Myths, Poems and Stereotypes with Alumnus Dr. Safi

Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and Muslim intellectual Dr. Omid Safi visited Colgate on Thursday, January 24 to share insights from his book “Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition.” From 1999 to 2006, Safi was a professor at Colgate University and two of his children were born in the village of Hamilton. Since his departure from Colgate, Safi has grown in prominence. He is the editor of “Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism,” and often appears as an expert on Islam in the New York Times, NBC, BBC and many other media outlets. Safi also wrote an award-winning biography on the Prophet Muhammad titled “Memories of Muhammad,” he has a podcast at Be Here Now and he leads spiritually oriented tours to Turkey and Morocco that he calls Illuminated Tours, open to people of all faiths.

Safi has had edifying experiences across the world. However, he still retains a fervent love for Colgate.

“Over the last twenty years, I’ve probably lectured in about 200 colleges and universities around the country. There is not one whose faculty I would put above Colgate’s, if you care about teaching and learning in a community. If there is a better place, I haven’t found it yet,” Safi said.

Safi spent the last 25 years of his life sifting for the gems out of all his old stories. The myths and poetry he read were complemented by his calm and warm delivery as he guided the audience through a tradition which many of the students present were unfamiliar with.

Dr. Safi’s lecture was refreshingly humorous, such as his story on the most copied manuscript in the Islamic tradition. Over the last millenia and a half, it tells the erotic mystical love poetry of Rumi and Hafez, which has been copied more than any other text besides the Quran. In the account, Safi expressed one of his frustrations with Islamic stereotypes.

“I’m not one for generalizing and stereotyping people. But, damn it if you’re going to generalize and stereotype us, stereotype us as erotic mystical love poets,” Safi said.

Safi also shared a story which demonstrated the power that poems and myths can have. The myth he shared was about a man named Seryanus who lived in a town with the great Islamic poet Rumi. Seryanus was extremely devoted to his newfound faith; however, he did not speak Persian very well. One day he is called before the local magistrate for calling Rumi “God,” as if he were the one true God. Seryanus apologizes and explains he meant to call Rumi “God-maker,” which only made the townspeople angrier. Finally, Seryanus explains he calls Rumi “God-maker,” because Rumi’s poetry made God real to him. Prior to the poems and stories of Rumi this man had heard of God, but after experiencing Rumi’s stories, Seryanus knew God to be real.

Safi finished his lecture by imploring students to treasure their years at Colgate.

Sophomore Jake Bilodeau reflected on Safi’s lecture.

“I was very surprised by the humor in the stories shared by Safi. I don’t have much experience with Islam, and this talk gave me a new perspective on what types of stories can be found in this tradition. I hope he comes back to speak again,” Bilodeau said.

Contact JP Haley at [email protected].