Two simple syllables — Rumi — evoke a ubiquitous yet elusive school of thought heralded around the whole wide world. Staccato at times, serpentine in its slow blinking and blossoming insights, the wisdom woven throughout Rumi’s work can only be truly evoked from his poetry itself.
“Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?”
Rumi VI (1369-1420) from ‘Rumi : One-Handed Basket Weaving
Rumi, was born on September 30, 1207 in Balkh Province, Afghanistan to a noble lineage of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics. The fledgling scholar was involved in Islamic theology throughout his youth and beyond, but Poets.org explains that “In 1244, Rumi met Shams Tabriz, who had taken a vow of poverty. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi's life, and Rumi believed his real poetry began when he met Shams.” In December 1248, Shams was driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples. Rumi was forced to accept his close friend’s death. The grief opened a cascade of language, and he began writing insatiably. He is one of the best-selling poets on the planet today.
“I came across Rumi in my teenage years as a young seeker,” Baraka told me over video chat. The multi-threat came of age in the 90s. Baraka didn’t necessarily grow up in a religious household, but he found himself asking existential questions regardless, inspired by the prevalent cultural milieu. “What is this all about?” he inquired. “Why are we here? Why am I this conscious being who's navigating this terrestrial domain, yet I have this relationship with these really transcendent hopes and dreams and experiences of love and yearning?”
He began experimenting with the mystical poets of various traditions. “I read Zen poets from Japan like Basho,” he recalled. “I read English poets from the transcendentalists to the beat poets to the romantics.” Discovering Rumi proved a pivotal moment. “There's this real spirit of seeking a direct encounter with transcendence,” Baraka explained. “Rumi has a real call to taste for yourself. You can't be taught to smell the ocean, you must go yourself to the shore.”
Rumi is the preeminent poet of the Persian-speaking world, which ranges a vast geographic terrain. However, he’s also a force in the contrasting powerhouse culture of Western society. “How does Rumi become the number one selling poet in America?” Baraka asked. “It's a really unlikely thing that this scholar of Sharia law from the medieval Muslim world 800 years ago should outsell Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Shakespeare.”
Baraka acknowledged that the relative anomaly shares a historical explanation alongside an ideological explanation, focusing on the latter. Of all the roles that faith can fill — translation, transaction, transmission, transformation, and transcendence, as Baraka lists them — he calls transcendence the highest dimension. “How do you, as Rumi puts it, merge like a drop into the ocean, of the divine being?”
“He's encouraging us to actually become intoxicated, but with something higher,” Baraka told me of Rumi’s work. “Most people are intoxicated with the five senses. We're overwhelmed by the world and what's going on, and we forget the perishing nature of this place. There's a way for us, even here and now, to go beyond the world —not in a way that makes us levitate beyond it, but actually makes us more present in it.”
Baraka noted that the desire for direct contact with divinity found a specific resonance in the Western psyche. “The fact that Rumi is the best selling poet is inseparable from the fact that there's a yoga studio on every corner and meditation apps are downloaded in the millions and they teach mindfulness in the boardroom of Fortune 500 companies,” he continued. “It’s this whole phenomena of Western people seeking for something deeper.”
Rumi’s work has permeated general spirituality to an unprecedented depth. Baraka pointed out that in this regard, those who translated his work were the real evangelists. “The academic, very literal translations of Rumi were very dry,” Baraka considered. “The ones that became popular were the ones that took the meaning of Rumi, but then mixed it with a more post-Walt Whitman, American free verse, beat poet style.” Baraka pointed out that the devoted, academic nature of Rumi’s background and beliefs often fades away with translation.
While Baraka is critical of over-simplification, he sees a silver lining to It. “Let's take yoga,” he explained. “We might roll our eyes at how yoga has been divorced from its Indian roots. It's also a profound spiritual tradition. It's been re-marketed for the capitalist middle class and been reduced to stretching and $300 yoga pants…But on the other hand, how many people just came in the door and started out stretching, but then got some peace from it, or had some anxiety decrease, or then they saw a picture of this guru on the wall and they read a little bit about the philosophy of yoga and the worldview, and it actually deepened into a deeper practice?”
