Rumi: A Passionate Heart Still Beats

What is it about this 13th-century mystic that has everyone from Hollywood stars to small-town Christians talking?

BY: Kimberly Winston


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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.

Rumi made his way to this country in the 1960s when a generation looked far outside the United States for spiritual sustenance. What readers found were poems of high emotion, many of which described an almost passionate love of the divine. Here is Rumi on being a lover:

In the early morning hour,
Just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
And take a drink of water.
She asks, "Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth."
He says, "There is nothing left of me.
I'm like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
Made of redness? It has no resistance to sunlight."
This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
And told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.

In the Muslim world, Rumi is venerated as the greatest of poets. Dr. James Fadiman, co-author of "The Essential Sufism" (Harper San Francisco), says the beauty of Rumi's poetry, read in his native Persian, has been compared with the beauty of the Qur'an read in its original Arabic.

"That is as high praise as you can make for a piece of literature," Dr. Fadiman said. "Rumi is one of the great poets of the world, as Shakespeare is one of the great playwrights, as Dante is one of the great narrators."

One reason Rumi has become and remained so popular is that his poetry seems to fit itself easily to the varied needs and experiences of an entire spectrum of readers. A couple could read the preceding poem together and see their passion reflected in Rumi's words, while seekers after spiritual meaning could find in it a description of their own passion for God.

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