“Ask a group of Americans this question: What does Christ stand for? They’ll say he stands for love, forgiveness, concern for the poor and turning the other cheek.
Then ask Americans: What do you know about Moses? The answers get fuzzier, but people remember he brought the Law and led his people out of slavery in Egypt.
Ask about the Hindu tradition. People mention Gandhi and nonviolence, but they don’t know much about Hinduism.
Then, ask Americans about Muhammad’s life and the vast majority of non-Muslims aren’t able to answer at all. Ask about a single value he exemplifies—and they have trouble coming up with any answer.”
That’s Dr. Omid Safi talking about the impulse that led him to write “Memories of Muhammad.”
CLICK HERE to read our book review, which we enthusiastically ranked in our “10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2010—Reading for Enlightenment and Hope.”
Interview with Muslim scholar Omid Safi,
Professor of Islamic Studies,
on his book about the Prophet, “Memories of Muhammad”
DAVID: Let’s start with your background, because I thnk that’s the first question readers will ask: Who is the person who wrote this big new book about the founder of Islam?
OMID: My title at the University of North Carolina is Professor of Religious Studies. And, for the last seven years, I have also been the Chair for Islamic Studies at the American Academy of Religion.
DAVID: You have a strong interest in Sufism and the mystical movements within Islam, but your background is Shi’a, is that right?
OMID: I come from a very deeply traditional Iranian Shi’a family. My grandfather was an ayatollah, which is the highest rank of scholarship in the Shi’a context. I grew up in Iran for the bulk of my childhood and teenage years although I was actually born in the United States. My life has been spent about half living here and half living in various other places.
DAVID: You’ve got to be worried about your family these days. You say they’re deeply traditional, but you’re a progressive voice yourself. These are dangerous times in Iran for progressive voices.
OMID: I probably have more than 600 members of my extended family living in Iran, including some who have been very involved in the reform movement there. My concerns for people’s lives and well-being are perennial concerns.
DAVID: You’re an active Muslim yourself. You’re not someone who has left the faith and now studies it from afar. Tell us a little about your own relation to the Muslim community.
OMID: I am very active and involved with the Muslim community, but because the Sufi dimension of Islam is very near and dear to my own heart, it shapes a lot of my own understanding of Islam. So, for example, I don’t particularly subscribe to congregations or mosques that are exclusively Sunni or exclusively Shi’a.
DAVID: Do you fast during Ramadan?
OMID: I have fasted during Ramadan through most of my life. Recently, I was diagnosed with diabetes and it precludes me from fasting. But Ramadan has been a very powerful and resonant practice during most of my life. I do miss it. One of the first pieces I ever published was about memories of Ramadan. Now, I always try to find other ways of honoring the month.
What is the Sufi religious tradition?
DAVID: What drew you to Sufism, the more mystical branch of Islam? You say that this is a personal as well as a professional interest.
OMID: Yes, it’s both academic and personal. Like a lot of other Iranians who grew up during the Iranian revolution and the long Iran-Iraq war, I was horrified by the dark underbelly in the intersection of religion and politics and nationalism and violence. So, I was looking for something to revitalize my own spiritual life and understanding of Islam. Iranians have always had for the last 1,000-plus years a very deep engagement with Sufism. Virtually all of the great literary collections of poetry that Iranians really revere come out of the Sufi tradition.
DAVID: Am I accurate in calling this the mystical branch of Islam?
OMID: I think that’s fine, because it helps to give non-Muslims a sense of what we’re talking about. They may be aware of mystical Christianity or mystical Judaism. It’s a contemplative, disciplined, prayerful, love-filled life that changes the way one relates to other human beings.
The only place I am not comfortable using the term “mystic” is sometimes in Protestant circles where the term suggests something extremely private or related to mysteries we shouldn’t speak of. I try to explain to people that Sufism is not a sectarian movement. It comes down in many ways to how people relate to the Prophet. Every Muslim is supposed to look at Muhammad as the ideal exemplar. All Muslims—Sunni and Shi’a—would say that they want to behave as Muhammad behaved.
I think Sufis go one step further and we say that, at the height of Muhammad’s spiritual life, he came face to face with God and that’s the hope of Sufis. We want to experience God here and now—not just in the hereafter. All Muslims are trying to walk in Muhammad’s footsteps. The Sufis do this a bit more literally in trying to ascend to encounters with God while on Earth.
A Long History of Myths and Stereotpyes about Islam, Muslims and the Prophet
DAVID: In your book, you point out that this problem we’ve had since 9/11/2001—this problem of misunderstanding and bad mouthing Muhammad in some circles—really has been going on for more than 1,000 years.
OMID: Yes, and I think many Muslims forget this long history. In writing this book, I’ve kept in mind two different audiences. One audience is the wider, general, non-Muslim audience—people who are Jewish or Christian or secular in this country. The other audience is Muslims who I think also need to remember some things we’ve forgotten.
Over the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve been engaged frequently in public speaking about Islam to a wider audience and I’ve found that the vast majority of non-Muslims know very little about Muhammad. This is unfortunate because Muslims relate so closely to the Prophet Muhammad throughout their lives. People are reminded of his example on a daily basis. We think continually of his ethics—the way he treated every human being he came in contact with—and Muhammad becomes a measure of the noble qualities it’s possible to attain as a human. The Prophet is central to Islam.
So, now, almost a decade has passed since 9/11 and, despite all the intensive dialogue about Islam around the world, Americans still know incredibly little about Muhammad and very little about the spiritual teachings of Islam. I think some of the blame needs to rest with us as Muslim scholars, teachers and writers.
