Repelling Evil with Something Lovelier in a World of Hurt

Sunday, January 25, 2015 - 5:32am
Photo by Mohamed Adel

Repelling Evil with Something Lovelier in a World of Hurt

How does one respond virtuously to being insulted?

This question has been on my mind and in my heart a lot the past few weeks. It arose first with the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims (including me) found offensive and insulting. It arose again, forcefully, during the horrific assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish market. It arose a third time even closer to home during the brouhaha at my own university, Duke University, around the decision (first) to allow the call the prayer to be broadcast from the Chapel and (then) to “reconsider” that decision.

The “reconsideration” of what had been a generous celebration of our pluralism happened after the university came from vitriolic attacks from Rev. Franklin Graham, who somehow managed to make a connection between the community of students, faculty, and staff at Duke and Muslim terrorists of ISIS and Boko Haram who are “raping, butchering, and beheading.” Graham called on his supporters to withhold their donations to Duke University.

How does one respond to such insults? And how do we respond to insult virtuously?

I am not talking about having to collapse one’s message into media-friendly sound bites, though I’ve had a baptism by fire of sorts, being reminded by journalists that I have to take my lovely long sentences and break them into ever-shorter, TV-segment-friendly punch lines.

Other friends remind me that nuance and subtlety today have to be crammed into Twitter-friendly, 140 character tidbits:

» #nuance, #compassion
» #subtlety, #Ijustcantdoit
» #ThoseofuswhowereraisedwiththesoundsoftheQuranandpoetryandthesermonsof

So how we respond? And how do we not simply return heat for heat, violence for violence, bluster for bluster? How do we bring some light into this world, which is sorely in need of illumination and compassion?

To search for answers, I have been thinking of the Qur’an, of the Prophet Muhammad, and of W.E.B. Du Bois, diving into these deep oceans of wisdom, seeking the very water of life while standing in the midst of the flame. I give thanks to God for these folks, thanks to God for their example, thanks to God for the tradition that produced them, and thanks to God for everyone who has poured their love into them, making them into who they are.

I’ve been thinking of the Qur’an, which tells us in no uncertain terms to “repel evil with something lovelier.” Much of what we see in this world, the violence, the hatred, the willingness to assault human lives and human dignity, is evil. That evil is real. The bigotry is indeed real.

How do we respond?

The notion of not responding to evil in kind, but to repel it with something lovelier, is challenging and difficult, but lovely and urgently needed spiritual advice. It is not easy, never easy, but in a world that is already drowning in ugliness it seems more than good to respond to darkness with light, to hatred with love, to loud insanity with compassionate wisdom.

It is essential.

To search for virtuous answers, I am also thinking of the Prophet himself, whose own honor and whose own life was under assault again and again. He insisted that he would not take revenge. He would not punish those who had persecuted him but, instead, would set a paradigm of forgiveness and dignity. As he said so often, he was sent as a mercy to all the worlds. How I wish for all of us who were and are offended by these daily mockeries of Muhammad to start by embodying Muhammad’s own virtue. Who’s mocking Muhammad? Yes, it is Charlie Hebdo and a thousand and one bigoted polemicists, but it is also ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the Wahhabis — the very groups who have taken the beautiful teachings of the Prophet and rendered it into something unrecognizable and indeed monstrous.

Because I am also an American, because my own moral imagination is shaped by the Qur’an and Muhammad, but also by the powerful resistance of those who have fought and struggled to make this place what it is now, I am also thinking of the late W. E. B. Du Bois.

We know Du Bois as the great and eloquent voice beyond The Souls of Black Folk.

I also remember him as an elder statesmen who at the age of 89 responded with these wise and prophetic questions he had posed to all of us:

“How shall Integrity face Oppression?
What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception,
Decency in the face of Insult,
Self-Defense before Blows?
How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?
What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

I keep reflecting on what Du Bois calls us to: integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue. Integrity and virtue sometimes look to be in short supply in today’s world. Du Bois’ questions, indeed his moral challenge to each and every single one of us, acknowledge that in this world there are blows, detraction, brute force, oppression, insult, and deception.

Yes. These too exist, and are part of today’s world. At times they seem to have the upper hand in terms of power, though never in terms of soul force. Du Bois goes on to talk about that there “such differences for those on the one hand who meet questions similar to this once a year or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily.” None of us have a monopoly on virtue, and none of us have a monopoly on suffering.

