The language of love: How Rumi, a 12th-century Islamic saint, became USA's top-selling poet
Understanding Rumi's soulful poems might reveal how he continues to inspire millions in the US and across the globe despite vested groups trying to spread Islamophobia.
How is Jalaluddin Rumi, a Sufi saint who lived 800 years ago, one of the best-selling poets of all times in the US? An even more important question is how an Islamic dancing dervish, who took birth in Persia and lived in Turkey, continues to inspire more folks in the US and across the world than Milton, Wordsworth, or Shakespeare even at a time when many groups are trying to propagate Islamophobia in the nation?
Perhaps, the answer reveals something about the universal appeal of soulful spiritual writing that goes beyond the boundaries of a religion. Perhaps, it also gives a sneak peek into the essence of Islam (the literal translation of term being "peace or surrender to peace") beyond the filters and biases that the media and extremist groups have portrayed. Or perhaps, it's purely Rumi's magic with words that break the rigid lines of the monotony of life and transports the reader to an ecstatic world of abandonment and bliss.
Rumi's fame doesn't stem from online forums and neither does it need Instagram feeds to survive the competition. If a piece of work has managed to inspire millions through over eight centuries and continue to remain the best-selling poetry, there ought to be something deeper at play.
His message is universal
Rumi was not just a practicing Muslim, but an Islamic scholar. He knew the Quran in a way that went beyond the literal understanding of it. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, he went beyond religious codes and delivered a universal message of love that appealed to people of all faiths. While this might seem contradictory to many folks, to him the path of love and Islam were the same.
“As long as I live, I am the slave of the Quran I am the dust of the path of Muhammad.”
And he also said:
Rumi used everyday symbols
The characters that deliver blissful words of ecstasy are not other-worldly beings or saints who have gone beyond the human experience. Things found around in his room or in the natural world that we are likely to come across ourselves are the characters; it could be an elephant, an artist, a string of pearls, shepherds, or even chickpeas for that matter. His poems resonate deeply with us because the most unassuming of things or events can be a doorway to bliss.
He addressed the existential void that everyone feels
No matter which religion we belong to or what beliefs we have, as humans, none of us are immune to moments of meaninglessness and emptiness that is a central theme in many works of world literature. Those rare moments where we find no real reason to live takes over even the most driven of us. While religious folks force-feed a moral purpose and atheists and philosophers resign to the emptiness that is inevitable, Rumi neither denies it nor tolerates it. Instead, he celebrates it. Joy is the only purpose. Or not. But be joyful, anyway.
Rumi was a true rebel
His poems often talk about the longing to be free of worldly shackles and duties that keep us earth-bound. To him, the routines that we hold onto and the beliefs we cling to are desperate attempts for structure and certainty. His poems mock the need for certainty of every kind, whether it is the spiritual folks' need for moral codes or the scientists need for logic and reason. For him, true freedom is in knowing the bliss within oneself now, at this moment.
To him, the sacred lies beyond right and wrong
While masters and founders of all religions teach nonjudgment, the dogmas of almost every organized religion have lowered their discussions to petty affairs of moral codes and righteousness. There is no concept of sin and right doing in Rumi's works and this reflects an essential Sufi belief. To know yourself and to know the Sacred, you need to step beyond definitions and mere ethics and let your heart lead.
His words return the power back to you
No bearded man up in the sky, no prophet or messenger, no text or ritual can lead you to freedom and bliss except your own earthy, human self. He teases the heart out of its messy entanglement with everyday worries and sorrows and urges the reader to turn within. His words almost always make you believe that all you need to do is drop them all, even if for a moment, and feel the joy that resides in your core.
He prioritizes rapture over redemption
While both Christianity and Islam believe that redemption happens through righteous living and adhering to ethical codes, the essence of Sufism lies in letting the heart lead the way.
"Why settle for righteousness, redemption, or riches when you can experience rapture?" seems to be the question that Rumi's poems throw at the reader. He is also mindful in differentiating mundane pleasures over the inherent bliss of the soul.
He acknowledges human suffering
He doesn't deny the vulnerability of the human heart. He doesn't ask you to be rigid and cold in order to survive the tough world. He lets you cry and urges you to embrace the softness of your heart, but also gently reminds you that you are much stronger than that. It's perhaps this trait that speaks to many wounded souls across cultures and religions.
When Coldplay's lead Chris Martin shared his thoughts about how Rumi's poems changed his life, he spoke on behalf of millions who felt the balm of Rumi's words heal scars caused during the course of human life.
A mystic who doesn't care for labels
While many lovers of Rumi feel that neither English nor the Western interpretation of Rumi's poems do justice to the abundant riches found in the original Persian verses, Rumi himself didn't bother to fit into any category. Like a true piece of art, his poems lend themselves to be read and enjoyed by the reader in a way that makes her drunk and mad: a state of true liberation.
Also, a few groups also believe that Western translators have strategically erased all Islamic references and that's perhaps why the West is as open to his teachings than they would be to other Islamic poets.
While this may have some factual truth when it comes to translation, the essence of his works goes beyond being a Muslim and dives deep within to a place that is the seat of all human experiences: the human heart.
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