Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Omid Safi teaches in the Religion department at Colgate University. He is editor of the book "Progressive Muslims" and is writing about the mentor of the 13th Century Sufi poet Rummi. I interviewed him at Colgate University. Well, Omid first of all thanks for taking the time.
Omid Safi: My pleasure.
Wright: Now you teach about Islam and as well you are an adherent of Islam and since 9-11 Americans have been thinking more and talking more about Islam. I wonder if you could talk a little about the geography of Islam and start by situating yourself in it. I mean for starters you're a Shiite not a Sunni, right?
Omid Safi: In terms of heritage yes.
Wright: Ok. Can you just talk about what your own kind of place in Islam is?
Omid Safi: Sure. One of the interesting aspects about Islam that I think most Americans tend not to be tremendously knowledge about is that our understanding of Islam tends to be focused on the Middle East and for very understandable reasons we tend to think of the Palestinian Israeli conflict, this Saudi Arabian Wahabi kind of influence, the Iranian revolution, the situation in Iraq, in Afghanistan and so we've had this focus on the Middle East that is very synonymous with Islam for us and very few of us actually begin to realize that Islam has a global presence to the extent that the country with the largest number of Muslim population in the world is Indonesian in fact 50% of Muslims of the world live east of Pakistan and that half of all Muslims is something that most of us spend very little amount of time thinking and talking about.
Wright: And is there a big difference between or any kind of difference you can articulate between the type of Islam that's practice there and the type... first of all that is generally in the Sunni tradition?
Omid Safi: It's almost exclusively in the Sunni tradition. The Shiite tradition tends to be found in Iran primarily, some parts of Lebanon, some parts of South Asia.
Wright: And I know historically that that difference arose between those two traditions over a question of succession but today is there any kind of difference in in theological perspective or any kind of perspective that the two kind of embody?
Omid Safi: In terms of practice it would be fairly difficult to actually find radical differences between the two of them. Most Muslims tend to not be overwhelmingly concerned with theological distinctions. It's much more matters of ritual and practice that they're concerned with and at that level they're they're the same types of fasting, the same types of prayer, the same types of alms given that both communities tend to observe with subtle differences.
Wright: Ok ok so there's kind of no no big theological difference between between Sunni and Shiite. And I guess there's no big political difference in the sense that you can find fundamentalists on both sides.
Omid Safi: Absolutely. I mean the majority of what we tend to think of in the West as Islamic fundamentalism tends to come from the Sunni tradition. In the Shiite tradition largely people tend to associate that with the Iranian revolution that has gone on. There are clashes that take place in places like Pakistan between the Shiite population and the Sunni population. A lot of that tends to be connected to identity politics that people have. It would be hard to find concrete examples of theology that people differ among. In fact often times there are situations where both communities are trying to commemorate the same figure and each one want to have a bigger parade and they clash over that.
Wright: And theologically there's no big difference between Sunni and Shiite. Would you say there's a big difference between say Islam and Christianity in the way God is conceived or?
Omid Safi: What I would probably say is within each one of those traditions you always have a range of interpretations and so you can find there are Muslims who conceive of God in utterly transcendent ways and there are Christians who think of God in very transcendent ways, there are Muslims who think of God in very imminent ways and likewise Christians. If there is a fundamental difference of emphasis it tends to be in the language that one uses to talk about the way that the divine being involves himself/herself in this world. So does that happen through an act of incarnation? Which is of course central to the Christian understanding. Or is it done through creation and guidance and mercy which tends to be more the Islamic emphasis and one can either get hung up on the terminology that's used or you can actually look through those terms and beyond those terms to get a sense of where the difference is and similarities are.
Wright: So in terms of thinking about God, what God is, you see the same kind of range of opinion within Islam that you might find within Christianity?
Omid Safi: You know it's not an accident. Part of it is because in the classical time period in the medieval time period you had Muslim Jewish and Christian theologians who were sitting down together, often times in the same universities and they're saying you know we're struggling with that free will question, what have you guys come up with? And we have concrete historical example of these kinds of exchanges that take place and you have Muslims who come down more on the free will side and Muslims who come down more on the predeterminism side exactly in the same way that you see in the other monotheistic traditions.
Wright: So here you're talking about the extent to which God is seen as dictating your life?
Omid Safi: And the extent to which the human choice to the conditions of one's life is already preknown or predetermined by God and that's a very difficult question depending on is one taking a view of free will or one takes the view that God is already knowledgeable about all of the human actions that take place.
Wright: I'd say there is a stereo type in the West that Muslims are very fatalistic that you know if if I mean Allah knows what's going to happen to me today if it's my day to die it's my day to die... Is that accurate?
