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Culture - Poetry

From Leslie Wines' new book

"RUMI" A spiritual biography.

Jalalu'ddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian lawyer-divine and Sufi, widely considered literature's greatest mystical poet, understood very well the uncontrollable and idiosyncratic impact of poetry. Yet one wonders if even he, for all his intuitive grasp of language, humanity and the cosmos foresaw the deep and diverse influence his own work would have on readers throughout the world seven centuries after his death or the myriad meanings enthusiasts would draw from his sprawling and contradictory poems.

In the Islamic world today, Rumi is read for much the same reasons he was revered during his life: for his excellence as a poet; for his rare ability to empathize with humans, animals and plants; for his personal refinement; and, above all else, for his flawless moral center and ability to direct others towards good conduct and union with Allah.


For Islamic readers, Rumi remains an important commentator on the Koran and a brilliant exponent of Sufi philosophy, the strain of Islam that stresses direct and ecstatic communion with Allah over Aristotelian questioning. Rumi, who was strictly educated in religious law and philosophy, is viewed in the Islamic world as a spiritual descendant of two other great Sufi writers, Sana'i and Attar. He shared with those two writers the goal of eliminating corruption from religious practice and institutions. He also is widely seen as the vindicator of his father, Baha al-Din, an Islamic preacher whose metaphysical and mystical leanings often were greeted with skepticism because of a prevailing bias towards Aristotelian inquiry in his native Khorosan, today known as Afghanistan.

In Turkey today, Rumi is revered by many as the founder of the Mevlevi Order, which is associated with the colorful "whirling dervishes," the Sufis who twirl themselves into joyful merger with the Absolute. Indeed, Rumi himself helped make popular the once questionable practice of this mystic dance by twirling, first in the marketplace, and later, to the astonishment of many, at a funeral for a beloved friend. Iran, which has assumed the role of the preserver of Persian culture, has in recent years offered its respects to the poet through an abundant outpouring of new scholarly essays.

So, why are there so many views of Rumi, and so many ways to read him? How can so many types of contemporary readers connect so intimately, and apparently quite sincerely, with this long-dead medieval writer?

In his work, Rumi tells us over and over that he is attempting to put into language the nature and significance of the invisible universe, a task he freely admits can only be achieved in part. In "The Story of Solomon and the Hoopoe," Rumi writes: "Do thou hear the name of every thing from the knower? Hear the inmost meaning of the mystery of He That Taught the Names. With us, the name of every thing is its outward appearance, with the Creator, the name of every thing is its inward reality."

The best explanation for Rumi's popularity may simply be that he was a very wonderful poet -- uniquely capable of transcending "outward appearances" and conjuring up the mystical "inward reality," yet entirely realistic and modest about the limitations of his words -- and there are very few such writers in the world. It also must be remembered that the Mathnawi, Rumi's longest work, is a Persian classic and by itself would ensure his literary immortality.

(For more information or to buy this book go here.)

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