For the Love of Rumi

In almost every major city in the Western World, events are planned for mid-December to honour the great poet, known to most of us as “Rumi”. His lineage - the origin of the “whirling dervishes”, and his mystical poetry have sustained seekers for centuries.

The variety of translation and interpretation is itself a Thousand and One Arabian Nights, one tale after the other. All linked to keep us enthralled. These range from “I get the gist of it, and I’m so inspired I’m writing my own version,” to letter by letter deep with scholarly annotations that could lose the poem - with all the range in between. Some try to keep a poetic rhythm by forcing rhyme in the new language, or play loosely with alternate forms.

Didn’t Rumi himself say that his poetry was only a side effect of his ecstasy? (I read that somewhere.) Still, he has leapt into public consciousness like a Hallmark hero. Eminently meme-worthy, I’m sure his words are used by the Russian hacker-banks because they are so shareable. These memes leave long trackable trails of good wishes and desires for something more, identifying users for targeted advertising and political manipulations.

This doesn’t matter. His words hold sparks of light, even in those dodgy translations that have gone through a powerful new age filter. Stripped of his subtlety, poetic humanity, and his cradle faith of Islam, Rumi has become “ours”. His words are often read at our gatherings, weddings, and funerals. They lift us up. Despite their translation glitches, something true shines there.

Behind the elaborately filigreed screen, his face sometimes appears, like the moon.

Google “Rumi” and you’ll see just how big this influence really is. There’s a lot of noise here, but if you can, just take one or two of the quotes or memes for yourself, contemplate as if it were a koan. Behind the words, he still meets you. And what he describes is not an easy feel-good process. I paraphrase: “Only those with the scent of burning hearts may enter here.”

The tradition that built up around the burning heart of a mystic poet helps turn the world and planets. So many Rumi gatherings now, where deep music combines with poetry as the adepts and students perform the ritual turning, skirts circling wide and full. And now it is different: many are not Turkish; not only men, but also women. How the dervishes turn, trained to spin and spin, throwing off everything but the still soul in the centre of the turning.

Who am I to dare discuss any of this? When he opens the window lattice, the moon comes in to fill the room.

Rumi’s works are not poetry as we may normally think of it. His inspired cries of the heart were notated by his diligent pupils, witnesses to ecstasy. (If poets are scribes then the pupils were the poets.) His lament at the loss of his dearest Shams Tabriz threw him headlong into an ecstatic turn that continues to this day.

So when we Hallmark him as a birthday wish or a graduation gift, it is lovely. But when we see his face peering like a moon through those lattice shutters, we’d better get ready. He may be reflecting the sun, but we’ll still be burned.

I died as a mineral and became a plant, 
I died as plant and rose to animal, 
I died as animal and I was human. 
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? 

Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)


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