Early in August this year, I was invited to deliver a mini seminar on “Social Justice and Poverty” at Selcuk University in Konya, Turkey.
Colleagues from this and other Turkish universities had organised this seminar and asked me to address a group of about 40 graduate students who had come to Konya from across the Muslim world.
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The name of Konya in the mind of any Muslim around the world immediately conjures up the monumental figure of the Muslim mystic saint Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), whose shrine and mausoleum today grace that ancient city, and whose poetry has been a consistent source of solace and inspiration for generations of his admirers.
From the Mawlawi Sufi Order to the towering text of his “Masnavi”, and from his lyrical poetry to the ritual veneration with which he is held by many Muslims worldwide, all have placed Rumi at the centre of Muslim piety and poetry alike.
In Rumi’s shadow
I visited Konya, delivered my lectures on the campus of Selcuk University, held many informal meetings with Turkish friends and colleagues, and performed my pilgrimage to Rumi’s mausoleum – all at a time when Turkey had just commenced its military operations in Syria and Iraq against ISIL and PKK targets.
The obvious question that was on my mind, and perhaps on many other minds in that city, was the link, if any, between the sanctity and solace of a redemptive pilgrimage to the shadow of Rumi’s presence and the war on terror that his host country was now engaged in.
What are the mystics for in these times of total war and terror? What do we do when we read, revere, and perform acts of piety in honour of a mystic saint of bygone centuries at a time when our own century is aflame with wars, revolts, and uncertainties?
What do we do when we read, revere, and perform acts of piety in honour of a mystic saint of bygone centuries at a time when our own century is aflame with wars, revolts, and uncertainties?
Any attempt to answer such questions must begin on the site of Rumi’s own biography.
Rumi and his family were, in fact, war refugees, running away from the terror of their own times and seeking sanctuary in Konya, where he transformed his earthly life into an enduring gift to the peace and serenity of the world at large in the form of his poetic masterpiece, the Masnavi.
Today in Konya, you see many new refugees from Iraq and Syria, some still sporting the original license plates of their hometowns, from Baghdad to Aleppo, as they drive around Rumi’s mausoleum.
The inner and outer worlds
Contrary to common perceptions, mystics like Rumi did not abandon the external (the real and the tangible) world for the internal (the spiritual, the intangible) one.
They did not let the world go to ruin while polishing their inner soul. Quite the contrary: They began from the ground zero of their being, from the Alam-e-Saghir, or the microcosm, of of being a fallible human being, and they took it to the ground zero of the Alam-e-Kabir, the macrocosm, of the human being dwelling in the world.
Central to the link between these two worlds was, and remains, the role of an active moral imagination, a peaceful versus a warring imagination, and a harmonious versus a destructive imagination. As Rumi puts it in his Masnavi:
“Upon a phantasm their peace and their war,
And upon a phantasm their pride and their ignominy”.
From the inner solitude of discovering who they were and for what purpose their Creator had placed them in this world, they thus mapped out for the rest of the world a simulacrum of enduring harmony: with one’s own tumultuous being, with the world at large, with the cosmic force that embraces us all, and from there, with an Almighty Creator they thought had meant us for a different purpose.
Sense of anarchic apathy
Their inner soul became a simulacrum of the world at large.
They were not looking for “democracy and freedom”, but for a harmony, a balance, and a melodious purpose for the world, which they attributed to the divine design for creation and sought to achieve that balance in their inner world before they turned to map it in the outside world.
What we face today is not just the bloody violence of daily politics, but also a sense of anarchic apathy, purposelessness.
For mystics like Rumi, the inner world became the simulacrum of the outer world.
They did not abandon the outer world. They miniaturised it to their inner world so that their trials and errors would not do anyone any damage.
The trouble with the world today is not just the murderous politics we live. The trouble is with the fact that those who rule over us are, in fact, the full-size mirror of the worst and most diabolic in the very texture of human malady.
Muslim mystics owned up to those inner monstrosities and sought to curb or cure them.
The “freedom of expression” for which we yearn and struggle will mean very little if we have not equally learned “the freedom of silence” our mystic masters have ought to teach us, nor will the “freedom of peaceful assembly” we seek amount to anything if we have not foregrounded it in the freedom of peaceful solitude they sought and secured for us.
The task today is to allow them to become the roadmap of the world that they imagined, and which we have forgotten how to read.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.