I am and remain a “prisoner of hope,” to quote the lovely quote from Zechariah 9:12 that Rev. William Barber and Cornel West remind us of again and again. And yet hope should never be confused with cheap optimism, wishfully thinking that things are fine, or that they are going to be fine. Never shall we give in to the illusion that things are going to somehow magically get better with the passage of time. No, it is always and only through virtuous struggle and righteous resistance that insult is overcome, and virtue reigns supreme.

No, every bone in my body tells me that we are entering a dark and difficult day in our shared human history, an epoch in which our accumulated wealth and technological knowhow will not save us. Every insight in my soul cries out that the insults, deceits, deceptions, oppression, and blow will come not once a decade, not once a year, but daily and hourly.

Can we muster up the courage to respond with virtue, integrity, honesty, and decency?
Can we be Muhammad-like, and be a mercy onto all creation?
Can we repel evil with something lovelier?
Can we be a channel of compassion?
Or will we so give in to deceit and deception that we will commit horrific atrocity, thinking that we have defended and even avenged the honor of Muhammad, the honor of those on the margin of society?

May we hang on to decency in face of insult, may we cherish our own integrity in face of oppression, may we confront deception with honesty, and may we insist on virtue even while confronting brute force.

May God have mercy on us,
May we have mercy on each other,
May we have mercy on our own souls.


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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.

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Puts the issues of coexistence harmoniouslyin perspective. Wonderful read.

thank you for your enlightening perspective. You raise awareness and concern in my mind. these questions frame the discernment that is needed. Each one of us has a responsibility to search our hearts before we react, before we speak.
Thank you Omid for sharing a lovelier truth.

thank you so much Liz!

Thank you, Omid, for another deeply thoughtful column which stirs awareness and hope in me. I want to address only a small part of the problem you name, one that involves a question that vexes many people: "What can I say when someone hurls an insult at 'the other' within my hearing?" Here's one answer: Don’t remain silent and don’t pick a fight. Say, very simply, “Those words are personally hurtful to me. I want to live in a world where we respect one another.” But say it only if you honestly feel connected with whoever is being demeaned because you know that we’re all in this together. When I'm able to respond in this vein, without hesitation or blustering, the force-field often changes. No, we don't get to the Beloved Community -- but there's a shift in consciousness in the right direction. Yes, it's a small thing -- but all big things are built of little pieces. Thanks again.

dear Parker, thank you for these wise words. They touched my heart.

Thank you for these beautiful and heartfelt words. Are we willing to love in the face of hatred, knowing that ultimately it is light which banishes darkness and not more darkness itself. One of the stories I have been holding close to my heart is that of the old lady throwing trash on Prophet Mohammad's head as he did his daily walks. When one day there was no trash thrown on him, he inquired about the lady and discovered that she was ill. He then went to go comfort her during her sickness.
It is far too easy to hate and point fingers. I wonder when we as a world and nation will have the strength to truly love our neighbors as oursleves. When will we start re framing our conversations with "and" instead of "but"... when will we see that othering others does nothing more than othering others....and that the work is to look at my own shadow rather than pointing to the flaws in everyone!

Thank you so much! Iknow very little about Islam so am glad to read something positive.

Today I argued with a lifelong friend for posting videos of terrorist attacks and equating terrorism with Muslims. I defended even though at the present I am not a practicing Muslim. Trying to explain to a Christian obviously brainwashed by propaganda is a difficult task. In the end she said, "oh I was not referring to your type of Muslim. Well the average American whose only news is Fox News does not know the difference. It was difficult to express loveliness when a certain gentleman on the site she posted was very hateful to my response about not spreading this kind of propaganda. Are we not suppose to speak out about such injustice? I am sorry but I for one cannot sit by and let dirt be thrown on our religion. I will not use acts of violence but I will speak out when I feel something is not right even if I lose a childhood friend.

Your article was lovely and shows the pain we all feel over the insults constantly being thrown out way. But in truth, what is lovelier than speaking your truth even if it hurts a few misinformed individuals.

Voices like yours give us hope that a different dialogue can reign -- that appeals to our higher selves, to mercy, and to a generosity of spirit can reach our restless,fear-filled, and worried hearts. Thank you for sharing this loveliness.