The oversimplification of Rumi’s insights that results from these translations doesn’t have to permanently dim the work’s spirit. Instead, these translations provide as an accessible entry point. Baraka noted that as an academic passionate about Rumi’s work, he and his cohorts must complete the bridge. “If the popularizers built part of the bridge, it's not finished,” he explained. There’s far more substance to glean for Rumi’s unadulterated work than the images populating Pinterest let on. “Once you know the real versions, the popular versions are weak, comparatively.”
For example, here’s an oft-misquoted bit of Rumi’s work:
Beyond right and wrong there is a field.
I will meet you there.
By comparison, here’s a more accurate translation of the original work:
Beyond Islam and unbelief there is a 'desert plain.' For us, there is a 'passion' in the midst of that expanse. The knower [of God] who reaches there will prostrate [in prayer]. (For) there is neither Islam nor unbelief, nor any 'where' (in) that place.
Rumi commanded poetry through his ability to encapsulate universal and dramatic personal experience with the divine into simple lines that read musically. An Islamic teacher and theologian, Rumi also prayed five times a day for his entire life. He was highly conversant with his Islamic faith, always collaborating with it, and felt his elaborating insights contributed to its development.
Perhaps this critical detail, frequently lost before landing in the Western mind, hides some new angle ripe for appreciation. Regardless of the faith one brings to Rumi’s written page, the Persian poet’s commitment to his own belief system says something about discipline and its intimate role in the act of seeking. Baraka told me that “Rumi says we all came to this world to essentially rub the metal of our soul against its touchstone, to see who we truly are.” There’s a wisdom to the search that’s pursued. It takes grit, but the beauty makes that grit worth our while.
In my lived experience, I find undercover wisdom shrouded in the space between sleeping and wakefulness, around the time my alarm rings each morning. In this place, I can experience a range of emotion. Some mornings, the beauty of my Brooklyn bedroom surprises my irises, and I feel protection and love from an intangible source. Other times, my first thoughts of the day regard certain habits (stress and cigarettes, predominantly) with a kind of shock. Is this really who I am, allowing such neuroses to literally cloud my mind?
If this is an experience with the divine, then my greater wisdom often alludes to the need for discipline. Habits like Rumi's devotion to Islam provide a sturdy framework that further growth snakes along, like vines on a sunbathed graft. The popularity of Rumi's work allows it to operate as a portal of possibility, but a door doesn't do much without providing entrance into a new place. By committing to the quiet work required to step over the threshold, those introduced to Rumi's words through mainstream channels can access what is really seeking them.
Baraka illustrated a connection between the simple actions we take and the greater path at hand through Rumi’s allegory of a carpet. “If you look at a beautiful Persian carpet, he says, the ant walks across it and the ant just sees pure chaos, because it’s so close to it. But the royal falcon that flies above sees that there's a beautiful pattern and there's intention and there's a maker to this world. And so, of course, we all have our lower self, which is our ant-like nature, but we also have that royal falcon within us, which is our higher self. It’s about actualizing that higher self and understanding that and being able to see things with the light of that.”
“I think there's a balance of contentment and submission in your heart,” Baraka noted. “This world is perishing and it's all a test — Do good with it.” The self is the springboard for greater change, especially when the world seems to require so much of it. Focusing on the sphere of influence, compared to the sphere of concern, one realizes that while we can't change the whole pattern, “We actually have a huge influence on those around us — our family, our loved ones. Rumi would really emphasize us transforming ourselves and then those around us and focusing on that. And if we can do that, then radiating beyond that.”
When beginning a new commitment to studying the work of this esteemed and highly famed Sufi poet, mystic, scholar, teacher, and helper, Baraka noted the importance of openmindedness. "Rumi and the Sufis use the analogy that the heart is like a cup," he explained. "They say though that the heart can only be filled when you empty it. If you can empty your heart of whatever is in it as far as expectations or preconceptions, preconceived notions, or any of the frames of your mind and quiet your mental chatter and just receive the words in your heart, and try to allow Rumi to pour into you, then you'll be on the right track."
Then the joyful work begins. All the rest lies in the doing.