Unwavering Pluralism and the Beloved Community in the Face of Duke's Decision

Friday, January 16, 2015 - 4:36pm
Photo by Yumian Deng

Unwavering Pluralism and the Beloved Community in the Face of Duke's Decision

A lot of people have asked me about my response to the Duke decision to “reconsider” having the call to prayer (Adhan) issued from the Chapel.

I am disappointed, because I’d like to think we are better than this. And by "we" I mean not just Duke, but America, all of us. We should be better than this. We at Duke are a leading education of higher learning in the world, with students and faculty and staff from all over the world. We are all citizens of Duke University and call this place home. I want to believe we are better than this, better than being intimidated and pressured.

We live in a world where some of us celebrate the existence of diversity and know that we are richer when we engage each other through and across our diversity. Others of us live in an imagined world where the very existence of religious and ethnic diversity is seen as a threat.

I know that there are many different readings of Islam, some of them generous and compassionate, and some of them the practice of Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I know that there are also different readings of Christianity.

I’ve been blessed to be steeped in the radical prophetic Christianity of Dr. King, and have known the love and friendship of my many Christian friends at Duke. I so wished that this could be a day to honor and highlight the generosity of Christian friends — including the office of Religious Life at Duke — in opening up the chapel to Muslims for the call to prayer. Sadly, I also know that there are different readings of Christianity (just like any other faith) which are vile, petty, insecure, and ultimately…weak. Franklin Graham’s statements on Facebook are inaccurate and wrong — not just on Islam, but wrong on Christianity, and wrong on America.

How else do we account for a person who thinks Christianity is being excluded from the Duke campus? Have these folks ever set foot on the Duke campus? Did they miss the chapel that graces Duke’s campus? Or the cross that is on the Duke emblem? Or that the very design of the West campus that is shaped after the cross?

I do trust my friends at Duke who convey to me the real safety concerns, the threats made against Duke faculty, staff, and students. It makes me sick to my stomach that there are those in the world who find it appropriate to make recourse to violence — even threats of violence — to justify their means.

This is a conversation about public accommodation, and the acknowledging of diversity. As I see it there are three basic options before us:

» Adamant secularism, insisting that there be no religious symbols in the public space. [Might fly in Europe, not so in America.]
» “My way” religiosity: There should be religion in the public space, but it should be my religion and only my religion.
» Pluralism: There should be a symphony of religious symbols and practices in the public arena.

That’s why this is ultimately not a conversation about Islam for me, but one about America. What kind of society do we want to be?

As for me and my house, I choose the side of pluralism. I don’t think that any of us become less of a person just because someone else has the same rights that we do. The Duke University Chapel still tolls the bells, once a day and twice on Sunday. Is Graham so insecure that for Muslims to get a call to prayer once a week threatens him?

Here is the more basic issue: the existence of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, and the many Christians who are repulsed by Franklin Graham’s bigotry is all a fact. We exist. We are here, including at Duke. So as I see it the options are simple: to be visible and a meaningful participant in the public arena, or to be relegated to a basement level existence.

The Duke I want to be a part of, the Duke I want to help build, is a Duke that will not have anyone in the back of the bus.

Let me end this with an open hand invitation, towards people of all faith and no faith who want to see a Duke (and an America) that has room for all of us. I want to thank all of you who have been reaching out over the last few days, and to encourage you to reach out to one another. Let’s share the love, and stand together.

The Franklin Grahams of the world, and those who would seek to intimidate and threaten the Duke community have had their say. Let us respond not in kind, but by doubling down on our commitment to education, rigorous debate, humanistic encounter, and an unwavering pluralism. This is how you overcome darkness: light; how you transform bigotry: by building a beloved community.

They have had they say. How we respond as a community is up to us. Let us repel evil with something lovelier, as the Qur'an says, and offer a response that will make us proud of the community we have and we want to be a part of.


Share Post

Shortened URL


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



Adamant secularism, insisting that there be no religious symbols in the public space. [Might fly in Europe, not so in America.]

Muslims who believe in divisions like Sunni and Shia are part of this sad picture. There should be a Sunni world leader and a Shia world leader just like a Pope. These two leaders must stand in unity in front of the Muslim world. The leaders must guide Muslims and remind them of their duties as citizens of the world. Instead of reacting and defending Islam every few days, Muslims must have a steady and guided place in the world.When Muslims are proud and strong they will be able to show the world a true face of Islam.

You wrote: "Adamant secularism, insisting that there be no religious symbols in the public space. [Might fly in Europe, not so in America.]"

Could you please explain your reluctance with "adamant secularism" (are you having in mind maybe French "laïcité")?

The Bell Tower Chimes do not teach doctrine; however,the Muslim Call-To Prayer chant does; why should I or anyone else be subjected to any religious beliefs or practice against my free will; it is no difference than "Street Preaching"; Duke would never agree to "Street Preaching" as this would be offense to many peoples of different faiths; the best alternative would be a Call-To Prayer cell phone app;I'm sure one exist.

Aside from that, I work at Duke Hospital and the Duke Chapel is right next door;very audible distanc;I frankly don't want to hear it and out of respect for my patients I object them being subjected to it, as well.

Freedom, tolerance and diversity are beautiful things until others are subjected to religious beliefs and practices against their free will; then it becomes the ugliest thing imaginable; Indoctrination

From this argument, the default narrative becomes indoctrination of atheism and the whitewashing of everything that could potentially be considered public space. It would be nearly impossible to differentiate between secular and non-secular in the United States, to go through every law or code and ensure the roots are not founded in religious edict or inference. The cornerstone of freedom and democracy is freedom...that may seem obvious, but freedom to have your opinion does not interfere with someone's freedom to publicly pray for example, nor with a private institutions decision to be more inclusive of other stakeholders in their commnunity, probably not with a goal of converting or indoctrinating (apparently the ugliest thing imaginable). The indoctrination argument is valid in all realms of education, advertising, communications, government; unless as mentioned, it's whitewashed, and what we get with whitewashing diversity and religion at the extreme is communism.

Have you ever actually heard the Adhan? Rather than viewing it as 'indoctrination' you might consider viewing it as a meditative prayer (or just a meditation) calling to all of us that God is among us, regardless of how we define God. We should pause and take note if we want, say a prayer ourselves. It is, after all, a call to prayer. It is hauntingly beautiful and amazingly spiritual no matter what your belief (or lack thereof).

Mary Anna, what a love reflection. Your suggestion is a step that moves us toward becoming the beloved community. God is One, by whatever name, God is One, and when we are called to prayer we are all called to acknowledge and proclaim our human oneness in the God who created us all in God's own image.

How can anyone say that the Call to Prayer teaches doctrine and the Chapel Bells do not?! I am not a member of Islam or Christianity, yet I would be happy to hear the call and the bells. Both are beautiful and reminders to turn our awareness to the deepest reality, whatever we call that, whatever form our reverence takes.


as a Duke alum ( with two others in my family also alums), I was never more proud of Duke when I read about their inclusivity of Muslims. I did grow up as a Christian and value this tradition as well but my thought is...wouldn't it be a lovely world if each of us had a call to connect spiritually five times a day...I wish I had that tangible reminder and community support...beautiful! Who says it is only a reminder for Muslims?

Religion cannot be put in a box or even in a structure as beautiful as the chapel at Duke. Acceptance and tolerance has to stand up to those who stoop to conquer. Like all religious architecture, the Chapel at Duke points us in the direction of God. The second commandment, love thy neighbor as thy self is common in many religions. Focus on that.

I think this statement by Lisa points to the truth of of how we can best meet, serve and love a universal God. The creator and spirit are much bigger than we can ALL possibly imagine. Duke needs to do the Christian thing, and with a Methodist lineage go back to the Wesley Way (imprint this on F.Graham perhaps)
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

​Duke was setting a good example, a Christian one, and modeling the Wesley Way..until Franklin Graham (son of Billy). Shocked by Graham's statements​,​ a few years back​,​ I had ill ease and withdraw my support for Samaritan's Purse​'s Operation Christmas Child. I loved doing that annual boxing up, but alas, it was not well with my soul, when I saw ​t​his bully pulpit emerge. I knew better and had to do better​, ​following the Wesley Way. I moved on other fertile and loving service projects. Further research provided the ​insight that Billy, back in his glory days of advising many US presidents, was revealed as quite anti-Catholic. What perplexes me about his son, is that the elder wisdom of Billy has been said to have opened to God's love inclusion to even Muslims.

