I have found no better introductory book to Islam than Michael Sells' Approaching the Qur'an. Sells is an American scholar of Islam at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. I've heard him described by one of his former Muslim students as a non-Muslim Sufi master. As a rule, I'm committed to learning about religious traditions through the experience of those who live and practice within them. But I have found Michael Sells' work to be uniquely valuable for approaching Islam as a curious, attentive outsider — and since 9/11, that has described so many of us. In the months after the terrorist attacks, I called Michael Sells with questions. That conversation led me to the guests in this week's program, Omid Safi and Seemi Ghazi.
This program is not an introduction to Islam. It is, rather, an attempt to explore the spiritual and devotional sensibility of Islam as manifested in practice in two lives. Seemi Ghazi and Omid Safi are both thoroughly modern, thoroughly American. But both are steeped in ancient Islamic spiritual traditions. Omid Safi is the grandson of an ayatollah in pre-revolutionary Iran, a descendant of a long line of Persian mystics and poets. Seemi Ghazi, whose mother tongue is Urdu, was raised in the scholarly and poetic traditions of Pakistan and Muslim India.
In some ways, this hour of radio is about the limits of merely "speaking of faith." American journalism tends to describe religions in terms of what its adherents "believe," which is a very Christian approach. My conversation with Omid Safi centers around the music and poetry of the Muslim world, which are at the heart of his understanding of his faith. As he demonstrates, these are also aspects of the heart of Islam as known and embraced by ordinary Muslims in many cultures. He describes how love poetry can form the theology of shepherds. He relates how religious truth conveyed by poetry was an ever-present influence in the earliest circles around the prophet Muhammad.
Omid Safi is also a scholar and student of the Islamic mystical tradition, Sufism. In one of the most mind-opening moments of our conversation, he introduces the spiritual world of the whirling dervishes. By way of this form of mystical dance, and the music that centers it, we come to hear about a distinctly Islamic corollary to confessing one's "sin." Islam does not imagine human fallenness so much as human forgetfulness. We forget about God as we move through our lives, Safi says, and so Islam has ancient ritual practices to invite "remembrance." He believes that Sufism can be a force for healing in Islam's contemporary crises.
Seemi Ghazi takes us inside her experience of the Qur'an itself. And of course the centrality of the Qur'an in Islam cannot be overstated. But as Michael Sells first helped me understand and Seemi Ghazi drives home with elegance, the Qur'an does not function like a book in the strict western sense of a text that is meant to be read. The word Qur'an means "recitation" — it is considered to be the verbatim word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a number of years. Its power in Muslim lives has a strong aesthetic component. The Qur'an's intrinsic lyricality and musicality when recited form an essential aspect of its mystery and even its message. Seemi Ghazi is a gifted musician and a non-clerical reciter of the Qur'an. She likens Qur'an to "divine song"; and she brings that idea compellingly to life in this program.
I believe that this is one of the loveliest hours we've ever created. Omid Safi and Seemi Ghazi leave one with a palpable sense of beauty, nuance, and gentleness in Islamic faith that no headline, no speech, and no list of beliefs could ever convey. They put stories and voices, music and words, to this line of the poet Rumi, one of the defining voices of Sufism, on the ultimate effect of the "surrender to God" that Islam commands:
"When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness."