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.

Jalalu'ddin Rumi, known by just his last name, is on his way to becoming a household name. lists 173 Rumi titles in books, tapes, CDs and videos, by everyone from Persian musicians and American scholars to New Age guru Deepak Chopra. Madonna recorded one of his poems, and a character on the ABC television series Providence quoted him in an episode.
America, it seems, has a bad case of Rumi-tism.

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?

"People have 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."
Jalalu'ddin Rumi was born Sept. 10, 1207, in Afghanistan. His father was part of the mystical Sufi branch of Islam who brought his family to Turkey to escape invading Mongols. Rumi grew up to become a religious scholar and eventually took over his father's position as sheik, or head, of an Islamic learning community.

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)?"
According to Coleman Barks, the foremost American translator of Rumi's poems, Rumi is reported to have chosen Mohammed as his answer, reasoning that because of him God's greatness was always unfolding, whereas Bestami had "taken one gulp of the divine and stopped there."

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
Rumi's works made his way to this country in the 1960s, when a generation looked far outside the United States for spiritual sustenance. What readers found were poems of high emotion, many of which described an almost passionate love of the divine. Here is Rumi on being a lover:
In the early morning hour,
Just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
And take a drink of water.
She asks, "Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth."
He says, "There is nothing left of me.
I'm like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
Made of redness? It has no resistance to sunlight."
This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
And told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.

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 God.

"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 said.

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.
"Rumi saw that there was one song to be sung," Mr. Barks said. "He said there are no boundaries between religions, and he said it with such authority and gentleness in 13th-century Anatolia, while the Crusades were sweeping through. And he still seems to be uniting people. Where they meet is where the heart is."

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 American neighbors.

"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
Mr. Barks gives readings of Rumi around the world. He is in Turkey at an international Rumi festival commemorating the Dec. 17 anniversary of the poet's death. In this country, he credits Rumi's staying power to the religious mystery and ecstasy Rumi describes - two qualities that Mr. Barks said most modern organized religions lack.

"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, 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."
As gratifying as it is to see Rumi so beloved, his fans say they worry he might become over-exposed. Lonny Fields, an organizer of an October Rumi festival at California State University at San Bernardino, said we are in the midst of "the commercialization of Rumi."
"But I think, ultimately, Rumi will be beyond that," he said.

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," he said.
Kimberly Winston is a free-lance writer in Northern California.