The roar of Rumi - 800 years on
- Rumi made Sufi mysticism popular (Courtesy: Haydar Hatemi)
The roar of Rumi - 800 years on
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Balkh, northern Afghanistan
For many years now, the most popular poet in America has been a
13th-century mystical Muslim scholar.
Translations of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi's - better known as Rumi -
verse are hugely popular and have been used by Western pop stars such
They are attracted by his tributes to the power of love and his belief
in the spiritual use of music and dancing - although scholars stress
that he was talking about spiritual love between people and God, not
Rumi, whose 800th birth anniversary falls on Sunday, was born in 1207
in Balkh in Central Asia, now part of Afghanistan.
I came here to see whether he has much resonance in his native country
which, under the Taleban, went so far as to ban music.
A young Afghan archaeologist, Reza Hosseini, took me to the ruins of
the mud-and-brick-built khanaqa - a kind of madrassa or religious
school - where Rumi's father taught and the young boy is believed to
have studied, lying just outside the old mud city walls and probably
within yards of his birthplace.
It is a quiet and melancholy place, the structure eroded and
encroached on by shrubs and bushes.
An amazing amount of the madrassa is still surprisingly intact
But an amazing amount of it is still standing - the square structure,
its four arches with pointed tops, in the Islamic style, and half of
the graceful dome.
Mr Hosseini says the floor was originally constructed of baked bricks
and lined with carpets donated by those who came to share the learning.
Sufism - or Islamic mysticism - was already enshrined here before
Rumi's time and Mr Hosseini imagines that this corner of the town, by
the madrassa, would have echoed to the sound of Sufi singing and prayer.
But, he says, it is unclear how widespread, or acceptable, practices
such as music and dance were in the wider population.
When Rumi was barely out of his teens, Balkh was reduced to rubble by
Genghis Khan's marauding Mongol invaders.
Rumi had fled in advance with his family and settled in Konya, now in
After the murder of his close friend, a Persian wandering dervish
called Shams-i-Tabriz, he was depressed for years but later wrote his
greatest poetic work, the Mathnawi.
It describes the soul's separation from God and the mutual yearning to
With his injunctions of tolerance and love, he has universal appeal,
says Abdul Qadir Misbah, a culture specialist in the Balkh provincial
"Whether a person is from East or West, he can feel the roar of Rumi,"
"When a religious scholar reads the Mathnawi, he interprets it
religiously. And when sociologists study it, they say how powerful a
sociologist Rumi was. When people in the West study it, they see that
it's full of emotions of humanity."
The Sufi mystical tradition is not immediately apparent in modern
But with Mr Hosseini's help, I traced a small group of eight Sufi
musicians in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif whose great love is Rumi's poetry.
First there is a solo from Rumi's favoured instrument, the reed flute.
Mr Hosseini says Sufism was enshrined in Balkh before Rumi
Then the flute player is joined by Mohammed Zakir, usually a
shopkeeper, who fills the room with his powerful voice in interpreting
the words "I'm a man who's not afraid of love; I'm a moth who's not
afraid of burning".
In the third song, all the men join in with an extraordinary,
percussive vocal sound which, Mr Zakir says, comes straight from the
heart. It continues for nearly 10 intense minutes.
I meet Professor Abdulah Rohen, a local expert on the poet, who says
that, regrettably, knowledge of Rumi - also known as Mawlana - has
"Forty years ago the economic situation of the people was good. People
would work in the summer time collecting food and would eat it in
winter. In winter they were free. They would gather in mosques and
sing Mawlana's poems.
"But in the past 10 or 15 years people's economic situation has
deteriorated, so they are far from Mawlana."
He says the advent of communism in Afghanistan brought poetry into
disfavour because it was seen as backward-looking.
The reed flute was Rumi's favourite instrument
Then the Taleban attempted to crush Sufism and outlawed all music, but
Prof Rohen says it has since regained huge popularity.
According to him, Rumi brought Sufi mysticism away from asceticism and
into the heart of the people.
Many western fans of Rumi have secularised his message.
It was in fact a religious one; and, says Prof Rohen, Christians and
Jews as well as Muslims flocked to his funeral.
I ask him to sum up the poet's message and he offers a quote.
"Mawlana says - if the sky is not in love, then it will not be so
clear. If the sun is not in love, then it will not be giving any
light. If the river is not in love, then it will be in silence, it
will not be moving. If the mountains, the earth are not in love, then
there will be nothing growing."
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW
Need some good karma? Appreciate the service?
Please consider donating to WVNS today.
Email ummyakoub@... for instructions.
To leave this list, send an email to: