Justice is Love, Embodied

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 9:08am
Photo by Peter Pettus

Justice is Love, Embodied

Never read the comments section. Especially when you are a Muslim author, and/or a person of color, never, ever read the comments section.

I read the comments section. (sigh)

Most of the time, the responses (especially here at On Being) are actually lovely, touching, personal, and heartfelt. But there is a specific genre of comment that I have seen as a constant refrain. It’s one of the more common responses I get to my writings.

“I love his spiritual writings, but then he gets political...”

“I wish he would just speak about mysticism, not politics.”

“I like what he has he has to say about being present in the heart, but when he goes off on racism and foreign policy I get uncomfortable.”

This is not a new thing. Much of my life has been about carrying inside me two streams that both nurture my soul. On one hand has been Rumi, Hafez, medieval Sufism: the extraordinary tradition of Divine love that erupts onto humanity. On the other hand have been movements of social justice committed to redemption and liberation. That bookshelf features Malcolm X, Fanon, Edward Said, more recent works of feminism, Cornel West, and critiques of empire.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I wander into spiritual oceans next to my own — realizing that all oceans are connected — it is usually figures who connect together love and justice that most deeply touch my soul. It is the same Martin Luther King who talks so beautifully about agape and redemptive suffering who is moved to action in Montgomery and Albany, Selma and Riverside. It is the same Desmond Tutu who is a moral compass for the anti-apartheid struggle who embodies the power of forgiveness. It is the same Abraham Joshua Heschel who so beautifully and powerfully spoke about God’s love for the stranger and the marginalized who said that as long as there is war, as long as African Americans are treated as they are, the synagogue and church are forbidden to us. It is the same Pope Francis who washes the feet of inmates who points out the foul stench of capitalism.

I am not sure that there is such a thing as being “apolitical.” The world as we know it is marked by stratifications of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, physical ability, national origin, and more. Even when we do not explicitly discuss these markers, we are still shaped by them. There is no avoiding them.

In every one of these markers, where one stands in relation to these criteria shapes the context in which we write the poetry of our everyday life. So many of us cannot breathe well.

If we seek a life of the spirit, how do we confront social injustice, poverty, racism, sexism, living under occupation, and violence by both states and non-state entities? What do we have to say? Where do we stand with respect to those who find themselves weak and vulnerable?

Desmond Tutu used to say, so beautifully:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

This notion of a holistic justice, that a threat to justice is a threat to justice everywhere — this we have known well. But to ask the Tina Turner question, What’s love got to do with it? Why not treat our current world as a straight-forward political or economic problem?

It’s about bodies. And spirits.

If what touches us about this overflowing love spills over from God’s own being into this world, onto humanity — carrying us back on this ocean of love back to God’s own embrace — then we have to love this humanity. We have to crave humanity. We have to love humanity not merely in the spirit, but also their bodies. We have to struggle against every impulse to bifurcate the human from God, the human from human, the body from the spirit. We have to love every mother who holds a child tenderly, every father who lavishes love, every friend, every neighbor, every refugee, every stranger. And this love moves through our bodies. It is not floating on clouds, or in the ether. This love is an embodied love.

This love shows up in our touch, through our skin. This love oozes out through our smiles, through the love-glances. What is it that Hafez says to us?

I’ve heard nothing
Than the words of love
Which linger
Under this azure dome.

It is the scent of my newborn baby and my momma’s cooking that convey this love.

If love is vessel that carries God to us, then it comes to us through our bodies. We have to love the body, honor the body, cherish the body, and protect the body. Don’t ask me about my mystical practice if the citizens of Flint have brown, goopy water. Don’t go searching for a mantra if some of us are living under occupation or have bombs falling on them. Don’t talk to me about love if a fifth of our human population goes to bed hungry at night. We cannot fill each other’s hearts with love if our bellies are perpetually empty.

If we wish to be one with God, we have to be one with one another. We have to want for one another what we want for our own babies.

To love God, we must love humanity.
To love humanity, we have to address the conditions in which we live.
The dignity of human beings matters.
Structures and institutions matter.

Yes, as I age, I may have become a little more “realistic” about not being able to change and redeem the whole world, but let me, let us strive to transform our own hearts, our own bodies, our own homes, our own neighborhoods, our own communities.

This linking together of love and justice goes back to the very heart of the best of the American tradition. On April 15, 1960, the student leaders of the sit-in movement at lunch counters met in Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Under the leadership of Ella Baker, they articulated the statement of purpose for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They spoke about nonviolence as their motivating philosophy, and grounded that in love. They stated what they sought:

A social order of justice permeated by love.

Justice. Permeated by love. We cannot speak of love without linking it to justice, nor of justice unless it is permeated by love.

It was this idea that Martin King would elaborate on, speaking of the organic connection between love and power.

“Love without power is anemic and sentimental.
Power without love is reckless and abusive.”

Oh, how often we see reckless power, abusive power in our world, when power has been divorced from love. But love divorced from power, from justice, is also anemic. We need to make sure that these two remain forever linked.

This is the message of the Qur’an:

God commands you to love and justice.

Brother West has said it most succinctly recently:

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Let us go back to those bold and beautiful revolutionary students from the 1960s, the SNCC folks who turned a reluctant Martin King into an anti-war, anti-colonialism activist. They talked about this love that penetrates justice as the agent of social transformation. Here is what they stated back in 1960, about what happens when love is linked to nonviolence as a method. Then, and only then, we see that:

Courage displaces fear;
Love transforms hate.
Acceptance dissipates prejudice;
Hope ends despair.
Peace dominates war;
Faith reconciles doubt…
Justice for all overcomes injustice…
Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man.

From the lunch counters to anti-war activism, these have been the faithful women and men who have insisted on bringing love into public spaces, and linking together love and justice.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



I know you won't read this (OK, perhaps you'll peek!), but keep on talking about the spirituality of justice, the justice of spirituality, embodied love. We need you.

Thank you for waking us up.

I'll confess. I read the comments. :-)
Let us hang on to each other, and keep insisting on the dignity of all of us.

Thank you for this, Omid. This brings some clarity to a lot of muddled thoughts and feelings I have been having. I always love to read what you have to say.

Thank you for your powerful words: Don’t ask me about my mystical practice if the citizens of Flint have brown, goopy water. Don’t go searching for a mantra if some of us are living under occupation or have bombs falling on them.

For those of us yogis practicing "ostrich pose" (head in the sand) - a good reminder to get out there and do the work.

Thank you for this. I think so many of us encounter this same sort of misunderstanding that speaking up is not a form of love because it makes people uncomfortable. I've always related it back to the expectations on me as a woman; knowing when to bite my tongue, to be polite and look pretty. And as a woman in our society, that has always been how I was told to show my love, through silence, obedience, and allowing the male gaze to enjoy my body. But love is so much more than that, as you so eloquently say here, love is justice. It requires a breaking of the silence, questioning authority and looking back to observe and critique your onlookers. Great read - thank you!

I stand with you and your words 100%.

What better message can there be on an Easter weekend than the message of love and justice? The inextricable link between love and justice is the embodied message of Jesus. The one cannot exist without the other to be true.

Beautifully said! And you are at your best, I believe, when you meld love and justice in your writing. Thank you for being a teacher for me!

Thank you !! so true!! I appreciate your saying that justice is love embodied. It can never be said enough!

This is a very validating and beautiful read even for a secular person who is happy with his earthly humanism. I fully agree with Professor Safi that we are all political even if we choose not to be, and that religious faith and thought should be about caring and justice for all. In today's world including in Omid's native country we are faced with a political religion that demeans and violates being a human. We need political religion that affirms being a human.

A chapter epigraph in Frank Herbert's book "Dune" says, "When religion and politics ride in the same cart, they both fall off the cliff." History proves that is true. Love for others must inform our movement toward justice, or we become oppressors ourselves.

I would love to hear this delivered as a speech. It's that well-written. Truth that could and should be spoken to any power.

Thank you so much! There is no such thing as an apolitical body.

Thank you for this beautiful article. I had the precious opportunity to attend the 2016 Diversity Summit: Transforming Healthcare Equality into Healthcare Equity at MAHEC in Asheville, NC. Yes NC where there is current legislation that decreases access to voting, women's rights to health care, and now moving to say that poisoned drinking water from coal ash is safe. I was reminded that what is personal is political.
The disparities in healthcare reflect systemic issues that are now coming to light as researchers study data and present the effects of contracted thinking and feelings as it shows up in infant mortality rates. The first step is awareness. For me becoming aware of my own unconscious beliefs, habits and privilege is the first step and the next is to use whatever privilege I have to work for justice for all my human family wherever I am. Judgement which is part of emotional contraction increases a sense of separateness, and is very uncomfortable. I love your weaving of the personal, the spiritual and larger social issues into a whole. Thanks again.