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Sufism Greater Washington Message Board › Rumi without borders

Rumi without borders

A former member
Writen by one of our own - hats off to Sara (Shakila)

Rumi without borders: Celebration of our common bond in spirit, reason and love
In the sight of Love, fear is not as great as a
single hair. In the law of Love,
Everything is offered as a sacrifice.
Rumi "Mathnawi" [V, 2184]
By Shakila Khalje September 11, 2007 Washington, D.C.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi was born on September 30, 1207 in Balkh, a city in the present northeastern region of Afghanistan.

Rumi and his family moved from Balkh and traveled to Baghdad, Mecca and Damascus, and eventually settled in Konya, present day western Turkey. Konya was known as Rum, a name derived from the Byzantine Roman Empire, thus, Jalaludin's name became famous as Rumi in religion and literature.

Rumi is considered a Persian mystic and poet and is closely identified with Sufism and Sufi mysticism. Sufis and mystics are Muslim devotees who seek a mystical union with God. His works speak of the common origin of human beings made up of spirit, reason and love. He died in 1273 in Konya.

The collection of Rumi's poems called Mathnawi-e-Ma' navi (Spiritual Couplets), had a great influence on Islamic literature and thought. His mausoleum, the Green Dome in Konya, is today a place of pilgrimage for many thousands of people from all creeds. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2007 the 800th anniversary of the mystic poet's birth, as the International year of Rumi.

Three years ago, Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak founded the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, with the notion that "Persian does not mean Iranian or it does not mean Afghan or Tajik" he said. Hakkak's goal is to help people know more about Persian language and the literature expressed in it which is wonderful and obtains universal massages. He is the main organizer of the upcoming International Rumi Conference and he gracefully acknowledges that his idea became a reality as a result of hard work and the collective endeavor of many other individuals as well as organizations.

In an interview Professor Hakkak spoke about few other important reasons for spending countless hours to make this conference possible. His father's love for Rumi's poetry is one reason which takes him back to his early childhood. When he was thirteen or so, his father would trick him into reading Mathnawi because he claimed his eye sight was weak and he could not read. "It initiated this whole journey of understanding Rumi." he said.

Rumi's 800th birth anniversary this year, presented yet another wonderful opportunity for Professor Hakkak to create a platform for over twenty Rumi scholars and artists. They will gather and share their knowledge and understanding of the greatest mystic Sufi of all times in a thematic manner for three days, September 28-30, 2007.
This event will be held on the campus of the University of Maryland College Park, Maryland.

Below Hakkak also reveals more of his ideas about Rumi's universal language.

Q: What else does this conference pay tribute to?

A: The world needs Rumi's message so desperately now. So, more than any calendar based consideration it was this which made it relevant. It really pays tribute to the man's vision.

Q: Can you talk about the so called "Americanization of Rumi"?

A: Americanization? Sure! It is like the "Persianization" of Shakespeare. There is not such a thing as an intact message transmitted over time. We always transform as we translate, and as such, in this case we are lucky to have scholarly as well as popular translations such as Dr. Coleman Barks who helps de-anchor Rumi's poetry, that means there is not much need of Rumi's cultural surroundings. His message is ultimately universal that it speaks to us so eloquently.

Any time we translate [Rumi's work and poetry] we transform. There is no such thing as the Rumi of the thirteenth century, both are gone but of course every text including Rumi's poetry has two forces in it: Actual, instantaneous, contemporary immediate forces and the potential for the future. It is this potential that is meeting Rumi's ideas; the need to cling to something that transcends our sectarian notions and the questions of boundaries. We need that message. Rumi was the originator of that message, although he too, must have obtained it from somewhere else, nobody works in a vacuum. Of course, our world needs these ideas.
Q: Even some Persian speaking audiences find some aspects of Rumi's highly mystical poetry hard to understand. Has Rumi's message been truly conveyed to non-Persian speakers without it being lost in translation? If so, is that an issue with Rumi scholars?

