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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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.

Shiva also reports that some Arab-Americans in his audiences have told him they think Rumi helps form a bridge of understanding between them and their American neighbors who also read his poems. "Some Muslims feel they get a bad rap (in the United States)," he said. "But through Rumi, some Muslims feel they have found a new acceptance in the U.S."

As gratifying as it is to see Rumi so beloved, his fans say they worry he might become overexposed. Dr. Fadiman calls the current flood of Rumi products "the Rumi industry." "I often joke that I am just waiting to see the cookbook and the exercise video," he said. Lonny Fields, an organizer of the Rumi festival held at California State University at San Bernardino this past October, agrees that America is in the midst of "the commercialization of Rumi."

"But I think, ultimately, Rumi will be beyond that," he said.

As for Barks, he thinks part of Rumi's staying power is largely due to the religious mystery and ecstasy Rumi describes--two qualities most modern organized religions lack, Mr. Barks said.

"Rumi is all about the opening of the heart, which I think people are interested in as a way of getting out of the God clubs and into the more universal feeling of the sacred," he said. "Rumi says the sacred space is everywhere and the text is your own life, rather than the sacred is...exclusive."

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