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What makes a holy man?

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

Rather than be prescriptive, he's more likely to ask, What do you think?

Do you consider yourself spiritual?

Choices

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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.