DAVID: I don’t know as “blame” is a fair term. The Muslim leaders I know have nearly worn themselves out over the past decade, accepting one opportunity after another to meet non-Muslims and talk about Islam.
OMID: The main problem is that we’ve spent almost 10 years defending what Islam is not. We start by stressing that Islam is not about terrorism, not about misogyny, not about extremism. Now, that’s an important thing to point out when so many people have that misconception, but it doesn’t give a very good picture of Islam. I don’t know any human being who signs up for anything based on what it’s not. Islam stands for many things. But, as Muslims, we’ve done a terrible job of communicating with a wider audience about our spiritual goals and the traditions that go back all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad.
DAVID: Well, as a journalist, I’ve visited mosques around the world, including in Asia and the Middle East. When non-Muslims do visit mosques, for example, there’s a whole lot to explain in a short period of time.
OMID: I know. I’ve traveled widely myself and I’ve heard the talks given to visitors. They’re usually about the postures of prayer and the five pillars. I know these are well-intentioned talks, but that way of introducing Islam can turn our experiences with non-Muslims into something like a visit to a museum or a zoo. We seem to focus on explaining how people perform as Muslims.
I think the five pillars are just too overdone at this point. Think about going to Athens and seeing the Acropolis—now those are beautiful pillars, but the building is empty. Or, think about inviting someone to visit your home. Friends will be less interested in the structures that hold up your house than in what it means to live in your family—to live in your home—on a daily basis.
I understand that it’s hard to talk about what we believe, because you can’t see that in front of you. I understand that it’s easier to show visitors what we do—like the postures of prayer. But I think we can start talking about deeper things, like what prayer meant to the Prophet Muhammad and what this means for Muslims today.
DAVID: The front cover of your book includes the words “A Biography,” but your book is not what most readers will expect from a traditional biography. You do, indeed, tell us the story of Muhammad’s life in considerable depth. But your book really is an exploration of what this major religious figure meant—and still means—to people around the world. For example, your opening section, which is about 50 pages long, is called “The World Before Muhammad,” then the next 70 pages is called “The Muhammadi Revolution” about the way his life and his approach to religious principles changed history.
Toward the end of your 300-page book, you put it this way: “For Muslims, if God is at the center of existence, it is Muhammad who marks the path to that center. Muhammad remains indispensable.”
Along the way, you translate a lot of fascinating Islamic texts—some of them quite beautiful. In fact, I think that’s one of the best selling points for this book—these great excerpts you translate and sprinkle through the book.
OMID: Sharing our stories is very important. If you ask a Muslim to talk about the Prophet Muhammad, they’ll never stop telling you about the qualities they love in the life of the Prophet—and then they’ll tell you 16 stories to illustrate each of these very high qualities they admire. Muslims are very similar to Jews in our tradition of storytelling. These stories are embedded in our consciousness and embody our spiritual memories. The stories come to us as mother’s milk. They’re written around our home. They’re recited to us.
DAVID: I certainly agree with you that storytelling is a distinctive part of Muslim culture. But, considering the importance of literary arts in the history of Islam, it’s quite an irony to log into the online Amazon bookstore, search for “Islam,” and discover that the top-ranked books are by Karen Armstrong and John Esposito—neither of them Muslims. They’re both widely respected writers, but imagine searching for “Christianity” and discovering that the leading books were written by non-Christians—or search for “Judaism” and find that Jews didn’t write the top books.
OMID: That’s one reason I wanted to publish this book with a large, mainstream publisher like HarperOne. I will give Karen Armstrong credit where credit is due and I’ll say she is a good author who popularizes material in a helpful way. She takes the scholarship other people have done and turns out readable books on Jesus and God and Muhammad and what have you. But, in order to get my own book published, I had a very up-hill fight with HarperCollins. They said to me: “Why would anyone want to read any book on Muhammad other than Karen Armstrong’s book?”
I had to remind them that people prefer to read Christian authors on Christianity and Jewish authors on Judaism, so why shouldn’t readers want to read about Islam from a Muslim?
DAVID: And John Esposito? I’ve known and interviewed him over the years and I know his books are appreciated by American Muslims.
OMID: Yes, John opened a lot of doors for people. Americans like reading books by John and Karen because they’re friendly non-Muslims reassuring readers that Islam is OK. I do have to give John credit for inviting Muslim writers to co-author a number of books with him. He helped to get those authors’ names into catalogs that they’d never have reached without his help.
DAVID: So, all things considered, are you optimistic as we begin a new decade?
OMID: I am optimistic, but I’m not naïve. I really do hold onto the notion that there is real good and there is real evil in the world. There is real love and there is real hatred in this world, as well. I just do not believe that these divisions have to run along religious lines or ethnic lines or national lines. I am a teacher. My paycheck comes from being a teacher. If I didn’t walk into the classroom everyday believing passionately that knowledge is more powerful than ignorance, that love can vanquish hatred, that light can overcome darkness—I couldn’t get up every morning and face a new day.
Desmond Tutu said that faith at some point has to be faith in things unseen. I can see this world that I want my children to grow up in and I want other people’s children to grow up in. It isn’t a world that I can see around me yet. And I’m not sure I will see it even in my lifetime. But I have to hold onto the hope that, if I do my part and others do their parts, then someday people will grow up in a world where color of skin or faith or gender or ethnicity will not limit who we can become.
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