Jalaluddin Mohammad Rumi’s spiritual poems and perpetual wisdom have transcended time and cultures.
Seven hundred and fifty years after his death, the celebrated Persian thinker remains a best-selling poet in the West, revered as an Islamic dervish in the East, while his sagacious thoughts rule the internet.
When he died on December 17, 1273, aged 66, the streets of Konya, in present-day Turkey, were filled with mourners from multiple creeds and nations, reflective of the cosmopolitan society that lived in 13th century Anatolia – it was a time when the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and arts prospered.
At his funeral, his followers, who also included Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, each recited from their own scriptures.
This year too, on Sunday, the man posthumously known by his nisbah (a name indicating one’s origins) Rumi, will be honoured by his followers on Sheb-i Arus – meaning wedding night in both Persian and Turkish.
And it would be in the spirit of the Persian poet’s call: “Our death is our wedding with eternity.”
From the British capital, London, to California in the United States, to Konya, his murids or devotees, will gather in whirls of motion and emotion, remembering his own elegiac eulogy:
“When you see my corpse is being carried,
Don’t cry for my leaving,
I’m not leaving,
I’m arriving at eternal love.” – Rumi (translated by Muhammad Ali Mojaradi)
Who is Rumi in the east?
Rumi is believed to have been born in the early thirteenth century in Balkh (now in Afghanistan), though some say his place of birth was in Central Asia.
At the time of his birth (1207), the Persianate Empire spanned from India in the east and as far west as Greece, with many staking a claim to the man who would become more popularly known as Rumi, reflecting the region where he would settle – the Sultanate of Rum, also known as Anatolia.
In the eastern world, Rumi’s name is often preceded by the honorific title Mevlana or Maulana (meaning our master), showing just how respected he is as an Islamic scholar and Sufi saint. To state his name without this title in some circles would receive tut-tutting and be considered disrespectful.
“Like any historical figure who spans cultures, he has taken on a life of his own,” explained Muhammad Ali Mojaradi, a Persian scholar based in Kuwait.
He said people tend to project their own understanding and bias when engaging with historical texts, including Rumi’s.
“I have heard that Rumi is a staunchly orthodox Sunni Muslim, others say he is a closeted Zoroastrian, or a deviant Sufi, or someone who is too enlightened to subscribe to a religion. Some consider him a Tajik, a Khurasani, others a Persian, or Iranian, some are adamant that he is Turkish. These are more indicative of our biases than the real Rumi.”
During his life, his identity was intrinsically linked to his faith.
“I am the servant of the Quran, for as long as I have a soul.
I am the dust on the road of Muhammad, the Chosen One.
If someone interprets my words in any other way,
That person I deplore, and I deplore his words.”
– Rumi (translated by Muhammad Ali Mojaradi)
Rumi was an Islamic scholar, following in a long line, and taught Sharia or Islamic law. He would also practise Tasawwuf, more popularly known as Sufism in the West. It is a way of understanding and drawing closer to God through the purification of the inner self, reflecting and remembering God through meditative chants, songs and sometimes even dance.
Other thinkers and poets of his time included Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian philosopher and Fariddudin Attar, the Persian author of the Mantiq-ut-Tayr (Conference of the Birds).
Islam’s openness to discussion and debate at this time would allow the poetry and arts to thrive, influencing the works of other Persian poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyam.
What did Rumi become known for?
After completing his theological education in Syria’s Aleppo, Rumi went to Konya where he met a wandering dervish, named Shams-i-Tabriz, who left a lasting impact on the Islamic scholar.
Baraka Blue, founder of a spiritual arts movement, the Rumi Center, in California, said Tabriz would transform Rumi, and lead to his “spiritual awakening”.
Rumi penned his magnum opus, the Masnavi, a 50,000-line poem, written in rhyming couplets and quatrains about a lifelong yearning in search of God.
It would become the most famed of his works. Other notable works include Fihi Ma Fihi and Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi – a collection of poems written in honour of his spiritual mentor.
“It [Masnavi] was actually called the ‘Quran in Persian’, indicating that it is the pinnacle of expression in that language but also that it is an exposition of the Quran in the Persian tongue,” Blue, the acclaimed rapper and poet, told Al Jazeera.
As Rumi says in the introduction, “this is the root of the root of the root of the way [faith],” added Blue, author of The Art of Remembrance.
To fully understand and appreciate the depths of Rumi’s words, “a firm grasp of the Islamic tradition in general and Sufism in particular” is needed, Blue said. “His words are undoubtedly a beautiful entry point to this tradition [of Islam].”
Rumi himself would advise readers of the Masnavi to make ritual ablution and be in a state of cleanliness as one would upon reading the Quran or praying the five daily prayers. The intention when reading it was to connect with the Creator.
Who is Rumi in the West?
The first-known English translation of some of Rumi’s work was published in 1772 by a British judge and linguist William Jones in Calcutta — now Kolkata — then the base of the British East India Company. Persian was still the official language in courts and public offices in India, a legacy of Mughal rule.
Rumi’s mystical pull attracted other British translators, JW Redhouse in 1881, Reynold A Nicholson (1925) and AJ Arberry’s Mystical Poems of Rumi (1960-79).
But Rumi reached truly global popularity with the general public after older, more academic English translations of his work were retranslated, in particular in the 1990s by American writer Coleman Barks. More than seven centuries after Rumi’s death, he was a best-selling poet.
Yet that popular reach came at a cost, say some experts.
“The main issue for decades has been that the Rumi presented to Western readers, including Muslims, is that Rumi is a secular, universalist poet,” explained Zirrar Ali, a writer and photographer who has also authored several anthologies of Persian and Urdu poetry.
