With so many books on Islam painting a picture of violence, hatred, and intolerance, it seems odd that the top selling poet in America, for several years now, has been a 13th century Muslim mystic who has managed to sate the spiritual hunger of millions of Americans. Sufi poetry has such amazing piercing power, even Obama quotes the great Saadi, whilst talking to the Iranians.
Rumi’s major work is the Masnavi (Spiritual Couplets ) a six-volume poem regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Quran. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of mystical poetry. It contains approximately 27000 lines of Persian poetry.
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi would have loved the irony. Hailing from Afghanistan, a land that has become intimately familiar with Americans for reasons that have little to do with love and enlightenment, Rumi and his work have gone beyond craze to phenomenon.
Madonna, Demi Moore, and Martin Sheen read translations of his words praising Allah over music. Recordings of Rumi poems have made it to Billboard’s Top 20 list. Oliver Stone wants to make a film of his life. Donna Karen plays Rumi recitatations at her fashion shows. What has made Rumi so popular?
“Rumi is the voice of unconditional love,” says Kabir Helminski, a translator of Rumi’s poetry and a sheikh of the Mevlevi Sufi Order (which traces its lineage back to Rumi).
“He is willing to talk about his own pain, for instance, the pain of loving God, the pain of being human.”
While all of Rumi’s writings drew from his deep connection with Islam, his most popular poems (like those found in the compilations by Coleman Barks) don’t directly refer to Islamic teachings, mainly because translators wanted to make Rumi more accessible for Americans. Some Muslims claim that the essence of Rumi is lost when taken out of the context of Islam and turned into some sort of New Age icon. Reflecting on this, Helminski quotes Rumi. “We cannot steal the fire. We must enter it.”
Also, it is interesting to note, how some “Western” scholars who have no idea of Islamic Mysticism / Tassawuf / Sufism, translate Rumi into English and other languages to portray him as they like. Some even believe that Re-Birth of Rumi was carved out by the West which remains an outrageous blurt as the East never forgot Rumi. Visit any library or bookstore, or read any influential Sufi poet, and see how he pays tribute to the master of Spiritual verse. Thousands of books in local dialects teem our libraries and we never forgot Rumi. The West discovered him late :)
Further read: The Student who became the master - About Rumi’s influence on Allama Iqbal.