loved to see Abraham Lincoln, but it wouldn’t have wanted to stay there. And he would thank God for the opportunity to live for just a few years in his age, the middle part of the 20th century.

And I reflect on that because I think about the hellacious experience that so many of us have had the last four years, and the fervent prayer that the four years did not become eight years and beyond. And I wonder in our heart of hearts, If I have evolved to the point where I would pause when somebody asked me how I’m doing, how my heart is doing, and I would say, you know, if I could choose any period in history that I would ask God to plant me in, that I would ask God to put me in the year 2020, living in Trump’s dystopian nightmare that is today’s America. With white supremacy not just on the rise, but established in the highest corridors of power, with sexism being associated with the semi-elected president, with xenophobia being the policy of the nation, and anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and the loathing of our Hispanic sisters and brothers, or queer sisters and brothers, being amplified from every corner.

Could we actually say, thank you God, for putting me in this period, because there’s work that needs to be done? And your work, my work, your breath, my breath linked together is part of the struggle to live a full and meaningful human life. So that’s where I am.

Singh:

That’s, that’s a lot to start with. And I, and I appreciate it. I mean, I think it’s a really interesting starting point to, to take us in a moment where so many of us are lamenting our existence, really feeling the pain and wishing things were different and wishing our lives could be something else. And on the one hand, wanting to work towards that, but on the other hand, wishing that we didn’t have to work towards that, and our lives was somewhat of a utopia as, as opposed to a dystopia.

And I’d love to hear, I’d love to hear how you get to this point as, as an individual, as yourself as Omid Safi — what is it that really shaped you growing up? Maybe start from, from some early lessons from your childhood. What was your childhood like? What shaped you? Take us on this journey of, of how you come to this place where you say I’m thankful to be where I am right now.

Safi:

Thank you. Thank you so much. You know, I think everybody’s life is the life that they have known. And it’s only when you start sharing that life with other people that you realize that, oh, it’s a little unusual in some ways.

So, you know, I had the unmerited privilege of having been born in a hospital in Florida. I sometimes joke that I’m the only human being who’s ever been born in Florida. Everybody else’s goes there when they’re old. And my family did the reverse migration of, at that time America was not quite becoming post-racial, but as brother West says it so beautifully, we were becoming just a little bit less racist. We had changed our immigration policy and it was possible for Black and brown people to actually moved to this country if they were doctors, engineers, or technocrats. And most everybody from my father’s generation of physicians were looking to move to the U.S. We moved from U.S. back to Iran, which complicated people’s expectation of what you’re supposed to do once you’ve, quote unquote, made it.

But we went to Iran because that’s where family was.

And I think one of the aspects of life that I’m most grateful for, is having been raised in the context of a large family, few hundred people, where poetry and music and spirituality were not things that I ever had to turn to in books, though I love me some books. But they were written into people’s eyes. They were in the fleshy embrace of my grandfather. They were in the poetic expression of the people around me. So, having grown up in that kind of a context you know, I, I never had to fight to demonstrate that you can be not just a human, but in my case, a man and be tender, because I didn’t know any other men other than that. Every man that I grew up with would be the kind who would shed tears when you would see them and it had been a week since the last time you saw them. And they would, tears would well up in their eyes because affection overflowed in them.

And I’m grateful that that was the, not just to kind of religiosity and spirituality that I was raised with, but the kind of masculinity, the kind of family relation that I was raised with. I was nine years old where the Iranian revolution happened and you know, to have been raised with an awareness that societies can become radically transformed, that it is possible for things that seemed at one point to be cast in stone, to all of a sudden, the stone turns into water and a whole new way of life sometimes for better and sometimes not, can, can appear before you.

I was 10 years old when I experienced my first war. The war between Iran and Iraq and the experience of urban bombing and having classmates of mine being killed in that war. And what that did for me was it actually made an unrepentant pacifist out of me. I think once you are a child, and you hear airplanes flying overhead and dropping bombs on top of you war simply never again will have the romantic glory that Hollywood movies try to attribute to it. You come to recognize war as a horrific abomination that no child anywhere should live under.

