I just came across a feature in The Seattle Times talking about a renewed interest by Americans in Sufism, through the poetry of Jelaludin Rumi. The article is from the year 2007, it sheds light into the statement “People in America are renewing their love of God.” I took this sentence from a quote inside the article.
Here is the full text…
Sufi poet’s message of love still resonates
Mohammad Nooraee knew exactly what he needed when Brandeis University students asked him to distill the essence of Sufism, an Islamic mystical…
By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service, 2007
Mohammad Nooraee knew exactly what he needed when Brandeis University students asked him to distill the essence of Sufism, an Islamic mystical tradition.
Nooraee, director of the Nimatullahi Sufi order in Boston, needed “Grapes,” a poem by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century poet and mystic. The poem describes an argument among four wise men who all want grapes but don’t know it because they speak different languages. The lesson: People must understand each other or be lost to bickering.
“Sufism is nothing more but love of God and love of other human beings,” said Nooraee. “And Rumi is the greatest teacher” of the Sufi Way.
Americans who haven’t heard of Rumi probably will soon as the world celebrates his 800th birthday Sept. 30.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has declared 2007 the International Year of Rumi. Fans and followers are organizing readings and concerts, while the legendary Whirling Dervishes, inspired by Rumi, tour the world. Given the tensions between the Islamic and Western worlds, many Muslims and non-Muslims alike welcome an occasion to reflect on Rumi’s message.
“He’s more than a poet,” said Akbar Ahmed, chair of the Islamic studies department at American University. “He’s a cultural ambassador for Islam.”
Rumi was born in present-day Afghanistan into a family of Islamic theologians. He became a respected Islamic scholar, but after a chance meeting with a traveling Sufi dervish, Rumi embraced Islam’s mystic tradition. After his death, his followers founded the Mevlevi Sufi order, one of several Sufi orders that hold Rumi in prominent regard.
His best-known work is the Masnavi, five volumes of rhyming couplets in a complex poetic form that incorporate stories, commentaries and prayers. Many consider it the most comprehensive Sufi interpretation of the Quran.
Celebrated for centuries in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and South Asia, Rumi burst onto the American scene in 1995 after poet Coleman Barks translated a collection of his poems into “The Essential Rumi,” which has sold more than 500,000 copies.
Simple, powerful message
Rumi’s success is no surprise to those who say he presents a simple but powerful message of spirituality and love.
“People in America are renewing their love of God, and Rumi is perhaps the most famous and articulate lover of God,” Valerie Noor Karima, who heads the Mevlevi Order of America, wrote in an e-mail. “Rumi speaks in the language of the heart, which is universal and timeless.”
Others believe Rumi’s appeal is in the accepting and hopeful nature of his poetry.
“Rumi has provided the humanist face of Islam to the West and America,” said Louay Safi of the Indianapolis-based Islamic Society of North America. His poems, Safi said, “reflect a larger concern, to have a meaningful life and to pay attention to our spiritual existence. That’s lacking in the U.S., where there is so much emphasis on the material.”
Karima agrees, writing:
“While Islam is often perceived in terms of its extremists, its laws and its veils, Rumi shows us the inner secret of Islam: that we can experience the Divine, transcendent, all-pervading and also imminent. To see the “Face of God”: This is the experience we’ve been waiting for all our lives.”
While many Sufi practitioners recognize Rumi’s Islamic background, they also say his works transcend religion.
Jem Williford of Chapel Hill, N.C., who started formally studying the Sufi Way 15 years ago, sees an interfaith component in Rumi’s legacy. He helps organize an annual “Rumi Fest” in Chapel Hill that draws people of all faiths.
“We’re trying to replicate something that Rumi did during his life, which was very ecumenical, and bring people together, and tie it all into one place, which is love,” Williford said.
Some Muslims disapprove
Not all Muslims approve of Rumi and Sufism.
In Saudi Arabia, Sufis endured various forms of harassment and had to meet in secret until post-Sept. 11 scrutiny of the country’s dominant Wahhabi sect forced the Saudis to relax restrictions.
Some Muslims complain that some Sufi practitioners neglect the central importance of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Karima, the Mevlevi leader, acknowledges a liberal view toward Islam, but says it doesn’t diminish Sufis’ devotion to God.
“Many Sufi schools in the West, like the Mevlevi school, do not push conformity to Islam’s Shariah, or rules of conduct,” she wrote. “People in the West love mystery stories, and the Masnavi consists of countless interwoven stories that reveal our love of God. The Masnavi illuminates the Quran and other holy books.”