Fear begets fear. It is very difficult to rise to higher ground when one is afraid. More insight such as yours and perhaps an even larger public forum than this one will help all of us find a place of less fear on all difficult issues. Thank you for an insightful muslim academic perspective. It is becoming more difficult for some of us to remain unscathed personally. A major societal shift is underway. These (or similar) conflicts of perspective now find each of us where we live. (ever since 9-11, there is fear) Americans have had our oceanic moats protecting us. We are very young as a society; idealistic and at the same time frightened while we give airtime to our own homegrown versions of zealotry. These are conflicts of social conscience which many of us sought to be insulated from--Those of us who did all the "right" things or believed society's bad things happened to other people. Some of us find ourselves ill prepared to rise to our highest good in our most fearful moments. Social protections afforded by class or career or belief system no longer protect us as we confront those who believe and behave differently than we. How to develop one's capacity for optimism and abundance in the face of news fed perceptions of scarcity? As always this site is a safe place. Thank you.

You speak such beautiful truth. Thank you Omid Safi, thank you.

Thank you Omid for your wonderful words of wisdom. I agree, not only as applied to religious intolerance and violence, but to all aspects of life.

Climate change, the 6th extinction event on this planet, the coming collapse of the global economic order, the mining of supposedly renewable resources like water and topsoil, are all due to the same mental attitudes you deplore.

Our one hope as a species, and as caretakers for the other species that form the web of life, is to change our very way of thinking.

There is a well known and ancient truth which says that all it takes for evil to win is for good people to stop speaking out. We are all so fed up with senseless violence, yet the spirit of whose who contribute to this page, and the On Being crew, remind and share with us all, how we can always do better and take the not-so-easy "high road".

Thank you so very much,Omid Safi !Your sharing your wisdom in such well chosen words brings me much hope.
You share from a deep place in your own heart.
I am deeply grateful that you choose to be one of the columnists at: On Being!
In the words of Jean Vanier:" We change the world,one heart at a time"

This is lovely and true. I so enjoy reading your posts. Might it help to know that the Muhammad being mocked by the likes of Charlie Hebdo is the false Muhammad being represented by the extremists like the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram. Hebdo and others are surely mocking their prophet, not the true prophet of the good and kind muslim people I know.

".....Who’s mocking Muhammad? Yes, it is Charlie Hebdo and a thousand and one bigoted polemicists..."

Dr. Safi,

The tradition of Charlie Hebdo is not one of bigotry but of irreverence; and came out of a very specific French history of the abuse power. They are irreverent about many institutions and people in authority and about many common and garden attitudes.

I am of more than one culture and it has helped me to understand this distinction or I would have torn myself apart long ago.

Cultures and societies do not reduce to the same values or to the same value priorities. Charlie Hebdo never killed anyone; and freedom of expression is an absolute value in the society in which it operates.


Jews have a saying that goes more or less like this: "The Teaching is like a tall mountain; dig in it and dig in it and you'll find everything". Well, I believe that the same goes for all religions. So, tell me what you find and I'll tell you what you are.
The problem is nowadays that evidently too many Muslims haven't found the passages quoted by Omid, an too few of them are coming forth vocally and forcefully against the beheading, raping, and killing executed in the name of God and Mohammad. The world and especially the Moslems need many more Omids. Salaam.

Very insightful an meaningful. I must try and always remember to respond virtuously to insult. And it is hard. Sometimes easier then others. Thank you for writing and sharing.

Like those who have responded, I am touched by your words and deeply appreciate your statement, "...the very groups who have taken the beautiful teachings of the Prophet and rendered it into something unrecognizable and indeed monstrous." I have long loved and been guided by Rumi's "let the beauty that you love be what you do" and recently know, deep inside, that a path to healing today's big wounds is through beauty, that something "lovelier." Thank you.

To respond to evil with goodness, with patience and compassion and wisdom, we need to recognize that we live in a world of pain and suffering and to accept that we cannot meaningfully defend ourselves against it. Once we recognize that there is no way to prevent ourselves from being hurt, we can ask whether the central question is how to defend ourselves and repulse pain? Or whether it is what kind of person do we ourselves want to be? To live defensively is to live in fear. It is to live in fear of being hurt. If, however, we wish to be loving and compassionate, we must recognize that to be such a person must involve a willingness (not a desire) to experience pain.

I am hanging on to every word in this essay as I try to deal with the violent events in my own backyard in Chapel Hill, NC. I am finding the strength to "repel evil with something lovelier".