Radical Love

Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition

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Omid Safi
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , May
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Omid Safi’s Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition is a collection of his translations of Arabic and Persian literature from the Islamic mystical tradition (tasawwuf). Emphasizing the passionate aspect of love in Sufism, Safi reframes the Sufi path as “Radical Love.” Cautioning against the common perception of love as a “flat, ubiquitous, and ironically, cheap” (xxi) emotion, he stresses the divine roots of love. Employing a hadith, Safi contends that love is, in fact, “God’s yearning and desire to be known, ahbabtu ” (xxxiv), which gave birth to existence, creation, and the world.

Safi collects and translates a diverse range of ecstatic and sensual Sufi poems in his effort to disentangle the Western Academy’s representation of Islam as a dry and legalistic religion. In this, Safi appears to be following the efforts of other scholars within the field, the most recent being Shahab Ahmed. Moreover—attentive to Sufism’s frequent reception as spirituality devoid of its Islamic context—Safi rehabilitates it within the larger Islamic tradition by highlighting its roots in the Qur’ān and Hadith. For instance, quoting Rūmī, Safi argues that Rūmī’s Mathnavī  "repeatedly and emphatically unveils the beauty of the Qur’ān” (xxxvii).

Radical Love opens with a gripping narrative from Farīd-al-Dīn ‘Attār’s Memoirs of the Saints (tazkīrāt al-awliyā). This authorial decision immediately captures the reader’s attention, and swiftly underscores who Sufis are and what motivates them—select individuals aspiring for intimacy with God. Explaining key Sufi terms, such as ihsān, imān, islām, and eshq, Safi then guides the reader through the biographical details of major Sufi figures such as Rūmī, Ahmad al-Ghazzālī, ‘Iraqī, and ‘Attār.

The book is further divided into four sections—God of Love, Path of Love, Lover and Beloved, and Beloved Community—that draw from several sources, such as the Qur’ān, Hadith, and Sufi prose and poetry. Although Radical Loveis dominated by pre-modern poetry, it also includes a few contemporary poems as well. One finds that while Kharaqānī’s (d.1033), ‘Attār’s (d.1221), and Rūmī’s (d.1273) poetry is amply translated, representation of other seminal figures—Ahmad Ghazzālī (d.1126), Ibn ‘Arabī (d.1240), Amīr Khusrau (d.1325), and Hāfez (d.1390)—remains limited. However, the book is strengthened by Safi’s inclusion, albeit brief, of the oral and performative tradition, rather than restricting himself to textual sources. For instance, he translates a fragment of a Qawwālī sung by the Sabri Brothers (37), a famous Qawwāl group from Pakistan.

Departing from the relatively literal translations of R.A. Nicholson, A.J. Arberry and Annemarie Schimmel, Safi renders the poetry in blank verse. In attempting a translation that is “evocative, fresh, accurate and poetic” (xxxvii), he experiments liberally with form, often playing with syntax and employing literary tools such as enjambment for rhetorical effect. For example, Safi chooses not to arrange ghazals in couplets (bayts) or maintain rhyme (qāfias) or refrain (radīfs) as some scholars such as Dick Davis have previously attempted. Instead, Safi frequently plucks single verses from a longer text and avoids punctuation at the end of the poem. These literary choices render the poetry more accessible to the reader.

Another notable aspect of Safi’s method is his engagement with philosophical ideas through the use of “everyday” contemporary objects, as demonstrated by his translation of Rūmī’s poem that Safi titles as “Love is the GPS” (128). Safi distills complex metaphysical ideas into easily understandable words and metaphors. For instance, in order to represent the idea of annihilation in God (fanā’), he translates a poem by Kharāqānī as “I shed my ego/as a snake discards/its old skin” (135). Furthermore, employing visually evocative language, Safi depicts the theme of longing for God through ‘Attar’s poem, “Frenzied Ocean of Love”: “The ocean’s commotion/is because/of yearning/for God/It is the fire of love/that whips/water/into frenzied wave” (136).

It is worth noting Safi’s contention that the “path of Radical Love” (mazhab-e eshq/madhhab al-Ishq) is not named after a mystic or a scholar but is simply God’s own path (xxii). For Safi, mazhab-e eshq stands in sharp contrast to schools of law (madhhab, pl. madhāhib), each of which were named after the respective Imam whose methodology was followed within the school (xxii). While this analogy may have heuristic benefits, it has the potential to mislead readers into assuming that the historical development of organized mysticism in Islam occurred in competition with the Islamic legal schools, as an alternative structure of authority. Moreover, the suggestion that Sufi orders (tarīqahs) did not revolve around charismatic authorities is belied by the historical formation of variousturuq (sing. tarīqah) (especially during the 13th and 14th centuries) for whom genealogical chains (sing. silsila) leading back to masters (pīrs or shaykhs) were important sources of legitimacy and identity—examples include the Suharwardīyyah order associated with Abu Najīb al-Suharwardī and the Qādiriyyah with ‘Abd al Qādir al Jīlānī (Ira M. Lapidus, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History, Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Specialists may find Safi’s choice of translating ecstatic poetry in order to cast Sufi path as “Radical Love” to have understated other aspects, such as the theological and political tensions that historically marked Sufism. Moreover, interested researchers may wish for more detailed references and be hindered by the omission of notes for the introduction. Despite these limitations, Radical Love is a fresh and welcome addition to currently available translations of Islamic mystical literature and amongst a handful of translations available to the general public that highlights the Islamic roots of Sufi poetry. While most appropriate for the general, non-specialist reader, the book could potentially appeal to undergraduate students as well. Unique in its form and method, it is a delightful read and beautiful foray into the Islamic mystical tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ilma Qureshi is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Omid Safi is Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and a columnist for On Being, is a frequent commentator on Islam. He has published numerous books, including Memories of Muhammad.



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