Rumi remembered

Scholars question whether pop culture is clouding the poet’s message.

In Persian tradition, Rumi is considered the
insan-e kamil, the perfected human being [EPA]

Iran has celebrated the 800th birthday of Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, the poet and spiritual leader famous across much of central and western Asia, with a week-long conference in the cities of Tehran, Khoy and Tabriz.

But scholars say that political pressures and the increasing commercialisation of Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam Rumi so heavily influenced, threaten to overshadow the poet’s message of universal love and tolerance.

According to Persian tradition, Rumi is the insan-e kamil, or the perfected human being.

It is his belief in and struggle for unity – bringing together the created and the creator through music, dance and art – that has transcended all religions and elevated his works to international acclaim.

In Iran, Rumi is a household name. Many of his poems were written in Persian, and his poetry is so well respected it is recited on state radio during Ramadan. 

The Iranian government also regularly hosts events where the poet is celebrated and promoted as a Persian icon.

But Nihat Tsolak, director and founder of Caravansary, a cultural group that organises Rumi-related events and festivals in London, is suspicious of the Islamic Republic’s promotion of the anniversary this year.

“The Iranians seem to be using Rumi’s celebrity for their own publicity,” he told Al Jazeera.

Tsolak explains that beyond the literary celebrations, Iran has for the past several years maintained an uneasy relationship with Sufism.

Mohammad Reza Jozi, a research associate in philosophy and theology at London’s Institute of Ismaili Studies, believes that there are divisions within the ruling clergy in Iran on how to deal with the Sufi minority.

He told Al Jazeera: “Part of the Iranian clergy opposes Sufism. Others support it, but they never say openly that they are Sufis.”

Sufis in Iran

Iran’s constitution permits the formation of “religious societies … pertaining to one of the recognised religious minorities”, on the condition they “do not violate … the basis of the Islamic republic”.

Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi

13th-century mystic poet and theologian

Lived: 1207-1273

Born in Balkh, in modern Afghanistan, but spent most of his life in Anatolia

Major work: Masnavi-ye Manavi – six volumes of poems about man’s search for God. The work is held in high regard by Sufi Muslims

But Freedom House, an independent US-based organisation that tracks civil liberties around the globe, wrote in its 2007 report on Iran that “discrimination and harassment against Sufi Muslims has increased” following the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, in 2005.

Followers of Sufi groups have recently reported being fired from their jobs, enduring discrimination by state agencies and facing increased restrictions on their literature and worship.

In a high-profile case in October 2006, 300 state security forces surrounded the home of Nurali Tabandeh, a Sufi sheikh in Gonabad, northeastern Iran, prohibiting an annual Sufi pilgrimage to his house.

The Iranian embassy in London would not fully comment about the country’s treatment of Sufis, but a diplomatic spokesperson there told Al Jazeera “everything is just … allegations”.

The Iranian Heritage Foundation – a non-political UK-based charity – also denied that Sufis are persecuted in Iran.

The Freedom House allegations “appear to be unfounded”, it told Al Jazeera in a statement.

But Jozi believes that Rumi’s universal approach to Islam interminably clashes with the more conservative state clergy in Iran, just as Rumi himself clashed with the religious establishment in 13th-century Turkey.

“Sufis claim that they know the reality, the truth, teachings of the Quran and the prophet… The position someone like Rumi holds is beyond official creed,” he said.

Cultural icon

In Turkey, as in Iran, Rumi has become a ubiquitous and valuable cultural icon.

The whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi order, which is most closely associated with Rumi, and whose signature spinning ceremony was formalised by his son Sultan Veled, feature prominently in Turkish tourism campaigns.

However, all Sufi sects remain outlawed since Kamal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, implemented a strict secularisation programme in the 1920s.

Sufi groups were considered reactionary political groups for resisting the change.

Recently, the Turkish authorities have begun to tolerate – though unofficially – a resurgence in Sufism, and have virtually endorsed the Mevlevi order.

A spokesperson at the Turkish embassy in London told Al Jazeera: “The Mevlevis have not been legalised, there is no law saying the Mevlevi are free to function. It’s just tolerance extended to them by the state, acceptance that they are not a reactionary force.”

‘Pop culture’

Nevertheless, Tsolak is concerned that the whirling dervishes have lost their true significance and pander to tourist curiosities.

The whirling dervishes belong to the Mevlevi
Sufi order closely associated with Rumi  [EPA]

“There are a lot of public relations behind it by the Turkish government … [people] see whirling dervishes as a bit of a circus, there’s a curiosity about it, but it doesn’t really go further than that.”   

He worries that Rumi’s current popularity is merely a fad and the superficial “pop culture” following he has attained is obscuring the poet’s message.

Jozi agrees. “Rumi has become fashionable and this is a very unfortunate event. The more he becomes fashionable the more he is forgotten.

“If a great philosopher becomes popular, it means either his philosophy is superficial, or has become superficial,” he said.

Iranian musician Shahram Nazeri, one of the world’s leading performers of Rumi poetry, is also uncomfortable with the “pop culture” status accorded to the mystic poet’s works.

When told that an Iranian rap group and heavy metal band – both claiming inspiration from Rumi -were involved in celebrations to commemorate Rumi’s legacy in London on October 15, Nazeri told Al Jazeera: “There are people who may not have all the qualifications to actually execute a poem.”

Nazeri, who was recently awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest cultural accolade, for more than 30 years of work dedicated to the poet, believes careful schooling and training is required before tackling Rumi’s works.

“To do justice to Rumi’s lifetime contributions – these things cannot be taken so lightly.”

Troubled region

Despite the poet’s popularity in Europe and North America, Rumi’s philosophies encouraging a unified humanity seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the region which birthed him.

Jozi believes that because Rumi always existed on the fringes and directly challenged the authorities of his day, his philosophy can hardly be expected to penetrate the political establishments in Central and Western Asia.

“Sufism as a social trend always existed on the margin of society – cut off from political turmoil and changes … no Sufi saint ever influenced politics,” he said.

Rumi was a very secluded man, he adds, with no interest in spreading his own universal philosophy. It was up to his followers to find the answers themselves.

Nazeri, too, cautions against turning to the poet for answers to socio-political woes, points out that it takes great effort to turn philosophy into reality. 

He told Al Jazeera: “His thoughts would definitely have an impact on the struggle for peace. What it needs is work. It needs to be presented in a way that can get across to the masses.

“There are still parts of him that are too early to digest, in so many ways.”

Banned by the Taliban

In Afghanistan, unlike Iran and Turkey, Rumi’s poetry has fallen prey to ethnic and political divisions.

Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, head of London’s Afghan Community Organisation, told Al Jazeera that while Rumi was well known among Farsi and Dari speakers in Afghanistan, his work is unknown by the country’s Pashtu-speaking leaders, which included the Taliban.

Pashtun tribes have effectively ruled Afghanistan for the past 250 years and have discouraged scholarly research into Rumi’s philosophies.

“No significant book about Rumi has been written by Afghan scholars,” Jozi told Al Jazeera.

Rumi’s popularity also suffered under the Taliban government, which banned music, concerts and recitals through which much of Rumi’s work is usually disseminated.

The ban directly challenged Rumi’s belief that music, poetry and dancing can be used as a means of spiritual and physical worship of God’s divinity.

As a result, Rumi’s legacy in Afghanistan has been restricted to the oral tradition, rather than the stuff of academia, literature or music. 

“Most of [Rumi’s] poems are being kept in the heart of the people,” Nasimi says.

Source : Al Jazeera

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