Sufi Poet and Mystic Rumi Remains Compelling to American Readers

Sufi Poet and Mystic Rumi Remains Compelling to American Readers

Sufi Poet and Mystic Rumi Remains Compelling to American Readers  -  Wisdom of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi

22 October 2007

Sufi Poet and Mystic Rumi Remains Compelling to American Readers

UNESCO designates 2007 as International Year of Rumi

 

Washington — Ask Americans who is the most popular poet in the country today, and they might guess Walt Whitman or Robert Frost.

Many might be surprised to learn that the correct answer (measured either in public interest or total book sales) is the Sufi mystic and poet known as Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi), born 800 years ago in Central Asia.

Rumi (1207-1273) continues to fascinate and engage — regardless of culture, race or language — and American scholars and readers are among the smitten.

The source of Rumi’s sustained popularity in the United States also crosses barriers of time and global cultures. It is his powerful ability at “evoking ecstasy and the divine,” says Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossain Nasr. “His poetry has the power of universality.”

New translations of Rumi’s voluminous works continue to appear; scholarly studies of his life and work proliferate; and renditions of his poems are being set to music on stages, CDs and the Internet in the United States and around the world.

To honor Rumi, as scholar, writer, and poet, UNESCO has designated 2007 — the 800th anniversary of his birth — as the International Year of Rumi. UNESCO marked the occasion with a daylong seminar at its headquarters in Paris, along with an exhibition of books, manuscripts and paintings related to Rumi’s life and work.

An international conference on Rumi is planned for Tehran, Iran, in late October.

In the United States, the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland sponsored a three-day conference, September 28-30, “to explore Rumi’s poetry and vision as well as his continued relevance to the world.”

LITERARY IMPACT

American poet W.S. Merwin has written, “At the heart of Rumi’s teaching is the immensity of love … a surrender to a divine presence.”

This divine presence, or “Beloved,” is often evoked through Rumi’s celebrated friendship with the wandering Sufi mystic Shams, with whom Rumi sought a spiritual oneness.

Scholar Franklin Lewis credits American poet and professor Coleman Barks, author of The Essential Rumi and Rumi: The Book of Love, as the man “who, more than any other single individual, is responsible for Rumi’s current fame.” (See related article.)

In 1976, the poet Robert Bly handed Barks a translation of Rumi’s work, written in stiff, old-fashioned language, and said, “These poems need to be released from their cages.”

Neither man — Bly nor Barks — could read Persian. (Barks initially worked from the existing English versions but later shifted to literal line-by-line translations by Persian-speaking scholars.)

“His poems have never been for me, or for most readers, museum curios from the 13th century. They are food and drink, nourishment for the part that is hungry for what they give. Call it soul,” Barks has written of Rumi’s work.

As Rumi wrote in one poem:

What was said to the rose that made it open
Was said to me, here in my chest.

This is the world of spiritual longing, for unity with the divine, as in this Barks translation of a well-known Rumi poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

UNIVERSALITY

One element of Rumi’s appeal, scholars agree, is his sense of inclusiveness, his ability to bridge the barriers of religion and culture, which is one reason UNESCO has chosen to honor the man who said, “I do not distinguish between the relative and the stranger.”

At the Maryland conference, Baqer Moin, former head of the BBC Persian Service, observed that Rumi managed the remarkable feat of unifying Iranians, Afghans and Turks, among others. “How? They all agree that ‘Rumi is ours,’” he said.

The conference drew a remarkable range of scholars whose education and backgrounds in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Canada and the United States reflect the depth and breadth of Rumi’s continuing influence.

Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of Islamic studies at McGill University in Montreal, explored the complexity of “voices and audiences” in Rumi’s masterwork of mystical exploration, the Masnavi. Other conference participants debated subjects as far ranging as the traditions of poetic language in Persian Sufi writing, the conundrum of translation and Rumi’s use of folktales and fables.

Nusrat Ul-Ghani, a media consultant born in Kashmir, said that more than 28,000 Web sites on MySpace alone have Rumi references. YouTube has posted 2,200 videos related to Rumi.

Vocalists and performers have recited Rumi’s lines, Ul-Ghani wrote, “From Madonna to Demi Moore in North America, to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent and Dawlatmand Khal in Central Asia, from Shahram Nazeri and Shajarian in Iran to Ostad Sarahang in Afghanistan.”

In announcing the International Year of Rumi, UNESCO said, “He remains one of the greatest thinkers and scholars of Islamic civilization. The peoples of Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey consider him to be their own poet. He addressed humanity as a whole.”

And where would Rumi place himself in this world? Scholar Seyyed Nasr quotes these lines:

Neither of the East am I nor West, nor of the land, nor sea;
Nor of nature’s quarry, nor of heavens circling above.
I am not made of earth or water, nor of wind or fire …

My place is the placeless, my mark the markless;
Not either body nor soul for I am myself the Beloved

More information on the International Conference on Rumi is available on a University of Maryland Web site.

Additional information on the International Year of Rumi is available on the UNESCO Web site.

More information and audio clips on Rumi can be found on the National Public Radio Web site.

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