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What makes a holy man?

By Jacob Axelrad, Assistant Arts Editor
Published September 18, 2012

Muhammad, when he received a revelation, used to go pale and sweat and struggle with the effort to articulate the word of God. We should take a lesson from that, because all of this facile God-talk has made the discussion of God actually impossible. Once you start saying, ‘I know what God is’ or defining God, you have created an idol. Religious language should be transparent to transcendence.” –Writer Karen Armstrong, who has written 12 books on world religions, in an interview with The Believer magazine in June 2012.

Do you consider yourself spiritual?

Choices

More like this

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It’s a cold spring evening. I’m attending an interfaith dialogue at the University of Michigan Hillel organized by a friend of mine for MuJew, the Muslim/Jewish collaboration group. A man has assumed the spotlight, not because he wants it, but because he was asked. His manner is unassuming, yet assured. When he speaks, the room goes quiet.

He launches into a brief anecdote of the West’s misperceptions of Islamic governmental structures, assuring us that his knowledge on this matter is limited. His words evoke a modesty that, for me, comes to characterize him.

Though such knowledge isn’t required for his job as the University’s Muslim chaplain, Mohammed Tayssir Safi is what one might call learned. He narrates with confidence and a smile that all but envelops his face. He is, as friends and family will tell me in the months to come, “spiritual.” They will repeat the word over and over again, until it hangs thick in the air.

A position

I heard the stories about him before I actually heard him.

In February, National Public Radio ran a story on Safi, explaining his significance as “the first endowed Muslim chaplaincy at a public university.” The necessity of a chaplain was so patent that a total of $30,000 was raised by alumni and parents to pay Safi’s salary. Nationwide, only 30 universities make room on their campuses for such a position. As chaplain, Safi’s duties include listening and advising students of all faiths, though primarily the 850 Muslim students on campus. He also works with other campus religious leaders in addition to advocating on behalf of the Muslim Student Association.

“It’s an act of worship just to meet people: to talk to them, to hear them, to listen to what they have to say so that you can better serve them,” Safi told the Daily in a profile earlier this year.

I asked students who knew him, had heard of him, or had maybe read about him, as I had. The responses I received were overwhelmingly positive.

“He listens,” said LSA junior Omar Hashwi, the Central Student Government vice president, who had Safi as an Arabic teacher. “He listens really well.”

“Deeply personable, and incredibly sincere,” said Chris Blauvelt, who has known Safi since college and now lives in Detroit.

But what really got me was the way Blauvelt described his friend’s method of offering counsel: “It’s really like you’re getting advice from the prophet Muhammad, which, as a Muslim, is like the best thing you can have,” he said. “So it feels like this isn’t just his opinion or, like, his whims … there’s something of greater, eternal nature to his advice.”

What would lead people to talk of this man as though he had some kind of otherworldly insight? Was it just friends talking up their buddy? When cynicism can seem like the default language of a college campus, what would make students — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — revere a man of the cloth?

As a non-religious person who tries to avoid the topic altogether, I’m intrigued by someone so young — Safi is only 28 — who can project an honest spiritual presence, and have young people respond accordingly. I wanted to know: Is this guy for real? Call it the casual curiosity of a skeptic examining the life of a true believer.

A man of faith

“Can I get you anything, tea?” he offers, sitting cross-legged in his chair.

Talking to Safi can be like trying to paint a secluded piece of scenery. It’s an act that focuses the mind, forcing you to look at the most minute details of your surroundings in a new light. Reclining in an office used by the Muslim Students Association on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union, he creates a congenial atmosphere. He is a man of good cheer and humble stature, and often elects to meet with students at local coffee shops as opposed to the MSA office.

There’s also an energy that bubbles beneath his quiet exterior. He’s sharp, and he can spew facts as wide-ranging as the plight of African-Americans in U.S. history to the psychological turmoil college students endure. Yet for all his intellect, Safi is a teacher. Rather than be prescriptive, he's more likely to ask, What do you think?

He reflects on some of the ways students are taught at a school like the University, contrasting the eastern and western models of education — he has had experiences with both. His points are more observations than critiques.

