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Understanding Muslim Spirituality

Over long centuries Western Christians have saved some of their most vile polemics for the Prophet Muhammad. In the Middle Ages Dante threw him into the pit of hell, and within the last decade the head of the American Southern Baptist Convention called him a terrorist and a pedophile. But what have Muslims thought of Muhammad? In Memories of Muhammad Omid Safi introduces us to the Muhammad of faith. More than a biography, this book is a useful introduction to Muslim spirituality with Muhammad at the center, and its learning and generosity invites interfaith reflection on the meaning of the Prophet for today.

Safi is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. Born in Iran, his family moved to America after the Iranian Revolution, when he was a youth. In the last ten years he has been influential in the progressive Muslim movement and published a collection of essays by several scholars called Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. I met him when he was the keynote speaker at an interfaith conference hosted by Calvin College last fall. His gentleness and sense of humor put his audience at ease as he moved effortlessly between medieval theology and current events. That same winsomeness infuses Memories of Muhammad, which is written for a lay audience but also has much to say to readers like myself who are interested in scholarly debates.

Situating Muhammad in his seventh-century world, Safi finds that the truly revolutionary aspects of the Prophet’s message, theological and social, were quintessentially Arabian while also transcending time and place. Muhammad asserted that there is only one God; that we human beings are all his creatures, despite our usual distinctions of class, gender, nationality, race, and the like; that God is the only being worthy of worship, and our earthly loyalty is not to clan or tribe but to humanity. The Muhammadi revolution, as Safi terms it, was in a sense not new at all but the message of all the prophets going back to Abraham. Yet human beings tend to forget, and Muhammad’s role was to call us to remember once again who we really are.

Safi establishes this common ground, but the controversial questions that so occupy Western diatribes are all here as well, including battles, polygamy, the role of women, and relations with Jews and Christians. Safi’s focus, however, is on how the main episodes of Muhammad’s life have been interpreted and contested by Muslims as spiritual guidance. “In the lives of religious luminaries,” Safi writes, “every detail is held to be sacred and symbolic.” Three “movements” in Muhammad’s life, all based on events but taken in their sacred and symbolic sense, form the core of his account. The first is receiving the Qur’anic revelation, a going up and coming back down the “mountain of light.” The second is the mir‘aj, the ascent and descent to heaven and back, showing the way to God. The mir‘aj especially is crucial to mystical spirituality, a kind of “Jacob’s Ladder” event (mir‘aj means ladder) that Safi compares to the enlightenment of the Buddha and the crucifixion of Christ. “Without the Mir‘aj,” he writes, “Muhammad is the Warner who is sent to admonish society to abandon its heathen ways and return to God’s path. With the Mi‘raj, Muhammad also charts a path for humanity to ascend to the Divine.” The third movement is the hijra, Muhammad’s migration to Medina and return to Mecca, symbolically a going out and returning to show the pattern of life and all creation returning to its point of origin.

Safi laments the modernist impasse that has produced common views of Muhammad today. Under colonialism, missionary Protestants and modernist Muslims alike cast Jesus and Muhammad as competing champions. Their mutually exclusive truth claims paralleled the conflict between European empire and nationalism in the Muslim world. Playing on a Protestant, sola scriptura field of competition, Muslim apologists unwittingly robbed Muhammad of much of his spiritual significance. “Until the twentieth century,” Safi notes, “no Muslim would have looked at the index of the Qur’an (or done a Google search) to find out what was expected of them. Divine guidance began with the text, but was always mediated through authoritative–human–teachers.” The example of Muhammad was an important guide, through hymns, poetry, stories, and pictures. Despite what some Muslim writers say, Muslims have indeed engaged all the pictorial arts, unafraid to show the faces of human beings and even that of the Prophet himself. But modernists wanted an Islam for a rational and scientific universe, a Muhammad who was merely a messenger, a “UPS delivery man, dropping off the divine revelation of the Qur’an at the doorstep of humanity.” Modernist Muslims have found the Muhammad of miracle and wonder unhelpful in their confrontation with Western imperial Christianity, a development that Safi strives to repair in his own work.

This is a deeply personal book, so we meet Omid Safi’s Muhammad, and Safi is not an Arab, not a Sunni, and not iconoclastic. He writes frankly as a Sufi and a Shiite. He includes photographs of family members on pilgrimage. “Remembering Muhammad is an act of participation,” he writes.

Reviews are personal, too, and no reviewer is neutral. So–I am a Trinitarian Christian, but also a child of empire. I spent significant years of my youth in Turkey with my American Air Force family. I heard the call to prayer as a part of the daily rhythm, like the scent of roasting chestnuts on warm fall evenings under the statue of Ataturk. Now as a historian and teacher I keep going back. I encountered the Prophet in an undergraduate course during the Iranian Revolution, when I read Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad. My first college roommate was an Arab engineering student from Riyadh. My experience was hardly unique. Like the crowd in Ataturk Park and my Muslim classmates at Western Michigan University, the Prophet’s faithful followers are alongside all of us now. Memories of Muhammad invites us to “participate in a culture of generosity,” where we not only learn about one another but also learn from one another in this world of increasingly porous borders.

Douglas Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.