Omid Safi: Well there is the sense that if God's knowledge is complete then you know one as a Muslim would want to say if it my destiny to die today then that destiny falls within the realm of God's knowledge so it would be hard for a Muslim to say I'm going to die today and that action is going to take God by surprise and he's going to say "You know I hadn't thought about that one today." On the other hand I think that if people read the Qu'ran as a scripture that contextualized in a historical context and the historical context is 7th Century Arabia there is a specifically anti-fatalist message in the Qu'ran namely the Arabs who lived in the 7th Century had no concept of an afterlife, they had no concept of an individual responsibility and personal accountability in the day of judgement. And time and again ...
Wright: This is in the poly-theistic area before...
Omid Safi: Exactly.
Omid Safi: Exactly.
Wright: ...carried the day...
Omid Safi: Exactly. And the emphasis of the Qu'ran towards that community tends to be no in fact each of you is responsible for his or her own actions, each one of you will be resurrected and held accountable for what you do what you say what you think all of that and so there is actually I think a huge emphasis in the Qu'ran in holding people responsible and accountable for their existence and that I think would go very much against a kind of fatalism that we tend to associate with Islam.
Wright: Ok. Of course in Christianity you see the whole spectrum...
Omid Safi: Sure.
Wright: ... from complete predestination and something very different...
Omid Safi: Right.
Wright: ... in the history of Christianity...
Omid Safi: Right.
Wright: But but but in any event the stereotype that and I think you sometimes see it in this extreme a form that the Muslim parts of the world will will have trouble joining the modern economy because if you have a fatalistic view of the world you just don't have enough get up and go... I mean I think I've heard that. Am I imagining that?
Omid Safi: No you've heard it and you've heard it from some very smart people. I just happen to radically disagree with those very smart people on that regard. I would say that A: there are parts of the Muslim world which are fully plugged into the modern economic system one can look at an example like Malaysia, like Turkey, like other situation. More importantly I would say that it's not the theological view of Islam or Christianity that have privileged one or prevented one from joining the modern iconic system it's the earthly historic reality of an experience called the Industrial Revolution and then Colonialism. And one has to account for the fact that virtually the totality of the part of the world that features Muslims as a majority was under colonial rule and that the economic and intellectual fruits of the civilization were utilized in a disproportionate way by European powers so it's no accident that they are further behind economically than European and American powers are. I personally don't attribute that to Islamic theology...
Omid Safi: ... I think it's a matter of history and politics.
Wright: Ok now on Islamic theology there is an American general who came very well known for saying their God is an idol about Islam. Isn't that, I don't know much about this but isn't that kind of exactly the opposite of the truth in the sense that in Islam there is at least as strong a bias against identifying God with with some kind of particular idol or even talking about God in very specific terms, at least a strong a bias as you find in the Christian world. Is that...?
Omid Safi: Well you know this might come as a surprise to perhaps some of our audience here but for Muslims it is absolutely clear that there is in fact one deity in the entire cosmos and it is the same God that is the God of the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, and everybody else and when you hear statements like that coming from General Boukins that you just mentioned I mean that's a statement that has a long legacy and those kind of Christian anti-Islamic propaganda they go back about 1200 years. It's nothing new. It just happens to be that post 9-11 we're hearing those comments with a new arrogance and vigor and when it comes from someone whose been appointed by the Pentagon to be the chief hunter for Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden it just confirms the absolute worst suspicions of Muslims about what's really going on here, it's the juxtaposition of Christian evangelical triumphalism with military arrogance that's deeply resented by Muslims...
Wright: And something like that, a statement like that, it's getting air time in the Muslim, right?
Omid Safi: Absolutely, I mean within within the first day that that came out because look he had said it, Franklin Graham has said things like that, Jerry Vines has said things like that, Pat Robinson, Jerry Falwell, there's a long litany of significant people who self-identify as Christian of a particular variety who want to portray this massive clash between Islam and Christianity, one also has to acknowledge that there are many other Christians both that are local and at a global level who are working to establish bridges of understanding and peace and pluralism so this is just about as much about Islam as it is Christianity. I mean Christians are also struggling with what kind of religions they're going to have and issues like homosexuality, relationship to Islam are are some of the ongoing struggles for Christians just as they are for Muslims.
Wright: Ok. And and am I right in thinking that Islam is perhaps is more explicit in discouraging even talking about God in any kind of specific way...
Omid Safi: That...
Wright: ...even trying to summon up an image in in your mind or is or am I going too far here?
