Omid Safi is the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center and, since 2014, a columnist for On Being, a public radio conversation, podcast, and website that asks, “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?” Safi is also a leader of the progressive Muslim movement and the author of Memories of Muhammad, which examines the biography and legacy of the prophet Muhammad.
What is the role of meditation in your life?
Every person of Muslim background is encouraged to pray no fewer than five times a day. Prayer follows the apparent movement of the sun in the sky. Historically, this was done by going outside and orienting yourself with the sun, situating yourself as a tiny part of this much larger, beautiful cosmos. You are not so much locating the sun as you are locating yourself—Where am I? Who am I? What am I? What is it to be human, the grandest of all mysteries?
Those are daunting questions.
Part of asking those questions is rediscovering the mystery of the breath. Creation is not something that took place in some mythical past: Each of us is being born and reborn in every breath. The you that exists in this breath has never been before and will never be again. There is a freshness to creation that we are encouraged to unveil in that practice of meditation.
One of the simple fruits of meditation is that anybody of any tradition can take just a minute and monitor the breath entering and leaving the heart center. As your breathing slows, you return to the center, to the core. You move from a state of agitation and toward a state of peacefulness—that’s the way we move from the five-times-a-day prayer to a more frequent, repeated kind of prayer.
You describe yourself as a progressive Muslim. What does that mean?
It is a linking of love and justice. If you love people, you are compassionately concerned about their well-being, and you are concerned about how the most marginalized of people are faring at the moment.
That same practice of mindfulness—of striving for a tranquil heart—compels me, and so many others, to speak out and organize and mobilize: We are concerned about our fellow brothers and sisters and creatures and about the planet. There is a tendency to see meditativeness and mindfulness as a very individual and private practice, but I have never accepted this idea that love is something private. Love is public. It is something that you do.
Yes, but isn’t there a place for anger?
We have people in this country who are in a position of power and who thrive on fear-mongering and on targeting the most vulnerable in society. To be angry at a time like this, to be outraged, is absolutely understandable—we almost need that anger to get us on our feet. But we cannot rely on that anger to drive the engine of transformation. By itself anger never transforms us into something more beautiful. Once you get people “woke,” as the cool kids say these days, then you have to bring them back to love, to this sense of a shared commitment about the welfare and well-being of all.
What are the roots of your meditation practice?
My parents each have a different spiritual practice, but both of them embody—in a beautiful way—a kind of tranquility. For my mother, prayer is her meditative practice. As a young child, I watched her center herself through prayer. That opened up, for me, the possibility that prayer could be more than a mechanical repetition of ritual, that ultimately it is a process of one’s heart and awareness, one’s body and one’s breath becoming one.
And your father?
His meditative practice takes the form of service. He retired about a year ago, but the presence he brought to his work as a pediatrician embodied a sense of healing not only for the one receiving but also for the one giving. Now that he is retired, the wonderful jasmines and roses he plants in his garden are the beneficiaries of his sacred presence and attention.
What else nourishes you?
Holding my four children tight. There is something so undeniably sacred and nourishing about hugging my kids—looking deep into their eyes and making sure they know they are loved.