So, in terms of my childhood and upbringing, there were a lot of seeds that were planted in my life that I realized, very much like this beard, took a few decades to reach fruition. So, it was at childhood that I was exposed to Rumi and Hafez and extraordinary mystical and poetic and musical tradition of Islam. One of them, there are many of them. And at the same time, I was introduced to revolutionary thinkers like Alisha […], and after that Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon and the later Martin King and Vincent Harding and Rabbi Heschel. And the revolutionaries that I was attracted to were always religious thinkers. It was always the ones who so care for the suffering of humanity that they know that if you don’t do something, the rocks are going to cry out. And in some ways that balance of love and justice, which I was introduced to as a, as a child still continues to be with me. And it is still with me. And it shapes a lot of what my life gravitates towards.

Singh:

That’s great. That’s, that’s really interesting for me on a number of levels. I think what really sticks out is, is the numbers of ways in which, the number of ways in which your experiences as a child are so different from my own. And, and in many ways what I wish I had, but also what I’m grateful for, what I have had, right, like there’s, I haven’t, I haven’t witnessed war. And you describing what that does to a child and having the firsthand experience from you. It is Hollywood. It is very much what I read about in books and it doesn’t seem like real life and that, that has to change the way that I think about it and approach it.

And on the flip side, hearing you talk about the way that masculinity was modeled for you as not something that was hyper-masculine, but as something that was tender and something that men could do, and boys could do. I didn’t, I didn’t have that growing up. And so, it’s, it’s just really interesting to hear about some of these differences.

And another one that I’d love to hear more about is, is your experience of being racialized, right? Like, you have this really unique perspective of coming to the States at a, at a, at an age where I imagine you were aware of and conscious of the different way in which you were treated. For many people who are born and raised here, it’s so internalized that it’s normal. It’s, it’s all, you know. But here you were experiencing something different. So, I’d love to hear what that experience was like for you.

Safi:

You know, so when we moved to, to the U.S., in this bizarre situation of my brother and I being U.S. citizens and my parents not being U.S. citizens, so literally having our family split inside of embassies and we would get to go over to the air-conditioned room and my parents would go to where all the brown people are. And to, to look at this, you know, stupid little blue passport and wondering who the hell gave it so much power to let us walk into the nice section of the building and have my parents be in that crowded section of the building.

When we walked out of that embassy and we were given a visa as a whole family, we moved to the south, and with the exception of seven years of my life where I lived in the state of New York, the rest of my adult life has been spent in the deep south, so, you know, yes, alhamdulillah, I’m very grateful for having had a chance to see this beautiful, messed up country from coast to coast.

But the America that I know the best is the south and there’s lots of souths. There’s no one south, but there is a fundamental part of the south that’s about Black culture and that’s the part of the south that has been and continues to be most home to me. There’s something about the Black church of Martin Luther King and Vincent Harding and Ella Baker that is home to me in ways that not only are Buddhist temples and Jewish synagogues rarely, even many American mosques don’t feel like home in that particular way, in a way that is never my experience when I’m in Turkey or Morocco or Iran or elsewhere, because in those places, there’s an aesthetic to being in a mosque that goes hand in hand with this spiritual context.

So, moving to the south, which is another beautiful, messed up place, you know, brother Malcolm used to say, as long as you’re south of the Canadian border, everything is the south. But the racism of America operates very differently in New York City, in Boston, and in the south. In the south it’s very much in your face.

So, my parents came from that generation where they were told, and they did their best and they failed to instill that in me, which is to say, we are Iranians. Iranians are Aryans. We are Caucasians. The Caucus Mountains are near Iran. Ergo, we are white. And I never bought that myth and I still don’t buy that myth, not only because do I think whiteness is a fabrication, a very powerful fabrication, but because my experience of how I’m treated in this country is that I’m not read as white. I’m not treated as white.

When we first moved to Tennessee, I still remember this very large man coming up to me and sort of, you know, staring at me as if like he just never seen someone this handsome before. And he was like what are you son? You ain’t white, you ain’t Black. What are you? And I was smart enough to know by that time that if he said, what are you son, right, he was a friendly bigot, but if he had said, what are you boy, at an age where I was clearly no longer a boy, but a young man, then that would be a person to get away from, because he did not mean well for me.

And in some ways, you know, that experience has never entirely gone away. In my heart of hearts, you know, I’m a child of God, I’m a human being, I’m a Muslim, I’m an Iranian, I’m a Bubba. Like my bubba-ness is so central to what I think of me as a, as a human and you know, in this country, as we say down south, bless their heart. People are so obsessed with issues of race that there’s always the attempt to impose a kind of racial classification.