Omid Safi: The first part of the statement might have gone too far. God talk is something that certainly Muslims engage in because that's what theology is and there's a vast discipline of theology in medieval and contemporary Islamic thought. Where there is an attempt to move away from talking about God in concrete ways is when it comes to images. You don't tend to have any visual iconography of depciting the divine being in any earthly or symbolic kinds of ways. The closest you get to it in Islamic context is caligraphy. You write down the words of God which is the Qu'ran and so Muslims have a kind of reverance for the Qu'ran which is much like what many of our Jewish friends will have for the Torah, which is not to say that Muslims have not developed their own artforms. They have. It's just they happen to be different artforms. Artforms are caligraphy, resetation of the Qu'ran, architecture and even minatures and paintings but those are done generally in a more secular kind of framework and they're not used to depict God as such.
Wright: And when you said that some Muslims view God as transcendent some as emminent emminent meaning in some sense visible in the mundane world or or clearly manifested in a mundane world, is is the correlation there that fundamentalists would be more inclined to have a transcendent conception and moderates or progressives or whatever you want to call more modernist Muslims would tend to have a more imment conception or is there any correlation?
Omid Safi: I would put it a little bit differently. I would say in general and some may disagree with me on this, theologians and jurists would tend to emphasize the transcendence of God because they want God up there and humanity here and very clear that there's a significant ontological gap between what makes God God and what makes humanity humanity. Mystics on the other hand look to the same and there's by the way one can look to the Qu'ran and find many passages about God the Almighty God the high the exaulted all that sense of the seperatedness of God from anything that we can conceive. But there's also passages in the Qu'ran that say things like God is closer to you than your pulse right here if you put your finger right here. He's closer to you than that. And you know God is in some way reflected in the human heart the human heart contains the divine breath that God has breathed into each and every human being. These are all Qu'ranic ideas. So what the mystics would do would be to say that yes transcendence and at the same time don't forget that God is immanent that God pervades this realm of existence including the very being of humanity.
Wright: And by mystics do you mean Sufis or or does it go beyond that within Islam?
Omid Safi: I think the Sufis are the most distinctly identified groups of it that are Shiite mystics as well but this kind...
Wright: So excuse me are Sufis Sunni or are they neither Sunni or Shiite?
Omid Safi: They are both it's a general tendency that one finds very widespread among the whole Muslim community. And and historically it's actually informed the interpretation of Islam at a massive wide-scape level in societies like Iran, South Asia, Turkey, much of sub-Saharan Africa, it would be hard to think of a global Islam without this mystical component.
Wright: Ok and what does what does mystical mean to you. It's a term that's applied within all the religious traditions. I mean some like Buddhism it's thought to to you know to more or less coincide with at least by Westerners certainly associate kind of all of Buddhism with mysticism but with Christianity Judaism there are said to be mystical traditions. First of all what is and I believe I recall you saying when we spoke earlier that you had you yourself have a little bit of a mystical bent... am I ... or maybe you were saying that there is a little of that flavor in the Iranian heritage which is your own heritage so maybe I'm getting ...
Omid Safi: Yes I would be more comfortable talking about it that way I mean most most Sufis themselves would never want to talk about their own beings because to talk about me me me I I I is already to give into a kind of egoism that they're specifically trying to abolish anyway and many of them this one in particular a Persian Sufi called Sadi has a beautiful example that says musk musk is something that has fragrance by itself. The perfume seller doesn't need to build it up. If it has fragrance you will be able to smell it and many Sufis have said that if you see someone that carries that sense of closeness to God that love and service toward humanity that speaks for itself they don't need to carry cards that say I'm a Sufi in a particular way. What I would say as far as mysticism is that there is a long tradition particularly in early 20th Century Western though that identifies mysticism as a realm of personal experience and defines it against rational philosophic speculation. I see that more as a problem of Western thought and actually kind of misleading to want to apply it wholesale to other religious traditions that have existed historically what it means to me as one particular person is simply the idea that there is a secret about the human being that there is a mystery involved in what makes us human that there is more to us than this creature of flesh and blood that we see and part of the Qu'ranic idea is that each and every human being contains the spirit of the divine present inside of them. That there is a presence of God inside each and every human being. And how does one go about acknowledging that presence in one's own self and in other human being?
Wright: And and does the mystical experience then consist partly in getting more in touch with that?
Omid Safi: More in touch with that more contemplation more reflection and more love because after all if you begin to see other human beings as a place that God has also manifested himself/herself it has to change the way that you come to interact with other human beings. You have to be nicer to them you have to show them love and you have to devote yourself to serving them.
