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.
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."
"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.
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, www.Rumi.net. 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."
"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."