Why America Needs Rumi

" Perhaps it is somewhat surprising then that one of America's most widely read and best selling poets has been a devout Muslim mystic born eight centuries ago in Afghanistan – Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi. His verses in praise of Allah were set to music by Madonna; Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as background to her fashion shows. A two year old Time magazine article heralds the rise of Rumi's popularity with American readers in the tenuous aftermath of September 11, when Harper Collins published a pricey hardback entitled The Soul of Rumi, 400 pages of poetry translated by Coleman Barks, to follow up its previous best seller, The Essential Rumi, published in 1995 with more than 250,000 copies in print. In the currently deteriorating relations between America and Islamic constituents, the words of an ancient Muslim mystic as having captured the hearts of so many Americans might seem a total aberration or imply some hidden logic of hope and renewal.

Historic Linkages
The 13th century Rumi was no stranger to cultural animosity. He had witnessed the Mongol pillage and plunder of Muslim dynasties of Central and West Asia. Influenced by Islamic Sufism and the Christian mysticism of St. John of the Cross, he longed for a world exuding immense affection for humankind. This alone could turn the world into a paradise. His verses spread the message of love - love for its own sake, not in consideration of a good turn – that resonated with Western/Christian teachings of selfless love. The twentieth century German poet Hans Meinke considered Rumi's work as "the only hope for the dark times we are living in."
In his masterpiece, the Mathnawi, (a Persian word for God), Rumi bleeds the sacred and the profane, countering the notion that Islam is antithetical to secular thought. He likens the world to a tavern, where people drunk with desire and longing, mingle around until they realize their calling to return to a God whose sweeping love supersedes all earthly love from the most mundane to the deepest of passions. He poses a question that we have all asked ourselves at one point or another: "Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?" His answer: "I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there."
The God intoxicated philosophy of Rumi urging a spiritual union with the divine showcases the softer, prettier side of Islam known as Sufism that Westerners find most appealing. But what the majority of non-Muslims and even most Muslims don't realize is that this all abiding love for God rooted in the idea of Tawhid or oneness, free from the institutionalized mosque culture and the heady violence committed in the name of the Holy Quran, is the real heart and soul of Islam, not an esoteric branch of faith disguised as mystical belief. It is also important to realize that an Islam without barriers - be they national, cultural or dogmatic - is not an instamatic oasis of peace - but a daily striving of human dignity overriding power and greed. Rumi reflects on the spiritual journey that welcomes uncertainty and places the burden of responsibility on the individual to make enlightened choices.
"This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of it's furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond."
(The Essential Rumi, 109)

Feeding Spiritual Hunger

Public figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Choprah have made it clear that Americans are looking to get in touch with their "inner self." Evidence of this can be found in any New Age bookstore across the nation promoting a wide variety of books dealing with enrichments from yoga to Zen Buddhism. Their common goal is to reach a state of serenity in a life fraught with chaos and material demands. Rumi is not the first Asian mystic imported to American shores to quench a spiritual thirst. Even though he speaks from a vessel grounded in Islamic concepts, his words refuse to essentialize one faith over another, but offer a seven hundred year old poetic history of human acceptance without limitations.

The enigma of Rumi's attraction to American audiences, despite a daily barrage of negative images and sound bites concerning Muslims, can be explained by the priority of religion in this society compared to its relative decline in Europe. The recent debate in Congress to retain the "one nation under God" clause in the pledge of allegiance affirms this theory. Furthermore, as Americans are among the most materially fortunate people in the world, they can also afford the luxury of spiritual exploration that developing nations, caught up in the daily stresses of basic survival, are less equipped to indulge in. Therefore, the message of Rumi is more relevant in an America grappling with individual sustenance and the collective neurosis of fear and ignorance when it comes to the "other".

The Sufi and the Terrorist
In the polarized tensions between Islamic militants, global terrorism, homeland security and national interests, the teachings of Rumi are all the more relevant in deflecting misunderstandings. It seems odd that the same poet is read with voracious intensity across America, Afghanistan and Iran. One would think that the World Trade center attacks would have also obliterated appreciation of Islamic literature and poetry in the U.S. But the Rumi resurgence in spite of, or perhaps because of, September 11, is a strong testament to Americans' new found receptivity to learn more about Islam. Rumi is a necessary voice to bridge the gap between the Islam which stands for pluralism and tolerance and the belligerent abuse of religion branded by extremist factions, that gets the most media attention to distort public perceptions. Since many Americans admire and relate to Rumi's philosophy, they can also learn to distinguish between Rumi's message of a peace loving Islam that embraces humanity and the misdirected Islam of bigotry and desperation that leads to violence. It is easy to forget that tragedies have occurred throughout history by people of other religions in the name of God. To categorize the entire tapestry of Muslims as dangerous because of the actions of militant elements (that are inexcusable and beyond justification) is a shortsighted tactic of addressing symptoms rather than the root causes of a particular disease. It can only lead to an endless cycle of reprisals and counter attacks. The onus on the American people to influence their allegedly representative government to channel the Sufis' passion for tolerance and understanding over the terrorist mentality of self-righteous indignation has never been greater.

Americanizing Rumi
It is arguable that Rumi's popularity in the U.S. has been stripped of its linguistic and religious integrity and Americanized to accommodate a spiritual Starbucks of mass consumption. But an American Rumi who speaks to the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people and builds bridges of understanding between Islam and the West is, after all, better than a defunct national media incapable of projecting a balanced perspective of the Muslim world, and certainly more effective than the official rhetoric of good vs. evil, the evil being undoubtedly the "Islamist threat" that kept Yusuf Islam off U.S. shores. A lover of irony, Rumi would have groaned knowingly at such an absurdity. He certainly would have appreciated the confluence of spiritual hunger and terrorist alerts that keeps his pages turning in America."

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Thank you for visiting Maulana Rumi Online, a blog dedicated entirely to the life, works and teachings of Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi better known simply as Rumi here in our beloved America. Just as a memory refresher, all articles, e-books, images, links and reading materials listed in this Blog are solely for Educational purposes. This Blog is designed and maintained by yours truly, your comments, critiques or suggestions are quite welcome and greatly appreciated. As for my own Rumi Translations, you are welcome to copy and use them as long as it's not for commercial purposes. For best viewing, please try this Blog on Google Chrome Browser. This is a very long Blog though, so please make sure to use the Scroll To Top or Bottom Buttons at the left side, or Back To Top Button at the bottom right corner of your screen for smooth navigation. If you have any question, comment, critique or suggestion, please contact me by clicking the Contact Box embedded at the right middle corner. As Rumi would say, "Come, come, whoever you are, come back again.."!

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