Two little known facts in the UK. First, the most popular poet in the United States for many years is a 13th century Persian mystic in the Islamic tradition named Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Second, such is his reknown and status that UNESCO has declared 2007 to be the Year of Rumi to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his birth.
What is it about Rumi and his poetry that can explain their 21st century popularity? Two answers emerge. Firstly, if one could point to an overarching trend in development of Western spirituality in the last 3000 years, it is the movement away from the necessity that Man’s relationship with the Divine be by intermediaries to the possibility of Man’s direct facing.
The classical era of the temple materially exteriorised the internal separation of human from divine. Sacred knowledge was located in the inner sanctum of the temple and accessible only through ritual to a highly-practised spiritual elite, who would then act as media in the transmission of the sacred message into the profane world beyond.
The arrival of the Christian message broke down this division, its encouragment to direct prayer and constancy of awareness personalising the relationship between Creator and His Creation. Distorted for a time in the West by the rigid hierarchies of Catholicism, this trend found its revival in the deeply personal appeals of Protestantism, and later in the popularity of spiritual movements such as Buddhism, Evangelical Christianity, and various NRMs, which prioritised the individual relationship to God/Reality above all else. The idea of Man’s relationship to the Divine has thus undergone considerable evolution, with hierarchy and mediation collapsing into intimate, individual, naked dialogue. Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it is nonetheless the case that Western seekers of a spiritual path now demand such direct access. Knowledge must be within touching distance, progress tangible. An Old Testament God or a didactic clergy no longer suffice.
It is in this context that we need to understand Rumi. Rumi demands incessantly that we approach the Divine through the interior. He shuns form, dogma and rote, entreating the individual to search deep within, with searing honesty, to find the answers he seeks in a dialectical union of individuation and universal Truth. Rumi is, in this sense, a true modern. He presents no teachers, no philosophies, no rules. He asks only that people undertake, in earnest, to know themselves through themselves, and he promises riches beyond imagination to those who do.
In this promise we find the second component of Rumi’s popularity, his passion, compassion and largeness. Rumi’s focus is on freedom through love. He begs his reader to come with him, to see what he’s seen, because in the divine bliss that he has discovered is the greatest freedom imaginable. It is an unwaveringly positive message, a clarion call to real happiness through real knowledge.
In this combination of direct facing and unswerving positivity, Rumi tailors perfectly to the modern condition. He cuts back the stifling formality rejected by many in the Western world, and imposes no values on his readers that they do not wish to impose on themselves. His popularity is testament to this.
Why is he then so little known in Britain? It is not possible to answer this question definitively, but one suggestion is cultural openness to spiritual discussion. Many in Britain see metaphysics as something left to the private realm, and shuffle awkwardly in their seats if an untrained guest attempts to publicise it. In the States, many wear their faith on their sleeve, thank Jesus for their good fortune, pray openly for their children’s safety. The US is therefore a climate where existential questions revolve more freely, a permissive environment for otherwordly concerns, unabashed in its anti-rationalism and its faith. In short, Rumi is so popular because people aren’t ashamed of him, or ashamed of the questions he might pose them about themselves.
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi