We are immensely thankful to Andrew Kosorok for this exclusive interview with popular author and scholar Dr. Omid Safi. Those who have read Dr Safi’s edited book: ‘Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism’ with chapters by Tazim Kassam, Farid Escak, Scott Kugle and many others, can tell the value of his contributions. His biography of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): ‘Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet matters’ is the best in this genre. Omid Safi’s next is on Sufi poetry – a much needed resource for the current times.
Love God with all the heart, might, mind and soul – Dr. Omid Safi and Radical Love
Interview by Andrew Kosorok
In Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, Dr. Omid Safi shares poems and sayings of the greatest Muslim mystics addressing the ultimate foundation of everything good and worthwhile – expressions of Divine Love.
Dr. Safi is director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, and as a lifelong educator has tirelessly taught people – of every faith and background – how to celebrate commonalities, how to see each other in the best light possible, and how to work together to express the highest aspirations we share as human beings. Talking about art and poetry, writing for the Huffington Post, even sharing insights as a tour guide (yes, he’s done that too), Dr. Safi continuously finds opportunities to encourage all of us to find and explore the best things about each other.
Is it obvious I’m a fan?
When I saw he was publishing this remarkable book, I asked if he had a moment to visit. Thankfully, he “shoe-horned” me in and we spoke about his work.
Andrew – What’s your background?
Omid – My family hails from Iran, and I was born in Florida. I spent a significant part of my childhood in Iran, and have been blessed to spend some of the last few decades in US, Canada, UK, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and other countries. I came to Duke to study medicine, and got into medical school, but somewhere along the way fell in love with Sufi poetry. I turned down medical school, went to get a PhD at Duke, and the rest as they say….
I spent fifteen years teaching Islamic studies at Colgate University, which really fostered a love of liberal arts teaching in me, and UNC, which reminded me of how much I love public education, before returning home to Duke.
A – Over the years you’ve done some pretty amazing things. How is this book a natural progression from your earlier work, and why do you feel it is necessary for today?
O – It occurred to me that there are many beautiful books of Sufi poetry in English, but they tend to minimize the Islamic context of Sufism. So I tried to do something that was both poetic and faithful to the original.
A – What were your biggest challenges and successes in getting this book together? And how long did it take?
O – It was actually a labor of love, in a literal sense. I have a lovely partner in my life, and she and I had an old fashioned, long-distance courtship. Every few days I translated a poem or saying from the Islamic tradition for her and mailed it to her. After a couple of years she said that it had so much touched her heart that she asked me if we could share it with others. So it was just a matter of compiling what I had sent in, adding some to it, and publishing it.
A – For whom did you write this book – is it just for Muslims or for anyone? How do you hope it will benefit those who read it?
O – I wrote it for my partner. And for spiritual seekers of all traditions. When I started to write, I used to think of my task as educating non-Muslims about Islam. But with time it has become very clear to me that Muslims are also by and large not aware of the spiritual dimensions of our rich tradition. So I now see this task as writing for everyone.
A – What is the single most important message we can take away from this book?
O – That love, real love, radical love, is nothing short of the unleashing of God on this earth. It is love that led God to create, it is love that brought us here, it is love that sustains us here, and it is this same love that will deliver us back home.
A – How has writing this changed you, personally?
O – Like many of the people from the civil rights tradition, I see love and justice as being intrinsically linked together. I see justice as love when it moves into the public square. Because of that, I do also spend a lot of my time speaking out against racism, violence, war-mongering, and bigotry. But what has become clear to me is that we have to start with the hearts. WE can only save ourselves by addressing things at the heart level, and then moving back to the level of institutions and structures.
In Dr. Safi’s introduction to Radical Love he also sheds some light on how mystics view the universe – an observation I really enjoyed reading: “All of us will have to encounter God in the hereafter; the mystics are merely more impatient.”
For more about Dr. Omid Safi and his work, check out the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University, and this presentation commemorating civil rights and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.