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Rasoul Shams: Why Rumi matters

Editor's note: This article by scholar Rasoul Shams is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. This essay is adapted from a Books & Bridges lecture Shams gave March 11, 2017, at Weller Book Works.

They say there are windows between hearts.

How can there be a window where there is no wall. — Rumi

Rumi is one of the most widely read poets in America today. Yet you will not see him in interviews or book signing events. He speaks from the distant past, but still his voice sends wisdom across time and culture.

Rumi was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic who lived in the 13th century during a period of wars and bloodshed. The Middle East — the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — was then under constant attack by Mongols from the East and Crusaders from the West. Innocent people were killed in these invasions, including not only Muslims but many Christians and Jews. It was to flee the massacre of Genghis Khan’s army that Rumi’s family, when he was barely a teenager, left their hometown of Balkh (now in Afghanistan) and settled in Konya (now in southern Turkey).

Despite the violence surrounding him, Rumi emerged as a poet of compassion, kindness, piety, faith, spiritual insight and enlightened living. He did not write about military solutions or political power, but instead explored the beauties, longings and joys of the human heart. His voice thus became timeless, his appeal universal. When he died in 1273, at age 66, people from various religions and ethnicities attended his funeral to honor their beloved poet and teacher. The popularity of Rumi’s poetry in our century and country, therefore, should not come as a surprise. Truth and love transcend the boundaries of history, geography and language.

Such affection and respect keep a pluralistic society like ours intact. Indeed, there are so many differences and expectations in any given society that our attempts to fit them in the same fabric do not always work. But in the end, Rumi’s solution of heartfelt compassion and interpersonal solidarity is stronger than any other force. More and more people have an inkling he’s correct.

I was introduced to Rumi’s poetry in my Persian course as a young boy growing up in Iran during the 1970s. Even after I left my home country, his poetry stayed with me; it has nourished my soul for more than three decades. Part of the reason Rumi appeals to his readers is that he integrated into his own life and person certain qualities, each of which can easily consume a whole life span: The devotion of a saint, the deep learning of a scholar, the penetrating mind of a philosopher, and the literary skills of a master poet.

Reason and faith are both important to Rumi, but even higher is love. He compares himself to an empty flute, open to the source of joy, hope and peace. What plays this flute is not “the wind but the fire of love.” Like Jesus, Rumi views God as love embedded in the very matrix of creation. For this reason, Rumi, in his thousands of poems, rarely addresses God by a particular name but rather as Friend and Beloved.

Rumi does not draw a rigid boundary between divine love and human love. To him, the source of all genuine love is one and the same. He was faithful to his religious tradition — he prayed and performed all the rituals — yet was not officious or dogmatic about it. He sought balance between spirituality and religious forms, whereas many in the world tend to polarize the two. Rumi invites us to go beyond words and symbols because, as he says, “conflicts among people arise from their attachments to names; when people go into the meaning and spirit, peace prevails.” In this way, spirit is always concealed in the body, meaning in the word, and flower in the seed.

For Rumi, life is a precious gift; “the horse of love has brought us here from a grand Mystery.” It is a privilege to be born human. One of his famous poems says “this being human is a guest house” — we should appreciate the gifts of life that visit us as guests only for a while. Our main task is to live, work and enjoy life. This means to let the “ruby of love shine from the mountain of our body” and let “the fresh water of love burst out from the granite of our heart.” Greed, arrogance and intolerance are destructive.

What our divided, violent world needs most urgently are cooperation, friendship, forgiveness and understanding. “Plant seeds of compassion in this pure land,” he urges us. This activity requires diligence, hope, trust and going beyond the small self. “Be like melting snow; wash yourself of yourself.” We do not really own anything in this world. “Whoever brought us here will take us back as well.” This hour is all that is given to us.

Historical cultures are like deep fountains pouring out pearls of timeless wisdom and healing words. Persian Sufi poetry is one such fountain, and Rumi is a lofty summit in the literary and spiritual landscape of humanity. Thanks to modern translations, today Rumi is part of American and English literature, and he can now converse with the greats such as Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Many walls and conflicts still stand between the peoples of this planet, including Rumi’s own cultural lands of the Middle East. But let the master poet always remind us that barriers are illusions of our own making.

Rasoul Shams is director of the Rumi Poetry Club, author of "Rumi Essays" and translator of "Rumi: The Art of Loving."