Rumi's writings fall into two basic categories. One category is the lyric poems--the gazals and rubayat. These poems are somewhat ecstatic and intoxicated. They don't often directly refer to Islamic teachings because they work in the language of metaphor and poetry. These poems also work in the conventions of classical Persian poetry, where people use the metaphors of wine and passionate love, knowing very well that they were referring to spiritual experiences and that these experiences are rooted within an Islamic context.
Nowadays, it has been these kind of poems that have been the more popular ones in America. Whereas his "Mathnawi," which has his more mature teachings and which contain references to Qur'anic ayat and hadith and Islamic practice on every page, are only now becoming popular.
Also, some of the most popular translations have had some of the Islamic references removed because they would not be intelligible to the average American.
However, Rumi's message is always about the love of God and the surrender to God. So, even when he appears to be talking about passionate love or intoxicating wine--all of this is a metaphor for the surrender to God. And that quality of surrender appeals to people in America today, and they don't realize that this surrender is Islam.
Have many people come to Islam through Rumi?
Rumi's poetry is having an enormous effect in terms of softening people's hearts toward Islam. In America today, the reputation of Sufism among Americans is almost impeccable, whereas Islam inspires fear and prejudice. But for those who know about Sufism, and for those spiritual seekers or for those who have a broader consciousness, Sufism is universally appreciated and respected.
But most people don't know how to bring Islam and Sufism together because they find the Islam they are presented with or the stereotype of Islam frightening. Rumi and Sufism seem irreconcilable with Islam, but they are deeply related. In fact, most of the people who come to Islam come to it through Sufism. The only significant exception here is the African American population, which came through another door. The vast majority of people in the West who come to Islam come to it through Sufism.
Are there Rumi sayings that have become popular in the mainstream?
For 20 years, I have watched permissions requests come into our office since we published some of the most popular Rumi translations, including those of Coleman Barks. There is something like a Top 10 Rumi quotes. The following would probably top the list:
Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing,
There is a field, I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
even the words "you" and "I" do not exist.
How do more traditional Muslims feel about the drinking references and the sexual imagery in Rumi's poems? What do they mean?
The Sufi literary tradition in the Persian language made use of these metaphors at a certain time to wake people up to the awesome reality of our possible relationship with God, which should be passionate and intoxicating. These great friends of God used these metaphors bravely, one could even say dangerously. It is interesting that even in Iran today, I have been told by very reliable sources, negative criticism of Rumi is unheard of, even though he wrote passages that were sometimes vulgar, though always to make a spiritual point. Today, there is more possibility for confusion in our own culture, where the metaphors are sometimes, relatively rarely, confused with their literal meaning. There is a book out called "The Love Poems of Rumi." Well, Rumi never wrote "love poems" to anyone, except maybe to his wife--I hope he did. But he wrote many poems, one might say all of them, reminding us to love God.
Did Rumi whirl? What is whirling? And why is it done?
Yes. In Islam we're taught that niyah, intention, is the foremost criterion of our actions. The intention behind whirling is to come close to God, to remove the veils, to come to our inmost center where we are closest to God. The whirling ceremony is one of the supreme aesthetic expressions, as well as a meditation in movement. But, most importantly, it is an act of worship.