The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi
Fatemeh Keshavarz is professor of Persian & Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of several books, including Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal aI-Din Rumi.
March 8, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The 13th-century mystic and poet Rumi is a best-selling author in the modern West. He’s long influenced Islamic thought and spirituality, though his Muslim identity is often lost in translation. We enter the exuberant world of Rumi with an Iranian-American poet and scholar. And we explore why he matters in our time. Rumi understood searching and restlessness as a kind of arrival. He saw every form of human love as a mirror of the divine.
MR. SOLEYMAN VASEGHI: [Lines of Rumi poetry recited in Persian]
MS. FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: [Translating] Wherever you are, whatever you do, be in love.
MS. TIPPETT: “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.
In his lifetime, the poet known in the West as Rumi was called Muhammad Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi al-Rumi. He was born in 1207 near the city of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan. When he was a child, his family fled Mongol invaders and settled in Konya in present-day Turkey. Rumi wrote in Persian, the literary and spiritual language of a civilization that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India. To most of the people who read him today from Tajikistan to Iran, he is known as Mevlana or Mawlana, our master.
Rumi left behind a vast body of lyric poetry, metaphysical writings, lectures, and letters, which have influenced Persian, Urdu, and Turkish literature across the centuries. He also inspired the whirling dervishes, ascetics who base their practices on Rumi, including the dancing meditation that was part of his spiritual life. Lines from Rumi’s poetry are widely quoted; lines such as “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Fatemeh Keshavarz, calls Rumi a world-class thinker, relevant to our painfully compartmentalized world.
MS. KESHAVARZ: One of the reasons why he addresses the issues that are of concern to us so much today is because he belongs to a tradition, the Sufi tradition or the mystical tradition within Islam, which has always been concerned with the way human beings view themselves and each other and are able to relate to each other.
MS. TIPPETT: Fatemeh Keshavarz is a professor of Persian and Comparative Literature in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis. I spoke with her in 2007. She is also a poet, and she often sets Rumi’s words to music. She grew up speaking the Persian in which Rumi wrote, in the Iranian city of Shiraz.
MS. KESHAVARZ: I grew up in a family in which people played chess, read poetry, or argued about poetry. That was basically — and only after I left Iran I realized that that’s probably not what everyone else does all the time. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So in this landscape where poetry of all kinds, including poetry woven into religious sensibility, I mean, what did Rumi mean in that landscape? How was he part of the spiritual sensibility of that world you grew up in?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Well, he was a voice that echoed something that was, on one level, very familiar, because a lot of other people had talked about it, but on another level, it was completely new because of the way he played with it, the way he made it his own game. And I mean game because playing is very serious for him. Laughing and playing are the most serious things in his poetry.
So for me, he came into the picture as someone who said, “OK, you’ve read the text. You know the words. You’ve looked at the history. Now, transcend all that. Put it aside and live it. Encounter it.” If you ask me to think of a few words that, for me, describe his poetry, one of them is it’s an encounter. You come face to face with something. I never forget, I was once reading a ghazal that described as beautiful birds. You know, he said …
MS. TIPPETT: The ghazals are odes, what we would translate as something a little bit different than a poem, right?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. Ghazal is about eight to 10, 12 lines normally, although his could be much shorter or much longer. And the main theme is love and these are like flashes of ideas that come.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. KESHAVARZ: So I was reading one of those and he was describing these beautiful birds. You know, some can sing, some are colorful, and so forth. And I was, you know, enjoying the walk in the aviary. And he suddenly said, “Well, what kind of a bird are you?” All of a sudden, I realized I can’t stay on the margins. You have to join in. And I think, in a way, the whirling is exactly a reflection of that. So he kind of comes into the tradition with all the intellectual legacy, but he says that’s not enough. You have to do something else with it. Face it, play with it, dance it, bring it into your everyday life.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something that strikes me, there are a lot of themes in his writing, in his poetry, that you might call ascetic. You know, he’s very aware of the limits of the physical …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Sure, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … and of the importance of the spiritual in that equation. And yet, there’s something incredibly sensual at the same time that, when you mention the whirling …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: … the weeping of the whirling dervishes. There’s dance and music …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. I would say that it’s all on the same continuum of human experience. We are not divided into body and soul in a way, although he does talk about body and soul and there’s no question about the fact that the soul is exalted. Ultimately, the goal is to purify the soul and so on and so forth.
