Why Does the West Show an Interest in Rumi?

imagesWe know that Mevlana Muhammed Jelaluddin Rumi is a widely read poet in the West. His translated works are bestsellers in European and other Western countries.His poetry is recorded in electronic media, including tapes and CDs. Most interestingly, those who show interest in his works include people from different religions and ethnicity.
Until recently, however, only academics knew him. But today he has become a strong source of inspiration in American literature. His most important aspect is his ability to embrace all and transmit his message to everyone without hurting anyone. And for this reason Mevlana may not be treated as an ordinary Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish monk. He has fulfilled the requirements of his potential and become a perfect man. Such people transcend their local cultures and boundaries; they reach out to the entire humanity. This is the reason why his poems are recited in churches, synagogues and art centers of New York. It seems that he is the Mevlana (guide) of the entire humanity.
So why do people show interest in Mevlana? What do they find in his works? What could Mevlana, who lived in Konya in the 13th century, possibly give the globalizing world and modern man?
These questions are asked by many people; answers to such questions will matter for a number of reasons. They provide important clues to those who would like to appeal to Western readers. Muslims living in Europe may also benefit from these answers. Most importantly, there should be lessons that we, the people who live on the soil where Mevlana spent his life, could draw.
Shahram Shiva is one of those who wonder why Americans show interest in Mevlana and his works. He admired Mevlana when he first heard his poems and subsequently translated many of them into English. He also recites Mevlana’s works in stand-up programs and various meetings; he has released tapes and CDs. He held a workshop on why people read Mevlana and asked participants to state why they show interest in his works. The responses were recorded and subsequently reviewed carefully.
After the review, Shiva classified the data into 12 categories. He listed 12 reasons for why people show interest in Mevlana.
1. Mevlana was not an intellectual
Religion is a field of senses and emotions; participants noted that Mevlana spoke to their hearts, emotions, senses, internal world and their self rather than their minds.
2. Different levels of meaning
Participants referred to different levels of meaning in Mevlana’s works; they explored different dimensions in his poems just like different layers surrounding a rose. They get more acquainted with his depth as they read him more. As a result of this endeavor, they became more encouraged to take a deeper journey into his thoughts.
3. Unity
Unity, harmony and integrity in Mevlana’s works appealed to the participants.
4. Friend
The majority of the participant saw Mevlana as a friend while reading his works.
5. Personal contact and relationship
Reading Mevlana is a personal process and experience. It is an existentialist experience; his admirers joined the endeavor to explore the meaning of themselves and the cosmos. They strived as his colleagues and companions.
6. Mercy and peace
Readers of Mevlana have experienced that they found peace and mercy when reading him.
7. Desire and yearning
Participants were attracted to the desire, yearning and love in Mevlana’s works; they wanted to experience the same feeling by reading the Mesnevi.
8. Love
Some participants admitted that they fell in love with Mevlana.
9. Bridge between religions
The participants held that Mevlana is a bridge between Muslims living in European countries and non-Muslims. Many Muslims were welcomed in the US because of Mevlana. A number of Westerners who read and fell in love with Mevlana improved their ties with Muslims in their country. Mevlana got different groups closer. He contributed a great deal to their attempt to coexist and live together in a multicultural environment.
10. Those who do not like poetry
Some participants note that they actually do not like poetry but stress that they love reading his poems.
11. Participation in the process
Participants stressed that Mevlana expressed himself perfectly and added that they only joined him during this process.
12. Mevlana as a guide
Participants noted that they see Mevlana as a spiritual guide for themselves.
Recalling that the West has been in pursuit of something that goes beyond their own institutionalized religions, Talat Halman perfectly sums up this interest, which he describes as “Mevlana season”: “Sufism attracts a great deal of attention and interest because it is based on a relation of direct love and spiritual connection between God and the individual and transcends conventional religious rules and institutions. You should also add Mevlana’s humanity, enthusiastic poetry, forgiveness and pacifism entrancement that takes you out of ordinary daily life. And of course you should also note the celestial magnificence of the sema [whirling dervish ceremony].”
This excerpt shows that there are different reasons for reading Mevlana and that these reasons provide us with important messages.
We can obviously rely on his thoughts and works while trying to maintain interfaith dialogue and an alliance of civilizations. Muslims in the West will be most welcomed as long as they become familiar with Mevlana and his works. Reliance on Mevlana and his works will be of great help in expressing themselves. A ney (reed flute) recital will attract the attention of the audience before delivering a speech. They will witness how the invisible thick walls built by illiteracy and holders of bad faith are torn down.
Words of Kabir Helminski, a leading Western expert of Mevlana, still linger in my ears: “Mevlana came out of his grave to explain Islam and he is explaining it to the entire world.”

This article was written by Prof.Dr. İbrahim Özdemir, a professor of the philosophy of history at Ankara University’s school of divinity and the director general of the Ministry of Education at the time of publication on December 17, 2008 in Today’s Zaman. Prof.Dr. İbrahim Özdemir is currently the rector of the Hasan Kalyoncu University.