Demystifying the teachings of Muhammad

A new retelling reveals the diversity of the Muslim tradition

Staff WriterNovember 19, 2009 

  • Omid Safi will read from "Memories of Muhammad" at:

    McIntyre's Fine Books, Fearrington Village: 11 a.m., Saturday

    The Regulator Bookshop, Durham: 7 p.m., Dec. 1

— Omid Safi's kids call the hundreds of volumes of Arabic and Persian that he has stacked high in his home office "books with squiggly lines."

Safi's children are better versed in American culture; in the case of 2-year-old Layla, his youngest, SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer are hits.

It is precisely for Layla and her three older siblings that Safi, 38, has written his latest book, "Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters." In it, he has culled many of the stories about the seventh-century holy man passed down from generations of Muslims.

A professor of Islamic studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, Safi is convinced Muslims are suffering from a kind of cultural amnesia when it comes to their faith. The experience of colonialism and political powerlessness has put so many on the defensive, he said, they've forgotten some of the treasures of their religious heritage.

"I really feel like it's my responsibility to translate these teachings from Persian to English and from Arabic to English and from a medieval world to a 21st century world," he said.

In the medieval world, for example, it was common for the best artists of the day to draw devotional images of important events from the life of the prophet. Today, most Muslims assume images of Muhammad have always been forbidden. In his book, Safi includes 20 such images.

"It's meant to enlighten and inform about the diversity and complexity of the Muslim tradition," said Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke. Moosa said he didn't forsee the depictions raising any of the vitriol associated with the publication of the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad.

More broadly Safi argues that in modern times, Muhammad himself has been reimagined. To be a follower of Muhammad has always meant aspiring to become Muhammad-like. That used to mean being a person of mercy, compassion and justice. In the past few decades, it has morphed into a vision of Muhammad the war hero and nation builder.

Part of the problem in remembering Muhammad is that unlike Christianity, stories about the life of the prophet come from a wide variety of sources. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, is not like the four gospels, which narrate the life and death of Jesus.

In fact, the Quran is an insufficient guide to the life of the prophet. The name "Muhammad" appears only four times in the Quran. Islam is more akin to the Jewish tradition, which reveres several books, not just the Bible.

Over the years, a corpus of literary traditions developed around the faith's founder. Some appear in the hadith, the accounts of Muhammad's actions and words; some in the numerous biographies of Muhammad - the earliest was written 150 years after the prophet's death. And some of the traditions surrounding the prophet are drawn from poems and devotional materials.

Yet many of these sources are alien to Muslims today, Safi said.

"What Muslim kids are likely to hear today is 'Muhammad the UPS delivery man,'" said Safi. " 'Here's the Quran. I'm delivering the divine Scripture. Goodbye.'"

In his book, Safi traces the three important stages of Muhammad's life: his climb up the mountain to receive God's revelation (through the prophet Gabriel); his flight from Mecca and Jerusalem to heaven where he has a direct encounter with God; and his migration from Mecca to Medina and back.

A change of heart

Safi, who was born in Jacksonville, Fla., but spent his first 15 years in Iran, is in many ways the perfect transmitter of these traditions to a contemporary audience.

He was in third grade when the Iranian Revolution hit, and like his classmates, was thrust into the streets shouting "Death to the Shah." Many of his classmates later volunteered as child soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War, and died waging that calamitous nine-year confrontation that began in 1980.

Safi, whose father is a pediatrician, immigrated to the United States in 1986. Safi planned to follow in his father's footsteps and go into medicine.

But toward the end of his undergraduate years at Duke University, he took some religion classes and had a change of heart.

Combing through the Duke library's books on Islam, he realized he couldn't recognize his faith in many of the volumes written by Westerners.

He thought that somebody should do a better job writing about Islam.

That fell to him. Though Safi knew enough Arabic to say his prayers, he gained the fluency to read the Quran after three semesters at Duke.

Like many Islamic studies students, Safi hung out at the now defunct Silk Road Tea House on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street. There he met Holly Frigon, a Meredith College student living in Raleigh. The two were married at Duke Chapel in 1999 in the first wedding ceremony to include a reading from the Quran. (Holly, 35, is a nonpracticing Roman Catholic.)

After earning his doctorate from Duke, Safi taught at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., for seven years. He was recruited to UNC-CH in 2006, and has proved to be a popular professor.

A joyous experience

Safi can talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley with the same authority as he can talk about medieval Muslim scholars, said his colleague Carl Ernst, an Islamic studies professor at UNC-CH.

"He shares the cultural and moral background of his American students," Ernst said.

Safi's previous book, a collection of essays titled "Progressive Muslims: On Gender, Justice and Pluralism," lent him a liberal reputation. Progressive Muslims, Safi wrote, are involved in a movement advocating for social justice, gender equality and pluralism from within Islam.

Last year, Safi was one of two finalists for a job at Harvard but withdrew from the search realizing he was happy in Chapel Hill.

"Memories of Muhammad," Safi said, was the single most joyous writing experience he's had. He said he cleared his desk of all those books with squiggly lines and thought of his kids - in addition to Layla, there are Amir, 7, Roya, 9, and Jacob, 16.

"I already have these stories inside me," he said. "It was a matter of putting down what I already know." or 919-289-4891

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