Helminski talked with Beliefnet's Islam producer, Rhonda Roumani, about Rumi, Sufism, and their connection to Islam.
What is it about Rumi's poetry that has made him so popular in the United States?
The United States is an openly religious country, unlike Europe, where there is a lot more cynicism toward not only religion but even toward spiritual matters. Americans are a naturally openhearted and spiritual people. Our spiritual history--the Euro-Christian legacy--has been a legacy in which the direction of our humanness and the direction of religion seem to be pointing in opposite directions.
And Rumi brings it back together by showing us that the way to God is through our humanness, through our brokenness. And only God dissolves our shame and helps us to know that we, God's creation, are profoundly loved.
Islam makes every aspect of human life sacred. Whereas there are other kinds of religious understanding which suggest that the way to God is through the denial of our humanness and the overcoming of our humanness. The Islamic way is much more that we have an inherently good nature. We're not born with original sin. Muhammad (PBUH) showed a way to incorporate the highest spiritual attainment into a very human life. And this is frankly a pretty radical and new concept within the Euro-Christian tradition, where people have denied themselves and gone to monasteries and lived with the burden of sin.
Rumi speaks to this sense that we have of our own human limitations, our own human unworthiness, and he convinces us that we are loved by God. Through the embrace of our pain, a spiritual door opens if we embrace that pain in the remembrance of God.
So, Rumi is the voice of this unconditional love. He is willing to talk about his own pain, for instance--the pain of loving God, the pain of being human. He is honest. He touches our wound. He demonstrates how a human being can be the intimate friend of God.
Rumi was a Sufi. What is Sufism, and how is it connected to Islam?
Sufism is made up of several branches. We have no serious doctrinal differences between these branches, nor is one branch in competition with another.
Sufism comes from tassawuf, which means purification of the human heart without which we cannot know God. As the Qur'an says, "Indeed in the remembrance of God hearts find peace." The end of the training process of Sufism is the spiritually mature human being.
But we should understand that in every religious tradition, there are different levels. One level is the common practice of religion that they are typically born into. Within a religious tradition, there is also "the path" or "the way." The word for this in Islam is "tariqa." Tariqa is a conscious choice that a person makes to go beyond belief to "experience." It is different than nominally belonging to a religion. In Islam, there are many tariqas. Someone who walks the path of tariqa is a Sufi.
In Islam, there is the level of Shari'ah, or religious law. The Shari'ah governs our outer actions and behaviors. Sufism has more to do with the inner understanding of those outer practices and the quality of consciousness that we bring to those practices through the development of our inner spiritual capacity, particularly through consciousness and love. This development of one's spiritual capacity is much more possible through a relationship with someone who has made this spiritual journey and can help to guide us and help us avoid the pitfalls of the journey. This person is called a "sheikh," a "guide," a "teacher," or sometimes just a "spiritual friend."
How does traditional Islam look upon Sufism?
Sufis have had a place of respect throughout the history of traditional Islam. It has only been in relatively recent times, and through the confusion of modernity, that people within Islamic cultures have been denying the centrality of the Sufis. There have been a few times that Sufis have been on the outs--because of political reasons. But within the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and throughout much of the Islamic world, the role of the tariqas was respected, and people at the highest levels, even the Ulema, or the learned scholars, were familiar and at ease with Sufism.
Many of the great Muslims have been Sufis: Abdul Qadir Jilani, Rabia, Al-Ghazali, Rumi, as well as four of the five founders of the recognized madhabs, or schools of law.
But when you point this out, the critics might say, "Oh, that's not who we mean by Sufis. We mean those people who are lazy and don't follow the Shar'iah or those sheikhs who create cults around themselves and manipulate people."
For instance, when someone like Muhammad Iqbal, a popular Muslim writer and thinker, suggests that Sufis stand in the way of human progress, he is talking about a degenerated Sufism that may have existed in the India of his time. Iqbal described himself as a devoted student of Rumi and asked that a makam (or shrine) be built for him behind Rumi's tomb.
Imam Malik, a preeminent scholar of Islam and the originator of the Maliki school of thought, said, "To follow the shariah without tariqah is to be a zindiq (misbeliever)." And vice versa.
Those who are critical of Sufism seem to view Islam as almost a contractual relationship with God. God has spelled out his part of the deal, and human beings had better fulfill it or they will be punished. But I do not believe that this was the mentality of Muhammad (PBUH).
Sufism would be inconceivable without the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad (PBUH). So those who tried to cut themselves off from Islam by ignoring the example of Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur'an have in fact cut themselves off from the source of Sufism.
Also, those who understand Sufism as the blending of all religious traditions into some new eclectic message are approaching Sufism superficially. The source of Sufism must be understood through a deeper understanding of the Qur'an and the character of Muhammad (PBUH). And when one understands the Qur'an and the character of Muhammad (PBUH), one will also have a compassionate and tolerant viewpoint of all faiths because that is the perspective of the Qur'an. But to create a spirituality by mixing a little bit of this and that tradition doesn't do justice to any of those paths. We can respect them--but we cannot walk them all.
How does Rumi's poetry fit into Islam? What order was he a part of?
Rumi's words are inconceivable without the revelation of the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad (PBUH). Rumi received one lineage through his family and another through his teacher, Shams of Tabriz. These two lineages became the inspiration for a new lineage known as the Mevlevis, which for 700 years has attracted people with artistic and idealistic temperaments: musicians, composers, poets, calligraphers, and social reformers.
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.