The Colgate Scene
March 2005

The progressive scholar

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

When the Scene last spoke with Omid Safi in 2000, he was a new faculty member starting to make his way through the tenure stream at Colgate. His research focused on Islamic mystical tradition, but he was starting to take a close look at modern Islam and the politics surrounding the religion.

How things change in five years.

Recently promoted to associate professor of philosophy and religion, Safi now leads the Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilization program, which offers introductory courses in Arabic and a minor concentration. Safi has also emerged as an international voice in the discussion of modern Islam and its place in the world.

"We are talking about a religious tradition that has twenty-plus percent of the world's population," said Safi. "We need to understand the people, the history, the religion, and the culture."

He is also the editor of Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, a collection of articles by 14 prominent Muslim thinkers, and also serves as the chair of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, an organization dedicated to self-critical examination of the Islamic tradition and a commitment to progressive social causes.

Safi said that he was something of a "reluctant public intellectual," but the events of September 11 accelerated his need to explain and articulate his thoughts on both radical and pluralistic Islam and to be a resource for the community as it sought to understand Islam and its teachings.

"By nature I am a shy person," said Safi. "But when I came to Colgate, I was the only Muslim faculty member, so there were lots of opportunities for me to educate folks."

"I credit him with the heightened awareness of myself and other students who have listened to his lectures and subsequently take a critical look at Islam, the West, and the media's portrayal of both," said Ilyse Morgenstein '05.

Safi has dealt with a great amount of transition and change during the past few years but, for him, change is something of a constant.

Full circle
Born in Florida, Safi and his family moved to Iran when he was one year old, only to return to the United States 14 years later. He had very little training in English, so he planted himself in front of the television, working to pick up as much of the new language as he could before heading to school.

"My wife makes fun of me because I enunciate every word. That's because the only person I could understand at that time, and whom I patterned my speech after, was Peter Jennings," said Safi.

He showed up for his sophomore year of high school with his anchorman English and a little black dictionary so that he could hurriedly look up words as his teachers spoke.

Safi said that the process of moving to another country forced him to be bilingual in all aspects of his life. "From language, cooking, etiquette, and political perspectives to your taste in art and music -- the deepest parts of what makes you human is in shift," he said.

Seven years later, he would deal with another shift, this time in his academic pursuits. In his final year of biology studies at Duke, with medical school acceptances in hand, Safi decided to take a few classes outside of his major.

"I took some courses in religion and liked them -- maybe a little bit too much."

He said it was a hard decision for him, and for his family who had invested a lot in helping him on his path to a career in medicine, but he stayed at Duke in pursuit of advanced degrees in religious studies.

"I went to graduate school because I love this field, but I never asked how long it would take for me to finish and the likelihood that I would get a job," said Safi. "When I entered the market, there were seven jobs around the country that I could apply for."

The opening at Colgate turned out to be the most compelling, primarily because of the people he met. John Carter, professor of philosophy and religion, had a particularly strong impact.

"For thirty-plus years, John has worked diligently to create an environment where you treat everyone as a full and dignified human being; and where all of the world's religious traditions are respected and engaged," said Safi. The day Safi got the offer from Colgate, he canceled his other interviews.

Inspirational teaching
From the beginning, Safi said that close relationships with his colleagues on the faculty have helped him grow as a teacher and as a scholar.

"I would see the amount of work and preparation that my colleagues would put into the classroom to bring the texts and the issues to life. It was inspiring," said Safi. "I began to wish I had gone to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate experience."

Safi finds out-of-class time highly valuable, citing the weekly meetings where the Core curriculum faculty discuss what is going on in the classroom. This support and collaboration with colleagues has helped him weave together his teaching and research for the betterment of both.

"I have taught courses on Islamic mystical tradition, but I have also taught courses on Islam and the modern world, an extension of my work that would not be possible if I was at a larger institution that would have forced me to specialize," said Safi. "Some of the ways that I am seen and recognized internationally have everything to do with the courses I have developed here."

Safi is also proud of the high level of discourse and the respect that faculty members have for each other. He talks specifically about his relationship with Steve Kepnes, director of the Jewish studies program, and Lesleigh Cushing, who also teaches Jewish studies.

"Steve insisted that I teach my class on Islam in the Modern World in the Saperstein Jewish Center," said Safi. "He knew that we were going to talk about controversial issues, because you cannot talk about modern Islam without doing so, but he wanted us to come together in that place."

"I've traveled around enough to know that this isn't the norm, and I am so grateful for what we have here." said Safi.

Colgate at its best
Safi is proud of the connections that he has created in and out of the classroom. During a recent Hamilton snowstorm, one of his students-turned-neighbors, Ali Mitnick '05, knocked on the door to see if he needed help shoveling his driveway. They spent the next hour working together, talking about life, her applications to graduate school, and anything else that came to mind.

"I later thought how lucky I am to be here and how this would never happen at most other places," said Safi. "That, to me, is Colgate at its best -- faculty-student relationships that expand over time."

Morgenstein, who has taken three classes with Safi, agrees.

"Omid was the first professor I met at Colgate, and he has remained my adviser, favorite professor, and friend ever since," she said. "As I pursue my graduate degrees, with hopes of being half the professor he is, he has given me much advice and confidence in my own work."

While at home one day (doing this interview, and watching his three-year-old son Amir), Safi took a call from a colleague at Harvard, asking if he'd be interested in giving a lecture there this spring -- and maybe more. He admitted that he has been recruited by other schools in the past, but has made it clear that Colgate, and Hamilton, is the place for him.

"There is something about this place, the space around it, that makes it ideal for thinking," said Safi. "I can't imagine having written this book [Progressive Muslims] in any place other than Hamilton."

His colleagues, and the students, provide Safi with plenty of energy, but he also finds himself excited about the direction in which Colgate is headed.

"This is such an exciting time to be at Colgate," said Safi. "I still pinch myself every once in a while."

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