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Why America needs Rumi
By Maliha Masood

When Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) got on a plane from London, it did not touch ground at Dulles International in Washington, DC, as anticipated. Instead the flight was diverted to Maine's Bangor Airport, where the former pop singer turned Muslim peace activist endured a four-hour detention and a subsequent return to England on grounds of being on a US government watch list. Refusal to enter the United States also befell a prominent Swiss Muslim scholar whose visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, was revoked at the last minute. Both scenarios are sordid examples of the paranoia that has engulfed the US administration in the name of national security. They alienate meaningful cultural dialogue, reinforce stereotypes and deepen the growing chasm between Islam and the West.

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 US readers in the tenuous aftermath of September 11, 2001, when Harper Collins published a pricey hardback titled 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 the United States and Islamic constituents, that the words of an ancient Muslim mystic 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 20th-century German poet Hans Meinke considered Rumi's work "the only hope for the dark times we are living in".

In his masterpiece "The Mathnawi" (a Persian word for God), Rumi blends the sacred and the profane, countering the notion that Islam is antithetical to secular thought. He likens the world to a tavern where people are drunk with desire and longing, mingling 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 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 Koran, 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 in search of getting in touch with their "inner self". Evidence of this can be found in any New Age bookstore across the United States 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 feed a dearth of spiritual poverty. Even though he speaks from a vessel grounded in Islamic concepts, his words refuse to essentialize one faith over another, but offer a 700-year-old poetic history of human acceptance without limitations.

The enigma of Rumi's attraction to US 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 with its relative decline in Europe. The recent debate in Congress to retain the "one nation under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance attests to 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, Rumi's message 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 among 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 the US, Afghanistan and Iran. One would think that the World Trade Center attacks would also have obliterated appreciation of Islamic literature and poetry in the US. But the Rumi resurgence in spite of or perhaps because of September 11, 2001, is a strong testament to Americans' newfound receptivity to learn more about Islam. Rumi is a necessary voice to bridge the gap between the Islam that 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 been perpetrated 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 Sufi's 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 US 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 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 US 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.

Maliha Masood is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is the author of an upcoming travelogue on the Middle East to be published by Cune Press in 2005 and the co-producer of a documentary film on American-Muslim women. She currently resides in Seattle.

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Oct 6, 2004
Asia Times Online Community



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