Considered one of history's greatest mystical poets, Rumi has recently become a well-known figure in the West and is continuing to grow in popularity in the East. However, the way he is viewed in the East and West vary greatly because of his devotion and strong relationship with Islam, which has been disregarded or misunderstood in Western literature
A few weeks ago, I took a few more steps in my journey of friendship with Mevlana Celaleddin Muhammed Rumi or simply, Rumi, as he is commonly known today. Rumi is widely considered one of literature's greatest mystical poets. The influential 13th-century poet has become one of the most widely-read poets in North America, gaining commercial value and popularity over the past 15 years. In fact, UNESCO announced 2007 as the year of Rumi, commemorating the 800th anniversary of his birth.
Having read Rumi, I was curious about the much talked-about whirling dervishes, so I decided to visit the Galata Mevlevi Lodge in Istanbul to watch a dervish performance. There, I began to revisit my thoughts on the Rumi I had come across years ago; a "Western" Rumi, popular on bookshelves in the West, one that attracts those seeking "mystical love," mostly produced by "orientalist" mindsets.
It has been almost three years since I was introduced to my friend Rumi. I use the word "friend" because like a good friend, he has provided me with guidance, words of wisdom, and even at times, a shoulder to cry on. Since then, our relationship has been evolving and growing stronger each day.
A friend had given me a book by Turkish author Elif Shafak, titled "The Forty Rules of Love," a novel based on Rumi's life. At the time, I was not an active reader. Working in a fast-paced job in the fashion industry left me little to no time for books. But when I sat down one night and began to read through the first few chapters, I found that I could not put the book down. As I turned the pages, I became more and more intrigued by his life and journey.
Once I finished the book, my curiosity led me to purchase more of his writings. I soon found myself visiting bookstores on my days off, and browsing the Internet late at night, reading his inspirational poems and messages of love. I would take a book to my favorite cafe and read for hours, which was not something I was used to doing - being on the go all the time, I had no time for books. But for Rumi, I made time. Each verse drew me in, and it was easy for me to make a connection to whatever was going on in my life at the time. I began to notice Rumi everywhere I went. His heartfelt words of love were often read at weddings, people would post his inspirational quotes on social media sites and blogs, and his soulful verses were even read during my Yoga classes.
But what characteristics come to mind when one thinks of Rumi? If you ask someone in the West, they will most likely answer with words like: loving, mystical, lustful and passionate. If you ask someone in the East, words like devoted, divine, humble and scholarly will perhaps be the most common words that come to mind.
So why do the views of East and West vary so greatly?
Depending on where one lives, I find the answer to this question varies. Is it perhaps the lack of understanding about who Rumi really was? Or is it what one chooses to see? The answer is one that can lead to a great debate, but one thing is certain, and that is that Rumi's poetry connects people from all over the world intimately and sincerely with his meaningful message of love, and those that are lucky enough to stumble across his path are able to experience great love on a different level.
Living in the West, I viewed Rumi as most other North Americans did, as one of the greatest love poets of all time. The power of Rumi enables the reader to easily pick any poem and make a connection to their personal relationships, daily lives, and spirituality. Western readers are captivated by Rumi's frequent and masterful use of romantic verse, which has caused most to regard him solely as a love poet.
However, I believe that Western readers are introduced to a Rumi stripped of the values that make Rumi who he is. For instance, many do not know him as an Islamic scholar, a 13th-century philosopher theologian, a mystic Sufi, or even know of the connection between his poetry and religion.
I mean, is there even any notion outside of religion in Rumi's poetry? Or has Rumi been imprisoned within the perimeters of the definition that we have proposed for "worldly love?"
In a way, Western readers have also been more comfortable embracing the commercialized form of Rumi, one that has been separated from his mystical Sufi world and Islam.
The English translations of his books by American authors leave out any connection to Islam, in order to appeal more to the audience. As a result, readers see Rumi as a romantic love poet, and at times, a superficial connection is drawn to the spiritual whirling dervishes, without exploring the in-depth teachings of Sufism.
The interest of Western readers in Rumi and the mystical practice of Sufism is growing. But, if you ask a Western reader about Sufism, they will most likely give you the answer that it is different from Islam. I believe that this is one of the reasons why Rumi is so popular in the West, because the books on the shelves are presented in popularized versions, not faithful translations, so Rumi is being depicted as only being "slightly Islamic."
As a poet, Rumi has a verse for all those who are at peace with their soul and are not afraid to build a bridge that connects their self with their soul.
However, one can only truly appreciate Rumi's poetry when his connection with the Divine, which led him to write his beautiful poetry, is understood.
The power that prompted his soul to arrange the words so beautifully must be explored in order to understand why the words are written in a certain manner. Otherwise, Rumi will never go beyond a mere "trend" for the Western reader.
Now living in Turkey, the country where Rumi lived out his last years, I have a different understanding of his practice and poetry, which has brought our friendship to a new level. Here, I have found that his mystical love has a different meaning.
After 800 years, Rumi's heartfelt words still connect and touch people from all over the world. This is because his work is read by many cultures and understood on many different levels, which is the true magic of Rumi.
It is safe to say that today, Rumi has become a mirror reflecting what the reader chooses to imagine. Whether it is love, longing, inspiration, healing, or religion, everyone can find what they are looking for in Rumi's poetry.
His powerful words can heal a broken heart, a damaged spirit, or light the flame of desire within ones soul to be a better person. A couple can read Rumi together and see their passion in his words, while a spiritual seeker can find meaning in his passion for God, which is why he brings people together from all over the world, from both East and West.
"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come." — Rumi