He told Al Jazeera that just as the works of German philosopher Immanuel Kant and English philosopher John Locke cannot be understood without understanding their belief systems, it should be the same with Rumi.
“What should be asked is why has Rumi been transformed so freely? It is partially laziness and partially intentional,” he added.
Removing Rumi’s orthodox Sunni beliefs has led to wrongful translations, he said, that cater to a pseudo-secular image of the man and his work.
Rumi is not only cast as a universalist, Ali said, “he is painted as a free-thinking liberal … a man who wants nothing but wine, free sex and joy”.
Omid Safi, a professor at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University in North Carolina, also points to inaccurate translations.
“God” or “The Beloved”, is considered to be a human beloved, “rather than subtle references that encompass all earthly, celestial, and divine beloveds”, he explained.
“Another concrete example is the much-quoted line ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground’. But Rumi’s original is specifically referring to Ruku’ and Sajda, which are postures of the [daily] Islamic prayer.”
Rendering of some of Rumi’s “most popular versions … water down the Islamic context”, Safi told Al Jazeera.
By 2015, half a million copies of Barks’s The Essential Rumi translations were sold, making Rumi the most widely read poet in the United States. From Coldplay singer Chris Martin to Madonna, pop icons have spoken of how they have been inspired by Rumi’s work. Martin has referred to the Barks translation. Al Jazeera reached out to Barks for a comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Perhaps without realising the deeper connections to Islam, a meme-obsessed internet then readily turned digestible one-liners into shareable quotes, that would be used by lovelorn romantics to try to capture the heart of their beloved, or to at least get a date.
Still, even critics of Rumi’s meme-ification acknowledge potential gains from translations that have made the poet more accessible to 21st-century audiences.
“Whether or not Barks’s work has merit or counts as a translation aside, if it leads people to read more about Rumi and discover more accurate renderings, or even learn to read Persian, that is a good thing,” Mojaradi, who founded the passion project Persian Poetics in 2018 to debunk the rise in fake Rumi quotes, told Al Jazeera.
That is just what happened to Baraka Blue. He was led to Rumi in his teenage years when he would soak up poetry with like-minded friends, beat poets, musicians and songwriters. Rumi’s words, he said, had a “profound impact”.
“It wasn’t that he was good with words, it was the state he was speaking from and the reality he was describing. That’s what drew me in,” Blue, an educator and poet, told Al Jazeera. So enraptured was Blue, he embraced Islam at age 20 and made a pilgrimage to Rumi’s tomb in Konya three months later.
His shrine has become a point of pilgrimage for millions of devotees and tourists, with the attached Mevlana Museum recording 3.5 million visitors in 2019, the year before COVID-19 hit. It is here too that the largest performance of the iconic sema dance is performed, especially during Sheb-i-Arus.
Is Rumi’s Sufi dance a panacea for modern lifestyle problems?
Though its origins are as mysterious as the movement itself, some say it was Tabriz who introduced Rumi to the sema.
It would only become ritualised and part of a ceremony a few years after Rumi died in 1273, Sultan Walad, the eldest of his four children, established the Mevlevi Order, sometimes also known as the Order of the Whirling Dervish in reference to the enchanting sema ceremony.
Although the dance was added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, and Konya is expecting thousands to attend this year’s Sheb-i-Arus, in some places, where Sufism is less accepted, it is practised privately.
Al Jazeera attended a sema performance in London. There, heads jolted to the right, eyes cast to the earth, arms extended as if about to fly, seven people spun in tandem, their earthy off-white linen dresses started to gently open up like the petals of waterlilies. A left hand pointed to the ground, while the right up to the heavens. They spun. Silently. To the echoes of the gentle nye.
The rotation, explained one of the dervishes to Al Jazeera later, is in an anticlockwise motion, “just like the pilgrims around the Kaaba and the birds that fly above it”.
Claire*, a spectator at the sema dance ceremony, said she found her way to Rumi about 30 years ago.
“I was going through a particularly troublesome time in my life, and a friend suggested I join her at a gathering that may help. I was expecting some type of yoga class, but what it actually was this, the sema.”
“You don’t have to belong to a faith. Remember Mevlana tells us ‘come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire; come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times’,” she added.
“Those lines tell us everything, his teachings were meant to transcend all religion.”
But Mojaradi said, these lines, perhaps the most popular lines attributed to Rumi, are not actually his words, but instead belong to Abu Said Abu al-Khayr, another Persian Sufi poet who lived 200 years before Rumi.
“The fact that even Rumi’s most dedicated followers are inundated with false or mistranslated quotes, shows how big of a problem we’re dealing with,” said Mojaradi, who launched Rumi Was a Muslim project in 2021 to counter this.
“I am happy if anyone reads Rumi at any level, but they are doing themselves a disservice if they do not dive deeper. Sure, anything that spreads his message on any level can be seen as a good thing,” he said.
What makes Rumi so universal?
Rumi’s message is “strikingly universal”, said Blue. “It’s evidenced by his popularity in translation all over the world.”
“One of Rumi’s great gifts is to communicate profound metaphysical truths in the language of simple metaphor from shared human experience. He will speak of a ruby and a stone, or a chickpea in the pot, or a donkey that was stolen, or really anything at all – but the whole time he is speaking about the One.”
And at its core, it is his message of love that ultimately makes him relatable – whether that is interpreted as divine love, romantic, or familial.
“Set fire to everything, except love.”
– Rumi (translated by Muhammad Ali Mojaradi)
Mojaradi added: “Rumi’s love is a fire, everyone is yearning for a spark to set their life on fire. Especially in this modern world where everything seems to be meaningless and fleeting.”
* Some names changed to protect identity