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.

"Rumi is not writing these esoteric poems, but he is writing about the human condition," Dr. Fadiman said. "He is saying you can use the world to describe the higher world. You are just a drop in the ocean, but inside that drop is all of the universe. The divine is totally in you and in everything else."Dr. Fadiman further sums up Rumi's American popularity in two words: Coleman Barks, translator of the preceding poem."The secret of Rumi's popularity in the U.S. is Coleman Barks," he said. "There are lots of other translators now--at least six or 10 of them. Many of them have flashes of brilliance, but Coleman is consistently moving."Mr. Barks, a published poet in his own right, does not craft his own translations from the original Persian, but starts with existing English translations and reworks them. His "The Essential Rumi" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, more than twice any other title in the publisher's "Essential" series, including "The Essential Jesus" and "The Essential Kabbalah." A new Barks collection, entitled "The Soul of Rumi," will be published by HarperSanFrancisco in September.

A native of Athens, Georgia, Mr. Barks was inspired to tackle Rumi when Robert Bly handed him a book of older translations and said "these poems need to be released from their cages." Barks credits the poet's appeal to the fact that his approach to religion was universal. Rumi was a Muslim, but "He said there are no boundaries between religions," says Barks. "And he said it with such authority and gentleness in 13th century Anatolia while the Crusades were sweeping through. And he still seems to be uniting people. Where they meet is where the heart is."

Here is one of Rumi's poems on the subject:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, nor out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.

Mr. Barks gives readings of Rumi around the world. Last year, he went to Turkey to attend an international Rumi festival commemorating the poet's death. Shahram Shiva, too, has spent years translating and performing Rumi's works at concerts from New York City to La Jolla, Calif. At his events, Mr. Shiva says the average attendee is a 35- to 40-year-old white woman."And she is a Christian," Mr. Shiva added. "Our eyes are opening and we are realizing that organized religion has many shortcomings. Organized religion has nothing to do with God--it gives you a package deal that tells you what to believe. But what people are learning is that...they want that something more."

Rumi, Shiva continued, shows them that "something more." He has asked his concert-goers to write down why they like Rumi and has posted the 12 most frequent responses on his website, Respondents describe Rumi as everything from their "friend" to their "spiritual guide." And that, Mr. Shams says, makes Rumi part of the whole self-help movement that has dominated the American culture for the last decade.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus