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What makes a holy man?

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

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.”

Do you consider yourself spiritual?


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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.