But we don’t have to think about the rest of ourselves as base or as not — in fact, it’s a tool. It’s a part of us that’s very important. He does say, in one verse, he says, “Love, whether of this kind or that kind,” and obviously, it’s either, you know, the kind of divine, spiritual, or the human-to-human love, “ultimately leads you to the same king.” The body is not an obstacle on the way of the soul. It’s a tool to be used for that journey.
MS. TIPPETT: After Rumi’s death, some of his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, commonly known as the community of the whirling dervishes. Dervish is a Persian word, which described wandering Muslim ascetics of the medieval Persian Empire. Dervishes were and are Sufis, part of the Islamic mystical tradition that emerged as a spiritual renewal movement after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.
Rumi imprinted that movement with a vividly sensual and poetic spirituality that has been controversial across the ages. He crafted some of his most religious ideas in the form of erotically toned love poetry, which seems at once addressed to Allah or God and to an earthly beloved. Rumi inspired the whirling dervishes by spinning around a column as he recited his poems.
MS. TIPPETT: Something you wrote about whirling that was so gripping to me said, for Rumi, the whirling is one way to stay centered while moving.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. And, you know, and I do some speculation in my work. Does this have something to do with the fact that he traveled so young when he went all the way westward from the province of Khorasan to where is the city of Konya today, present-day Turkey. And the journey lasted about two years. He must have encountered so many different people and cultures and incidents. So it may have something to do with that.
But he’s certainly very appreciative of the ability to change your vantage point. You know, at some point, he says, in his discourses, he says, “If you don’t plow the earth, it’s going to get so hard nothing grows in it. You just plow the earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don’t ask exactly what’s going to happen. You allow yourself to move around, and then you will see the benefit.”
MS. TIPPETT: Is there also something in the whirling that strikes you as very compatible with Islamic theology in general, or with Sufi theology, that might not be apparent to an outsider?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Well, I think you could say that everything in the universe is whirling, is quickened with the force of love. I mean, that fits with the Sufi theology. We are like planets. We have to appreciate that. And in order to appreciate that, you have to join the dance. But there are also — there are interpretations. We can now look at whirling and say things like, for example, one hand is pointed towards the sky and the other one to the earth. So that’s usually interpreted as bringing the heaven and the earth together, like staying connected with the two. Or the dervishes wear a black robe and a white robe underneath, and then they disrobe the black robe and they dance in their white. That’s interpreted as the shedding of the ego.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. KESHAVARZ: But then the master standing in the center doesn’t have to do it because he supposedly has tamed his ego. But all of these things have been interpretations later, done of the activity of whirling. Beyond that, you know, to me, it comes across as something much broader and more universal than Islam or any other religion. It’s a kind of getting in tune with the moving earth.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve spoken a lot about love and love as the core of this spirituality. I think that, also, in the Persian culture in which you grew up and Rumi as well, there is a connection between love poetry and imagery of the beloved and lovers with religious ideas, which, again, you kind of have to introduce a Westerner into.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yeah. The imagery is very often almost identical with profane, you know, mundane love poetry. By this, I don’t mean to give any negative connotation to it, but love that is purely sensual and emotional, and human love. To me, I think it’s a statement by poets like Rumi and others like him that there isn’t really a boundary between the two. It’s the same thing. It’s the same human experience.
And, you know, there is another medieval Sufi, actually a bit later than Rumi, who says that you can’t look at the sun directly, but you can look at its reflection in the water. Now, our humanly experience of love is that reflection in the water of our senses. And it’s God’s way of teaching us and guiding us from this to the actual looking at the sun when you have gained the ability. I was just thinking of a particular ghazal.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, I wanted to ask you if you had anything you would read or recite, yes.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yeah, yeah. I think that that actually could help see how one would lead to the other, and actually the ambiguity between the two. It’s a source of great poetic force.
MS. TIPPETT: And you mean, one and the other would be divine — human love and divine love?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Human love and divine love, exactly.
