Omid Safi on waging beauty after 9/11

Omid Safi

Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill.


I’ve told myself that, at some point in my life, I’m going to go on a trip to Turkey with Omid Safi and Illuminated Tours. But, for now, just a conversation with Safi will have to do. I met up with him on UNC, Chapel Hill’s beautiful campus in January to talk about the different kinds of Americans America has, the Iranian blogosphere and our perceptions about the worth of different lives.

On using 9/11 as a measurement tool:

I have to say, as somebody who adamantly and unapologetically adopts a global humanistic outlook, of course I’m frustrated as much as the next person when 9/11 is allowed to become the new birth of Christ. It’s what you measure everything before and after it…I think it’s important for us to pause and think about, how do we have a conversation in which we can say, with the same breath, with the same moral commitment, that we mourn and stand against the actions of 9/11 and the loss of human life, and at the same time, we have to think about, what does it mean if the loss of 3,000 human lives on American soil is allowed to re-write the global order in a way that the loss of 30 million people with HIV in sub-saharan Africa does not? Or the loss of millions of lives in Vietnam or in other conflicts does not?…And actually, in North America, we’re completely unwilling to enter that conversation — it does say a lot about our assumption about the superior worth of some lives over others.  

On the oft-sighted “kind-of-sort-of-basically-tolerated-as-long-you-keep-quiet-and-go-to-the-suburbs Americans” around the time of the Park 51 controversy:

I’m interested in the conversation about Islamophobia, but I actually don’t think you solved the problem by persuading people that Islam is great. I mean, I’m a professor of Islamic Studies, I teach about Islam. Obviously, I’m committed to presenting accurate and scholarly views of Islam, but I don’t think you solve this by just replacing people’s stereotypes about Islam. The place where you have to fight this fight — it’s an American conversations. It’s about laws; they bought this land legally. You don’t like it? Tough. It’s a conversation about citizenship. These are American citizens. If they’re American citizens, they’re allowed to do what other American citizens can do. We don’t like all of our citizens, but nowhere is it written in the Constitution that us liking each other is a prerequisite to people getting to exercise their constitutional rights. And I think that’s really the conversation that I want to see us have, I want to see Muslims have and non-Muslims have. Let’s have this based on liberties and civil rights and constitutional rights and freedoms. What does it mean to be American? Are all of us equally American? Are some of us really American? And others are kind-of-sort-of-basically-tolerated-as-long-you-keep-quiet-and-go-to-the-suburbs Americans? And I think that’s really the conversation I’m much more interesting in having now.    

On Iranians, who are just a Google hit away:

One small example: Iran’s not a particularly large country, or it’s not in terms of population — certainly nothing compared to India or Pakistan. It’s a country of 77 million people — less than a quarter of the population of the U.S. And there’s very few other countries in the world in which Persian as a language is a major presence. Persian is now the fourth most heavily blogged language in the world. Iranians, in spite of and perhaps because of the extraordinarily repressive mechanisms of censorship imposed on them by their government, are among the most tech-savvy and connected and wired populations on the planet. Many of them have websites which are mirroring in Persian and English…I think that the overwhelming majority of Americans cannot name an Iranian who’s not a cleric, whether it’s Khomeini or Ahmedinejad when he was in power as the president. Hopefully now, they can at least add the figure of President Rouhani. But there’s such a broad range of artists and musicians, civil society workers, women’s rights activists, spoken word artists who are just a Google hit away. 

On becoming “khalils”:

There’s this beautiful Qur’anic metaphor — the Prophet Abraham was thrown into the fire and God rescues him from the fire, and makes the fire be cool towards him. And interestingly enough, the Qur’an says when God rescues Abraham, Abraham or Ibrahim in Arabic, becomes called the “khalil,” which is called “the intimate friend of God.” And I’ve oftentimes used that metaphor for the condition of Muslims in post-9/11 America. A number of things can happen to people when they’re thrown into the fire — you can either burn, or you can emerge as a “khalil,” you can emerge as an intimate friend of God, and I see both having taken place in the Muslim community. I see lots of burnt and burnt out Muslims, but I also see people that have gone through the crucible of purification and have emerged as these moral beings that not only are interested in defending their own community, but are really engaged in a redemption process that there are people who are waging beauty, unrelentingly, and are interested in uplifting and transforming and redeeming this wider world that we all actually share. And that community gives me an immense amount of hope… There’s an extraordinary number of women in that population, there are African Americans, brown Muslims, white converts, Latino Muslims, for whom these kind of sectarian labels of Sunni and Shi’i are much less relevant than, “Who are you?”, “How deep do you love?”, “Whom are you serving?” and “Where is the community that you’re devoting yourself in service to?” Those are the important places that I look to and draw inspiration from.    


Check out my interviews with Carl ErnstEli CliftonHaroon MoghulHussein Rashid and Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.


Carl Ernst: There is no “Muslim world.”

Carl Ernst

“…you need to know the kinds of things you would need to know about anyone to place them in time and space, because they’re not on some remote asteroid out there that just zoomed in for a quick bit of terrorism.”


I read Carl Ernst’s “Following Muhammad” in 2007, back when it was my dream to study Persian literature and become an academic. Understandably, I was fan-girling a bit when I finally got to meet him in person. Ernst is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As someone who has been directly involved with Islamophobia and the media, he had some very blunt advice for journalists:

If you want to tell a good story, you can get a skeleton from a single person, but you need to have a little bit of context and know where they’re coming from. And one of the most important things to say is, there is no “Muslim world.” There is no separate planet that is inhabited exclusively by Muslims who somehow have never had any contact with America or Europe…What you need to know if you want to understand a Muslim is, what country do they come from? What political formation? What economic class? What ethnic group? What language? What religious teaching or grouping or community or tradition? What tendencies are there? Because there are lots of different things going on. The next thing to do after listening to somebody, if you want to have a context, you need to know the kinds of things you would need to know about anyone to place them in time and space, because they’re not on some remote asteroid out there that just zoomed in for a quick bit of terrorism.

He spoke a bit about the need for more Muslims in journalism, education, the arts and culture, etc. (ahem #AliceInArabia ahem):

In recent years, in fact for quite some time, I’ve had this conversation when I’ve been invited to speak to Muslim groups. I ask, you know, what are the professions of the people who are there and then I ask how many people are involved in journalism, the arts and culture? And there’s hardly anyone. And so my question at that point is, for people who are worried about Islamophobia and about media representations of Muslims, if you’re not involved in it, you really don’t have very much of a right to complain. I think that, for people like yourself who are going into journalism, education, the arts and culture, that’s a very appropriate thing to do and it needs to have more attention by everyone.

And he gave me a little bit of his own background:

I had an experience as an exchange student in South America when I was 16 and I was kind of taken aback by how little prepared I was for that experience. And this drew my attention to the way in which many Americans are simply not in a good position to be familiar with other cultures. People come here from around the world, but then it’s no longer necessary for us to know anything about those other cultures. That’s the paradox. So I think international studies and global culture is a big challenge for American education. So I’ve really devoted my career to that. So I asked myself at one point — I thought religious studies would be a good way to deal with this because it deals with such a profound level, that goes all the way through culture, society, you name it. And then — what is the area of biggest ignorance? To say Islam is the area of biggest ignorance is still obviously the case.


Check out my interviews with Eli CliftonHaroon MoghulHussein Rashid and Hind Makki. Learn more about my project.