Rumi without Islam: the cultural appropriation of Rumi


Rumi is… cool.


Beyonce named one of her children Rumi. Brad Pitt has a tattoo of Rumi poetry. Coldplay incorporated Rumi poetry into their concert. Oprah ran a program on Rumi. Rumi’s poetry, as interpreted by Coleman Barks (more on him in a bit) has been the best-selling poetry in America in the last generation.


So what is the relationship of the 13th century Persian-speaking Muslim mystic Mawlana Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, beloved wherever Persian poetry has been recited from South Asia to Iran and Central Asia to Turkey and the Balkans, and this widely popular figure in the West known as “Rumi” [literally: “The Roman”]?

Image: Mawlana Rumi from Private Collection of Omid Safi

There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether the Western obsession with Rumi constitutes a form of “cultural appropriation.” New York magazine ran an article on “The Erasure of Islam from Rumi’s Poetry.” There are popular social media accounts proclaiming (rightly) that contrary to the New Age characterizations of Rumi, that Rumi was, in fact, a Muslim.


Rumi’s poetry has also proven useful for politicians. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted a popular yet mistranslated line of Rumi poetry, identifying him as a “13th century Afghan poet.” Left unstated in her message of course was that her father had famously declared that “Islam hates us”, and established the Muslim Ban as his first executive order. America’s favorite token Afghan diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, quoted a dubious line of Rumi poetry (hint: Again, not Rumi) to talk about the need for America and Afghans to work together.


It is important and easy to point out the way in which Rumi has become something of a Rorschach test for many: he has become almost a self-contained meme world all onto himself, the subject of any and all spiritual yearning. There is little in these attributed poetry and memes to suggest that Rumi was a Muslim, a lover of the Prophet Muhammad, an interpreter of the Qur’an, deeply steeped in a (by his time) five hundred year tradition of Islamic mysticism and spirituality.


There are two simple points I would like to emphasize here: Yes, Rumi’s poetry is extraordinary, and transformative. (That’s the reason many of us have devoted our life to studying him) Yes, Rumi’s teachings are amazingly universal, with a rich spiritual offering for people of every background. But his spirituality is like the fruit of an ancient tree that is clearly and unambiguously rooted and grounded in the fertile spiritual soil of Islam. His universalism comes not in spite of his particularity, but through it, and nurtured because of it. After all, in his daytime job he taught at a seminary (madrasa) in Konya, and the subject of his expertise was none other than the dreaded boogeyman of modern days journalism: Shari‘a. He identified his masterpiece as “the unveiler of the Qur’an” (kashshaf al-Qur’an), and was himself called the “offspring of the soul of the Prophet.”


Rumi was also deeply grounded in a wider Muslim tradition, from the literary masterpieces of ‘Attar and Sana’i to the mystical sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith qudsi) and of course the hundreds of references to the Qur’an. Spiritually, he was part of the path of Radical Love (Mazhab-e ‘eshq) that went back to figures like Ahmad Ghazali, ‘Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani, Hallaj, Bayazid, Kharaqani, and Rabi‘a. Rumi was not merely a Muslim: he represents a zenith of Muslim spirituality, seeking to ascend to see the face of God as the Prophet Muhammad did in his heavenly ascension (mi‘raj).


We have, all too often, a tendency to see Mawlana Rumi as a free-standing Mt. Everest. The truth of the matter is that Everest stands not alone, but on the shoulders of giants that form the Himalayas. It is the same way with Mawlana Rumi. He is part and parcel of this wider path of Radical Love that goes back to God through the particular Muhammadi path.


However, I would like to end by suggesting that the real crisis is not merely that the modern consumers of Rumi have taken the Islam out of Rumi in rendering him into a generic (and marketized) spirituality provider. There is a greater crisis that we have not done nearly enough to address: in far too many Muslim communities, it is Rumi and the entire path that produced Rumi which has been taken out of Islam. In far too many corners, we hear an Islam that is being preached without poetry, without humor, without spirituality, without compassion, and without reaching out to God as the Beloved. For every occasion that we critique the western commodification and perhaps appropriation of Rumi, we should be working to re-invigorate our own practice and understanding of Islam along the lines that produced the Mt. Everest of Rumi, and the whole Himalayan range of giants that led up to Rumi.


As one humble way of achieving that worthy goal alongside projects other friends are engaged in, we have been working on a project steeped in traditions of Islamic spirituality, literature, and arts. It’s a platform called https://www.illuminatedcourses.com, offering online courses on Rumi’s poetry as situated in the wider tradition of Qur’an, prophetic statements, and the mountain range of Islamic spirituality leading up to him. There are also courses on the Qur’an, which to a large extent are interpreted through the legacy of Islamic spirituality embodied by masters of Radical Love such as Mawlana Rumi.


We may not be able to stop the cultural appropriation of Rumi by others, but surely we have a responsibility to breathe that life-giving breath of spirit, beauty, love, compassion, and tenderness into our own tradition. If we do and when do, insha’allah in time not only will we perfume ourselves with the path of love that produced a Rumi, but in time we may yet again become a people who produce many more Rumis, with the grace and permission of the All-Beloved. Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He leads online courses on Islam through https://www.illuminatedcourses.com/, and offers spiritually oriented tours to Turkey and Morocco. His most recent book is Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition (Yale University Press), and his forthcoming book is on the various receptions of Rumi through Princeton University Press.


The image of Mawlana Rumi featured in this article is from a private collection of Omid Safi, and may not be reproduced under any circumstance without his written permission.


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