Duke alumnus returns to lead Islamic Studies Center

by GEOFFREY MOCK for DUKE TODAY on SEPTEMBER 25, 2014: 

The new director of Islamic studies Omid Safi wants Duke faculty to fill in those key elements that are missing in the current public discussion on Islam. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
The new director of Islamic studies Omid Safi wants Duke faculty to fill in those key elements that are missing in the current public discussion on Islam. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

Omid Safi came to Duke two decades ago “a shy, geeky poor immigrant kid from Iran.” He returns now as a senior faculty member determined to repay a debt for allowing him “to dream dreams I didn’t even know I was capable of.”

The new William and Bettye Martin Musham Director for Islamic Studies, Safi takes leadership of a program at both a flourishing and contentious time for the study of Islam.  One public conversation on Islam tends to focus on the acts of armed groups, or self-proclaimed Islamists, but Safi said a larger conversation within Islam is also occurring, one that is both historic and welcome, although often less visible to the larger world.

“The visible public conversation about Islam right now is a crisis-driven one” Safi said. “The discourse jumps from Arab Spring to Libya to ISIS to Gaza and that’s understandable and driven in part by nature of corporate media.

“But that misses something dramatic and profound:  we are living in an age of excitement and ferment within the Muslim-majority context. Virtually every issue of import – gender, the relationship to the state, pluralism, who can interpret scripture, citizenship, resistance and violence – all are being debated in elite and popular circles.

“It would be unthinkable 25 years ago that large numbers of women, in bold fashion and all over the political spectrum are speaking out not just as subjects of religious discussions but as their articulators.  This is getting missed by the rest of the world, and I would like to shine a light on these debates and developments.”

Safi comes to the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC) expecting DISC faculty be a prominent part of the public discourse around Islam.

“That is the main reason why I’m here,” said Safi, who will teach courses on topics ranging from medieval Persian poetry to the American civil rights movement to  modern Islam. “I felt my scholarly work and public intellectual work could be best supported here.  I have my scholarly mission: We want Duke to lead the world in training graduates and undergraduates about Islamic societies.  Alongside this, I believe the entire world is now our classroom. I see public intellectual work as being the projection of our scholarship. We want DISC faculty to take their specialized knowledge and put it in plain English for policymakers and the public.”

As an alumnus, he is a product of Duke’s long-standing strengths in Islamic studies, but Safi adds that Duke’s interdisciplinary approach is “ahead of the curve.”  One reason is its prominent collaboration of faculty across disciplines.

“At many universities, Islamic studies is still primarily defined as the study of ancient Arabic and Persian texts, which I also love and engage in.  At Duke we’re trying to broaden the work.  Following 9/11, Princeton scholar famously advised President Bush that if you want to understand suicide bombers you have to study 9th century martyrdom writing. Here at Duke, we thing that approach is insufficient.

“We believe our approach is studying ancient texts is important, but you also have to look at history, context, economics, colonialism and much more.  We are heavily invested in the ‘more’.  But you have to ask what does it mean when some of the al-Qaeda recruits are going on Amazon buying “Islam for Dummies.” They really don’t know what it’s about. It’s just hard to imagine human beings as being solely determined by ancient texts that they never read. The ‘more’ has to be understood and engaged.”

He comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was on the faculty for eight years.  Winner of two teaching awards there, he hopes to continue to strengthen the ties in Islamic Studies between the two institutions, raising the profile of both.

Of Iranian heritage, Safi was born in the United States but raised in Iran. Safi returned to the United States in 1985 before entering Duke as an undergraduate. His formative experiences included watching Iranian “friends and neighbors being shot at by security forces in demonstrations and being bombed by Iraqi planes.”

His story is one of resisting parochial commitments. From hiding from bombers, he became a passionate Cameron Crazie at Duke.  His love of medieval poetry, inspired in large part by his studies at Duke, is matched by a commitment to fighting for contemporary social justice, through the lens of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights tradition.

The father of four children between age 7 and 21, all of whom were or are students at the Carolina Friends School, Safi sees himself as bringing all of the complexities of his experiences into the classroom and in his research.  “You can call me a Muslim Quaker,” he said laughing.

“I have two burning passions, but I actually see them as one.  My research interest is in spiritual traditions that emphasize love. I teach classes on 13th century Iranian poetry where we talk about Rumi and the mystical tradition of erotic love in the Islamic literary tradition.

“But when love enters public arena we call it justice.  Justice is what we would insist on in society so people you care for have enough to live a dignified life.  That’s why as someone who works on love mysticism in the 13th century I also take a stance on Ferguson, Gaza and other places of injustice.  I see connections. In both, I think humans are most real and closest to the divine when we open our hearts to love and to a passionate concern for other human beings.”

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