13th-century Muslim mystic and poet is all the rage
By Kimberly Winston Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Published December 30, 2000
In the middle of the 13th century, a Muslim mystic spun round and round a pillar in his Turkish mosque, uttering ecstatic poetry so beautiful that almost 800 years later he is the best-selling poet in America.
known by just his last name, is on his way to becoming a household name.
The Internet search
engine Altavista lists more than 2,700 sites that contain some reference
to him - everything from concert listings to calligraphy, from Rumi-inspired
art to a self-esteem program based on his poems. In the past four months,
there have been five international Rumi festivals, from the poet's home
in Konya, Turkey, to Chapel Hill, N.C.
Who was this Rumi?
And why is he, a man who lived and died in a culture so far removed from
ours in time and temperament, so well-known and loved?
dreams of Rumi, visions of Rumi, they feel him, they sense him,"
said Shahram Shiva, a Persian who translates and performs Rumi's poems.
"He is accessible. He is almost eager to reach out to people, to
touch people, to help them, to uplift them. This is not just a case of
beautiful words on paper. It is a case of the cosmic force of this man
who lived 800 years ago now living in this world in some subtle form,
just as a saint or a prophet would."
His life was pretty
routine for a Turkish theologian until 1244. That's when he met a stranger,
Shams of Tabriz, who asked him a question that rattled everything he knew.
No one knows for certain what the question was, but many scholars agree
it was something like, "Who is greater? Mohammed (the founder of
Islam) or Bestami (another Muslim scholar and teacher)?"
What is certain is
that Rumi and Shams became inseparable. They discussed theology until
all hours, needing no one but themselves. Some of Rumi's followers became
jealous, and Shams disappeared in the middle of the night. It is thought
that one of Rumi's sons murdered him, or had someone else do the job.
After his initial
meeting with Shams, Rumi became a mystic, cupping one hand about a pillar
in mosque and speaking in poetry. His followers wrote down his poems -
and copied his movements, which today survive in the Mevlevi order of
"whirling dervishes" they eventually founded.
Where the heart is
Admirers and scholars
say that one reason Rumi has become and remained so popular is that his
work can be read on different levels. A couple could read the above poem
together and see their passion reflected in Rumi's words, while a seeker
of spiritual meaning could find in it a description of his passion for
"Rumi is not
writing these esoteric poems, but he is writing about the human condition,"
said Dr. James Fadiman, co-author of The Essential Sufism (HarperSanFrancisco).
"He is saying you can use the world to describe the higher world.
You are just a drop in the ocean, but inside that drop is all of the universe.
The divine is totally in you and in everything else."
Dr. Fadiman further
sums up Rumi's American popularity in two words: Coleman Barks, who translated
the preceding poem.
"There are lots
of other translators now - at least 6 or 10 of them. Many of them have
flashes of brilliance, but Coleman is consistently moving," Dr. Fadiman
Mr. Barks, a published
poet in his own right, does not craft his own translations from the original
Persian. He starts with existing English translations and reworks them.
He is the translator of The Essential Rumi (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995),
which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, more than twice any other
title in the publisher's Essential series, including The Essential Jesus
and The Essential Kabbalah.
A native of Athens,
Ga., Mr. Barks was introduced to Rumi through his own Sufi teacher. He
attributes the poet's appeal to the fact that his approach to religion
was universal. Rumi was a Muslim, but he is reported to have said that
whether someone was Christian or Jewish - or, by extension, any other
faith - made no difference to him or, more important, to God.
Shahram Shiva, who
has been translating and performing Rumi's works for 10 years, said that
Arab Muslims have told him that Rumi forms a bridge between them and their
"Because of what
is going on in the Middle East, some Muslims feel they get a bad rap [in
the United States]," he said. "But through Rumi, some Muslims
feel they have found a new acceptance in the U.S."
Mystery and ecstasy
"Rumi is all
about the opening of the heart, which I think people are interested in
as a way of getting out of the God clubs and into the more universal feeling
of the sacred," he said. "Rumi says the sacred space is everywhere
and the text is your own life, rather than [that] the sacred is ... exclusive."
That is also the experience
of Mr. Shiva. After performing Rumi's works at concerts from New York
City to La Jolla, Calif., Mr. Shiva says the average audience member is
a 35- to 40- year-old white woman.
"And she is a
Christian," Mr. Shiva added. "Our eyes are opening, and we are
realizing that organized religion has many shortcomings. Organized religion
has nothing to do with God - it gives you a package deal that tells you
what to believe. But what people are learning is that there is something
more, and they want that something more."
Rumi, he continued,
shows them that "something more." He has asked concertgoers
to write down why they like Rumi and has posted the 12 most frequent responses
on his Web site, www.Rumi.net. Respondents describe Rumi as everything
from their "friend" to their "spiritual guide."
And that, Mr. Shiva
said, makes Rumi part of the whole self-help movement that has dominated
the American culture for the last decade.
"If you can curl
up with Rumi and find a lover, or a spiritual guide, you are helping yourself,"
he said. "What is a spiritual guide? Someone who inspires your spirituality.
That is the essence of it."
Dr. Fadiman agreed,
calling the current flood of Rumi products "the Rumi industry."
But, he added, there is a lot more Rumi out there waiting to be translated,
such as his non-poetic discourses. In the meantime, he said he thinks
the next level of Rumi publications will explore the psychological, therapeutic
level of his poems.
"I often joke
that I am just waiting to see the cookbook and the exercise video,"