Wright: So there's more of in the mystical experience there's more of a sense of unity between yourself and God and between yourself and other people.
Omid Safi: That's right.
Omid Safi: I think that's fair and contained within that unity is also of course reminders of separation. Unity and separation always go hand in hand. It's a kin to experience of being intensely in love with someone. There are moment of phenomenal union and ecstatic joy that come with that and then the anguish of separation when the one is with the beloved and and the two things are two sides of the same coin. The anguish makes the union sweeter and I think that the Sufis live in that kind of a sense of feeling at times the intense presence and unity with the divine and at other times being very mindful of the dark knight of the soul.
Wright: And do you this is this is something that indeed Islamic mystics have in common with the mystics from other traditions I mean the general kinds of things we're saying now make it you would indeed find counterparts elsewhere and it makes it legitimate to talk about mysticism generically as something that cuts across the great faiths?
Omid Safi: I think that both historically and today we can point to specific examples where Christian mystics and Muslim mystics and Hindu mystics and Jewish mystics can come together and have indeed come together in places like India like Turkey like America and they find that they have a lot in common. And perhaps they might have more in common with one another in terms of their outlook towards reality and and towards human beings but you might even have in common with more exclusive legalistic types within each of their own religious communities. What I would be hesitant to do and I think this happens at times is to turn mysticism into the new mega religion...
Omid Safi: ...which somehow you are that becomes it's own ism that you then have to buy into.
Wright: And in any event I guess the the certainly the Sufis are such a small component of the total number of Muslims that are in the world but that's that's not likely any time soon to be the common bond between Muslims writ large and Christians writ large, am I right about that?
Omid Safi: Numberswise you're absolutely right but I would also bring up the example that if you walk into a room there only need to be one flower in the room to give a sense of beauty to the whole room you don't need to have a thousand of them and the influence that the Sufis I think have had on Muslim societies is greater than the sheer number of Sufis.
Wright: Is there tension between them and the fundamentalists?
Omid Safi: Lots of tensions, lots of clashes. The specific movements that you get such as Wahabism which is out of Saudi Arabian what is today Saudi Arabia in the 18th Century specifically defines it's mission as the eradication of Sufi presence and thought and ritual and practice from all domains of life...
Wright: That's the core of it's mission or?
Omid Safi: It's one of the absolutes...
Wright: One of the...
Omid Safi; ... core missions of Wahabism. And you see that the minute that they come into power one of their main tasks is to literally break down and abolish brick by brick the shrines that the Sufis have established and have been established for them over the course of the centuries and to this day Sufi activities are illegal in Saudi Arabia. One cannot engage in a...
Omid Safi: ... Sufi meditative practice in public. Even the prophet's mosque in Medina, if you sit there and recite a Sufi prayer book which sends a blessing on the soul of the prophet, the Wahabi police will come after you. And there's a lot at stake about who gets to define Islam. Is it the Saudi hyper-legalist interpretation or is it this kind of a more pluralistic humanistic mystical interpretation that we've been talking about.
Wright: And as far as the meditative practices, Sufis do things like like Buddhist monks to systematically cultivate the the experience of insight, right? And ... how comparable is that I mean do they some of them do actual sitting meditation or?
Omid Safi: There's sitting meditations there are very elaborate breathing meditations there are repeating of mantras which would consist of chanting divine names of God. In certain groups of Sufis such as the ones from Iran, Central Asia and India, there are light meditations where one would focus on certain subtle centers within the body very much like the chakra system that one perhaps has in the Indian system and it's not an accident I mean these people in places like India, the Sufis and the Yogis, we know that they are in historical contact with one another...
Wright: Going back how far?
Omid Safi: 800 years.
Wright: And so when a Sufi does his meditative practice the subjective experience is presumably in many ways comparable to what a Hindu or Buddhist or Christian is feeling but framed in a different way interpretively maybe...
Omid Safi: That's right because the way that each one of us experiences things and certainly the way that any of us express our experience is contingent on the language that we have and the religious symbols at our disposal so it's not surprising that a Muslim would express it using words and images from the Qu'ran and perhaps a Christian would express it something related to the all encompassing grace of Christ and a Buddhist something about you know the Dharma and the Sun God things of that sort.... each one of us reach for those templates that are that are around in some ways.
Wright: Ok and is Sufism, does it have a very large representation among American Muslims.
Omid Safi: It does. It is in fact one of the three main communities of Muslims in America. The largest number are first and second generation immigrant Muslims from places such as South Asia, Iran, the Arab world. The second population, perhaps 35% of all American Muslims are African American Muslims, what use to be known as the Nation of Islam who through Malcolm X and (()) Mohammed have now moved to Sunni Islam and then the third one is the Sufi community which is particularly important in urban centers in places like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco. And it's those communities that have the most instrumental at creating bridges among various religious communities. Many of the Sufi communities in a place like New York are made up half of folks who come from a Jewish background.