The WAY to peace is when we ​seek ​the between space of the religions. That​ journey ​beckons ​a ​soul force​ and, via love, encounters an inclusive truth that,
Opens hearts, minds, and doors.

I believe in pluralism, ideally. Practically, this may not be the opportune time to acclaim it through this venue. Timing is everything. I believe this as much as I do my respect for freedom of religion, speech and life. There is such a thing as too much , too soon...and this may be that time considering the obvious challenges we face. Yes, I believe in our right to freedom of expression..speech...religion...But that becomes moot point when we are forced to weigh the two against our right to life..to live, to work, to pray...To live. For now, at this time it seems prudent not to push too much too soon.


In your post you state that you see three options - all of which have to do with public space. I wonder, do you see a Christian chapel on a private campus as a "public space?"

I can understand both sides of the dilemma. However here in the UK there is a growing feeling that by accepting Islam as an authentic world religion there is an underlying falseness. The elephant in the room discussion is growing louder and more cogent. There is a growing feeling that Islam cannot be reformed and brought into the 21st century. What to do?

It would seem impossible to have any meaningful interreligious dialogue with muslim scholars. Modern Islam seems incapable of facing up to its own internal challenge to reform and enter into an informed discussion about the very roots of this religion and its prophet.

Any embrace of simple interfaith worship would appear to be fundamentally phony and unreal. The notion of Islam as an early Christian-Jewish heresy needs to be thoroughly examined by sincere Muslim scholars.

The desire to prove another's religion as a kind of "heresy" is exactly the kind of intolerance we need to let go of if we want peace among us, and freedom to worship (or not) as we choose.

People of Duke University, the principle that applies is the principle of reciprocity and mutual respect: Duke should only allow Muslim call to prayers from the church tower When Al Azzam mosque allows churchbells to ring from their minaret. It's only fair. Until then, your protests are misdirected--The chokepoint of religious freedom is not here--it is in the middle east. The real target for change is there.

this is not about "fair". this is about rising above petty differences of opinion.

Do you want to wait until the whole world practices the golden rule, for you to do so? We do not wait for others to demonstrate first what we hold dear, or claim that we do. That kind of demand comes from a very young part of the self.

As a Christian I am ashamed and sickened by the sad ignorance of the set of Christians and Muslims who are so desperate to belong to the "only right club" that they fear any deviation from their fundamentalism and see threats in every difference. What a horrible way to live..angry and afraid all the time, trying to control their worlds and furious that they cannot.

I agree with you completely on all points. I have no respect for Franklin Graham nor his cohorts with their narrow-minded views. We are reminded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Until we are all free, none of us are free.

As a person of faith I was saddened to hear of the decision but find thoughtful reflections like this to be a source of hope. Thank you.

"You(we)must respect each one's beliefs. No one should despise another for ther convictions. GOD is One and Indivisible. It is not God but believers who have caused the dreadful divisions in the world....To my Son and myself all are One. You are all my children."
(The Blessed Virgin Mary in an apparition to visionaries in Medjugorje - 1981)

i'm an atheist. i long for adamant secularism, and loudly espouse it.

i wouldn't feel a need to do it, if it weren't for the Franklin Grahams of the world.

thank you brother Omid for your commentary. I applaud you and Duke university for the effort to be inclusive and progressive as it relates to the calling of the adhan at Jomah. Please continue to work and strive for the kind of community and America as was mentioned in your commentary. May God bless you.

I am a Christian, and I am sorry that my people continue to make such false assumptions and to do so much harm. Thank you for this thoughtful, clear and gentle reflection. May the day come soon when all we believers can learn from and thank God for each other's faiths instead of misdefining and fearing them.

Omis Safi, thank you.

Thank you for writing this reflection; I share your sentiments and your sadness at hearing that added call to prayer I was so pleased to hear was happening was subsequently withdrawn. I agree with another reader...I welcome reminders across the day to center my attention, and come into a spirit of prayer. We could gain so much from embracing inclusive ecumenism rather than allowing fear to create false walls that divide people of faith.

