13th-century Muslim scholar has long been the most read poet in the United States
Why Rumi was the perfect baby name for Beyoncé and Jay-Z
The internet went into meltdown last week when global music power-couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z released the first photo of their newborn twins, named Rumi and Sir Carter.
In that same week, Coldplay released the EP Kaleidoscope, whose title is inspired by the Rumi poem The Guest House.
All this is confirmation of something we already know and have known for years – Rumi is a big deal in the West.
Ironically, the 13th-century Islamic poet is arguably today’s biggest cultural export from the Muslim world, spanning various facets from literature to music.
He is presently the most-read poet in the United States, with millions of copies of his books sold, and his work is a hallmark of greeting cards, for everything from births to condolences.
Rumi remains a popular figure in social media too – there are up to a million Instagram hashtags mentioning his work, while a Rumi Quotes Facebook page has almost 700,000 likes.
Born in 1207 as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, Rumi followed his father’s academic leanings and grew to become a famed teacher and theologian.
The turning point came when he met the wandering dervish Shamsuddin of Tabriz in the Turkish city of Konya. They made an odd pairing and the close friendship between the refined Rumi and the uncouth yet wise Shamsuddin elicited jealousy from Rumi’s students. They schemed and eventually killed Shamsuddin almost a decade later.
The dye was cast, however. The life-changing bond he shared with Shamsuddin inspired Rumi to work on his Sufi masterpiece, Masnavi until his death in 1273.
With 26,000 couplets of didactic verses that aim to spiritually counsel and instruct, the six-volume Masnavi is viewed as one of the longest single authored poems ever published.
This is besides in excess of 3,000 poems Rumi wrote, which act as odes to God, the Prophet Mohammed and love.
The Mevlevi Sufi Order (renowned for their whirling dervish form of worship) was established after his death to preserve his teachings. The order has been run under the Rumi family since – the 22nd generation descendant, Faruk Hemdem Celebi, is presently the Makam Chalabi, or chief master.
Rumi’s imprint on the English-speaking world took hold relatively recently, and the chief reason was the dearth of accessible translations.
The desire to shift Rumi’s work away from the scholarly arena moved poet Robert Bly to seek the services of fellow American translator Coleman Barks in 1976. Bly gave him a copy of Rumi’s poetry, translated in a suffocatingly-dense style by esteemed British scholar Arthur Arberry, and famously said: “These poems need to be released from their cages.”
With Barks unable to speak Arabic or Farsi, the now-80-year-old poet worked purely from English scholarly translations of Rumi’s poetry – particularly the works by American academic John Moyne and English orientalist Reynold Nicholson – and transformed the stiff prose into free verse. The results were immediate; Barks published more than 20 volumes in 30 years, including the 1995 bestseller The Essential Rumi.
Barks puts Rumi’s appeal down to his unifying message resonating in a time where societies are ravaged by religious conflict.
“I feel there is a strong global movement, an impulse that wants to dissolve the boundaries that religions have put up and end the sectarian violence,” he was quoted as saying in an interview in 2014. “It is said that people of all religions came to Rumi’s funeral in 1273. Because, they said, he deepens our faith wherever we are. This is a powerful element in his appeal now.”
Rumi proved to be an equally beguiling character in the fictional world. With the bestselling 2009 novel The Forty Rules of Love, Turkish author Elif Shafak juxtaposes the relationship between Rumi and Shamsuddin with the life of a rich suburban housewife to create a powerful novel about finding meaning in a material world.
Rumi has also been embraced by an eclectic array of musicians, from classical music composers to stadium rockers.
His poetry was the inspiration behind the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s acclaimed Symphony No.3 (1914-1916). In 2009, to celebrate Rumi’s 800th anniversary, the Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed a series of shows with his Silk Road Ensemble (who came to the capital in March as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival), featuring his work.
When it comes to pop music, Rumi is the subject of one of Tod Rundgren’s most mind-bending albums, A Cappella (1985), on which every sound is in fact his voice. In Miracle in the Bazaar, Rundgren sounds like he is stuck in an echo chamber as he sings: “As Jalaluddin Rumi has prophesied / This day, this day / Allah, Allah will make his presence known to you.”
Regarding The Guest House as an inspiration for Kaleidoscope, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin said the poem helped him to heal after his 2014 divorce from actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
“It kind of changed my life,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “It says that everything that happens to you is OK. The idea is to accept what happens to you and not run away from anything - and trust that things will blossom and become colourful.”
Which brings us to the pop world’s latest possible Rumi adherent, Jay-Z. The rapper mentions Rumi in his new album 4:44, in the soulful MaNyfaCedGod when he states: “Be grateful for whatever comes / Because each has been sent from a guy from beyond / That’s what Rumi say.”
While the book and album sales may point to his global appeal, to truly witness a “Rumi Effect” would be to see more positive change in the world. If Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s naming of their daughter Rumi helps to steer the conversation further towards his teachings, it can be viewed as nothing other than a positive step.