When I was in grad school, going to school with a lot of friends who came from lots of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, I spent very little time thinking about what name to give my racial identity. When I went away as a young professor to upstate New York, the whitest place that the good lord has ever made, where I was like the only brown man in 150-mile radius, of a sudden, I show up on a college campus and I’m immediately faculty of color. And I’m like, well, what the hell is faculty of color? Well, it just means you ain’t white. And the Academy, the university does not live in some hermetically sealed bubble cut off from the rest of the country. It’s a permeable, a membrane and everything good and beautiful in the university seeps out, Everything good and beautiful and hideous outside seeps in.

The worst racist experiences I’ve ever had in my life have always been at the university, have always come from people that have a comma PhD after their name. Education, clearly, at least of the variety that we do in this country, does not always heal people have their worst racist bigotry. It just makes them sound a little stuffier.

So, the ways in which that shows up is when someone that looks like me, with the kind of public aspirations that I have for the way that the world has to be transformed and redeemed and liberated, that’s called being a maverick. That’s called not following the rules and the procedures and the protocols. If I was a white colleague with the same kind of aspirations, especially if I was a man, there is a gendered-ness to it as well. Then I would be called entrepreneurial, groundbreaking. So, there’s all these very subtle ways in which people are constantly trying to tell you to stick to your lane, know your place.

And, you know, alhamdulillah, of the things that I’m most grateful for is, I honestly don’t care. I don’t care to spend my life climbing the ladders of the academy or impressing university administrators, or God forbid doing fundraising for them. You know, my life is very short, whether it is fifty years or a hundred years. In a cosmic sense, it’s very, very short. So, you want it to be spent doing things that matter. And so, you always got to ask yourself, you know, how deep is your love and whom do you serve? Who’s the community that you are accountable for?

You know, it is an absolute joy for me to have a spiritual life that’s rooted in my own tradition. I don’t think anybody, any tradition, any community has a monopoly on goodness and truth and beauty. They all have their own particular flavors. So, one of the things that my Muslim faith teaches me and helps in living that life of beauty and dignity and nobility is the simple teaching that it’s actually more in accordance with our true nature to be whole than it is to be broken. The good Lord made me to be whole, that’s my ultimate nature. We call it a fitra in Islam. It’s actually be made in the image of God. And God is not broken. And I wasn’t made to be broken. People can try to break me, but that’s precisely what’s unnatural. And so, what I find is to be perpetually asking that question of, would saying yes to this, would devoting some of my life to this, does this help move me towards a state of being whole, or is it moving me towards a state of being scattered and divided and broken?

And it’s not about avoiding pain or avoiding suffering. Because as the greatest movie of all time, Princess Bride teaches us, right? Life is pain, Your Highness, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. No. We came into this world through our mama’s suffering. Without that suffering there would’ve been no birth. Without the mud, no lotus. I fully accept that.

But there is this notion that love, dignity, justice, not at an individual level, but at a communal level, moves us towards that state of wellbeing. And it’s interesting that universities and in particular elite universities, I find, are such a distorted place for even having the language to think about that. Because they all, and I put my own university among them, they preach the gospel of success. Right? I’m a good Muslim boy. I don’t drink alcoholic stuff, but if I could have a drinking game, I would drink a shot of chai every time a university administration person talks about success, leadership, excellence. I would be chai drunk in two minutes. Right? Success, leadership, excellence. [Inaudible] success, it’s always individual. But the tradition that we come from says, no success is communal. I can’t be doing well unless my loved ones are doing well, unless my neighborhood is doing well, unless my people are doing well. And we can do well even if we’re poor. But there can be nobility and dignity for us.

You know, this whole obsession with leadership and with building up individual resumes — how the hell are we going to have a university of 6,000 people where everyone is trying to be a leader? Sometimes teamwork, or even, heaven forbid, learning to follow, can be extraordinarily important life lessons that our universities I don’t think do a beautiful job of teaching yet.

So those are just some things in terms of my own life that I try to pay attention to — not confusing my resume with a notion of communal success. Trying to keep in mind, whom am I serving? I’ve written those books that as a great professor from Louisiana once said, literally has been skimmed by dozens of people. Like I’ve written my share of those kinds of books. I don’t want to write those books anymore. You know?

I spent my life, this is not a cardboard cutout. Like these are, these are the jewels and the gems and the traditions of my people. And I’ve been blessed enough to be able to dive into these oceans. And it’s not all gems. There’s also plenty of rubbish in there, just as there’s plenty of rubbish in us, but to learn, to figure out how do we take what is good and meaningful and beautiful and translate it, not only from Arabic and Persian and Turkish and other languages in English, but how do we bring it into our own world in a way that sings. That, that matters to me.

And I think just the last thing that I would say would be so many of us who see ourselves as being, trying to at least be, both religiously grounded and also have activist aspirations and inclinations, you know, we’re wrestling with some parts of our tradition. And if you, if you haven’t seen the sexism and the misogyny and the racism and the xenophobia in your own religious tradition, you just haven’t looked hard enough. So, cause it’s, it’s there in every single one of our traditions. And so are the gems.

So, you know, the water of life is a metaphor that works for me. It’s almost like going to that fountain head where there’s the life-giving water of life, and at the same time that we’re trying to drink from this fountain, we got to clean it up. I can’t accept the totality of what’s come down to me uncritically because it too has its share of bigotry and xenophobia and misogyny. I want to find the gems, occasionally clean up the doo-doo that has accumulated around the gems, but I don’t want to be a part of passing on the dung to my own children and to other people’s children.

And that’s a challenging thing for people of color or if you come from a tradition where you’re constantly defending yourself and defending your tradition. Right? Like I am done, done, done, done, standing up and telling people that, oh, we gotta let Muslims into this country because we gave you algebra and chemistry and coffee. Cause I mean, we did, but like, screw algebra. My brother’s a math professor. He’s probably hating me now. So, what if we didn’t give you algebra? So, what if we didn’t have chemistry? So, what if heaven forbid, we didn’t give you coffee? We would still be human beings, made in image of God with lives that are based in nobility and dignity and sanctity.

So, I actually want us, particularly those of us who come from communities and traditions that are under this kind of racist assault, to push back against this capitalistic ethic that says, no, no, my life has value because I brought some commodity to you. The only commodity I’m bringing is my soul as a child of God. And if people have a hard time recognizing the worth and the value of that, that’s what Heschel would have called an eye disease. And cause mama raised me right, I might work with you at cleansing one’s own heart, one’s own eye, in terms of what you see in your fellow human being, but that’s on you, that’s on you.

And I think one of, as I get closer and closer to being 50, that notion of being a spokesperson for a whole people or a whole religion just has no appeal to me anymore. There’s a lot of good that comes with it, and it can make you rich enough to pay off your student loans, but it’s not sustainable. And it shouldn’t be some kind of a superhero cape that now this person wears it, and now that person wears it. It’s a community effort. And the questions that we spend our life answering should be scrutinized.

I want to answer good and beautiful questions. And for every question that is asked of my people, I want to have a chance to ask those same questions and other questions of the other blocks of humanity who are also my people.

Singh:

Yeah. I appreciate that. And I want to push a little further if you’d let me. One of the threads that I heard in your response that I really appreciate is this point around redefining success. And, you know, it’s, it’s something we all hear in different moments within our lives. You know, this is not the first time I’m hearing it, it’s not the first time you were saying it. But it seems like you’re saying something a little bit different here than what we typically hear in this sort of context. So, I I’d love for you to elaborate a little bit.

When you’re talking about these moments these, these goals that you could chase, and, and you, given your career, very easily, could be in different types of positions. You could be seen as more prestigious, and you have consciously made decisions not to do that. And, and part of what I’m hearing you say is, it’s not just because you don’t care, which, which is, which is an understandable way, or at least something that I can comprehend. It doesn’t appeal to you. But you also saying you do that as a way of protecting your spirits and as a practice to be anti-racist. And so, could you help us connect the dots there? What is that? What is, what does that look like for you? Can you give us an example, maybe of a sacrifice that you’ve made, at the cost of your own, quote unquote, personal success so that you could stay committed to your values and so you could stay whole.

Safi:

Simran, you’re, you’re a beloved friend. And I could try to tell you a dramatic story, and maybe I will. The real people who should be answering that question, it’s not me. It’s my babies. It’s my parents. It’s my siblings. It’s my neighbors. Those are the ones that a younger version of me was still uncritical enough about climbing some notion of the ladder of success that I either didn’t give them what they fully deserved or it was compromised. And so really, they should be the ones to answer that, that question.

In terms of my own life, it’s fairly tangible. I was 28 — I was 21 when I went to grad school, my PhD program. 28 when I finished my PhD. Youngest person to finish the PhD, youngest assistant professor, youngest associate professor, youngest full professor. And so like, you know, I, I got to like, whatever, 34, 35, and I was a full professor and I never stopped myself to say, you know, Omid-jan, what’s the rush? Like, okay, yeah, mashallah, wonderful, mazel tov, great that you’re a full professor. What if it came at 45, at 50, instead of at 35?

So, when I was 37, I had a heart attack. And I still remember laying down in the emergency room, looking up at the white ceiling and going like, dear God, not, not now, not like this. Like this is so undramatic. I come from a very poetic and dramatic people. People have like heroic deaths. I want to die at UNC Hospital looking up at a chalk ceiling at 37 because I’m fat and I haven’t exercised and I’ve had the stress of a PhD and climbing the ladder of success. Oh yeah, and 9/11 and Islamophobia and, you know, whatever, 2,000 interviews. Like that’s, I don’t want — no.

So since then, you know, some shifting of priorities and I’m still learning some of them. None of us do it alone. I’m grateful for the fact that I have a beautiful partner, my dear wife, Carina, who reminds me every day, and we make all of our decisions together because I know that it’s not just me, it’s us, and everything that I say yes to does mean saying no, not only to other opportunities, saying no to some people.

And so, part of what that has meant for me is being very intentional about what I take on. And what I do take on, to take it on with joy, and to try to be wholeheartedly present for that. I think that kind of a living, as we would say, leads to a life that has baraka, that has a kind of grace to it, or it has the force which is the best English translation of baraka that I know. And then the force becomes strong in you.

But I think that kind of an intentional being and living at a time where most of our mentors who were and are much smarter than I am, but very few of them live balanced lives. Very few of them live balanced lives in terms of the academy and the family, the academy and public intellectual activity. And you see it. You see the, either incredibly hierarchical personal lives that many of our mentors have had. Not all of them, but many, many people in the academy have had. Or a sort of distrust of the kind of activist and public intellectual aspirations that some of us have embraced.

So, in some ways, particularly when you come from more coffee-colored racial backgrounds, whether it’s a latte color or a mocha color or everything in between, we got to be figuring out these models together, because we don’t have the luxury of looking at generations of people who’ve come before us. And we’ll mess up and I’ve messed up plenty.

Singh:

Yeah, that’s great. I appreciate that. Thank you for, thank you for letting me ask such a personal question. I’m going to ask you for one more favor. And that is if you would guide us through a practice of yours that you engage in that you think might be useful for us.

Safi:

Yeah. Thank you. So, this is, you know, talk about moving from academic and public intellectual work and going right to the heart of one’s spiritual practice. I couldn’t get up in the day and get through a day without some of these practices that bring not just discipline, but also beauty and resonance and a reminder of everything. So, there’s this very simple zikr, a chant that is repeated like a mantra. And I’d like to think that it’s one that could work and in, in a number of different religious traditions, because it basically is a call to remember oneness, unity. And it is the rhythmic repetition of the phrase: la ilaha illallah. There is only one worthy of adoration, and that’s the one. And what I love about it and what I would encourage people to think about it, and then maybe we might just repeat it five or seven times together, is it actually begins with a negation before you come to the affirmation of the one you have to decide what is not the one.

And our Christian sisters and brothers would say, Jesus had to go through and to kick out the money changers from the temple. There is that sweeping away of everything that is unworthy of you, that’s unbecoming of your ultimate commitment. And it’s only after you’ve cleansed the heart of these other priorities, which in and by themselves might be important, but not that important. They shouldn’t have that central place. But you then come back to illallah — except for God, except for that.

So, it, it would simply, and sometimes in some traditions it becomes tied to subtle centers and almost like chakras. But we won’t go into that right now. So, very simply it’s just the repetition of this phrase. And sometimes there’s simple head movements, the sort of sweeping away of things.

So, I’ll just do that five or five times or so. La ilaha illallah. La ilaha illallah. In that illallah, except for the one, then your eye and your attention return to the heart. You sweep it away and then you come back to the heart. Hah. Hah. The very last vowel sound of their chant is the simple release of the breath.

And so, after the practice, and as often as one is able to, during the course of the day you simply return to that prayer that mingles with your breath, that awareness of the one who is life itself, breath itself. It is the breath of God that moved over the waters and it is that divine spirit that animates and inspires the human. And so, the more we return — our minds always wonder we become distracted with become disoriented — but then there’s a grace in coming back and returning.

Singh:

Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for all your time today.