In the middle of the 13th century, a Muslim mystic cupped his palm around a pillar in a Turkish mosque, spinning and uttering ecstatic poetry so beautiful that almost 800 years later his poems are selling out in bookstores across America.
Jalalu'ddin Rumi, usually referred to by his last name alone, is on his way to becoming a household name. Publishers Weekly magazine called him the best-selling poet in America. Amazon.com lists 173 Rumi titles in books, tapes, CDs, and videos, by everyone from Persian musicians and American scholars to New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra. Madonna has recorded one of his poems, and a character on the ABC television series "Providence" quoted him in an episode.
The Internet search organ Lycos lists 162 websites that contain some reference to him--everything from concert listings to calligraphy, Rumi-inspired art to a program in self-esteem based on his poems. In the last four months, there have been five international Rumi festivals held everywhere from the poet's home in Konya, Turkey, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.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 in 1207 in Afghanistan. His father, part of the mystical Sufi branch of Islam, brought his family to Turkey to escape invading Mongols. Rumi grew up to become a religious scholar, eventually taking over his father's position as sheikh, or head, of an Islamic learning community.
His life seemed to be pretty routine for a Turkish theologian until 1244. Then, in the streets of Konya, he met a mystic, Shams al-Din ("Sun of Religion") of Tabriz. The two men became inseparable, sharing a mystical conversation that went on for months, through all hours of the day and night. The mysterious Shams became a kind of spiritual mentor to Rumi, leading him to contemplate places in his soul he had never looked into before.After his initial meeting with Shams, Rumi became a mystic, cupping one hand around a pillar in his mosque, speaking in poetry as he turned and turned. His followers wrote down his poems--and copied his movements, which today survive in the Mevlevi order of "whirling dervishes" they eventually founded.