“(In) the Muslim world, in the traditional sense, the intent is to teach you character, to come to know God, to become a better human being,” he said. “It’s not that you walk out with a degree, or that you’re able to get a job ... which is very different from our current, modern model of education, where a lot of times the goal is literally that you get a piece of paper.”

Though he’s a devoted person, he doesn’t like words such as “practicing” or “religious.”

“That word — the word religious, the word practicing — I’m a little uncomfortable with them. I don’t really know what to use,” he said. I press him harder on this point. What exactly does he mean? He is a “practicing” person, isn’t he?

He elaborates, telling me how some people use the word “practicing” to specify closeness to God, as a label of one’s religiosity. He says we have no idea how close we are to God.

“Proximity to the divine is something only the divine knows,” he says, adding that when he was young, he hadn’t yet worked out his relationship and biases toward God and toward Islam.

“I think that everybody’s personal journey is different and what that looks like is different. So I definitely was on my own path during undergrad. And I think it only increased as I left undergrad and I spent some time away from school.”

Humble beginnings

“Path” is a word that interests him, as he feels it’s something you should choose for yourself. The son of Syrian immigrants, Safi was born in Springfield, Ill. and raised in Ann Arbor, graduating from Pioneer High School in 2002.

The areas in and around Detroit experienced a spike in Arab Muslim immigrants in the early ’90s, doubling Detroit’s Muslim population between 1973 and 1993, which led to the construction of mosques, school and community centers.

Safi explained, however, that unlike many Muslim students who might come from households centered around mosques, his upbringing was more separate from those types of communities.

“I think I’ve been around strong mosques and I understand how they work,” he said. “But I also understand the other side of things where people just kind of grow up without a strong community around them and how that pans out.”

While religion was present in his home, his parents had decided on their own to devote themselves to the Islamic faith. Though they encouraged their four kids to do the same, the choice was theirs as to how “practicing” they wanted to be.

“My mom, although she grew up in Damascus, was the first female in her immediate family to wear the head scarf,” Safi said. “(My parents) were very encouraging that we be people who practice the faith … but I think as we grew up, as we became in our teens and later on, I think it was really up to us to make those decisions.”

In 1997, when Safi was 13, his father died from complications due to hepatitis. The years that followed were difficult. To be close to family, his mother relocated Safi and his sisters to Damascus for nine months, where Safi said he was not welcomed by the kids his own age.

“The Syrians never saw me as Syrian … they saw me as an other,” Safi says. His experience in Syria was not unlike similar prejudices he had confronted growing up Syrian in the United States.

Upon returning to the United States, Safi began to fill the role that once belonged to his father. “He had to man up, become the man of the house,” his sister Leenah said.

And yet, Safi refrains from calling his father’s death the “trigger” that put him on his spiritual path.

For him, religious enlightenment came only after years of self-discovery and traveling.

These travels would take him to the University of Michigan (both the Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses), return him to the Middle East and, ultimately, the desert of Yemen.

Fork in the road

A year and a half out of college Safi was at a crossroads. He’d been living in Egypt, studying Arabic, and his next step wasn’t clear. Many thought his decision should be easy: pursue a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. But Safi had other ideas on his mind.

A close friend, Omar Mahmood, had just returned from a school in Yemen with a focus on studying Islam from a more spiritual, eastern-style approach. After much deliberation and reflection, Safi knew this was what he needed.

The name of the school, Dar Al Mustafa, literally translates to “Home of the Chosen One.” Located in the secluded town of Tarim, it’s a place that fits with the stereotypical image Westerners might have of Yemen.

“Very, very sandy, brown,” Safi says.

Founded by direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, Tarim is built around religious scholarship, like a college town with a spiritual twist. Safi said the idea is for students to leave the school “embodying prophetic character.”

The school is based on three disciplines: “Calling to God and his messenger,” “Religious Knowledge” and “Purification of the Soul.” For one year, Safi’s days were consumed by the studying of religious texts, assisting the needy and calling people to prayer and worship.

