North America’s favorite poet: A Muslim man born 800 years ago

While teaching a world literature course a few years ago, former professor Sandra Looney held a translated poetry collection of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi—more commonly known as “Rumi”— to her heart and sighed in her signature way. She described Rumi’s writing as “a salve for the soul.”

We hadn’t been assigned to read the book “The Essential Rumi” until the end of the semester and, being a procrastinator, I’m usually not the type to read ahead.

But after peeking into the collection upon buying it, I couldn’t put it down. Looney was not exaggerating, nor was she passing on another cliché—Rumi was, indeed, a salve for the soul and has been for the last 800 years.

Rumi is a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic born in what is now modern-day Afghanistan. As a practicing Sunni Muslim who studied theology in Syria, much of his work centers around healing and spirituality.

And the fact that his poems still resonate with people in today’s world of social media and nuclear power is a testament to the timelessness of his message.

Take the following passage from his poem “A Great Wagon,” for example:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about.”

The passage encapsulates Rumi’s trademark ability to transcend human difference and reach into a reservoir of commonality.

Or take his poem “Grapes” as another example. In the poem, four travelers quarrel over how to spend their money.

Despite the fact that they all want the same thing—grapes—they continue to argue because they do not understand one another’s language.

It’s Rumi’s timeless parable for how misunderstanding and lack of communication lead to conflict.

But what’s most remarkable about Rumi is not that people still read his poetry, but that Americans have made him their best-selling poet.

Think about that for a moment: America’s best-selling poet is a Muslim man who died 800 years ago.

In a country obsessed with modernity and whose political connections to the Islamic world have been nothing short of strained, it’s astounding.  

It makes sense why some scholars have referred to Rumi as a “cultural ambassador for Islam.”

Search “Rumi” online and you can find Madonna reciting his works, Coldplay referencing his poetry in one of its soundtracks and articles announcing that Beyoncé named her daughter after him.

And if this isn’t emblematic of Rumi’s ability to transcend time, you can follow “him” on Twitter too.

However, Rumi’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries is nothing new.

When he died, the story goes that people of all religions and nations attended his funeral, perhaps indicating that Rumi’s message—”Love will find its way through all languages on its own”—holds some truth.  

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