MR. VASEGHI: [Lines of Rumi poetry recited in Persian]
MS. KESHAVARZ:[Translating] If anyone asks you about the houris, show your face, say, “Like this.” If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say, “Like this.” If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance. If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair and say, “Like this.” If anyone asks, “How do the clouds uncover the moon?” Untie the front of your robe, knot by knot, say, “Like this.” If anyone asks, “How did Jesus raise the dead?” Kiss me on the lips, say, “Like this.” If anyone asks, “What are those killed by love like?” Direct him to me, say, “Like this.” If anyone kindly asks you how tall I am, show him your arched eyebrows, say, “Like this.”
So the whole ghazal is a description of the physical beauty of the beloved, but at the same time, it’s a fairly long poem. At the end, it leads us to blind with envy the one who says, “How can a human being reach God? Give each of us a candle of purity, say, ‘Like this.'” In the end, human beings can get to that candle of purity and reach God, and all human beings can do that.
MS. TIPPETT: It is also an act of pointing at what is now, right? What is physical and human, as you say, as the only way we have of imagining.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Exactly. Exactly. There’s a famous Sufi tale that this young disciple who approached the master to enter the order day after day. And finally, the master said, “Have you ever fallen in love with a woman?” He said, “No, not yet. I’m only 18.” He said, “Well, go try that first.”
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve selected more of Rumi’s poems for you to hear and read on our website, onbeing.org, along with images and explanations of the whirling dervishes.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi.” We’re dipping into the spiritual background of the 13th-century Muslim mystic. In the “Song of the Reed,” Rumi reflects on the human spirit through the metaphor of the ancient reed flute or ney that’s popular in Middle Eastern music. This poem opened the Masnavi, Rumi’s compendium of rhyming couplets that explored Sufi theology and the spiritual journey.
My guest, Fatemeh Keshavarz recites it.
MS. KESHAVARZ: [Reciting] Listen to the story told by the reed of being separated. Since I was cut from the reed bed, I have made this crying sound. Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say. Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back. At any gathering, I’m there, mingling and laughing and grieving — a friend to each, but few will hear the secrets hidden within the notes. No ears for that. Body flowing out of spirit, spirit out from body, no concealing that mixing. But it’s not given us to see, so the reed flute is fire, not wind. Leave that empty.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a theme that is part of that, that runs all the way through, about separation and longing, as part of — well, not just the spiritual life, but being human, and also a kind of sense that the separation and the longing themselves are a kind of arrival.
MS. KESHAVARZ: On one level, you have to get on the road. You have to get started. You know, just like the earth that, you know, have to plow the earth, you have to get moving. On another level, time and again, he reminds us that the destination is the journey itself. So there isn’t a point where you say, “OK, I’m here, I’ve reached, I’m done, I’m perfect. I don’t need to do anything anymore.” In the incompleteness of that, the need to move forward is inherent in that incompleteness, in the process of going forward, that you make yourself better and better and you, in a way, never reach. So the separation is the powerful force that keeps you going. If you ever felt that, “I have arrived, I’ve reached, this is it,” then you wouldn’t go any further.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, and I think it is counterintuitive in our culture — not that we necessarily think this through very often, but we think of desires and longings as something that we need to find something to meet, right?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And …
MS. KESHAVARZ: And we want to meet it really fast and perfect. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, because, somehow, the feeling of longing and separation from whatever it is, especially if we don’t know what it is we want, that that is unsatisfying and there’s something wrong with that.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, what Rumi is saying is that, you know, the longing itself is redemptive and is progress, kind of …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, and the longing itself — and also not to understand exactly what that longing is in itself is very productive. I think one idea or major concept that the Sufi tradition and Rumi in particular have to contribute to our current culture is value in perplexity, the fact that not knowing is a source of learning, something that propels us forward into finding out. Longing, perplexity, these are all very valuable things. We want to unravel things and get answers and be done, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a continual process. We can’t be done, and that’s good.
MS. TIPPETT: I also have a feeling that Rumi is saying we also, though, at the same time need to be intentional about what we choose to be perplexed by. Does that make sense? I mean, there’s this poem: “Stay bewildered in God and only that. Those of you who are scattered, simplify your worrying lives. There is one righteousness. Water the fruit trees and don’t water the thorns. Be generous to what nurtures the spirit and God’s luminous reason-light. Don’t honor what causes dysentery and knotted-up tumors. Don’t feed both sides of yourself equally. The spirit and the body carry different loads and require different attentions.”