Omid Safi: Yes. And there's wonderful cross-pollination at that level that takes place there.
Wright: And there is a Jewish mystical tradition as well.
Omid Safi: Of course, The Kabbalah...
Wright: Which I don't know much about but...
Omid Safi: Right.
Wright: Yes. Is it possible to specify kind of the most common misinterpretation or misunderstanding about Islam that you run into in America?
Omid Safi: That would take a few hours...
Wright: Is there a Cliff's notes version?
Omid Safi: Cliff notes version I would say that there are a few of them. One is, as we've started to talk about, the super identification with the Middle East and forgetting about the fact that Islam has a global presence. That's one. The second one is taking at face value this recent trite worn-out theory of clash of civilizations that talks about Islam versus the West and and simply thinking that it explains the reality and the complexity of Muslims instead of being open to all kinds of critiques and questions about...
Wright: And it seems to me that that runs a risk of becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy...
Omid Safi: Absolutely. Absolutely. And now you have both Muslims and Christians and policy makers who not only have they bought into this theory they are perpetrating their actions in the name of this theory so it's exactly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and one of the tasks that I think humanists like myself and people who are committed towards some kind of notion of global justice have is to expose this theory for the the limiting fraud that it is and to work instead towards a more just community for all of us.
Wright: Ok. And and what is your own greatest frustration with or dissatisfaction with parts of the Muslim world?
Omid Safi: I began by acknowledging that there are many of my community members in parts of the Muslim world that have experienced unspeakable pain and hurt and affliction. My frustration comes in that we oftentimes take that pain and wallow in it and allow that anger to turn to hatred that we express both towards Muslims and non-Muslims and this is the optimistic part of me, I also kind of need to believe that it's possible that beauty can emerge out of atrocity, that it's possible for art to come out of pain and one of the things I would like to see my fellow Muslims engage in more is a critical engagement with Islam and also with modernity that does not stop at pointing the finger of damnation at the colonial presence or at the brutality of Israeli defense force or the American occupation of Iraq. All of those things have to be pointed out but one must also I believe move towards a genuine sense of engagement with Islam to find those elements of it which are socially just, gender fair, pluralistic, etc. And my frustration is that not enough Muslims around the world take that next step.
Wright: Ok and what could American policy makers do to encourage that kind of change a more forward looking modernist Islam?
Omid Safi: Nothing.
Omid Safi: Nothing.
Wright: Is there anything they can stop doing?
Omid Safi: Yes! It is not the task of the state department, the department of defense, the White House to tell Muslims how we should be interpreting and living our faith. Is it it is a presumption of arrogance and unspeakable superiority complex for them to even suggest that it's their task of doing it. What they can do and I believe what they have the moral imperative to do is to stop supporting the mechanism that prevent Muslims from undertaking such actions. One of the most specific ways that they can do it is by stopping their support for cruel tyrannical oppressive regimes in the Muslim world which jail and imprison the human rights activist, journalists, the reformers, and these are puppets. These are people that we support through billions and billions of dollars of military aid. The situation in Iraq obviously have to change. I think we have to atone for the civilian deaths that we have caused in Iraq and Afghanistan and I do not believe that there is any way for us to have a positive impact on this future reform of Islam without coming to terms with the situation in Palestine and Israel in a more egalitarian just and humanistic way and I don't see us doing any of those things right now but the task of reinterpreting Islam belongs to Muslims.
Wright: Ok so less preaching from America would be a good thing.
Omid Safi: Except from American Muslims.
Omid Safi: American Muslims and and allies and friends of American Muslims... allies in the sense that they are people in peace communities in social justice communities in anti-globalization communities and all those kinds of communities that have been fellows, friends, comrades, people that have expressed solidarity and and you know we reach out to them in in our full humanity and embrace their humanity. But I'm a person whose skeptical of governments ...
Wright: And what about people who who would say that the Iraq was in a certain sense faithful to your prescription of not coddling dictators. They did the opposite of coddling a dictator in a Muslim country which is to say that they they deposed the regime...
Omid Safi: I think that that rationality betrays a profound lack of familiarity with the history of U.S. policy over the past 20 years because that very same dictator that we went to war with was a person that we supported for 20 years. We have pictures of Rumsfield going to Iraq in 1983, we have records of over billions of dollars of military aid that we gave to that same Saddam Hussein to gas his own people. Why? Because at that time he was fighting against a war on Iran and the enemy of our enemy was someone that we could tolerate. And it's that kind of hypocrisy that Muslims like me have absolutely no patience for.
