Rumi for Twentysomethings

Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad

Posted Jan 4, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Rumi for Twentysomethings

A new generation finds meaning in the writings of a 13th century mystic poet

By Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad

Eight centuries after he lived, the Persian mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi still fascinates readers, as the world’s bestselling spiritual poet.

His nonsectarian love for God and his passion for creation attract people of all ages, including Madonna and Deepak Chopra. But recently, younger people have been tuning in to his work, especially as UNESCO commemorates the poet’s 800th birthday this year.

“It’s just so relaxing and so calming to read his work,” said Bijan Roboubi, 20, a student at California State University at Pomona. “We go through life in such a fast pace, especially here in America, and when you stop and read Rumi, you realize you have to live life, and not just go through it.

“With his poems, he makes you realize that every moment is precious and it makes you love yourself, others around you and life in general.”

Rumi, known to his followers as Mevlana, or “our master,” was born in Central Asia in 1207, and fled with his family to Turkey ahead of the advancing forces of Ghengis Khan. There he wrote poems extolling the power of love, often riling authorities by rejecting the authority of organized religion, and conceived the whirling dervish dance, as a way of honoring God.

This year’s celebration is bringing a string of events to universities, giving many college students their first taste of Rumi.

“Generally it’s the performance that seems to bring out the most students,” said Alan Godlas, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Georgia. They’ve heard of whirling dervishes, which “rings a far-off bell in their consciousness,” he said.

“Rumi is generally regarded as the hottest selling poet in the English translation,” Godlas said. “He’s made a mark in their minds and in their hearts.”

Although enduringly popular in the East, Rumi was little known in the West until the 1920s, when Cambridge University professor Reynold Nicolson’s began translating his work into English. In the 1970s, Rumi’s popularity leapt again, after American poet Coleman Barks produced a more accessible, free-verse translation.

Shahram Shiva, a performance poet, scholar and translator of Rumi books, has presided over crowded Rumi evenings at Yale, Columbia University, Iona College and New York University.

“Rumi is very timeless,” Shiva said. “Rumi deals with issues of humanity. They would be relevant 5,000 years ago and 5,000 years from now.”

“I never ever look at God as a power who wants us to just worship him and be afraid of him,” said Iman Makaremi, 26, a student at the University of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada. “I look at God as a friend, love and someone who is always there to help you. I see the same meanings in Rumi’s poems, too.”

Groups like the Rumi Forum, founded in 1997 in Washington D.C., often sponsor interfaith gatherings at universities, which may include whirling dervish performances.

“It doesn’t surprise me that [Rumi] is appealing to [students], because his message of love and open-mindedness touches hearts and minds,” said Jena Luedtke, the Forum’s director of interfaith and cultural dialogue.

University of Utah professor Rasoul Sorkhabi recently started a Rumi Poetry Club at a Salt Lake City public library, where sessions increasingly draw a younger crowd.

“Rumi’s poetry is not directed toward any particular age,” he said. “But college students who have an interest in literature…they want to read Rumi.”

“Rumi: Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart,” (as translated by Coleman Barks) was in late 2007 number one in the religious and spiritual poetry category on

But Godlas thinks Rumi will only turn into a mass phenomenon if American culture changes.

“In order for popularity to increase, there will need to be a paradigm shift,” he said. “Such as a greater emphasis on educating Americans to enhance their emotional intelligence. People will then be more receptive.”

Source:  NYU Livewire