Saudi Arabia the cradle of Islam regard Christians as inferior to Islam. In fact they will not even allow non-muslim inside a mosque for the reason of impurity. How then could a muslim be able to worship inside a chapel that represent a place contrary to what the Quran teach? I guessed they are testing the ground, and very soon they all get what they want.

While wisdom is needed before throwing our judgment on the latest violence that occurred in Paris, very few or not at all consider the source of violence could be traced itself from various verses in the Quran itself. Let's subject the source into historical-critical evaluation and other means whether the book really contain teachings that will guide believers on faith and morals. As a Christian, the teachings of Jesus and Jesus himself is the center of the Bible which is Love and the means to achieve an everlasting life. If the Quran itself contain anything short, by all means revise the book.

Living in NC for several years I have come to feel a part of a community that encourages and supports the spiritual nature of us all. This includes all those who practice a formal religion and those whose spirituality is unattached to an ism. I was hurt by the affair at Duke, wondering how we can extend a hand and have it slapped so soundly by those who espouse "Godliness." To be angry, yes, probably it was a flash of anger, but mostly just sadness at what is and where we could be with some work together . So I am still going to work with who I am and how I am no matter the rejection from those who see it differently. That's my still imbedded Sunday School of my youth and my faith that there is purpose in my doing. While I can't justify repeating the Creed with honesty, I can support what it is really all about, one globe, one humanity. Sharing it as tough and rough as it may be.

This is not about pluralism. It's about power. When Islam demonstrates on the world stage it truly is a religion of peace, not power, it's easier to accept it's "call to prayer". The press only shows Imams calling for violence, not visiting and loving street childen like the pope. Im agnostic,but Islam makes me want to run to Rome and kiss the popes rings!

Thank you. Many of us feel this way but aren't able to express ourselves as well. Oh, how I wish we could all behave as generously with each other. Thank you.

is Franklin Graham's faith in Christ so weak that it is shaken by the inclusion of those whose world view is not the same as his?

I'm with Dr. Safi. This country was founded on the promise of religious freedom for all. This does not just mean White Protestants. I am old enough to remember that it was a very big deal that a Catholic was elected to the White House in 1960. I hope to live long enough to see a Muslim and a Jewish President. We also have not had an Italian-American become President--and that is our largest immigrant group. (My real dream would be to see a Muslim, Jewish, or Italian-American woman become President.) A call to prayer on Friday is no more threatening to Christians than Sunday Church bells are to Muslims. We have to all get along if we are going to make it. Duke needs to be better than the rest of the country with regard to religious tolerance. The people at Duke have the benefit of superior education. With this should come superior tolerance.

As a Christian, I simply want to say thank you. Public commentaries such as this one are exactly why "a symphony of religious symbols and practices in the public arena" are so necessary and vital.

Did y'all haters actually READ this beautiful statement? I suspect that you did not.
American knee-jerk Islamophobia is one reason most of the world finds us hilarious and/or detestable.

How trivial, you sir or madam ought to be ashamed of yourself. For one, God believes that religion is vain. And you have tried to place shame on Duke University.

Anyone to think that plural means diversity with Islam or Muslim for that is matter knows nothing about true Christianity. And I believe you should step down from your thrown before you get fired from it. As Duke being from a Methodist background, what is yours? Atheism?

I think not one true Christian would dare come against Dr. Graham, as you are truly out of line and out of touch with Duke and its history. The founding fathers would have rather had nothing than for you to try to destroy the credibility of Duke University. I tend to agree with Dr Graham, and would at this point share your letter to all. And let them see your evil intention to destroy Duke. And certainly will let others know you do not need there monies to operate.

It is just like a Islam or Muslim to call others a bigot, when they indeed are nothing but no-account, no-bills period full of deceit. He (Dr Graham) sir is standing up for what is right. With what we have all seen of islam and muslim
religion there is a divide between being Christ like vs beheadings, torture, treating women like dirt, killing out of pride. Your koran teaches violence and hate. not Love like the Word of God, the Bible.