Wright: So you would like to see Islam engage more energetically with the modern world and and do some adapting. Are there parts of Islamic history that give you hope in that regard, in other words, past episodes of adaptation to change of of you know evolving doctrine or practice or whatever.
Omid Safi: Yes and I would be one of those people who would say that one can't even talk about Islam and the modern world as if these are two entirely separate constructs. I mean Muslims live in the modern world but in terms of particular episodes that we're talking about I think we can and we should look at places like Muslim Spain where Christians, Muslims and Jews live in fairly decent harmony, certainly far greater than anything that you could find in Europe at that time period. One can take a look at the Ottoman Empire in its hey day not as it crippled down and look at that as a fairly successful example of a kind of pluralistic kind of a setting and in terms of intellectual endeavors I would look at something like the Muslim encounter with Greek philosophy which was a critical multi generation involvement of attempting to incorporate that which is best but also being critical towards it and I would hope that contemporary Muslim thinkers and activists would take the same view with respect to modernity.
Wright: Ok now one concept with deep roots in the Islamic past is Jihad and you hear two stories about Jihad. One is that it means relentless war against infidels the other is that it means it actually means a struggle within yourself against evil and and and a struggle for good. I've got a feeling that both of those are a little too simple. Maybe I'm wrong but how how what would u say about what Jihad means, it's history and so on...
Omid Safi: I would say that Jihad is a term that means many different things to many different people and both of the definitions you just gave are things that one can find in Muslim history and in Muslim interpretations. There are many Sufis who would talk about the need to be perpetually vigilant of one's own being of one's own self to fight one's own egoism and to transform the self towards a higher reflection of divine qualities. There have also been many Muslim rulers who have called on waging Jihad against the infidels in exactly the same way that you would have your kin rulers talk about a crusade in those kinds of ways. What I think is missing and this is the part that your hinting at the oversimplification is that what's in the middle for the majority of Muslim history Jihad has never been something that one can undertake willy-nilly. There has to be there's there's been a theory and a method to Jihad in I would say the closest analogy to it that you can find is the just war theory in medieval Christian thought. You just can't go around massacring civilians and Muslims jurists have identified very specific set of criteria whereby one may undertake Jihad. For example they have said that only an authentic Muslim ruler perhaps can initiate offensive Jihad. A defensive Jihad is a different situation if the Muslims are under attack but even in those situations they have said you cannot kill civilians, you cannot kill women, you cannot kill children, you cannot kill the elderly, you cannot kill somebody that has his back to you and is running away, you cannot poison water wells, you cannot cut down trees, you can't kill animals and once you begin to get a broader sense of the legalistic framework that has been in place precisely to prevent a kind of war of all against all. Then one begins to see just how abnormal something like 9-11 is even from a Muslim perspective.
Wright: Ok. I assume that historically some conditions have been more conducive to a militant use of an extremely militant use of the concept of Jihad and some circumstances more conducive to that being less prominent you know holy war in the literal sense being a less a less prominent part of Islam is that?
Omid Safi: For the majority of Muslim history when Muslims have talked about Jihad it's been one group of Muslims using the name of Jihad against other Muslims.
Wright: Oh really?
Omid Safi: It's it's been in fact the rare occasion because Muslims were in a position of superiority...
Omid Safi: ... militarily and politically and so you know it's only the rare occasion when the Crusaders attack that that some Muslims talk about a Jihad against the Christians in that kind of a sense. Generally it's been the case that some Sunni are attacking other Sunnis some Shiites are attacking other Shiites something of that kind of a sort.
Wright: Let me ask you in in Christianity they have something they call the problem of evil which is basically the question of how why God lets bad things happen. Is that considered a conundrum in Islamic theology and if so what's the what kinds of answers do you get?
Omid Safi: Well I think any religious tradition has to look around the world and to figure out that there are moments of phenomenal beauty and also incredible pain and suffering and evil that takes place. I think the one difference tends to be that by in large Muslims don't tend to buy into a kind of dualism of a mega-battle between good and evil, God and Satan kind of imagery. There is talk of a figure of Satan in the Qu'ran and in Islamic thought but theologians are more likely to portray Satan as not somebody who can make you do anything evil, he doesn't have that kind of power over you. He can whisper things into your heart and allow for that whispering to take root in your own egoism, in your own evil tendencies and then you act based on it so the way that they're generally going about talking about evil is not in a cosmic sense of the struggle between good and evil but rather in the sense that when one becomes forgetful about the divine presence and also the divine presence inside of one's own self then it becomes easier for people to act bases on the naffs -- this term means your carnal self -- and that's where these manifestations of evil take place, where each person and each community acts on a me me me kind of a principle rather than a us us us ...
