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Your words are his faith
t's a cold spring evening. I'm attending an interfaith
dialogue at the University of Michigan Hillel orga-
nized by a friend of mine for MuJew, the Muslim/Jew-
ish collaboration group. A man has assumed the spotlight,
not because he wants it, but because he was asked. His
manner is unassuming, yet assured. When he speaks, the
room goes quiet.
He launches into a brief anecdote of the West's misper-
ceptions of Islamic governmental structures, assuring us
that his knowledge on this matter is limited. His words
evoke a modesty that, for me, comes to characterize him.
Though such knowledge isn't required for his job as the
University's Muslim chaplain, Mohammed Tayssir Safi is
what one might call learned. He narrates with confidence
and a smile that all but envelops his face. He is, as friends and
family will tell me in the months to come, "spiritual." They
will repeat the word over and over again, until it hangs thick
in the air.
I heard the stories about him before I actually heard him.
In February, National Public Radio ran a story on Safi,
explaining his significance as "the first endowed Muslim
chaplaincy at a public university." The necessity of a chaplain
was so patent that a total of $30,000 was raised by alumni
and parents to pay Safi's salary. Nationwide, only 30 univer-
sities make room on their campuses for such a position. As
chaplain, Safi's duties include listening and advising students
of all faiths, though primarily the 850 Muslim students on
campus. He also works with other campus religious leaders
in addition to advocating on behalf of the Muslim Student
"It's an act of worship just to meet people: to talk to them,
to hear them, to listen to what they have to say so that you
can better serve them," Safi told the Daily in a profile earlier
I asked students who knew him, had heard of him, or had
maybe read about him, as I had. The responses I received
were overwhelmingly positive.
"He listens," said LSA junior Omar Hashwi, the Central
Student Government vice president, who had Safi as an Ara-
bic teacher. "He listens really well."
"Deeply personable, and incredibly sincere," said Chris
Blauvelt, who has known Safi since college and now lives in
But what really got me was the way Blauvelt described
his friend's method of offering counsel: "It's really like
you're getting advice from the prophet Muhammad, which,
as a Muslim, is like the best thingyou can have," he said. "So
it feels like this isn't just his opinion or, like, his whims ...
there's something of greater, eternal nature to his advice."
What would lead people to talk of this man as though he had
some kind of otherworldly insight? Was it just friends talking
up their buddy? When cynicism can seem like the default lan-
guage of a college campus, what would make students - Mus-
lim and non-Muslim alike - revere a man of the cloth?
As a non-religious person who tries to avoid the topic
altogether, I'm intrigued by someone so young - Safi is only
28 - who can project an honest spiritual presence, and have
young people respond accordingly. I wanted to know: Is this
guy for real? Call it the casual curiosity of a skeptic examin-
ing the life of a true believer.
A man of faith
"Can I get you anything, tea?" he offers, sitting cross-
legged in his chair.
Talking to Safi can be like trying to paint a secluded
piece of scenery. It's an act that focuses the mind, forcing
you to look at the most minute details of your surroundings
in a new light. Reclining in an office used by the Muslim
Students Association on the fourth floor of the Michigan
Union, he creates a congenial atmosphere. He is a man of
good cheer and humble stature, and often elects to meet
with students at local coffee shops as opposed to the MSA
There's also an energy thatbubbles beneath his quiet exte-
rior. He's sharp, and he can spew facts as wide-ranging as the
plight of African-Americans in U.S. history to the psycholog-
ical turmoil college students endure. Yet for all his intellect,
religiosity. He says we have no idea how close we are to
"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 ,
"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."
By Jacob Axelrad
"Muhammad, when he received a revelation, used to go pale and sweat and struggle with
the effort to articulate the word of God. We should take a lesson from that, because all
of this facile God-talk has made the discussion of God actually impossible. Once you start
saying, 'I know what God is' or defining God, you have created an idol. Religious language
should be transparent to transcendence.".
-Writer Karen Armstrong, who has written 12 books on world religions, in an interview with The Believer magazine in June 2012.
Safi is a teacher. Rather than be prescriptive, he's more likely
to ask, What doyou think?
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 cri-
"(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 alot 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
thing 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
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
Safi explained, however, that unlike many Muslim stu-
dents who might come from households centered around
mosques, his upbringing was more separate from those types
"I think I've been around strong mosques and I under-
stand 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
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
PHOTOS BY MARLENE LACASSE