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. Yes. I think the energy can’t go in all directions completely uncontrolled. And you have to — you have to choose because we have one life. You have to spend it wisely. So absolutely, he would say choose, be selective, recognize your own value. At another point, he says, “You are an astrolabe to God, you know? Don’t use yourself for things that are not worthwhile.” But I want to linger a little bit on that idea of being scattered because that’s a key concept in Sufi thought.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. KESHAVARZ: And actually it’s something that the Buddhists also talk about a lot. And that is our mind just jumps from one thing to the other. And, you know, the Sufis call it the onrush of ideas into our minds. And in some ways, if we allow it, it takes us over, you know? You know, what am I going to do about that credit card? You know, how am I going to …
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. KESHAVARZ: You know, what do I do about this student’s paper? And, you know, whatever else is you are — that you’re concerned with — my family, my kids, my future. So it all invades your life. And so in a way, you’re pulled in all directions. You’re scattered. So one of the purposes of his poetry and one of the concepts the Sufis talk about is to collect that scatteredness.
Here is one of Rumi’s ghazals, which Fatemeh Keshavarz translated and recites with the Lian Ensemble, a group that often sets Rumi’s words to Persian music.
MR. HOUMAN POURMEHDI: [Lines of Rumi poetry recited in Persian]
MS. KESHAVARZ: [Translating] When pain arrives side by side with your love, I promise not to flee. When you ask me for my life, I promise not to fight. I’m holding a cup in my hand, but God, if you do not come till the end of time, I promise not to pour out the wine nor to drink a sip. Your bright face is my day. Your dark curls bring the night. If you do not let me near you, I promise not to go to sleep nor rise. Your magnificence has made me a wonder. Your charm has taught me the way of love. I am the progeny of Abraham. I’ll find my way through fire.
MS. TIPPETT: What do you hear in that? What do you reflect on in that?
MS. KESHAVARZ: It’s about steadfastness, about staying centered and keeping your eye on the goal, but at the same time, very much being in love and allowing the ecstasy of love take over. You see, he is very aware of the fact that, as human beings, we are limited. We have our limits. We just are not able to do everything that we desire to do. Our rationality is there; it’s very helpful. It does its job in questioning things and showing the way, but that has its limits too. What opens the way beyond that is love.
What enables us to feel the pain and still go forth in the face of all of that is experiencing that love. And if you look at our lives, you know, people who produce great works of art, who are creative, who do something that goes beyond day-to-day activities, have that kind of steadfastness, that kind of devotion that lets them go through. What I see in that poem is that I promise to have that, but that comes from you. It’s your magnificence, your love that gives me that energy, that power to stay, and I promise to hold onto it.
MS. TIPPETT: And “you” is the beloved, is God, is Allah.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, and that’s where the ambiguity comes in, of course, because you should be able to relate to it as a human being in love with another human being. That would be your entry into the poem.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s also probably important to note that Rumi had a great turning point with a friendship, with Shams, a Sufi master. I think it is actually helpful that the love relationship, out of which Rumi drew so many of his analogies, you know, is not a romantic love relationship. And what you’re saying to me is that love is the core, but to think about the many forms that love takes in our lives. I mean, there’s also the passionate love that we have for our children.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, and so they are a blessing and they all have their own place. And in the end, we don’t replace them with the divine. It’s like warming up, in a way. It’s like getting you ready for a major exercise, a physical activity. You warm up gradually. You get yourself to a state where you can do it, test your abilities, see your problems and issues, ask your questions, quarrel with yourself, and get ready for it. And I think all these forms of experience of attachment with other human beings are various ways of experiencing that.
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can listen to all of the music and poetry from this hour — recited both in Persian and in English. While you’re there, tell us how Rumi’s words have spoken to you. And listen to the stories of many others who’ve written to us. Like the reflection of a former Roman Catholic priest who shared how Rumi helped him through a period of transition. Go to onbeing.org; tell us how Rumi has found expression in your life. And I encourage you also there to subscribe to our email update. This gives a preview of each week’s show, my personal journal on each week’s ideas, and the most popular articles from our blog — including right now guest reflections on Lent. Subscribe by clicking the “Updates” button. All this and much more at onbeing.org.
Coming up, how Rumi might speak to the spirit of Islam, past and present. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi,” the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. In recent years, English translations of Rumi’s poetry by the American poet Coleman Barks have sold more than half a million copies in the United States. Rumi has been the subject of creative work by contemporary artists from Philip Glass to Madonna.
But popular renditions of Rumi often give little hint of his Islamic identity. He was the son of a Muslim teacher, born in the center of Persian Islamic civilization. He spent time as the head of a madrassa, religious schools, which were also designed as centers of great learning in the sciences and philosophy. Rumi’s themes of separation and longing come straight from the heart of Islamic theology. There’s no idea there of original sin, for example, but rather of a human tendency to forget and thus become separated from Allah or God. Islam imagines faith as zikr or “remembrance” of a knowledge that is already embedded in human beings.
My guest, Fatemeh Keshavarz, finds resonance in Rumi for the deepest challenges before the world and Islam today.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to talk about Rumi’s Islamic grounding and identity.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: That gets lost in …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Absolutely. I agree.
MS. TIPPETT: … 21st-century translations. Coleman Barks’ translations are the ones that many people have read, that became popularized, and …
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I was reading his introduction to The Essential Rumi. You know, he suggested that with a mystical writer like this, you know, he suggested that placing this person in historical and cultural context is simply not a central task. And he wrote, “My more grandiose project is to free his text into its essence.”
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. I think one thing that Coleman Barks has done, he has written Rumi’s ideas in the American poetic idiom. He’s made it accessible …
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. KESHAVARZ: … to the broad readership, and that should definitely be valued. And, you know, don’t hear me saying anything else on that. But I don’t think you can free people from the context in which they live. And I don’t think even if you try to do that, that that serves a useful purpose. I don’t see Rumi as detached from the Islamic context at all. In fact, I see his work as utterly and completely immersed in the Islamic tradition. I tell you, it would be hard to read a single ghazal, not even the Masnavi, which is expressly a work with theological and mystical intentions. But even a ghazal, it would be hard to read a ghazal and not find quite a few allusions to Qur’anic verses, to sayings of the prophet, to practices in the Muslim world, so I don’t think we need to separate him from his Islamic context.
The way first I visualize this myself is that he goes through the religion, he lives it, absorbs it, and uses it in his way. So in the process, he subverts a lot of things. He changes a lot of things, reinterprets a lot of things, but he does not step outside of it. He lives in it. Let me give you an example.
MS. TIPPETT: Good.
MS. KESHAVARZ: You know that in his discourses — I try not to use the word sermons because sermon brings such a specific connotation that’s probably not there. But the discourses are when Rumi is sitting in a local mosque, in a local gathering, talking to people. It’s very interactive, it’s very informal, and he kind of steps down the pulpit in a way and reaches out to the people and it’s very poetic even though it’s in prose. And he didn’t write it down; his students and, you know, people around him took it down.
On one of these occasions, he quotes a Qur’anic verse, if I might quote the Arabic, is [recites Qur’anic verse in Arabic]. “We” — this is the royal we, God — “we sent down the zikr and we will be its protector.” Now, the word zikr in Arabic means remembrance. And traditionally, the commentators have defined the word zikr as the Qur’an itself, and they have good reason to do so because elsewhere in the Qur’an, the Qur’an refers to itself as zikr and remembrance, in part because humanity is described as forgetful, so the Qur’an is a way of remembering.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Now, he says the commentators have said that this verse refers to the Qur’an itself, that God says, “We have given you the Qur’an, and we are, that I am the protector of it.” And he said [foreign language spoken]. That’s fine. [Foreign language spoken], but there is this interpretation, too, that God says [foreign language spoken]. “We have put in you a desire and a quest, and I, God, am the protector of that desire.” That’s a very different interpretation. First of all, it opens it immediately to all humanity.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I think that there is something in Rumi’s writing which is so large, so generous.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t like the word universal because, I think, in some ways, it waters things down.
MS. KESHAVARZ: I agree with you. Generous is a very good — yes, yes, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s easy to read this and also, I think, people from many different religious traditions can read this poetry or his discourses, or people who are not people of faith can read it and feel themselves addressed and feel their spiritual lives addressed.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes. Yes. And I think sometimes people feel that if they take away or overlook the Islamic flavor of it, maybe that makes him more accessible, more theirs. I think generosity and openness is a very good way of putting it. If you’re not rooted in the specific and in the small, in the local, you can never see the broader vision. You have to love a tradition and to be completely immersed in it before you can subvert it and transcend it.
MS. TIPPETT: Before you can subvert it from the inside.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Exactly. And you have to love it for you to think that “I want to open it up. I want to make it better, and then go forward with it.” And, you know, you can’t break laws in an acceptable way unless you know them really well and practice them with tradition. That’s the only time. And that’s what I think he does. He’s so well rooted in the Islamic tradition, so completely aware of the nuances, that he says, you know, “Hey guys, we can open it up here. Look. Look at this. This is what you always thought, but now look one step beyond.” And he can do that precisely because he’s rooted in the tradition.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think it’s true also that around the same time that Rumi was entering popular imaginations by way of poetry, there were images of Islam suddenly in the news in this post-9/11 world, which were so very different from that.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean — and, you know, you’ve written that Rumi is “a true child of an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” And, you know, those are not two words that you would associate with headline Islam that we’ve had these past years.
MS. KESHAVARZ: I’m actually, you know, really glad you bring this up because, I think, one thing that’s desperately needed at this point, to show the adventureness, the surprise, the play, the aspects of his work that now are not normally associated with that part of the world. You kind of think that, you know, people just — it’s all religion, and it’s religion followed in a fairly institutionalized and stylized and, you know, planned form. Not at all. I mean, he’s playing with it all the time. So I think another contribution he could do for us right now, exactly in this post-9/11 environment, is to bring out that side of the Muslim culture, that contribution to the world.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi.”
Ironically, just as Rumi was being rediscovered in the U.S. and Western Europe, the Sufi brotherhood formed by his followers has been banned in periods of recent history in Turkey — that’s where Rumi did most of his writing and where he’s buried. The whirling of the whirling dervishes, which Rumi innovated as a form of dancing meditation, has been reduced, some say, to mere entertainment.
I asked Fatemeh Keshavarz about Rumi’s legacy in Iran, where she grew up, the center of the Persian universe of literature and culture to which Rumi also belonged.
MS. TIPPETT: Is Rumi still as much alive in Iran now as when you were growing up? How does that look?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Well, I tell you I can’t keep up with the books that are published in Iran about him. Yes, absolutely. You know, there’s this debate whether he was a Persian or a Turk or an Afghan, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. KESHAVARZ: It is completely really irrelevant again. But for Iranians, he’s just such a household name. You will have, in your house, you will have the Qur’an, you will have the volume of poetry of Hafez, another great figure from the little bit later period, and the Masnavi of Rumi. And then depending, of course, like any other culture, you have people who more immersed in his work and more familiar. They know him at different levels obviously. But, yeah, I wouldn’t say that the interest in him has changed or lessened at all.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I hear in my conversations that Islam in Iran is — there’s great intellectual discourse and study and, you know, that’s just not a story that we hear.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: So I mean, I’m just curious, you know? This subversive, playful, cosmopolitan quality of — are those also part of the discourse in Iran?
MS. KESHAVARZ: Absolutely. You know, I send out listserv to my friends called “Windows on Iran” precisely for that. Just once a week, I send out information about Iran that they don’t get to see in the media. Like in the month of June, for example, there’s a book fair in Iran. You know how many people visited this past book fair in June in one week? Two million people visited the book fair.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, my Gosh.
MS. KESHAVARZ: You know, I send this out and then I get these messages, “Wow, this is happening in Iran?” Or I send pictures. I just realized afterwards that our visual vocabulary has been affected. If we think of Iran, we only have certain visions of unfortunate moments in recent history that get repeated. And our language — Rumi is so aware of that. Language can take over our lives and make us not see things.
He actually has a fabulous verse, he says [Persian spoken]. “Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.” I mean this is the most sophisticated, philosophical approach to language. Now we talk of language as being constitutive of experience, but that’s exactly what he said. You know, “Get yourself a new language and then you will be able to see a new world.” And that’s definitely what we need to do in relation to that part of the world and certainly with Iran, to see the dynamics. A tremendous amount is going on that we don’t get to hear about.
MR. VASEGHI: [Lines of Rumi poetry recited in Persian]
MS. KESHAVARZ: [Translating] To speak the same language is to share the same blood, to be related. To live with strangers is the life of captivity. Many are Hindus and Turks who share the same language. Many are Turks who may be alien to one another. The language of companionship is a unique one. To reach someone through the heart is other than reaching them through words. Besides words, allusions, and arguments, the heart knows a hundred thousand ways to speak.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I can’t help but look at Rumi’s life and be struck by how the poles of culture and place in terms of, you know, where he moved and where he lived and settled, are all such important poles in our world today. There’s Afghanistan, there’s Turkey, which is somehow becoming symbolic of the struggle to define what is Western, right, what is not.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s Persia, there’s Iran. Do you ever think about that, about Rumi’s legacy and where he came from and how that echoes in the world today?
MS. KESHAVARZ: I consider myself tremendously lucky to be able to grow up with that language. But to tell you the truth, I think that all parts of the world have their own Rumis. I believe that we just need only to explore those traditions and look for them. So in a sense, I think he is just one other giant, you know, one other figure who is very important right now. I agree with you, it’s very important to read him, to look at the vision that he has for humanity, because it’s so healing, it’s so needed to correct some of our shortsightedness and, you know, some of the problems we have with not being able to see the larger picture. So in that sense, I agree with you. But I don’t know if I want to think of that part of the world as having any kind of monopoly on this.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. KESHAVARZ: I think, if anything, his vision is that all humanity is pregnant with God. You know, we all in various parts of worlds and traditions — we have people like him. We just have to find them.
MS. TIPPETT: You ask a question in something you’ve written: “How is one to nurture this God buried like a ruin in the treasure of one’s being and let it permeate all of life?” How does your encounter with Rumi, your ongoing encounter with Rumi, how does it help you live with that question, answer that question in your life?
MS. KESHAVARZ: You know, the most important tool he has, which is hope, is what we need to nurture in ourselves. And hope, the energy to move, the energy to go, to never think that this is not worth it or I am done, I am tired, that’s what he’s given me. I can read them for hours, I can teach them for hours. I can come back to it and be surprised again. The gift is a kind of whirling that keeps your life to be a constant move on the road, and then according to your abilities, what you can see, what you can hear, what you can cherish, you get your own rewards. You put it together. Again, you give birth to your own God. Life kind of comes to life with his words.
MS. TIPPETT: With Rumi’s words.
MS. KESHAVARZ: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. KESHAVARZ: And, you know, depending on where I am and who I am at that point and what I’m doing, I get something out of it. It actually has a fascinating verse. He says [Persian spoken], says, “I am fire. If you have doubts about that, bring your hands forth.” That’s the dramatic flair I was talking about, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. KESHAVARZ: “Bring your hands forth” — touch me and I’ll tell you what I’m about.
MS. TIPPETT: Fatemeh Keshavarz is Professor of Persian and Comparative literature in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis. Her books include: Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran. Her blog is “Windows on Iran.” Here in closing is Fatemeh Keshavarz reciting a passage from Rumi’s Discourses.
MS. KESHAVARZ: [Reciting]
The world is a mountain
Whatever you say, good or bad, it will echo it back to you
Don’t say I sang nicely and mountain echoed an ugly voice …
That is not possible
The human intellect is a place where hesitation and uncertainty take root
There is no way to overcome this hesitation … except by falling in love
To reach the sea and be happy with a jug water is a waste
The sea that has pearls …
And a hundred thousand other precious things.
MS. TIPPETT: Rumi’s poetry offers new ways of seeing beauty in the world. And even today, his lush and textured words inspire people from all walks of life. Tell us if and how Rumi has spoken to your life. Add your reflection to others at onbeing.org. While you’re there, download MP3s of this show and my entire unedited interview with Fatemeh Keshavarz. And connect with us in all our of social media spaces — on Facebook, Twitter, and on Tumblr. That’s onbeing.org.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Special thanks this week to Houman Pourmehdi, Soleyman Vaseghi, the Lian Ensemble, Omid Safi, and Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Department. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time: There are losses we’re born with and losses we grow toward. Storyteller Kevin Kling has experienced both. He takes us inside his story of disability and survival, humor and healing. Please join us.