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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?

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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.