Remembering Rumi: How he inspired the East and the West

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 SEP 30, 2021 – DAILY SABAH


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Whirling Dervishes take part in a Sama ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 17, 2017. (Getty Images Photo)

Whirling Dervishes take part in a Sama ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Istanbul, Turkey, Dec. 17, 2017. (Getty Images Photo)

“Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations

Saying, “Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed, my lament has caused man and woman to moan.

I want a bosom torn by severance, that I may unfold the pain of love-desire.

Everyone who is left far from his source wishes back the time when he was united with it.”

With these words, Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi begins his famous collection of “Masnavi” – one of the most important, influential and widespread works of Sufi literature in the world. The masterpiece is interpreted as one of the world’s greatest poems, thanks to its depth of thought and inventiveness of images.

Why is it so important? Who is Rumi? What is the secret behind his great influence on Western culture, apart from other great Sufis?

Rumi’s background

Rumi is known in Iran as Jalaladdin Muhammad Balkhi (relating to the place of his birth), while in Turkey he is called Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi (relating to the country of the Romans or Anatolia, where he lived and became famous).

Rumi was born in the city of Balkh (currently in northern Afghanistan) on Sept. 30, 1207. His father is Baha al-Din Walad, a great jurist and mystic nicknamed the “Sultan of the Scholars.”

Rumi emigrated with his family from Balkh to Nishapur and then from there to Baghdad. The family spent many years moving between the cities of the Islamic world until it settled in the city of Qarman (central Turkey) and then the family migrated again to Konya, the capital of the Seljuk state, at the invitation of the Seljuk Sultan Aladdin Kayqubad I. And, on May 3, 1228, Rumi started a new life.

‘The meeting of the two seas’

It is not possible to discuss Rumi’s legacy and influence in the world without mentioning Shams Tabrizi – a dervish who was the reason for Rumi’s transformation from a jurist scholar to a mystic who knew God and whose followers have spread to all parts of the world over several centuries up through the present.

Tabrizi was born in Tabriz, and the exact date of his birth and death is not known. He is called “the pole of Sufism,” “the emperor of the madmen of love,” while the masters of Sufism call him “the bird.”

For Rumi, he was like the sun in whose absence the moonlight would never shine.

Just as Tabrizi’s meeting with Rumi had a great impact on his intellectual journey, their separation also had a greater impact on his literary production. Had it not been for the meeting, Rumi wouldn’t be the Rumi we know. Had it not been for the separation, Rumi would not have been burned by “the fire of longing that burned him” (fire is here a famous complex metaphor of Rumi) and he would not have written his poems that roamed the earth.

In “Manaqib al-Arifeen (Stories of the Lovers of God),” scholar Ahmed Eflaki says that Tabrizi’s separation from Rumi is a manifestation of majesty, just as their meeting was a manifestation of beauty. Therefore, talking about Rumi and his influence in the West is at the same time talking about Tabrizi and his influence in an indirect way.

Eastern and Western culture

Although Rumi’s works are literary works of a Muslim jurist and mystic, written in the Persian language, they crossed the barriers of language, religion and culture to reach different peoples belonging to different civilizations and cultures.

Although the first printing of Masnavi (the Persian version) was in Cairo in 1835, the West’s interest in studying the life and works of Rumi far exceeds the interest of the Islamic world. Many of those who translated Rumi’s works into Arabic even quoted them from the English and French translations made by some Orientalists.

Rumi has had a great influence on Indo-Islamic culture since the 14th century, when Nizamuddin Auliya, the great guide of the Chishti order, wrote a commentary on Masnavi.

However, Rumi’s greatest influence on Indian culture in the modern era was thanks to the Islamic poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who considered Rumi his spiritual guide and “the prince of the caravan of love.”

His poetry in the West

The Western world’s interest in studying Rumi’s personality and poetry began as early as the 18th century through diplomats and travelers who visited the Ottoman Empire and got acquainted with the Mevlevi Order and its famous symbol of the Sama performance. Then, they started transmitting what they saw to their own countries.

Western Orientalists had a great influence in introducing Rumi to the Western world. British Orientalist Reynold Alleyne Nicholson was one of the first to translate Rumi’s works when he translated selections from the book “Shams of Tabriz” in 1898. Nicholson also published a translation of Masnavi in eight volumes within 15 years. He had a great impact on the knowledge English culture has of Rumi’s poems. He also had a major role in transmitting Rumi’s poems to the Arabs, as many Arab researchers and translators translated Rumi’s poems from Nicholson’s English translation.

After that, interest in Rumi’s literature increased in the early 20th century and a large number of Orientalists studied and translated Rumi’s works, most notably British Orientalist Arthur John Arberry (1905-1969) and the German orientalist Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003), who wrote a book entitled “The Triumphal Sun” that contains a study and analysis of Rumi’s poetry.

The French doctor of Islamology Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch (1909-1999), who became acquainted with Islam and announced her conversion to Islam through her knowledge and study of Rumi and his poems, made great contributions in the transfer of Rumi’s poems into French and even Arabic. In 1990, she even translated Masnavi into French. She requested that she be buried next to Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya, central Turkey. Several years after her death, in 2008, her body was transferred from France to Turkey and buried in a cemetery opposite the Mausoleum of Rumi in Konya.

The shrine of Rumi in central Konya province comes to the forefront with its distinctive green-tiled cylindrical dome.
The shrine of Rumi in central Konya province comes to the forefront with its distinctive green-tiled cylindrical dome.

However, the real impact of Mevlana’s poems on Western culture began with the American poet and writer Colman Barks, who took interest in Rumi and his poems from the academic domain to the popular level when he composed poems inspired by the translation of the Masnavi and published them in 1976. After that, Barks’ interest in Rumi’s poems continued and he issued eight volumes on him and his poetry. Although he did not know Farsi, Barks hired a translator to work on Rumi’s works. His formulation of Rumi’s poems close to the style of American free verse was an influential factor in their spread in popular circles, such that many pop singers and singers in the U.S. in the 90s sang Rumi’s poems at their concerts: from Madonna to John Bon Jovi, from Goldie Hawn to Demi Moore. This has further contributed to increasing awareness of Rumi among all sectors of the people and increasing his influence in Western culture.

The fact that Rumi’s influence in Western culture grew and his works became best-selling books in the U.S. between 2004 and 2006 caused UNESCO to celebrate Rumi on 2007 on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of his birth. A huge celebration was held in Paris in addition to various events in 18 countries around the world.

In 2015, the American singer Christopher Anthony John Martin (Chris Martin), lead singer of the band Coldplay, included excerpts from Rumi’s poems entitled “The Guest House” in his band’s new album, and the song achieved great success in the U.S. and abroad.

In 2016, The Guardian announced that David Franzoni, the screenwriter of the movie Gladiator, agreed with producer Stephen Joel Brown to produce a film about the life of Rumi, and announced their intention to nominate actor Leonardo Di Caprio to embody the character of Rumi; however, the project didn’t go on.

It can be said that Rumi’s influence in Western culture is widespread in popular and artistic circles, in contrast to his influence in the Islamic world and – especially in the Arab world – where this influence was confined to the academic domain.

Eric Geoffroy, French professor of Philosophy and Mysticism at the University of Strasbourg who previously taught at some universities in Damascus, says that the spiritual atmosphere of Persian and Turkish is completely different and simpler than Arab spirituality. He says Rumi’s teachings are apparently easy to understand compared to the most famous Arab mystics such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn al-Farid, which makes the study of Rumi and his poetry more attractive to the West.

According to Can Ceylan, a specialist in Sufism and a faculty member at Medipol University in Turkey, some of the ideas that Rumi put forward in his poems appear to be approaching shamanism or ancient Greek philosophy, and this is among the reasons for the West’s interest in Rumi. This is why they desire to present him as a poet and a philosopher, distancing him from his Islamic identity while Rumi himself always emphasized this fact.

It is worth mentioning one excerpt from Masnavi:

“This is the Book of Masnavi, which is the roots of the roots of the roots of religion in the way in respect of unveiling the mysteries of attainment and of certainty; and which is the greatest science of God and the clearest way of God and the most manifest evidence of God.”

To demonstrate that the Masnavi is not only a book of mystical poetry and wisdom, but a complete approach to understanding religion, Ceylan says that “perhaps Rumi has meeting points with Greek philosophers or ancient Chinese culture, and perhaps his poems contain positions mentioned in the Bible and the Torah to convey an idea. But above all, he is a scholar and Muslim jurist, just as the Qur’an does not deny the Torah and the Bible.”

“Or whoever is a disciple of Rumi, he must first be a Muslim. Because the Mawlawi Order and the teachings of Rumi are not separate from Islam.”

Ceylan also says that Rumi is a good “brand” for introducing Islam and its teachings, presenting a correct image of Islam and correcting the stereotyped image in the minds of some that links Islam with violence and the rejection of the other, noting that the Masnavi has been translated into 26 languages and has continued to inspire many for more than 800 years.

We can conclude with a quote from one of the most famous and widely spread poems of Rumi, as it is a summary of the approach that a person should live by, regardless of his religion or race:

“In compassion and grace, be like the sun … In concealing other’s faults, be like the night…In generosity and helping others, be like a river … In anger and fury, be like dead … In modesty and humility, be like the earth … Either appear as you are, or be as you appear..”


Senior editor at Daily Sabah Arabic


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