Safi laughs when I bring up the decision to move to Yemen over Chicago. Departing from his typical professorial tone, he fixes me with a stare that’s boyish in its sincerity. For the first time, I feel like I see the man others have lauded over the past few months, ever since he took the chaplaincy back in January.

“I was going through kind of a spiritual search … I wanted to find what my heart was looking for,” he says. “And I really did find that in my trip to Yemen.”

Uncrossing his legs, he takes a deep breath and continues. “I think humans all have a void in their heart that they try to fill ... I think that void is put there by God on purpose because that void is God. To fill it you can only fill it with God, right?”

His voice wavers, as though he’s asking me, like he’s not quite sure of the answer.

I’m reminded of an encounter I had one year ago while studying in the woods of Maine at the University’s New England Literature Program:

For one day, Credo Day, the instructors told us to think about how belief affects us in our lives. I quietly scoffed. Because belief equates to faith, and faith translates to religion. And this was something I’ve always found unsettling.

I spent that whole day avoiding prayer circles that had suddenly sprouted up around our camp. I sought out Jono, the only other student who seemed to find our day’s task as ridiculous as I did. He was smoking in the gazebo when I found him, reclining on a wooden bench, legs propped up on a log, his typical state of nonchalance. I was looking for solidarity. But Jono didn’t appear disgruntled. When I asked why Credo Day wasn’t bothering him, he merely smiled, took a bite from his apple and lit another cigarette.

“Because,” he began, “I’m not a religious person or anything. But I do consider myself spiritual … I don’t know if I believe in God. Honestly, I don’t know what I believe. But I think it’s important to be open to something that’s, I dunno, above us, I guess, ya’ know?”

Jono wasn’t planning to duck out of that evening’s talking circle, where a Quaker-style meeting was scheduled for people to openly discuss faith, as I was. Nor was he agonizing over what to believe in. He seemed content.

Both Jono and Safi seemed to have opened themselves up to misunderstanding, to confusion, to not knowing how to fill the void.

A discussion

My feelings about spirituality and religion begin to feel increasingly misguided the longer I speak with Safi. I inquire as to whether he has any thoughts on the matter. Citing Islam’s teachings, he explains what he views as the dichotomy that’s emerged between the two in modern times.

“In modernity there’s this common distinction between the crude, legalistic person and then the wayfarer spiritual person who throws out the law,” he says. “And that’s not in Islam. In Islam, a person can’t be spiritual if they don’t seek to apply what God wanted of them … Islam preaches a balance between theology and law and spirituality.”

Maybe Safi’s appeal, the reason some refer to him candidly as “spiritual,” is because he radiates this balance. It’s comforting. The wayfarer mixed with the traditional conformist.

“He’s been in the world,” Blauvelt tells me. “Tayssir’s been in the world of the Muslim that comes to Ann Arbor who believes in Islam but isn’t super adherent to it. It’s not a part of their identity. And they decide that they want to make it part of their identity. He’s been through that transformation. I think that helps him talk to a lot of people who are trying to go through it themselves.”

Before I leave my final interview, Safi leaves me with a verse from the Koran he’s committed to memory. “The Koran says, ‘Indeed in the remembrance of God, do hearts find peace.’ ”

Tranquility comes when one remembers and returns to their creator, he says. Maybe that’s what my instructors had wanted us to understand all along back in Maine. Not remembering God, but remembering how to talk about what God represents: faith, the lack thereof, something deep in our souls that lies vacant, restless, waiting to be filled.

I went in search of a holy man. I found him. And in some ways he did fit the image I’d had in my head — he journeyed away from society to a remote part of the world; he references the Koran to better clarify his points; he believes true peace comes the closer one moves toward God.

Safi has called himself a “circuit,” someone who sparks connections between people. In many ways, he exemplifies Karen Armstrong’s advice: The authority he carries doesn’t really derive from a greater knowledge of his religion or of God. It stems from an openness to listen, to humble himself before whomever he sits with.

Maybe my discussion with Jono wasn’t too different from the discussions Safi has with Muslim students in his office. After all, while neither Jono nor I were “believers,” we had, whether we knew it or not, opened ourselves to the discussion of belief. And the discussion, I think, may suffice.


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