A: Rumi speaks to yourself and me as Persian speakers one way, and he speaks through Coleman Barks [Poet/translator of Rumi's poetry] to American audiences in quite another way. There is no problem there. The problem starts with our little minds when we try to divide the "cake" that is Rumi and say that the greatest portion is ours, so that would be our [Persian speakers] problem. Translation is transformative by nature and as such, there are different layers of understanding. Obviously, Jane Doe in Wichita, Kansas understands Rumi one way, and you and I understand him another way, however, there is no privilege in that. There is no way to say which understanding is more authentic. The most authentic understanding is gone, dead with him [Rumi] but the message survives in every text or portion of it.

Q: How can we practice Rumi's message of peace and unity in our personal and political lives?

A: It all begins with the desire to transcend and to accept others in spite of their differences. This tendency exists today in our environment, it existed in Rumi's time, it existed in the time of prophet Mohammed, Jesus and Moses. So, what we take from Rumi we apply to our own sectarian divisions. You call yourself an Afghan, I call myself an Iranian, someone else calls himself a Turk and we start fighting over who Rumi belongs to, which is a futile thing to do because he himself said: "his homeland is not this or that country, it is a nameless place" where we create for ourselves. That message is universal and eternal, and as such, we try to slice him [Rumi] up in proportion to our understanding where he speaks to the whole of humanity.

Today we may slice our "cake" differently along racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries. Rumi invites us to think of others as if they were ourselves which they are. He invites us to transcend, so the message of peace begins with transcendence, it also begins with empathy; when I try to train myself to imagine what is happening in Rawanda today, or in Darfur, that is where my humanity begins. It does not begin when I say, this is what I think, caught in my little own compartment. It [message of peace] begins only with imaginative and sincere efforts, for example to say: Bin Laden is my enemy, but let me understand, what kind of world is he really carrying in his own head? Let me understand that. That is the beginning of our humanity.

Q: Is it realistically achievable to practice the message of humanity beyond racial, ethnic, religious and political boundaries in volatile regions of the globe without negative reaction due to the Islamic interpretation of Rumi's message of spirit, reason and love?

A: Whether it is achievable or not, it is important to set out on the path of doing so. I think your question is very important. The problem with many of our conceptions are that we think there ought to be a destination to reach somewhere. Humanity came a long way since the time of Rumi. We are better than average human beings of his time. We discovered so much in science, we look so much to the future. There were so many atrocities that people committed then that we do not commit now. We have our own share of atrocities and such, but the world is going forward.

We should give up this notion of reaching the point of arrival, that [notion] is the beginning of the defeatist vision that some people believe we have to convert people to Islam, or Christianity or this or that creed. But if we say let us take the next step [even if] we do not know what lies ahead, but it is important to tread on the path, that's what is important. Whether we survive that path or not, that is immaterial and we know no individual human being who is alive today will survive and be alive in another hundred or two hundred years. If we aim in incremental ways of transcending ourselves, of understanding one another, of working out our differences and appreciating our similarities.

Q: What is your message to some people who cannot imagine to set out on such path you spoke about. They think it is too simplistic, idealistic, and naive of an approach to practice Rumi's philosophy in tackling the current political conflicts in the world?

A: A lot of people do not do it, of course, we are not talking about a common thirteenth century human being. A common thirteenth century human being would be a soldier in the army of *Changiz Khan. We are not talking about the mass of humanity. Some people cannot imagine, so be it. They live their lives indistinguishable from the animals--and so many people do live like that. We are only talking about the select few who can imagine and see beyond, and may carry a message inside which they may attribute to God, but ultimately is geared at the betterment of human beings. A lot of them do not succeed and some may succeed and the path can begin that way. Let us steer away from the notion of making an attempt only if we can be assured of the results.

Q: Do you agree that it is challenging even for the few select to keep on the path?

A: Of course it is. The other alternative is to give up. So many people have given up and so many people will. However, we can do it simply by being kind to our intimate circles of family and friends. Can we be a little bit more kinder, or is it more important to be right? A lot of us have to tackle that question; the choices we make begin to map out the way we can tread and move along that path. We do not have to have the weight of humanity on our shoulders in one sense, in another, we do, but it begins with our immediate environment.

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak is currently a Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Persian Studies in the School of languages, Literature and Cultures at the University of Maryland.

Shakila Khalje is an Afghan-American freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

*Changis Khan was the Ruler of the Mongol empire. He united the Central Asian tribes and founded the Mongol Empire (1206?1368)

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