Wright: Ok. So bad things happen ultimately as a result of some sense flawed human choices. In other words, there was the opportunity to resist...
Omid Safi: Yes.
Wright: To not do the bad thing but it ...
Omid Safi: Right the this is a distinction that some people have talked about as a convenient Cliff Notes version it's a useful one that whereas in the Christian context one may have some notion of the fall and original sin in the Islamic context you have some emphasis on the tendency of human beings to become forgetful forgetful of the reality and presence of God and forgetful of the magic and the mystery of the divine presence inside each one of us and our task is to confront that forgetfulness what is called (()). How do you do it? Well through the process of remembrance of God either and both through daily rituals like prayer, meditative practices, looking at nature as a manifestation of God, all of those kinds of things.
Wright: Ok and I gather that the idea that the temptation to kind of forget the divine or to surrender to sensual appetites or whatever the idea is that that temptation is pretty strong right I mean it is I mean given the the the moral code that Islam is known for which is a fairly strict one it seems to me to imply a pretty suspicious view of human nature.
Omid Safi: To an extent and here I would say that you're right about the suspicious view of human nature from the perspective of jurists. Jurists tend to start off assuming the worst about people.
Wright: These are the kind of legal thinkers...
Omid Safi: Legal thinkers right.
Wright: ... in Islam.
Omid Safi: So I'll give you one example. Legal thinkers tend to assume that if you put a man and a woman alone together in a room they will inevitably have sex.
Wright: It has happened.
Omid Safi: It has happened and on certain occasions it also happened between men and men and women and women but they don't talk about that very much. And so that's their suspicion about the human nature. Other people would actually say you know give me a break I mean it may happen on certain occasions but most of us are actually capable of engaging one another at a level that does not need to be sexual at all times.
Wright: But there's enough suspicion about human nature that a number of things are just out and out prohibited and you know I was brought up a Southern Baptist and there's a real similarity here I mean... men and women weren't supposed to dance, weren't supposed to drink and it's another example of you know members of one great faith having more in common with another great faith than...
Omid Safi: ...they may realize...
Wright: ... they may with some members of their own so called great faith. But you know the idea was I mean the sense I got from this was that you know human beings are in many ways pretty bad ...they just really bare watching, it's a full-time job to not be a bad person.
Omid Safi: Here's what I would say Rummi the great mystic talks about the human being as this ass this donkey that has angel wings stuck on it and you're right in the sense that they are suspicious of human nature but not all of human nature. They're suspicious of the carnal self the naffs the me me me part but they also realize that in that same human being there's also divine spirit, so they're suspicious of one part and they seek to lift up and bring out the other part. They're not suspicious of sex of food of money in and by itself. They're suspicious of the human attachment to those things and I think that that's an important distinction.
Wright: But there is a part of the self a natural part of the self that you need to transcend to be a good person.
Omid Safi: Transcend, transform, however you wish to put it. Absolutely. Yes.
Wright: Ok. And Rummi you brought up Rummi...
Omid Safi: Yes.
Wright: Are you're writing a book on Rummi?
Omid Safi: Yes.
Wright: Ok. What's the deal with Rummi. He's very he seems very popular in some circles these days.
Omid Safi: He's a late bloomer you know just took him 700 years to get to America but he's I mean look one has to realize that that when one talks about Rummi you're perhaps talking about a person that has had more Muslims be touched by his teachings than perhaps any other figure post Mohammed.
Wright: And his poetry is he he is primarily a poet?
Omid Safi: Primarily a poet and there are more commentary on his poetry this has been said than on any other book in the Islamic world after the Qu'ran.
Omid Safi: Yes. I mean this is a phenomenally widely read and commented on...
Wright: And what is the source of his appeal? I mean it's very easy in America to find you know women who'd call themselves Buddhists you are big Rummi fans ...
Omid Safi: Sure.
Wright: ... and and and and I think you you can go well beyond the Islamic world and find a lot of Rummi fans.
Omid Safi: Right.
Wright: What is the source of his appeal?
Omid Safi: Love. Very few poets have done so much to talk about how love is the great explainer of mysteries. He talks about it as the ((()) the stars in the sky except this tells you about what the essential human condition is, who God is and how humanity and God are related to one another and love is about as universal a sentiment as you get and I think that's one reason why so many people have been able to connect to Rummi in so many different parts of the world including America right now. It would help if many of the same Rummi devotes in America remember that Rummi is a Muslim and many of his imagery can best be understood in the context of teachings of the Qu'ran and teachings of the prophet and perhaps it would help transform some of their ideas about Islam and Muslims as well if they make that connection.
Wright: Ok. What is what role does forgiveness play in Islam? I'm not sure whether I mean divine forgiveness or people forgiving one another...
Omid Safi: I was thinking about that yes.
Wright: Take your pick.
Omid Safi: I'll speak about both. There is already a process of divine forgiveness that has taken place according to the Qu'ranic creation narrative after humanity messes up, by the way Adam and Eve are held equally responsible, not just Eve in the context of the Qu'ran there's a deliberate passage that says "and God forgave them." He initiates the process of forgiveness and he completes it so there is no sense of an ongoing curse, burden, original sin that's carried on. So that's the divine part of it. In the human part I think it's an extremely important element. You see it in Mohammed's own lifetime after 23 years of being marginalized and attacked when he returns to Mecca and conquers it he declares amnesty for the folks there and forgives the people that have been oppressing him. I think that's a wonderful sentiment for Muslims today to keep in mind. Here's where my little progressive side kicks in also... there cannot be an element of forgiveness until and unless one also works to remove the situations of injustice that are taking place in the world. One cannot ask South Africans to engage in a process of forgiveness until the system of apartheid is removed. I would say one cannot ask Iraqi and Afghani and Palestinians to engage in a process of forgiveness unless one is simultaneously working to remove the situation of injustice that they find themselves in.
Wright: Ok. I guess maybe I'll close by kind of asking what what role Islam plays in your life on an everyday basis? What does it give you consultation does it give you insight does it...
Omid Safi: Me as an individual?
Wright: You yes you personally.
Omid Safi: I see. It is it's many things, it's a parent, it's a beloved, it's a lover, it's something that both gives you rejuvenation and sustenance and it's an ongoing challenge. I'm not one of those people who looks to religion as either an opium or an aspirin or a pick me up. I see it as a tremendously powerful way of recognizing the challenge of being human and inspiring us to reach higher towards our own selves towards humanity and towards God but a very difficult one a very difficult one, one that's full of joy, full of moments of ecstasy and full of getting your heart broken along the same process.
Wright: And how does it help you reacher higher? What what exactly is the motivation or the inspiration?
Omid Safi: To remember that if God is real and I do believe that he/she is that the presence of God in the human being is also real. And what we do matters.
Wright: So whenever you're dealing with another person you're dealing with an aspect of the an incarnation of the divine.
Omid Safi: Yes and it doesn't matter if I'm putting my child to bed, it doesn't matter if I'm teaching or if in some small way I'm working towards making this world a more just place for all of us to live, then that task is not something that just ends when this world ends and when my life ends but it is part of relating to God. It's part of relating to eternity. And it matters.
Wright: And you referred to God as he/she/it... how do you think of God if at all?
Omid Safi: It helps to be a Persian. Persian use these pronouns (()) which means all of those three things at the same time and since Muslims in general don't conceive of God in gendered term, there's no imagery of God the father or God the son or God the mother. The problem that we run into is in English where you have to pick a pronoun and say he or she and I refuse to be confined into thinking of God in exclusively masculine terms.
Wright: Ok but God is certainly represents an absolute moral ideal first of all, is that fair to say?
Omid Safi: God represents an absolute ideal absolutely while I continue to recognize that any understanding that I as a human being have is relative and is partial and is limited and hopefully is evolving and changing.
Wright: And and is God something that is kind of helping you if you take up the quest can you count on is God something you can count on for support?
Omid Safi: For support, for challenging, for hitting you on the head when you need it, for help, for nourishment, for all of those things.
Wright: Ok. And finally I guess I'd just like to ask how optimistic are you about the situation? I mean the global situation you know the relationship between various parts of the Islamic world and other parts of the world you know the West or whatever you know I think you you would like to see some things change in part of Islam just as you would like to see some things change in the Western world. Given what you know about the world today, about Islamic history, whatever, how hopeful are you?
Omid Safi: Well my name means hope, omi means hope so I have no possibility of existing without hope in that in that regard and in the Qu'ran we're also told not to give up hope of God's mercy so that that's an important imperative for us but but in this regard you know I I hang on to people like Martin Luther King who realized that their hearts are broken and their souls are tired but that their conscious gives them no choice but to speak out and to act up.
Wright: Ok well thanks thanks very much this has been a lot of fun.
Omid Safi: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.