As an alumnus of Duke University, I want to thank Dr. Safi for these reflections. These kinds of comments, together with the knowledge that the adhan was publicly made in front of the Duke Chapel on Friday with many of many faiths present in support, represent the kind of thinking and action so deeply needed here in the U.S. and around the world.

Hang tough, buddy. We're counting on you. Stay lovely, please.

Dr. Safi,

Your ideas are transgressive. Were humankind to adopt them, the swords of the world would be beaten into plowshares.

Toll the bells at appropriate times seven days a week as a prayer call for both Muslims AND Christians- or any other religion. Surely peaceful Christians and Muslims would agree to this compromise.

I think we may be missing the actual issue. What the issue of the "call to prayer" means to us, one of religious pluralism and acceptance, may not be the issue at all. What we may be missing is how Islam itself view such an action... similiar to the recent "Islamic Services" at the National Cathedral, it is more about the "symbolic" claiming of territory. Once an islamic service is conducted or the call to prayer called out over a territory, Islam has in its mind "conquered" that place and people. They are expanding boundaries. We think we are failing to be inclusive, they are trying to enable their being exclusive! Cordially,

I find it saddening to reflect on all the openness mentioned in many of the responses to this article, and then hear a response like this. How wonderful it is for you to have mastered the skill of mind-reading - not just for one culture, but for several.

The fear expressed here is that once the Muslim call-to-prayer is allowed, eventually "they" (it's always the nameless, mindless "they") will try to stop the Christian call-to-prayers in the bells. Fear has nothing to do with spirituality - it is often driven by ego and an us-versus-them perception of the world.

How sad that those who claim Jesus and were influenced by Wesley would buy into this behavior.

A few questions in response to your statement. I'm sure there are many students who would prefer not to be subjected to prayers of any religion being broadcast over the campus. Aren't they entitled to freedom "from" as well as your freedom "of" religion? Would you allow other groups, religious or otherwise, e.g. KKK, neo-nazis to use the Chapel tower to broadcast their message; why should Muslims be the only group with this privilege? I understand that women are not permitted to serve as muezzin and perform the adhan (the picture Duke originally posted was of a man); is this an example of your inclusive "pluralism"?

An excellently argued and very well thought rational position. I am totally in favour of what is being suggested except that I think that I would much rather see "adamant secularism". Only if that option is totally out of question would I take the path of pluralism.

As a Duke Law alum I was so saddened to see that anti-intellectualism and bullying carried the day. To have Franklin Graham associated with Duke in the public eye has set the whole institution back. I have no doubt that the many innovative minds and loving open hearts at Duke, like Omid, will work to right the ship.

It strikes me that a balanced reading of the biblical witness to Jesus' words and actions shows that discernment in distrusting the wisdom of the world is held in highest regard, that Jesus was exclusive in claiming preeminence over all other religious belief systems, and that love for the God of Jacob called for the fierce defense of the right use of private space dedicated to the Hebrew and later Judeo-Christian faith which strictly affirmed the first two points as essentials of that faith.

Surat Al-'Anfāl (The Spoils of War)
Quran, Chapter 8, Verse 12
“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”

I believe Dr. King would join you, gladly, in this posting. If we are to be a strong country, we need to embrace everyone who is here. Thank you for sharing this and other important observations.

Franklin Graham talks a lot about the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, but the only interest he has in Jews is in converting them. That is why is he polite to Jews, but he doesn't really mean it. If he had his way there would be no Jews left on the planet.

Applause for Omed Safi!Shame on Duke University, Franklin Graham and all terrorists!


I agree with Mr. Omid's thoughts up to the point of referring to Franklin Graham's world as evil. Evil is a harsh word that doesn't let in any light for possibilities. I think ignorance is a better word that also implies a lack of curiosity. Everyone would like to open their hearts to the love of openness but for some they have work to do yet to overcome the trauma of life's many betrayals.

I do wonder if this was allowed, if students would then be able to thank Jesus when they say a grad speech.. I think that's a lot of what people dislike,,, it's the muslim call to prayer on campus, but Christianity seems to be pretty much banned on campus, on high school campuses,,, at high school football games, etc... so, I just may be confused,,, it this a double standard or my imagination? Is the school system still a separation of church and state gov entity, or a "diversified" system? Can't have it just one way, one faith,, now can they. or can they?